in verse # 19 : a hideous and intolerable allegory

One of the books I took with me to Seoul, Randy Lopez goes home,[i] proves that allegory and fable are alive and well in twenty-first century American literature.  Two newspaper clippings I’ve been carrying around since May 8th prove that poetry is still despised in America:  the first is a story about Lance Larsen being named poet laureate of Utah.  It ran on the obituary page of the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah,[ii] but that’s not why it proves that poetry is still despised; that honor belongs to Randy Wright, the Executive Editor of the Daily Herald, who, on the same day’s editorial page, in a column of stuff he salvages from his blog, begins his comment thus:  “I read on the news that Gov. Gary Herbert has named BYU professor Lance Larsen as the state’s fourth poet laureate.  Why the State of Utah needs an official poet, I don’t know, but it all sounds very cultured.”[iii]   It is because people like Randy Wright write for papers like the Daily Herald that the State of Utah needs a poet, official or un-, someone who could ask the question “Is Randy right, or is Mr Wright merely randy?”[iv]  He goes on to produce a limerick in his bid to be the next poet laureate, pointing out that it “could be worth millions someday,” applying the only metric that matters in his world.  In the world at large, Rodolfo Anaya’s book is volume 9 in the Chicana & Chicano visions of the Americas series published by The University of Oklahoma Press, so both he and Lance Larsen are officially designated outsiders in America.  And outsiders make the best allegorists.

I began my last post with the observation that, like many a medieval manuscript, Piers the plowman has no title as such.  That can be accounted for by the manner of publication at the time:  anyone who wanted a copy of a poem or sermon or history had to have it copied, and most of the copyists were clerics, or clarks, of one kind or another.  Since some of the most striking, distinctive and treasured works of Anglo-Saxon poetry exist in a single copy, like Beowulf and Dream of the Rood, it is possible to infer a small audience for these works.  It is also possible to argue for an audience that read the works to death, and that they survived in isolated manuscripts only because someone wanted to preserve them.  It is a commonplace to argue that Beowulf survived because a monk admired the Nordic stoicism of its hero; with the Dream of the Rood [or Cross] — which survives in a manuscript that ended up in Vercelli, Italy[v] — it is possible to argue that the poem adopts that stoic, if not fatalistic, ideal, and applies it to Christ, thus reversing the Christianization of the pagan ideal.

What is arguably the greatest of the poems of the alliterative revival, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, also exists in a single copy, along with Pearl, Purity and PatienceSt. Erkenwald, a fifth poem attributed to the Pearl poet, also survives in a different single manuscript.  All five poems attract modern American and English poets to produce modern English versions.[vi]  Which makes it all the more interesting that Piers Plowman survives so prodigally, but attracts no such attention.  Krochalis and Peters summarize the situation thus:

Between 1370 and 1399 an English poet and clerk in minor orders named William Langland composed three versions of … Piers Plowman.  The three versions, designated conventionally A, B, and C, contain about 2400 lines, 7200 lines, and 7300 lines respectively.  They survive in fifty-one manuscripts, in approximately even division — a very large number for any alliterative poem in Old or Middle English.  The poem appears to have found considerable immediate favor … and it retained its interest into the sixteenth century, being printed by Crowley in 1550 and by Rogers in 1561.[vii]

Salter and Pearsall, in their edition of the C text, argue that Langland, if that is a name, and the poet’s, chose verse for his work  “upon practical considerations:  through writing poetry he is searching for spiritual understanding.  Of course prayer is of a higher order than writing verse:  only the extreme form of his moral dilemma justifies his pursuit of the truth in poetry, or, indeed, in any other way but in total dedication to God:

‘Ac if there were any wight that wolde me telle                                                                          What were Dowel and Dobet and Dobest atte laste,                                                                   Wolde I neuere do werke, but wende to holicherche.’”[viii]

I will only note in passing that the first part of the poem is given over to what Walter Skeat called The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman,[ix] and the remaining two-thirds are given over to “Visio ejusdem de Do-wel, Do-bet, et Do-best, or the Vision of the same [William] concerning Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best.”[x]  I won’t do more than draw the obvious parallel to Dallin Oaks’s discourse “Good, Better, Best” from the October 2007 General Conference,[xi] which does demonstrate that there is nothing new under the sun.

The verse of Piers Plowman is a little looser than its Anglo-Saxon model, and both far looser and more colloquial than its fellow in the alliterative revival, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The latter is very tightly sprung and uses much technical vocabulary from the realm of combat and knighthood, as I noted in a previous post discussing Simon Armitage’s translation.  In the following excerpt, note how much more plain the language is, and how much more smoothly it moves — and it will help to read this aloud, since the spelling is an help meet for the ear.  This excerpt is discussing poverty as a social evil, but also the good that may spring from it, especially in the person of a holy fool.  Note also, as the editors of this version of the C text put it, that “of all forms of discourse, Piers Plowman is perhaps closest to the sermon.”[xii]

This I wot witterly, as the world teceth,                                                                                     What other byhoveth that hath many childrene                                                                           And hath no catel but his craft to clothe hem and to fede,                                                           And fele to fonge ther-to, and fewe panes taketh.                                                                         There is payne and peny-ale as for a pytaunce ytake,                                                                And colde flesche and fische as venisoun were bake;                                                                  Fridays and fastyng-days a ferthing-worth of moskeles                                                              Were a feste for suche folke, or so fele cockes.                                                                          These are almesse, to helpe that han suche charges                                                                     And to comforte such coterelles and crokede men and blynde.

Ac beggares with bagges, the which brewhous ben here churches,                                             But they be blynde or to-broke or elles be syke,                                                                             Thouh he falle for defaute that fayteth for his lyf-lode,                                                                Reche ye nevere, ye riche, thouh suche lollares sterven.                                                             For alle that han here hele and here ye-syhte                                                                              And lymes to labory with, and lollares lyf usen,                                                                             Lyven agen goddes lawe and the lore of holi churche.

And yut are ther other beggares, in hele, as hit semeth,                                                              Ac hem wanteth wyt, men and women bothe,                                                                                 The whiche aren lunatyk lollares and lepares aboute,                                                                   And madden as the mone sit, more other lasse.                                                                            Careth they for no colde ne counteth of non hete,                                                                         And aren mevynge after the mone; moneyeles they walke,                                                        With a good will, witteles, mony wyde contreyes,                                                                         Riht as Peter dede and Poul, save that they preche nat                                                               Ne none muracles maken — ac many times hem happeth                                                            To prophecye of the peple, pleyinge, as hit were,                                                                          And to our syhte, as hit semeth, seth god hath the myhte                                                           To yeve uch a wyht wyt, welth, and his hele,                                                                               And suffreth suche go so, it semeth, to myn inwyt,                                                                        Hit aren as his postles, suche peple, or as his prive disciples.                                                        For he sent hem forth selverles in a somer garnement                                                              Withoute bagge and bred, as the book telleth:                                                                        Quando misi vos sine pane et pera.                                                                                       Barfoot and bredles, beggeth they of no man.                                                                                 And thauh he mete with the mayre ameddes the strete,                                                              He reverenceth hym ryht nauht, no rather then another.                                                            Neminem salutaveritis per viam.                                                                                                   Suche manere of men, Matheu us techeth,                                                                                    We sholde have hem to house and helpe hem when they come.                                                  Et egonos vagos induc in domum tuam.                                                                                        For hit aren merye-mouthed men, munstrals of hevene,                                                           And godes boys, bordyors, as the book telleth.                                                                               Si quis videture sapiens, fiet stultus ut sit sapiens.

So we are here in the presence of a poem that outlived its author in a way that no Anglo-Saxon poem did, which is still quoting scripture from the Vulgate, and which was printed a mere150 years after it was written, a distinction shared by no other poem of the alliterative revival that I know of.  Moreover, it outlived its association with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and with John Wyclif, its author’s contemporary and the first translator of any of the Bible into English, and survived the taint of the Lollardy for which Wyclif’s remains were dug up and burned, and the resultant ashes cast into the River Swift.[xiii]  That association may well have prevented its printing earlier, but in the world of Henry VIII, the Protestant Reformation and the young William Shakespeare, it was thought safe to print in 1550 and reprint in 1561.[xiv]

Perhaps that accounts for Shakespeare’s “lost years,” the stretch between 1585 and 1592?  Could Young Will have been studying all forms of English verse, and finally rejecting alliterative verse as just too old-fashioned, and perhaps then settled on blank verse as the best vehicle available for theatrical speech?

But hold on, I hear you say:  isn’t that as outrageous a speculation as all the nonsense about someone else writing Shakespeare’s plays?  And wouldn’t it make an ever worse movie?

Your turn.

[i] Randy Lopez goes home : a novel / Rudolfo Anaya. — Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, c2011.

[ii] “Professor named poet laureate.”  Daily Herald. Provo, Utah.  Tuesday, May 8, 2012, p. A5.

[iii] “Poet laureate needs more exposure.”  Daily Herald. Provo, Utah.  Tuesday, May 8, 2012, p. A7.

[iv] Randy Lopez asks similar questions about himself, proving that Anaya is more aware of what he is doing than is Wright (or is that, as he would style himself, Riot, as in “a laff riot”?)

[v]  As explained in Wikipedia,, accessed 25 July 2012.

[vi] For example, The complete works of the Gawain-poet, in a modern English version with a critical introduction / by John Gardner. — Carbondale and Edwardsville : Southern Illinois University Press,1970.  This is a reprint of a book published in 1965 by the man who published the novel Grendel in 1971.  It would seem that once alliterative verse gets its hooks into a man, he rarely breaks loose.

[vii] The world of Piers Plowman / edited and translated by Jeanne Krochalis & Edward Peters. — S.l. :University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975.  This is a collection of writings contemporary with the poem, setting it in context; the quote is from the introduction, p. ix.

[viii] Piers Plowman / [edited by] Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall. — Evanston, Ill. : Northwestern University Press, 1967, p. 54.

[ix] This is Skeat’s title for roughly the first third of the poem, which he published in its first edition in 1869 as The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman / by William Langland (or Langley), according to the version revised and enlarged by the author about A.D. 1377. — Edited by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat.  10th edition, revised. — Oxford : at the Clarendon Press, 1923.

[x] Ibid., p.viii.

[xi], accessed 26 July 2012.

[xii] Op cit. The comment is in the note to line 25 on page 67 [this text presents excerpts of the poem, and numbers lines of each excerpt anew, rather than use line numbers from the poem as a whole].

[xiii] The story and the life are summarized in Wikipedia,, accessed 26 July 2012.

[xiv] Okay, so it missed Shakespeare by three years.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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5 Responses to in verse # 19 : a hideous and intolerable allegory

  1. Dennis Clark says:

    Randy? Write? Really?

  2. C. M. Malm says:

    It’s all to easy to forget that surviving manuscripts make up just a fraction of what was actually being produced and read at any given time in the Middle Ages. It would be an interest exercise to grab a hundred books at random from a library and take a look at what the contents of ONLY those books says about our culture.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Hell, only three books, the biggest Dan Brown thrillers, would tell someone six centuries hence things I wouldn’t want anyone to know about our culture. There were probably not as many titles in circulation as such a comparison might suggest, but the poems of the alliterative revival seem to me to be involved in a shift from courtly to popular literature (as a look at Richard Rolle’s life might suggest — and as I argue the rise of Arthurian narrative would suggest).

      I still believe, as well, that these manuscripts reached far more people than the numbers would suggest, because they were performed aloud by those that could read. This is the period that sees the start of theatrical performance, of Everyman and the mystery plays, in which people were both entertained by pratfalls and taught about spiritual matters. Interestingly enough, the Wakefield Mystery Plays survive in only one manuscript as well — but public performance would not have been limited to just the plays. I think poetry was moving out of the courts, and when poetry and the play came together in a bourgeois market milieu, you had the perfect confluence of conditions in which a man of Shakespeare’s talents could flourish.

      And that, of course, is where this blog is headed next, to look at blank verse.

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