William Langland and his famous poem Piers the Plowman

In the fourteenth century, there was a growth of the English National spirit. England was separated from the political ties of France and partly from the ecclesiastical ties of Rome. We have also, as exemplified by Peasants
Revolt, an upheaval among the lower class to demand rights for themselves. All these are reflected in the literature of the age which throws searchlights into the socio-political and religious conditions it inhabits. Most of the writers of the age reveal some aspects of contemporary life and of prevailing feelings and thoughts. William Langland (1330-1381?) shows the anger that was threatening the abuses of Govt. and the vices of the clergy. Langland’s mordant pictures of contemporary life gave an actuality to poetical literature. Langland is exclusively a poet of the people as Chaucer of the nobility. He is also representative of his age.

The name of William Langland has a celebrity in the English language for his singular work-The The Book of Piers the Plowman. In the English literature of the fourteenth century, Langland’s Piers Plowman stands out as the most renowned work, save Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Whereas the latter is a social chronicle, with engaging tales, Piers Plowman is an impressive allegory, more deeply concerned with religious, ethical, social, and economic problems of the time.

In his Piers the Plowman (dream poem) which is the most popular poem of 14th century, he has thrown some realistic scenes in the course of the allegory and describes his age-its ethos in his own way. He has got a national influence of his own because it is the best picture extant of the social life of the 14th century. Piers the Plowman, an impressive allegorical poem is written in the alliterative meter on the latter part of the 14th century.

The poem, the full title of which is-The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, appears in three forms called respectively the A, B, and C texts. The ‘A’ text is the shortest, being about two thousand five hundred lines, ‘B’ text is more than seven thousand three hundred lines and the ‘C’ text clearly based upon ‘B’ text is more than seven thousand three hundred lines. Until quite recently it has always been assumed that the three forms were all the works of Langland, but the latest theory is that ‘A’ text was the genuine composition of Langland, whereas both ‘B’ and ‘C’ had been composed by a later and inferior poet.

The poem itself tells of the poet’s vision of the Malvern hills. In this trance, he beholds a fair ‘field full of folk’, the first version by subtle and baffling changes merges into a series of distorting scenes which deal with adventures of allegorical human beings like Do-wel, Do-bet, and Do-best, or of beings of abstract significance like the Lady Meed, Wit, Study, and Faith. During the many incidents of the poem, the virtuous powers generally suffer most, till the advent of Piers the Plowman’-the Messianic deliverer who restores the balance to the right side. The ascription of Langland to this poem is disagreeable to some critics but the author is traditionally taken to be W. Langland.

Langland’s frequent sketches of homely lives are done with sympathy and knowledge and often suggest the best scenes of Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. The author satirizes public abuses and private vices and all sorts of hypocrisy. He loves sincerity and abhors bribery, he finds these defects on the society, namely oppression of the poor by the unscrupulous, slanders, drinking, cheating, bribery, shameless beggary, violent robbery, and wearing of fine clothes by women, neglect by some preachers of their advice and seven deadly sins Pride, Luxury, Anger, Avarice, Gluttony, Sloth, and Envy, and Langland satirizes them. He seeks to reform the lives of individuals. He is never a revolutionary and believes in the King and the Church, but he wants to reform them. It is the best
example of an allegory of England until the time of Bunyan with all respect to Spenser’s The Fairy Queen. The style has somber energy and the treatment is also simple. The form of the poem is curious. There is rapidity and a bustling quality about the verse. There is a scene of men at work that is not paralleled in Medieval English literature. Though it lacks artistic unity and the author shows only sporadic control over his material, Piers the Plowman is a remarkable work with its an alteration of bitter satire and tenderness of vivid description of contemporary life. The handling of the alliterative line is always easy and confident. Piers the Plowman is the work of a religious idealist who was distressed by the social and moral condition of England and who was endeavoring to create a large and cumulative vision of what is wrong and where we must look for improvement. It is a remarkable social document couched in fine poetry.