Tag Archives: langland

Langland and the (un)deserving poor.

One of the many joys of having a number of ‘spaces’ on the interweb is that you can decide where certain whimsies ought to be placed. There is currently a kind of master plan to incorporate all things Middle English into arduity as an example of poetry that might be difficult at first but which rewards serious attention tenfold. Unfortunately Other Things are filling up my arduity time at the moment so I’ve decided to share one of my more recent ME encounters here.

I’m reading the ‘C’ text of ‘Piers the Plowman’ and alternating this with the genius that is Thomas Hoccleve in order to get to grips with the language and to better understand the world at the end of the 14th century. In Another Guise I’ve been professionally implicated with the problem of the great unwashed for many years and have been of the view that the underclass has served a specific purpose since the early modern period or thereabouts.

Passus VIII of ‘Piers’ contains a dialogue between our hero and Hunger who he calls in to deal with the wastours (lovely term) who won’t work for their food. It would be crass to point out that our current governmental dismalities have a similar visceral need to punish those who won’t abide by the rules but this doesn’t stop me from pointing out in some detail what this might be about. At the heart of this particular anxiety is deception, the notion that some of the poor are faking some disadvantage in order to get a free ride on the backs of others.

This has particular resonance in the UK with the recent Tory claim to represent “hard working people” with the implication that the rest of us are somehow beyond redemption. Passus VIII recounts how Piers needs to plough his field before he sets off on pilgrimage and requests some help from his companions. In order to set the scene, we’ll start with the late feudal ‘deal’:

   'Sikerliche, sire Knyhte.' sayde Peris thenne  (indeed)
'Y shal swynke and swete and sowe for vs bothe     (work)
And labory for tho thowe louest al my lyf-time
In couenant that thow kepe holy kirke and mysulue
Fro wastores and fro wikkid men that this world struyen  (idlers)
And go hunte hardelyche to hares and to foxes            (boldly)
To bores and to bokkes that breketh adoune myn hegges     (bucks, hedges)
And afayte thy faucones wild foules to culle
For the cometh to my croft my corn to diffoule.'         (spoil)    

Incidentally, I’m using Derek Pearsall’s version of the ‘C’ text. I’ve used some of his glosses and one or two of mine.

So, by the time of writing (1380 ish) the above describes a relationship that was undergoing some changes and this notion of reciprocity was under more than a little strain. It does however set out what people may perhaps have felt nostalgic for, that the peasantry should feed the nobility in return for protection and some degree of pest control. In Langland’s present however the knight fails to protect against the first wastores that he comes across:

   Courteisliche the knyhte then, as his kynde wolde,
Warned Wastour and wissed him betere
'Or I shal bete thee by the lawe and bring the in stokkes.'
    'I was nat woned to worche,' quod Wastour, 'and now will I nat bygynne!' (accustomed)
And lete lyhte of the lawe and lasse of the knyhte
And sette Peres at a pes to playne whare he wolde.

Not only is the Knight ineffectual, the hard working paragon is himself treated with contempt- the last line being a challenge to go and complain anywhere he wishes but the recalcitrant wastoou is going to carry on with his idle ways. There’s also a bit of double edging going on, of course members of the nobility would be courteous as part of their code of behaviour but this is totally ineffective in getting these terrible people to change their ways. This is all too redolent of our current debate about welfare with both parties agreeing that there does need to be some coercion (sanctions, workfare, more sanctions) and only disagreeing on the most effective ways to be punitive. The bad old days of the welfare state are blamed, like the knight is here, for being far too soft on the poor.

My eye was also caught by Piers’ specification for the deserving poor:


But yf he be blinde or broke-legged or bolted with yren      (iron)
Suche pore' quod Peres 'shal parte with my godes,
Bothe of my corn and of my cloth to kepe hem fram defaute

All I can say is that this fierce 14th century social critic is more lenient in his outlook on disability than either of our political parties.

Before proceeding to Piers’ solution I think I need to point out that I’m usually of the view that the past is a very strange place indeed and comparisons between then and now are reasonably meaningless and this increasingly applies as the time gap increases. However, I’m also of the view that the underclass have always been with us and will always be with us regardless of any attempts at modification. The undeserving poor ( ie the generationally unemployed living on the edges of criminality and moving from one boisterous relationship to another) are the eternal moral panic and they perform a really important function- they keep the rest of us in place, playing by the rules of the game because we don’t want to be like them. I fully accept that Langland’s ire was also focused on certain groups of friars who sustained themselves by begging but it’s nice to see that the concerns of Hard Working People, the fear that someone else might be getting something for nothing, have remained fairly constant. I also think it’s telling that the wastores come before the wikkid men. Confronted by the failure of the Old Order Piers calls up Hunger (aka famine) to bring these idlers to their senses:


    Hunger in haste tho hente Wastour by the mawe
And wronge him so by the wombe that al watrede his yes.  (stomach, watered)
A boffated the Bretoner aboute the chekes                 (a Breton)
That a lokede like a lanterne al his life aftur,
And beet hem so bothe he barste ner her gottes           (nearly burst his guts)
Ne hadde Peres with a pese-loof preyed him bileye.
Haue mercy on hem, Hunger.' quod Peres, 'and lat me yeue hem benes,   (give them beans)
And that was bake for bayard hit may be here bote'                    (bay horse)
    Tho were faytours afered and flowen into Piers bernes
And flapton on with flayles fro morwen til euen          (threshed)
for a pot full of potage that Peres wyf made

So, extreme measures are called for to get these shirkers into the mainstream with the rest of us Hard Working types. First of all you starve them and then you hit them about the face and head before nearly killing them with blows to the stomach. Of course, dealing with the underclass doesn’t require the ‘normal’ set of principles because they just aren’t like us, at all….. It also helps if at least one of these idlers is a foreign idler- from Brittany in 1380 and from Romania / Bulgaria now.

Without getting into a lit crit tussle about the differences between the ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts, we know that Langland’s work was well-received and the figure of Piers was taken up by the leaders of the Peasants’ revolt. It would therefore appear that these quite brutal solutions tapped into a popular vein then pretty much as they still do now.

Of course it is still a mistake to over-identify with the past and ‘Piers’ drifts in and out of ‘reality’ enough to remind us that there is a lot that we don’t understand but it is remarkable how certain tunes do appear to echo down the centuries.

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J H Prynne, Mao Zedong, William Langland and the difficult poem

Having spent most of last week polishing the arduity site, I’ve had the opportunity to reconsider the scope of the project, which was initially about encouraging people to tackle work that is usually considered to be difficult. Since then I think I’ve modified my own understanding of the difficult and become a bit less zealous about converting everyone to the joys of this material. In fact, I’m now seeing it as a more detailed and thorough mulling over of stuff that is often ignored because of the ‘D’ tag.

The other lesson learned is that it’s a mistake to worry about definition, to try and compartmentalise the various facets that people might find intimidating / obscure / baffling. It is probably best to try and give examples and to concentrate on how they work or function rather than what they might mean. This is the current premise and has so far resulted in pages on ‘Scenes from Comus’, ‘The Triumph of Love’, and ‘Mercian Hymns’as well as a long page on the first three parts / chapters of David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’.

All of this is a way of getting ready to re-write the Celan and Prynne pages, add something on the notes to the Meridian which was published last year and to try and say something useful about ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ without scaring off those new to either poet. I want to use this to illustrate some of the problems that ‘KD’ presents. In amongst the ‘reference cues’ at the back there is an apparently famous speech ‘On Contradiciton’ from 1937 which, Wikipedia tells me, “is considered his most important philosophical essay”. I’ll deal with what Prynne does with this in a moment but ‘Piers Plowman’ (in both ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts’ is also listed and these present a similar kind of difficulty.

I think I need to point out that I’ve never been keen on this Marxian contradiction rigmarole primarily because (it seems to me) that the selection of the contradictory elements needed to achieve a resolution is too arbitrary and has led (oddly) to the reification of dialectical materialism at the expense of other methods of analysis. The part of the speech that Prynne has included exemplifies this particular tendency.

The other part of getting some structure into life is to engage with the late Medieval period and Middle English. I started with Thomas Hoccleve and am now oscillating between him and Langland. I didn’t think there would be too much in Piers Plowman that would need unpicking but then (yesterday) I got to an extended grammatical analogy which is in the ‘C’ text but not in either ‘A’ or ‘B’. This relates to the nature of reward and is part of a fascinating debate reflecting the economic anxieties of the latter half of the fourteenth century and can be considered hard to grasp at a number of different levels.

So far, ‘KD’ has three themes / subjects which are reasonably clear, the first relates to being and un-being, the second to contradiction and the third is a kind of response to the current economic fiasco which continues to destroy lives across the planet.

The thoughts on contradiction take their cue from these extracts from the 1937 essay:

There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes……It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another. As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions.

and-

But is it enough to say merely that each of the contradictory aspects is the condition for the other’s existence, that there is identity between them and that consequently they can coexist in a single entity? No, it is not. The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects within a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite.

Prynne follows this with:

I saw these gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within
themselves, alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour. I saw
the grains self-rotate in their own amazement with noise of spheres
metallic and burnished, along the baseline it is by amount at
principle neither so nor not because contradiction is inherent and
not alternate in sense-ordering. I saw this notion in full fiery
finesse, alive alive-o.

( For the sake of accuracy, I’ve maintained the line breaks as published).

Both of these are blockquoted paragraphs, but there is also:

...............................................'External causes
are the condition of change and internal cause are the basis
of change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be'.

The dilemma here has a number of dimensions, the first concerns the Marx – Lenin – Mao lineage and the variations along the way and the second concerns the relationship between the quote and what follows. I’ve just had the dubious pleasure of wading through all of the essay and really wouldn’t want to inflict this on anyone else partially because people may be overwhelmed by the apparent density therein and because I’d be tempted to point out the very high nonsense factor. As the essay is used on three separate occasions however I will have to try and provide some context- including the fact that this made Mao’s reputation as an ideologue/theorist which was instrumental in his rise to power. I’ll resist the temptation to go on about the genocidal Great Leap Forward and his readiness to kill more than 40 million people for the sake of an ideological nicety but this won’t be easy.

I have no problem with identifying the ‘Molly Malone’ lyric and waxing eloquent about Prynne’s interest in the work song, nor with puzzling over the nature of the spheres, nor with speculating about the abiding presence of ‘sense order’ in Prynne’s work.

Given the presence of contradiction throughout ‘KD’, playing down this element and concentrating on the other concerns is nevertheless dishonest so I’ll probably try to present an overview, link to what David Harvey says about contradiction and leave readers to pursue this further if they so wish.

There’s also the sad fact that I’m both deeply partisan and opinionated and what I get from poems may not be a true reflection of what is probably available to others. For example, when Geoffrey Hill uses ‘self’ in any context I have this need to go into ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’ at very great length because that’s what I want to take rather than what might actually be there.

I’ll also indulge myself with extensive quotes from Gillian Rose on Poussin and on her debate with Sister Wendy and point to what Prynne said about Professor Rose at his reading of ‘Refuse Collection’- I may even bring Geoffrey Hill’s memorialisation into things and try and make some kind of point re Rose’s denunciation of all post-structural thought and Jacques Derrida in particular”.

‘KD’ is written mostly in the form of a medieval dream-vision poem with heavy use of the ‘I saw’ trope which is how ‘Piers’ starts. Prior to paying attention to Langland, I wouldn’t have seen the parallels between this and ‘KD’ but I now see that both are in part a response to changing economic circumstances and that neither take the easy option of presenting one ‘side’ or the other but leave readers to do the ‘thought work’ instead. As noted above, the poem does have remarkably obdurate sections but it is also a very real discussion of the anxieties and resentments that pervaded England at the time – for all kinds of reasons. This is how the grammatical analogy in the ‘C’ text of Passus III begins:

        Thus is mede and mercede as two maner
rellacions,
Rect and indirect, reminde bothe
On a sad and a siker sembable to hemsuluen.
Ac adiectif and substantif vnite aske
And accordance in kynde, in case and in nombre,
And ayther is otheres help - of hem cometh retribucuon,
And that is the gyft that god giveth to all lele living,
Grace of good end and gret joye aftur:

The problem here is about just how much context do people want and how much this may be of assistance rather than providing further obfuscation. I think it’s important to try and get this right if only to demonstrate that poetic difficulty isn’t confined to the modernist thread and because it’s a wonderful example of the poem as engaged political commentary. I don’t have problem with clarifying the language and elements of the analogy, nor with presenting an overview of the argument but I do get a bit unstuck with the detail of the economic realities, of ‘bastard feudalism’ and the workings of orthodox ideas about retribution and grace. This is because there needs to be a balance between enabling people feel confident about the poem and swamping them with (partisan and partial) context even though that might be useful.

Helen Cooper on Edmund Spenser and the English Romance

The very first thing that I wrote for this blog was a synopsis and appreciation of Helen Coopers’ ‘The English Romance in Time’ which demonstrates the various ways that both Shakespeare and Spenser made use of the English romance tradition. I’m currently reading the ‘Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature’ which provides the best overview of all the various handbooks and companions that are on the market. Whilst I am going through these chapters in sequence, I have to admit that I read the epilogue first because it is written by Cooper and entitled ‘Edmund Spenser and the Passing of Tudor Literature’. Regular readers will know that I’ll read anything on Spenser and that most of it makes me cross. In fact I’d almost given up on the possibility of any academic saying anything at all that is in any way helpful about ‘The Faerie Queen’.

There are times when what a critic writes strikes a deep chord of affinity with me. These occasions are rare, the most recent significant instance that springs to mind is where Geoffrey Hill sums up in a single sentence all the fairly complicated thins that I feel about Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Cooper has just provided me with another such moment:

The richness of the Tudor context for The Faerie Queene has for long been overshadowed by scholarship on its classical and Italian connections, and more recently by the New Historicist emphasis on its immediate political context. Situated in its own historical and linguistic moment as the culmination of earlier Tudor literature, however, the work reveals a different set of qualities, variously overlapping with and complementary to what is conventionally thought of as humanist, that underline Spenser’s commitment to the poetics of nationhood.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently had a bit of a rant about this with regard to the problematic Book V of the Faerie Queen and the above passage has made me realise that there is at least one other person on the planet who feels the same way. A more sobering thought is that if you look at the current academic ‘chatter’ on Spenser you come away with the impression that the main ‘thread’ is the dismal Tudor experience in Ireland and that the FQ was largely a re-working of Ariosto and Tasso.

I don’t have any kind of problem with academics that wish to point out the genocidal tendencies in ‘A View’ nor do I wish to deny the profoundly suspect overtones in Book V with regard to Ireland. I do have a problem when this becomes the main ‘point’ of Spenser’s literary output. This together with the notion that, in using some of Tasso and Ariosto, Spenser was adopting European models and humanist ideals whilst rejecting England’s medieval past.

I remain of the view that we ought to read poetry primarily for its use of language rather than for any extrinsic factors or the nature of the subject matter. I don’t think that this is a naive or idealistic position and I think my feelings about Spenser epitomise the reasons why I engage with poetry. I do not read Spenser because of my interest in English colonial adventures in Ireland and elsewhere, nor do I read him for his role in ‘nation building’. Both of these are subjects that I do have an interest in but wouldn’t rely on the poetry as providing anything other than small bits of context. I read Spenser because he is good with language and his confident exuberance shines through almost everything he does. When I read the Faerie Queen I know that I am in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing and that the poetry will carry me forward regardless of the subject matter. I’m much more concerned about how Spenser marks the end of one ‘phase’ of English poetry and marks the start of another by appropriating older forms and using these to point towards what will follow. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in and can see the point of poetry as a means of expression. If I want to know about the politics of the period then I will look at other more relevant primary sources. The same applies to George Herbert and John Milton, I don’t read them to gain a closer understanding of the Arminian strand in Anglicanism, I read them because they are both brilliant poets- what they write about is completely secondary.

Cooper rightly draws attention to the English antecedents of FQ especially Stephen Hawes, Chaucer and Langland as well as two romances- ‘Bevis of Hampton’ and ‘Guy of Warwick’ and she points to Malory’s influence in the role of Arthur in the poem. As a result of this (and the chapter on Hawes in the Handbook) I’ve started to read ‘Bevis’ and Hawes’ ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ and they are both remarkably full of stuff that reappears in FQ. I’m not sure about the Langland/Lollardry connection but I am teaching myself Middle English in order to get to grips with this argument. My point is that a reader new to the glories of Spenser would soon be wading around in the critical noise around the Irish dimension and be looking at Orlando Furioso (I did this) rather than the English tradition.

A final note about academic trends, I do understand the way that these fads gather pace and become all pervasive but the Ireland ‘problem’ also feeds into a collective guilt that is only now beginning to speak its name- it is unlikely that this kind of perspective would have had such a success when the IRA campaign was at its murderous height. The other thought is- isn’t there something vaguely dubious about English academics (as descendants of the colonisers) choosing to speak for those who had the great misfortune to be colonised. Isn’t this a bit similar to those middle class academics (and thus secondary instruments of class oppression) wittering on about the integrity of the working class?

So, this is more of a plea for a more rounded perspective that starts by looking at poetry as poetry before beginning to take other political and cultural factors into account. I hope I shouldn’t need to point out that this does not in anyway condone or minimise the genocidal nature of Spensers remarks in ‘A View’.

We obviously need more academics like Cooper who are prepared to question the prevailing trends and to look at poetry primarily as poetry. She also writes about complex things in a style that is wonderfully clear and jargon-free. Her contribution on the pastoral form in the Spenser Encyclopaedia is also a model of incisive erudition.