The “popular tradition of English religion,” wrote Christopher Dawson in The English Way, a study of English piety, “... exists in its purest and most unadulterated form in the work of Langland.” Piers the Plowman, therefore, “embodies the spiritual unity of the English people.” In the early twentieth century it was remarked of that poem, “therein is to be found the key to the Englishness of today, with the same strength and weakness, the same humour, immutable.” Yet the vision of Langland is wholly Catholic in its range and intensity, wholly medieval in its preoccupations and implications. If it is essential to the nature of Englishness, of what precisely does that Englishness consist?
Piers the Plowman survives in a variety of extant versions, with three large clusters of significant composition known as the “A,” “B” and “C” texts. A dream-work manifesting ten dreams, two of which are dreams within dreams, it is an allegorical poem, in which the allegories are so filled with the living power of the imagination that they take on a pre-eminently human shape. In that respect they are tokens of the mystery of the Incarnation which is at the heart of fourteenth-century Catholicism. Piers the Plowman, the labouring farmer who becomes the type of Christ, is one of a number of active agents engaged in the redemption of humankind; yet he is so powerful a figure that on hearing his name “Longe Wille” faints with joy. Long Will, or the narrator, is of course Langland himself who is the dreamer of dreams.
The poem contains all that is known about Langland, except for a stray memorandum. He was born in the early 1330s, possibly at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, and was sent to a monastic school in Great Malvern; he became a “clerk” or scholar there, and wrote one of the first versions of the poem while walking among the Malvern Hills. But then he travelled to London, where he was married; in that city he earned a precarious living as a chantry singer for men’s souls and as a part-time copyist of legal documents. Like Blake and Dickens, More and Milton, he trod the streets of London and saw visions. He lived with his wife, Kit, and his daughter in a mean tenement along Cornhill; he must have been a noticeable figure, with his shaved head and his long tattered coat like that of a beggar. He was extremely tall and thus known to his neighbors by the nickname of “Long Will.” He mentions Cock Lane and East Cheap, Tyburn and Shoreditch and Southwark, where he was often “lost in daydreams of times past”; he was so distracted that he was held to be “a fool” or “a lorel,” a good-for-nothing. He paid no respect to “lordes or ladies” and refused to pay the customary obeisance, “God loke yow, lordes!,” to those in authority. He himself lived in extreme poverty, and in one of the versions of Piers the Plowman he dwells with unremitting clarity and charity upon the lives of the poor around him. He was also a dreamer, a visionary, who spent most of his life in working and reworking his one great poem of existence. Out of the wretchedness and violence of London came this great paean to love and grace. In this, too, he may become representative of the English imagination.
Piers the Plowman is an odd, sometimes awkward, poem packed with the accumulation of suffered experience and yet at the same time open and expansive; it seems to have been created out of some organic process, over a period of thirty years, and once more we may apply the architectural metaphor of a medieval cathedral. Like a cathedral, too, it harbours sacred symbol and grotesque or realistic detail, placing them so closely together that they are perhaps not to be distinguished. Subliminally, perhaps, they represent the same life. Here again is a mark of Langland’s Englishness when “Clarice of cokkeslane, and the clerke of the cherche,” along with other frequenters of a tavern, “grete sire glotoun, with a galoun ale. There was laughyng and louryng, and ‘let go the cuppe.’” In this context William Langland has also been compared to William Hogarth, since he has the London artist’s enthusiasm for the significant detail of urban life.
What Langland understood, he shared. He attacked rapacious clerics and mendacious friars; he spoke out for the ordinary people of England. All the laughter and savagery, all the intense emotionalism, of the old Catholic civilisation are contained within his poem. Piers the Plowman is written in the alliterative measure; it is as if Langland were adopting a common voice, an intensely vivid and dramatic cadence with effects not unlike those of the ribald or divine dialogues of the mystery plays which were performed along the same streets of London in which he walked. His style has been described as “rude,” or “quaint,” or “homely,” but its stubborn veracity is part of its imaginative strength.
Langland was dismissed as an eccentric, but much of the English genius resides in quixotic or quirky individuals who insist upon the truth of their independent vision in the face of almost universal derision. Langland rambles; he wanders into theological speculation and effortlessly mixes the comic and the sublime; he will list the various foodstuffs of the poor, and then has a vision of the crucified Christ. He will portray himself as a dazed and helpless narrator but will then introduce the characters of Do-well, Do-bet and Do-best, who migrated into the imagination of John Bunyan. His genius was in fact of such a thoroughly English kind that his work was immediately recognised for what it was; it has the deep momentum of the English imagination.
John Ball, “the crazy priest of Kent” and incipient Leveller, was hanged, drawn and quartered in the summer of 1381 for writing a letter which contained these words: “biddeth Peres Plouyman go his werke, and chastise well Hobbe the robber,” which was taken as a signal for popular rebellion. Langland himself was no insurrectionary; he was thoroughly medieval in his inclinations, and believed in the theory if not in the practice of hierarchy. But his visionary spirit continued to dwell in the language and was, for example, a potent influence upon William Tyndale. To a learned scholar, Tyndale declared of his own English translation of the Bible, “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost”; the image of the ploughman, then, remains central to the idea of Englishness and the use of the English language. It may be appropriate to note here the presence in Tyndale’s translation of his native Gloucestershire dialect, which was spoken only a few miles south of the Malvern Hills where Langland had once walked. These are local variations upon a common and overwhelming theme.
An analogy might be drawn between Langland and William Blake, or “English Blake” as he called himself, who laboured upon his visionary allegories with as much stubborn assiduity as did Langland. When “Long Will” questions Abraham, the dialogue is couched in words that might have been employed by Blake himself. “ ‘In a somer ich seye hym,’ quath he, ‘as ich sat in my porche, where god cam goynge thre, ryght by my gate.’ ” God came by my gate as I was sitting in my porch. And Blake said, “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill.” He saw the devil climbing the staircase of his house in Hercules Street, Lambeth. Both poets shared a domestic, almost neighborly, attitude towards eternity.
There are other resemblances which are significant in themselves but are also tokens of a greater continuity. The allegorical personages in Piers the Plowman, like the four Daughters of God and the “loveli ladi” who is “Holicherche,” have the same strangeness and mystery as the Daughters of Albion or Vala in the prophetic books of Blake; great spiritual forces are clothed in human shape, eschewing all philosophical or abstract exegesis, and their actions are given dramatic expression. Blake, like Langland, was taken for a fool or a madman; but both were engaged in crafting a vision of the eternal world. There is, however, one significant difference. Langland created his vision in the context of Catholic England where all the associations and meanings were immediately comprehensible; Blake laboured in the post-Catholic world of the eighteenth century where allegory and spiritual meaning were devoid of any context at all. Hence his obscurity and his apparent irrelevance to the life around him. Yet both men possessed a pure lyric gift which flares out from time to time in passages of incomparable beauty, many of them associated with the sudden emergence of the natural world. “By a wide wildernesse and by a wode side” walks Langland, where Blake avers that “Thou hearest the Nightingale begin the Song of Spring.”
The two men are together in the landscape of the English imagination.
Solitaries and Recusants
The great composers of the sixteenth century, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, were both unrepentant Roman Catholics