Interpretation in Piers Plowman
William Langland was, in an entirely different way, as great a poet as his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer. Langland's Piers Plowman, his life's work, most often sounds like an odd mixture of dream-vision, satire, sermon, and allegory, as if its purpose were aggressively didactic. Some critics explicate the poem as a coherent system of doctrine. Others deny system, preferring to think of the poem as recording a number of inconclusive stories into some of the thorniest thickets of medieval philosophy and theology.
Interpretation in Piers Plowman treats the poem as the work of a fourteenth-century intellectual—that is, as the work of a litteratus, one obsessed with written texts, who interprets all human experience on the model of textual interpretation. But instead of providing a theory of interpretation, Langland shows what happens when incommensurable interpretive systems collide. The dreamer in the poem learns that the intellectual's lust for self-justification on the model of textual argument is futile and self-destructive, and yet that the intellectual must approach God, if at all, through texts. Literacy turns out for the intellectual to be itself instrumental like sin: an understanding of the wrongness of wanting to master texts in order to justify oneself provides the stimulus for a necessary refocusing of one's life.
As the most thoroughgoing study available of the interpretive theory implied in Langland's literary praxis, Interpretation in Piers Plowman provides a reading of the poem that addresses most of the central issues current in Langland criticism. The book will be of interest to scholars of Langland and of fourteenth-century literature, to medievalists, and to scholars of any discipline interested in the reflections of a medieval intellectual on the implications of widespread vernacular literacy.
"Rogers's fresh exploration of Piers looks at the narrator/dreamer's efforts to attain a mode of interpretation capable of furthering 'the intellectual's spiritual development.' Writing in lucid prose, Rogers speaks to readers of the B version who know little of medieval literature or cultural history. . . . Mostly his points are acute, well based, and, most important, committed to a continuous and lively questioning of the poem in a way likely to provoke vigorous and productive responses from skilled beginning readers and Piers scholars alike."—Choice
William Elford Rogers is Bennette E. Geer Professor of Literature at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of numerous publications, including Interpreting Interpretation: Textual Hermeneutics as an Aesthetic Discipline, and is the cofounder of Ninety-Six Press, a small poetry press.
Other Titles in LITERARY CRITICISM / Medieval
Other Titles in Literary studies: classical, early & medieval