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5.0 out of 5 stars A great translation of a great vision, 29 Dec. 2005
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
This review is from: William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version (The Middle Ages Series) (Paperback)
The poem of 'Piers the Ploughman' is often considered to be anonymously composed, as the name William Langland was less an authorial designation as it was an inscription on the back of a manuscript - it would be as if I would be assigned the authorship of the O.E.D. because, in some future time, the only remaining copy was missing the title pages, but still had the hard-cover with my 'ex libris' impression on it. Be that as it may, Langland is considered at least as likely an author as any other, and becomes a sort of stand-in, an 'everyman' for his time period. A few details of this Langland are known - he was a wanderer, a constant reviser (the poem goes through several revisions that scholars have designated as texts A, B, and C (and some argue for Z). This is not a spiritual autobiography, as J.F. Goodridge states in his introduction to another edition, but there are no doubt autobiographical elements in the text. That the lead character is named 'Will' helps in this identification.
This poem stands alongside Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' as one of the great products of Middle English; this also has the character of being a different sort of Middle English than Chaucer's more courtly, continental influenced variety. Thus, it gives breadth to the history of the English language. Goodridge ranks Langland as a great English poet on a par with Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth and Yeats, as representative of his age both in topics as well as language facility.
This epic poem deals with themes familiar for the time - like Dante and Milton, Langland deals with the grand ideas of the meaning of life and the destiny of humankind. However, unlike Dante and Milton, Will and Piers the Ploughman do not go through a mystical, otherworldly adventure or journey, but rather stays rooted to the earth. These are dream sequences, but these too need not be otherworldly - they are things that can happen to every person. The ideas of the seven deadly sins, the virtues, the church, and the images of heaven and hell are very much rooted to regular society images of the same. The discussion of the allegorical characters, aptly named Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, does much for the moral teaching of this poem, which would have been of primary concern to the author.
Langland's text is often more Old English than Chaucerian in ways. It is far more alliterative, a strong component taken from Old English. Also, it is less metrical in rhythm than Chaucer - there is a pause in each line akin to older English poetry, but the metre is less secure.
There are over 50 non-related texts of the poem that have survived the Middle Ages, that vary from minor to major changes throughout. Reconciling these is rather like attempting to reconcile the gospels of the Bible, and then adding to that task the discovery of other non-canonical gospels. It leads to rich discussion, but less agreement.
George Economou, who has translated ancient and medieval poetry from many different langauges, has taken as his base text the lesser-used C text for this translation. Economou includes a good introductory essay, a selected bibliography, and a good verse translation that preserves many elements of the original, such as alliteration.
This is one of the classics of English literature, perhaps the least known among them.
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William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version (The Middle Ages Series)
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