The Magazine

In Chaucer's Shadow

William Langland, 'Piers Plowman,' and the dawn of English poetry.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By C. DAVID BENSON
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Chaucer and Langland

The Antagonistic Tradition

by John M. Bowers

Notre Dame, 488 pp., $45

English literature, as we know it, begins with the works of two great poets who wrote in London during the second half of the 14th century: Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland.

They proved that English verse could rival that on the continent: French romances and dream-visions and the vernacular achievements of Dante and Boccaccio. Chaucer and Langland were the first native poets to achieve a national reputation, and the large number of their surviving manuscripts testifies to a wide popularity with contemporary readers. Langland's Piers Plowman slightly precedes Chaucer's works and seems to have influenced the younger poet, but soon the reputations of these two pioneers began to diverge.

Significant 15th-century poets, including Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, extol Chaucer as their model, as does Edmund Spenser more tacitly; and Shakespeare will adapt Chaucer's Knight's Tale (as A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Troilus and Criseyde. In contrast, the "Langland Tradition" largely consists of some marginal 15th-century poems of protest. Chaucer was one of the earliest books printed (in 1478) by England's first printer, William Caxton, and many new editions followed, whereas Piers Plowman did not appear in print until 1550 (introduced as a piece of Protestant propaganda) and then, after a couple of reprints, was not edited again until 1813. While Chaucer was saluted by John Dryden as the "Father of English Poetry," Langland, long treated as a neglected literary stepchild, is today likely to appear more often in a History than an English course. Many modern readers know something about Chaucer's most famous work, the Canterbury Tales, and its many outrageous characters, such as the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.

Chaucer is still some part of our culture: Pier Paolo Pasolini made a scandalous movie of the Canterbury Tales in the 1970s and the novelist/historian Peter Ackroyd has just published a brief biography of him. But Langland is lucky if even students of literature know his name and that of his life's work. Piers Plowman remains the greatest unread (or at least underread) poem in our language.

In this innovative and readable new book, John Bowers begins with the simple question of why Chaucer and not Langland achieved the position of English poetical patriarch. He answers this not by a close analysis of the works of either writer: His is more of a cultural than a literary study, though it is illuminated by the stimulating insights of a sensitive reader. (Some of these are as startling as they are thought-provoking, such as his observation that Piers Plowman's outraged chronicling of contemporary corruption might be considered a forerunner of "gonzo journalism.")

Chaucer and Langland is a serious scholarly study, packed with generous--sometimes, perhaps, too generous--responses to the work of other academics, and is packed with valuable information, especially about manuscript, printing, and political history. Yet Bowers's learning is lightened by clear, lively writing and the frank willingness to speculate about matters not susceptible to proof. Although well-supported by factual evidence, his overall narrative is, he says "admittedly fabricated," and frequently cites the popular, even sensational, book by five serious scholars led by the former Monty Pythoner Terry Jones: Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery. There is a salutary recognition that historical reconstruction, especially of such a distant period, is always an exercise in connecting somewhat shadowy dots.

Bowers argues that the differing reputations that came to be associated with Chaucer and Langland began with their own choices. Langland's focus on English social and religious controversies made his poetry seem increasingly narrow and sectarian, whereas Chaucer cannily evaded domestic entanglements. Whether (as Bowers believes) Langland's striking anonymity--his very name was a matter of dispute through the 19th century and his biography remains almost wholly imaginary--was a deliberate attempt to avoid persecution, the lack of a definable author made Piers Plowman harder to canonize, and more available to later appropriation by contesting factions.

In contrast, Chaucer often promotes his name and his works through various self-references in his poetry. Bowers observes that Chaucer's apparently devout Retractions to the Canterbury Tales cleverly combines a concern for his soul with a catalogue of his literary works. Thus, with a characteristic combination of social connections and good luck, Chaucer became the first occupant of what would become Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, while Langland became the "Father of English Literary Dissent."