William Langland as a major poet of the age of Chaucer.
Contribution of Langland to the development of English Poetry.
Answer: Although Chaucer was the most dominating literary figure in the Middle English literature and his great works constitute the bulk of its glory, the literary history of his age contains some other significant literary works. Those works, of course, are not comparable with Chaucer’s masterpieces, yet they are found to have shared in the contribution to the enlargement of English literature and the preparation for the Renaissance.
It is therefore, remarkable to take note of different literary men and works in the world of Chaucer, which are not Chaucerian in origin, but bear in greater or lesser degrees his majestic influence and signify the aftermath of Chaucer.
Among the contemporaries of Chaucer the pride of place is given to John Gower, William Langland and John Barbour of Scotland. In the sphere of poetry these poets left behind a rich harvest of literature and their contribution to English poetry is quite substantial.
William Langland (1332-1400) and Piers Plowman:
William Langland or Langly is one of the early writers with whom modern research has dealt adversely. All we know about him appears on the manuscripts of his poem, or is based upon the remarks he makes regarding himself in the course of the poem. He was born probably near Malvern in 1332 where he was educated at the Benedictine School. He was a minor clerk with connection in Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. Langland came to London and lived with his wife for sometimes in a cottage not far from where Chaucer lived in a much better and comfortable accommodation over Aldgate.
The name of William Langland has a celebrity in the English language for his singular work—The Book of Piers the Plowman. In the English literature of the 14th century, Langland’s Piers the Plowman stands out as the most renowned work, save Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Where as 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.
Piers Plowman is certainly a quite novel and radical work for its age. Although ethical in sentiment and didactic in tone, it comprises a fine synthesis of sociology, satire and allegory. Artistic merits it may not have, but it has the provocative probe into the serious depth of the social and moral life of the age. In fact, it includes all the various elements that touch and toss humanity and remains a fine mirror of the variety and complexity of medieval life.
Like The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman has a Prologue that has the typical dream convention of medieval literature. This describes how the author falls sleep on a May morning on the Malvern Hills and has a vision of a fair field, fun of folk from different ranks and occupations. This Prologue, as in Chaucer’s Prologue, records a picture of the English society of the 14th century. Social scenes rather than social types are more conspicuous in Langland’s Prologue. The frame work of the poem is allegorical Piers the Plowman or the Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman is available in several versions. The chief forms of this poem are A-Text, B-Text and C-Text. Of these the first version was written about 1362 and contains the vision about Piers Plowman and the vision of Do-well, Do-better and Do-best. The second version or B-Text was written about 1377 and includes the fable of the rats and the cat. The C-Text has few hundred lines more than the B-Text. Through these versions, Langland conveys a quite pointed account of the moral Faith and the Social Vices of his age. The poet brings forth different visions to indicate the supreme sermons of truth, work and love this ethical point is distinct and indicates that man’s chief duty is to seek truth, that faith without work has no worth and that love leads to heaven.
The poem on the whole, consists of eleven visions and has the incoherence and inconsequence of a dream. It is an alliterative poem. In this poem on a May morning, the narrator, falls asleep beside a brook on the Malvern Hills.
“In a somere seyson. When softe was the sonne
I schop me into shroud as I a shepherd were”.
While he was dreaming, he beheld a lofty tower with a dungeon in a dell beneath it, and between them was a “Fairfield full of folk” representing various section of the community. The tower stands for Heaven and the dungeon is hell and the field is the world where all manner of men, mean and rich live side by side in unholy competition.
After The Prologue, there are the two episodes- The Marriage of Lady Meed and The Confession of the Seven Deadly Sins. The former episode contains lively arguments and debates between different allegorical figures, such as the Holy Church Lady Meed (Reward bribery) Falsehood, Conscience and the king. Lady Meed the sinful lady to whom all the priests and saints pay obedience. She is about to wed Falsehood. Their nation is disturbed by Theology, and they are brought to Westminster before the king. He makes a proposal that she should marry Conscience, but Conscience has no desire to wed Meed. He advices the king to send for Reason, by whose advice he promises to abide. Before Reason can render judgment, Meed is caught red-handed in the act of bribing the kings officials to release a criminal, and in a stinging speech of denunciation by Reason forever debarred from pleading before the king.
A long argument ensues in which Reason, Wit, Wisdom and Wrong take part. The Reason pleads for reward for good deed and severe punishment to wrong deed. The king is very pleased with Reason and decides to keep him as his counselor.
In a second vision Reason makes a long address to the people. The people show repentance and confess of having Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Luxury, Envy, Wrath, Avarice, Gluttony, and Sloth. Langland’s brilliant poetic talent is frequently seen here in his description of these Seven Deadly Sins, particularly in his portrayal of Gluttony. The repentant crowds decide to go on a pilgrimage in search of Truth. Here Piers, the plowman, a simple farmer, appears assuring the people that he would lead them on the pilgrimage often he had ploughed his half acre of land and requests everyone to join him in his hard work. Piers receives from truth Pope’s pardon covering not only Piers but all those who are to go on the pilgrimage and who had helped the plowman to plough his land. The statement of pardon tells that those who do good deed will get salvation and those who do evil things will be damned. The poem is obviously a plea for all to indulge in good deeds and shun evil.
In the second and third versions, the reader is presented with the triple vision of Dowel (Do-well) Dobet (Do-better) and Dobest (Do-best). In the first version Piers stands for the symbol of honest labour but in the second and third version he is transfigured in the very figure of Christ himself, whose crucifixion and descent into Hell are described in a language marked with a note of sublimity and grace.
The triple vision explains the triple conception of Christian obligation in three successive stages. These states however are not to remain mere abstraction, each one of them are successively related to the facts of human behavior as observed by the poets in the society which surrounds him.
The stage of Do-well is the condition of common man’s life lived in the acceptance of the conditions of life. It is the first step on the road to perfection. It is the stage of Do-bet which combines the qualities of Do-well with greater and perfected qualities.
The contrast between the precept and behavior is poignantly brought out here. Do-bet is obviously the highest destiny open to man precisely because it combines the ‘active and contemplative virtues’, but it also entails upon man greatest responsibilities and also open corruption.
Piers the Plowman is a mighty achievement of Langland and ranks very high as a social and moral study, its significance lies in its threefold manifestation. First, it is a graphic picture of contemporary life and manners. Second, it is a penetrative satire on social and ecclesiastical follies and vices. Third it is a powerful allegory of human life and morality. The poem describes a series of remarkable visions that pass before the dreamer and in their general draft we are reminded of the great allegory of Bunyan. The poem may be considered under the following heads:
(1) Considered as a picture of contemporary life and manners of the 14th century, as a social picture, the poem throws interesting side lights upon medieval life. The customary behavior of traders and shop-keepers and tavern-owners is presented with exactness. Medieval law courts and royal palaces are shown with no less dexterity. Here Langland is not simply serious. The comical personages, such as might have appeared in low-life are found in his representation of seven deadly sins.
(2) Considered as a social satire, the poem is perhaps the first great English satire in which the author has treated a quite comprehensive subject-matter. It is also a satire upon religious abuses and vices of the age. Langland is found to upbraid bitterly the lazy, the drunkard, the exploiter and the social cheat. He is also quite critical of luxury as well as vices in ecclesiastical places. Perhaps, in Langland, is heard the first voice of Puritanism against the extravagance of the Catholic court. His satirical strokes upon the clerical people are quite trenchant.
(3) As an allegory, the poem brings out subtly the strife between good and evil in the human breast for mastery. The hero, Piers, typifies the righteous living—a life of truth, action and love. Different personages in the poem allegorize different abstractions, such as wisdom, wit, sloth, despondency, doubt, bribery, conscience and so on.
(4) As a work of reform, Piers Plowman bears out the radical views of its author as a conscious reformer. His reformative zeal is equally evident in political, social and ecclesiastical matters. The poet advocates a reform in the very political order and recommends a parliamentary system in which the king, supported by the commons, is to act for public welfare. Such a bold and original political view is certainly rare and astonishing for Langland’s age. Moreover, his emphasis is on the proper discharge of their duties by all classes or professions —the king, knights, the clergy, the mechanics and so on. Langland appears, too, a philosophical socialist who propagates from Plato and Seneca that all things should be shared in common.
In the ecclesiastical matter, Langland is no less radical. He is thoroughly opposed to the display of riches and splendor in the church. He advocates a life of penance and simplicity, restraint and sincerity and in this respect, he seems to be the coming voice of Puritanism.
Langland’s place in the allegorical literature of England is certainly very high. His art to alternate Christian tenderness and bitter satire, social realism and religious piety, allegory and sociology is well borne out here. Moreover his power to create realistic scenes and truth with an equal ease, the comic as well the holy is distinctly confirmed here.
Like Chaucer, Langland is found to have made the use of traditional materials and drawn on the facts of contemporary society, but he has not achieved the literary eminence of his great contemporary. Nevertheless the social and allegorical values of his work are immense and its literary merit is not altogether insignificant. Though he has no immediate successor, his influence on the subsequent authors of satires and allegories cannot be ignored. The immortal Pilgrim’s Progress of Bunyan is certainly a direct descendant of Langland’s Piers Plowman.
Difference between Chaucer and Langland
There are some interesting points of difference between Chaucer and Langland, two close contemporaries. As the literary masters of their age, both of them are realistic social chroniclers and have made use of traditional materials yet, in their attitude and outlook, they differ immensely from each other.
Chaucer is basically an artist, while Langland a moralist. The former’s literature is an entertaining imitation of life to please and make life enjoyable. Langland’s singular work, on the other hand, is a serious representation of life, with a distinct purpose to teach.
Again, as Social Chronicler, Chaucer remains a broad minded spectator, taking interest and representing fun in human society and human behavior. Langland, however is a critical observer, detecting and denouncing moral defaults. Whereas Chaucer is a comedist, Langland remains a social critic.
Again Chaucer is essentially a humorist. His works are the gems of the gifts of wit and humour, with a slight, enjoyable caricature of human deformities. Langland is essentially a satirist who is unsparing on vices in high places.
As a literary master Chaucer stands definitely superior to Langland who lacks his artistic harmony and comic sense. Langland is no doubt, earnest, but not entertaining. His model is the allegory that lacks the Chaucerian variety of expression.