William Langland’s Piers Plowman (composed 1370s-1380s) is a poem of social upheaval. It grapples with new social realities in the wake of the plague, which devastated England in 1348; its title character became a codename in an uprising of peasants, laborers, and artisans in 1381; fictionally, it depicts a society on the brink of implosion.
The 1381 connection has, rightly, attracted a lot of attention from Langland’s modern readers (Justice). During the uprising, rebels beheaded government officials, burned legal documents, and exchanged letters calling on Piers the Plowman to “go to his work.” To adapt a phrase that Ben Lerner uses to characterize the ideology of the avant-garde, Piers Plowman was “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel” (39). There are not many poems that come with a death toll–and none that I can think of that are such good poetry.
Piers Plowman is a poem of social upheaval in another sense, and here I’m moving from critical commonplaces to a new argument that I make in a forthcoming article. Langland’s poem takes the form of a search for truth and justice in this world, including social justice, but a search that is known ahead of time to be an abject failure. Why? Here Langland would spread his hands theatrically wide. The wretchedness of the world was, for him, self-evident. A truth that Piers Plowman repeatedly discovers is this: perversely, describing a better world drives home how awful this one, the actual one, is. Langland expresses this truth by obsessively hitting the poetic reset button that was available to him in the dream vision form (first-person dreamer falls asleep in springtime, has a disorienting allegorical vision of dubious significance, etc.). Other medieval dream visions are one long dream; the dreamer of Piers Plowman is always falling back asleep.
In the article, I write:
Piers Plowman deepens or intensifies but does not progress. It is a tensile poem, responsive to the world, but it does not move, really. Running in parallel with the successive invocation and dismissal of [literary] genres, Piers Plowman proposes extrainstitutional principles for the refoundation of Christian society, all of which fail in precisely the same way, by generating the unacceptable present reality. This is Langland’s “negative utopianism,” as identified by Karma Lochrie . […] The whole poem expands and expounds the opening dream of a society gripped by debilitating hypocrisy.
(In making this argument I join one strand of modern commentary on Piers Plowman, which sees its structure as basically recursive, like a Möbius strip [Middleton]. There is another strand that views its structure as basically progressive, like a pilgrimage. This scholarly schism is fascinating in its own right and tells you a lot about the poem.)
My article defines Piers Plowman‘s recursive form and proposes a new analog for it, the tradition of political prophecy (think Merlin). But there is maybe more to say about the political implications of literary recursivity and failure. Lerner again: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price” (53). Langland felt that. Piers Plowman is a massive failure, and knows it. It is a theological failure; it is a political failure; it is a social failure; and it is therefore a poetic failure. It has to be: it is a “particular poem,” not a sublime abstraction. Piers Plowman includes asides in which the narrator/poet Will is berated by a range of allegorical figures–Reason; Conscience; even imagination, who might be expected to be a fan–for wasting time writing all that dumb poetry.
Piers Plowman‘s circuit of frustration and failure conforms to some modern political and social problems. The sterile debate about whether everything or nothing in society nowadays is neoliberal, and, interlocking that debate, the sniping at and among the various strands of socialism share a structure that will be familiar to a reader of Langland. The problem of a term meant to encompass an entire mode of social organization, like feudal or neoliberal, might be that it is being pressed to do too much conceptual work; or it might be that it is too apt, that a mode of social organization is at that moment oppressively total (Song).* Correspondingly, the problem with political labels/ideologies like socialism–but equally small-l liberalism, and fascism–might be that their political content is inimical to a given person’s disposition, experience, and social placement; or it might be that the distance between the world as it is and the ideal state of affairs that those terms differently demand is insufferable. We are all familiar with how fruitless it is to argue against one of the isms armed only with an actual example. It is always possible, and in practice easy, to exclude the example from the ideal. Socialists, liberals, and fascists all do this: actually existing inequity can only ever be blamed on someone else’s abstraction. To an extent, this is understandable. One’s political ideals are ideals precisely insofar as they’ve never been put into practice. Nothing will wreck the beautiful poem in your head faster than trying to write it down.
This two-sided discursive problem–a political description that seems uselessly repetitious with the totality of lived experience, and one that seems uselessly abstract and unattainable–maps onto what I see as the major poles of Langland’s vacillating thought throughout the poem. It’s not as if there is for Langland a middle ground, where terms are just useful enough. It’s failure all the way down: either a failure to imagine anything different, or else a failure to imagine anything achievable. Piers Plowman expresses its optimism that things could change for the better in a fashion that would seem strangely pessimistic if it were not also the signature move of academic ideology critique: to demolish, one by one, ideas that won’t work.
But social upheaval does occur. We know this. Langland knew this, too. Piers Plowman alludes more than once to the time “before the plague,” a period represented in the poem as obviously better than the present but sealed off from it by the cataclysm of 1348. The political and social realities which vexed Langland in the 1370s, in turn, gave way to something else. And our unacceptable present reality, whether neoliberal is a perfect or an inane descriptor for it, will end, too. Song on 2010s neoliberalism could be Langland on a post-Edenic world and post-plague England: “a kind of postlapsarian moment that exists ever in the shadow of a time before” (283). Langland did not expect or want his poem to inspire a rebellion, but it did anyway. There seems to be an inevitable asymmetry, a slippage, between the experience of one political/social moment and the remediation of texts and ideas from that moment. Maybe we can just call this slippage (literary) history. It’s something that will continue to fascinate me; and it holds out hope for achieving some measure of justice in a world that is often intolerable. At the same time, it suggests that Langland was right to sense that a poem, no matter how brilliant, would not cut it. “A kind of value no particular poem can realize. . .” A devastating critique of the status quo does not normally change things. It can only be a starting point.
*Hugo Raine has a splendid essay for Verso’s blog on “Marxism and the Middle Ages,” in which he argues that a fundamental error of some Marxist medieval historians is to assume, with Marx, that the totalizing structure of modern capitalism implies prior totalizing modes of economic/social organization. (Hence feudalism.) What if there weren’t any? What if capitalism is in this respect unique? It’s a very smart thought, and I think that in general I agree with it. But Langland does seem to represent the economic/social system of fourteenth-century England as totalized, as implicated in every sector of human existence, even if feudal isn’t the right word for it.
Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2016.
Lochrie, Karma. Nowhere in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
Middleton, Anne. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Mortwon W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 91-122.
Song, Min Hyoung. “An Ethics of Generosity.” In Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 281-98.
Weiskott, Eric. “Political Prophecy and the Form of Piers Plowman.” Viator (forthcoming).