THE VISION OF PIERS THE PLOWMAN.*
IT is very fitting that an edition of The Vision of Piers the Plowman should be published for a reading public that appreciates Mr. Masefield's Everlasting Mercy. Amidst all the welter of mediaeval literature, so cosmopolitan, so varied and enciting in its mingling of Celtic and Romantic with Teutonic and Frankish influence, we have kept through all invasions our own national tendency in literary expression. A strange and, at first sight, a somewhat forbidding spirit ; intensely idealistic and, by a curious contradiction or rather -contrast, realistic to the point of indecency ; endowed with a shrewd insight into men's minds—a psychology of the con- fessional, precise and epigrammatic; intent on matter rather than method; strangely devoid of colour or the adornments of precision and brilliancy, but holding attention by its power of movement, its reality, and belief in itself—this spirit is alive through all the ages of our literature. It found its first expression in Anglo-Saxon lyric, and the Conquest never really displaced it. Continental lrilliance and subtlety, the fine metre and fine casuistry that found their perfection in Chaucer took the first place, but the old, almost Puritan, spirit and the alliterative metre, shorn of its finer artifice, lasted on in the second rank. The metre died, it is true, but the spirit lived -on. In the realism of the Miracle play it found scope for its The Vision of Piers the Mama*. Translated into modern prose with an Introduction by Kate M. Warren. London: Edward Arnold. [2s. 64:1.] old humour; in the sobriety and earnestness of the Morality it comes, perhaps, to its most characteristic expression. It was that very earnestness, too narrow and personal for drama, that killed the Morality, yet even in the new Elizabethan dramatic literature it holds its own. It haunts the heavier moments of the long melodramas ; it persistently pulls down the dainty bowers of Acrasia built by the Italianate side of Edmund Spenser that hankered for beauty beyond what his English Puritanism allowed him.
It is fascinating to pursue this spirit, so real, yet so hard to name and to define, through the intricacies of seventeenth and eighteenth century art. John Bunyan, one of its most perfect exponents, is blood-brother to " Long Will " in outlook, energy, and humour. Wordsworth knew its insistent earnestness, its love of simple lives, though its dry laughter and its know- ledge of human needs were often withheld from him. Of late years the spirit of Neo-Celt and the Frank have driven it aside; but it returns, and appears to be returning triumphantly, in such work as Mr. Masefield's. Whatever else that work is, it is English. And the spirit of "Long Will" has about it just this indefinable certainty of nationality. It is the most striking and the most vital thing about the whole poem. Chaucer would have been happy in France, in Italy be would have reigned ; Langland one cannot picture away from Malvern hills, or the streets of the little English London of his age.
The book is, of course, a storehouse of interest for the student of manners, and much has been written about it as a tract on the Poor Laws or a sermon on the iniquities of church government. What is more often overlooked is the surprising fact that it is a poem ; that its author was a poet, with freewill and the power to choose ; and that in an age of exquisite contrasts and a colour sense such as we have not achieved again in England, he deliberately writes, as it were, in monochrome, and, as an offset of his realism, uses only a thin and rather unconvincing series of allegorical personages.
It is true that allegory is not only akin to much of the mediaeval mind, but has an especial affinity for the yearning intensity of this English spirit, that is often inarticulate and feels more than it can express. Bnt with Langland, as in a less degree with Bunyan, the allegory is often not only a mere setting or atmosphere but a shorthand method of expressing contrasts. He deliberately as an artist ignores the colour and glamour of "Lady Meed"; he concentrates on the work be is artistically fitted for, and with real delight sets before us his genre pictures of low life, vivid, finished, and complete.
He is, in fact, working in an art that is as near to wood engraving as Chancer's early work is to miniature painting. His matchless tavern scene is a foretaste of the quality of Holbein and Diirer ; none but Donne, the Puritan with the satyr's tongue, has come so near it in English. Langland's very similes are borrowed from the art that takes such strange pleasure in the uncouth small objects that make up a Teutonic interior : " Envy " looks "like a leek that has lain long in the sun " ; "Ira" mores in a kitchen ; " Avaricia " is "among drapers" in the dark shop among "rich striped clothes." Yet these " rich clothes " are not the object on which the engraver- poet has expended his art. He is more concerned with a " fanny coat, twelve winters old, and full of vermin." He is inadequate, as an artist, when it comes to the purple and fine linen. The allegorical figures are there, as the contorted Baby and strange plain Virgin are to be found among the pots and onions of a German woodcut, and they are alive and real to Langland, the reformer and the preacher. Yet the realism of his poem is not that of either preacher or reformer ; it is that of a black-and-white artist who never really found his medium.
Miss Warren, unlike most editors of ancient poems, has realized that the text, and not the commentary, is of first importance to the ordinary reader. She has given enough in her preface and appendices to show the lines upon which the critics of authorship and text are at work, and she has suc- ceeded in keeping the spirit of the original Middle English in a manner only to be appreciated by those who have wrestled with the task of turning a dead metre and dialect into straightforward English, with no false archaic flavour.
It is to be hoped that Miss Warren's work may help in reinstating not only Lan gland's poem but much of our mediaeval literature, still living and full of delights, in the place that it should occupy. No earnest love on the part of a.
few scholars can give it that place ; only the favour of a appreciative public. As Langland says, " Except the Commons will assent, it is full hard, by my bead, to bring it about."