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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

I. “Piers the Plowman” and its Sequence

§ 21. The Merits of B’s Work

The reader who has been impressed with what has been said about the vagueness and lack of definite organisation and movement in B’s work may be inclined to ask, What merits are his and what claim has he upon our interests? The reply is that his merits are very great indeed, being no less than those rated highest by previous students of the poems—Skeat, Jusserand, ten Brink, Henry Morley and a host of others. The very lack of control, which is his most serious defect as an artist, serves to emphasise most convincingly his sincerity and emotional power, by the inevitableness with which, at every opportunity, he drifts back to the subjects that lie nearest his heart. Writing, as he did, without a definite plan and without power of self-direction, he touched, we may feel sure, not merely all subjects that were germane to his purpose, as a better artist would have done, but all that interested him deeply; and he touched most frequently those that interested him most. These subjects are, as is well known, the corruptions in the church, chiefly, perhaps, among the friars, but also, in no small measure, among the beneficed clergy; the dangers of riches and the excellence of poverty; the brotherhood of man; and the sovereign quality of love. To these should be added the idealisation of Piers the Plowman, elusive as are the forms which this idealisation often assumes. On the other hand, great as is the interest in political theory displayed by the author in the passages inserted in the prologue, this is not one of the subjects to which he constantly reverts; indeed, the only passage (XIX, 462–476) on this subject in the later passus touches it so lightly as to suggest that the author’s interest in it at this time was very slight. The frequency with which subjects recur is, of course, not the only indication of the sincerity and depth of the author’s interest; the vividness and power of expression are equally significant.

  • “Let some sudden emotion fill his soul,” says Jusserand, “.…and we shall wonder at the grandeur of his eloquence. Some of his simplest expressions are real trouvailles; he penetrates into the innermost recesses of our hearts, and then goes on his way, and leaves us pondering and thoughtful, filled with awe.”
  • Such are:
  • And mysbede (mistreat) nou[char]te thi bonde-men, the better may thow spede.
  • Thowgh he be thyn underlynge here, wel may happe in hevene,
  • That he worth (shall be) worthier sette, and with more blisse,
  • Than thow, bot thou do bette, and live as thow sulde;
  • For in charnel atte chirche cherles ben yvel to knowe,
  • Or a kni[char]te from a knave,—knowe this in thin herte.VI, 46 ff.
  • For alle are we Crystes creatures, and of his coffres riche,
  • And brethren as of o (one) blode, as wel beggares as erles.XI, 192 ff.
  • Pore peple, thi prisoneres, Lord, in the put (pit) of myschief,
  • Comforte tho creatures that moche care suffren,
  • Thorw derth, thorw drouth, alle her dayes here,
  • Wo in wynter tymes for wanting of clothes,
  • And in somer tyme selde (seldom) soupen to the fulle;
  • Comforte thi careful, Cryst, in thi ryche (kingdom)!XIV, 174 ff.