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19.03.09 Lawler, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman

19.03.09 Lawler, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman

Traugott Lawler's Volume 4, which covers C Passūs 15-19; B Passūs 13-17 of Piers Plowman, brings the Penn Commentary project one step closer to completion, with Volume 3, the work of the late Anne Middleton, still to be released. Ralph Hanna, in his contribution released last year (Volume 2. 2017, vii-xxiv, reviewed for TMR by me) explained the origins and the evolution of the project that was conceived in 1990 and has seen the staggered publication of its planned volumes, providing some much needed transparency for the Commentary's patient readers. Lawler offers no summary rumination on the project, and his introduction instead prepares the reader to use the current volume as a tool, explaining the system of commentary that unfolds for each episode, which proceeds with head notes to the C version--with the parallel B version episode given in parentheses (where it exists). C references are thus unmarked, with, for example, "24-185" (referring to C.15.25-185) alongside "B.13.22-214" to describe parallel passages. Throughout the entire volume, Lawler first provides a discursive overview of the episode at hand and then breaks it down, part by part, as needed, in nested commentary, dividing a major episode into mini-sections of plot development, then offering glosses on individual words and phrases within each rubricated section, with line numbers and the targeted words or verses from the poem printed in bold for visual clarity. Like the poem itself, the commentary is a journey, and Lawler companions the reader along the way, throughout the complex twists and turns in the narrative. As with all the volumes of the series--and inherent in charting the kaleidoscopic (and not always parallel) parallel versions of Piers Plowman--it takes a while to get used to the hierarchy of presentation, and luckily Lawler has only two texts to juggle.

The Penn Commentary series is not for first-time readers or undergraduates to purchase or to read directly, but it will serve as a reference work for teachers prepping class at any level and for advanced scholars pursuing new work on the poem. Lawler's 500-page volume, like the three already published, is a font of knowledge, critical, historical, literary, theological, and bibliographical. For the sake of review, I will first examine in detail the opening scenes of C15, Conscience's dinner party, where Lawler's assignment begins, and from this brick readers can imagine the whole house, since his procedure continues apace.

Lawler first offers a "Headnote" describing the "two actions" that inform C15, the dinner party co-hosted by Conscience and Clergie and the encounter with Activa Vita, comparing generally the B and C renderings of these events. He notes that many readers see the dinner scene "as marking a new departure," as a different kind of allegory, less a psychomachia of Will--and more a dramatic interaction between characters (1-2). He provides some summary of criticism on these scenes and emphasizes that here a sense of the episodic has returned after much of Will's "inner journey," and that we as readers "are relieved to be back in a story" (2). However, he continues, the inner journey is by no means over and will resume profoundly with Liberum Arbitrium,

Patience, and the Samaritan--encounters that propel Will toward Jerusalem. Lawler's view of the forest provided in these headnotes helpfully orients readers to the larger arc of the story.

The first subheading (these are not printed in bold) "Will wakes and reviews his dream, then falls asleep (1-24, B.13.1-21)" is followed by nested commentary on Will's mental state, his self-description as a "mendenaunt," and his extraordinary summary of his previous, third vision, which inspires a two-page mini-essay from Lawler, exploring how the events that Will chooses to remember reflect upon Langland's perspective on what he himself had previously written--and reflect as well on the poet's "incomplete revision in the C version" (5). For C.15.9-12 on "And how Þat frères…quyte here dettes," Lawler offers bibliography on "bequests from Londoners to the various orders of friars in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries" (6). Notes to 21-22, elaborate purposefully the function of a single word, the Latin auxiliary "vix," and its artful use by the poet as a transformative grammatical particle, mirroring the transformative effect of Christ's salvific grace: the just person is barely saved, but therefore s/he is saved (6). Lawler signposts larger narrative development at C.15.24 where Will falls into the fourth vision, noting that "Most commentators have seen in this vision a shift from a cognitive to a moral emphasis: the interlocutors are no longer mental faculties but the moral faculty of Conscience and the virtue of Patience" (6-7). The next heading, "Conscience's dinner (25-184, B.13.22-214)" occasions a three-page discursive overview (7-10), noting the shifts in cast and emphasis from B to C, with the status of who is hosting per se in flux, as "the relative clarity of the literal events in B is put aside in C in favor of a greater allegorical suggestiveness," while the whole episode explores the important topic of "the conscientious (and reasonable) use of learning…with an undercurrent of emphasis on the synonymous trio penance-suffering-patience" (7). Lawler provides background on the gluttonous Master Friar (who famously chows down at the dinner) and on medieval anti-fraternal satire generally, and he examines scholarship on the Old and New Testament origins of the dinner's imagery and themes (8-10).

This headnote has spanned lines C.15.25-184, so the next set of sub-headings offer a detailed breakdown of C and B exposition within that section, starting with "Conscience and Clergie invite Will to dine with Reason (25-31); Conscience invites Will to dine with Clergie (B.13.22-28)." As with all such commentaries--and with the poem itself--one must go slowly and continually check what level we are at in the nested structure. For C.15.29, we learn that the Dominican Constitutions required friars not to eat outside the cloister (11), but Lawler draws from Chaucer's Summoner's Tale to witness the friars' frequent violation of that rule. Lawler sometimes engages conversationally with critics, so here he wonders if Hanna is right to associate this Friar with Faux Semblant from Roman de la Rose, agreeing that the association is rich and plausible though not as explicit as with Chaucer's Pardoner (12).

Interesting notes that follow focus on elements like the "crucial" adverb "ilyke," debating whether it means "like" as in "similar to" or "likewise," with Lawler arguing for the latter, which would indicate Piers's appearance earlier in the dinner party than many readers had assumed: that is, is Patience dressed "like" Piers, or is Piers there at the party "likewise" (13, referring to C.15.32-33). Under the sub-heading "The guests are seated and dinner is served," Lawler describes the "soul food" provided and notes lightheartedly that "the nature of the food should not come as a surprise, given who the hosts are--what else would Scripture serve?" (15). In support of the notion that scripture itself is a kind of food, Lawler quotes a passage from Gregory's Moralia and translates the Latin (16). He avers above that he found it "illuminating to use the online Patrologia Latina" to deepen [his] understanding of what lies behind what Langland is saying" (xiii). Many readers who do not have access to the PL, which demands a costly annual subscription, will nonetheless benefit because Lawler helpfully translates all the Latin that he (or the poem, for that matter) quotes. At line 44a, he accordingly translates the citation from Luke and then discusses the context of the Gospel passage as it relates to the theme of eating. Lines 47-50a, concerning the theme of friars "mis-winning," inspire a two-page discourse from Lawler, as he thinks back through some positions he held--and still holds--in 2006, concerning Langland's sources here and a possible echo of Bonaventure. Reaching past the medieval canon, and in a wonderful gesture of multicultural teaching, Lawler cites a passage in Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, where similar allegorical food is served (19). For the always interesting phrase "diu perseuerans," Lawler glosses "long-persevering," explaining how Schmidt interprets the line differently, printing "dia" (the more difficult reading) meaning "potion"; open to this variety, Lawler delightfully concludes that depending on how one edits and renders this verse, it could be read as bi-lingual, Latin, or English (19-20).

This is but a sampling of the riches in the first 20 pages, and Lawler reproduces this method of overview and nested commentary amazingly for the next 410, providing an abundance of reading and study aids, including plot summary, critical survey, current bibliography, occasional microhistories of revision, notes on editorial renderings of the text, and global attention to the episode in the overall narrative. Discussion of the processes and possible motives of revision is natural and necessary to study of Piers Plowman but not always easy to enact. Much of the detailed comparison here is contingent upon the reader having the Athlone editions (the chosen source of all references in the entire series) open on the desk. Schmidt's parallel edition is the best modern way to see the versions side by side (as Skeat was in the past), but his lines will differ because he established a different text from Kane et al, challenging their methods and thus in many cases simply printing different words and verses, while Pearsall's C conveniently matches the lineation of RK. Editions notwithstanding, going back-and-forth between verses--through no fault of Lawler--can be dizzying, and we read, for example, the following passage in reference to B.13.12-13 (and their C-revision), lines from Will's summary of vision number three, where he laments the proliferation of ignorant priests:

"Lines 15-16, unchanged from the B version, cover C.13.100-128, and make it

plain, pace that interfering scribe of B, that L thought the passage clearly implied

that a lot of people go to hell because their priests are ignorant. (Meantime the

scribal couplet of B11 has been replaced in C by lines 13.115-16.) C15.17-23 have

the same effect as B.13.14-20, although C.15.20 (referring to C.14.161-63) improves

the rather fatuous B.13.18. For C.15.22, see the note below (5)."

Above, Lawler had discussed how KD reject a pair of archetypal lines in B11--by the "interfering scribe"-- that criticize bishops for creating ignorant and thus dangerous clergy, which Schmidt however prints as authorial. To navigate such exposition, stopping to consider the supposedly "fatuous," and checking textual notes and apparatus that explain editorial choices, is by no means easy going, but it's part of the work of critical comparison, and it demands patience from those needing to look at these--and thousands of other--micro-changes to advance their scholarly purposes. Accordingly, amidst Lawler's commentary one can get productively embroiled in the major issues in editing the poem. KD practiced a famous art of distinguishing between the authorial and the scribal, while Schmidt uses a whole other method to establish and defend the archetypal, as he has established it. This may be a perilous pass from which few return, but Lawler honesty and rightly points the way there for the fearless.

Each note, in its complex richness, draws upon the reader' relative experience with the poem, and some issues, such as these in editing, will be familiar mostly to those who have been hammering at it for decades. The tone shifts as well throughout the presentation from the encyclopedic and dispassionate, to the direct, the teacherly, the conversational, and the anecdotal, as when Lawler recounts a moment at a conference he attended when George Kane made a daring pronouncement (13) or displays a surge of exuberance about exciting events: "Piers is here!" (12). Lawler has clearly decided to put himself as a reader and as a long-time member of the Piers community into the forefront of the notes rather than suppressing personality as some writers might be inclined to do. There is something refreshing in the openness and transparency of the personalized presentation, as Lawler makes no effort to mute or cloak himself but rather makes his thoughts, memories, writings, and interactions with other scholars--in harmony or in dissonance--important to the commentary. The abundance of references and citations within the notes to works medieval and modern can be overwhelming and can seem cluttered, and my advice for readers (which applies equally to all the volumes, really) is to seek out a particular section of interest and wade, winnow, and prune until you find some gloss, bibliography, or historical background that helps to resolve a crux or simply explains an obscure reference, etc. Lawler is particularly good at paraphrasing rough passages, as here at C16.262-64, where he expansively summarizes a potentially oblique anti-clerical warning: "Ordinary people would be eager to obey your preaching and amend their behavior because of your example--as they are not when you preach amendment but don't exemplify it, which seems like hypocrisy…The ironic implication is that priests at present preach the very virtues listed above--generosity, truth, chastity, honesty--that they are failing to exhibit themselves" (169). Such explanatory glosses are both welcoming and engaging, while anticipating the reader's many diverse needs (and the needs of many diverse readers). It's hard to over-state just how Herculean a task it is to provide this much historical, linguistic, textual, editorial, bibliographic, and literary-critical information for these five extremely rich and complicated passūs across two versions (especially with the major shifts in the comprehensive re-making of the Haukyn/Actif episode) while still keeping, as the poet often does not, "ordinary people" in mind.

After the final note of the commentary, a 30-page works-cited section follows (435-467); then an index; and finally a list of passages cited from CBA in that order, for A finds its way into various discussions and is mentioned 100's of times (483-499). The true virtue of the entire project as imagined in 1990 will be realized when all volumes are on the shelf to be plucked as needed by a new generation of Piers Plowman scholars who will benefit from the wealth of information that this group of dedicated and experienced scholars will have produced, and to which Lawler has here mightily contributed, in work that clearly emerges from decades of tireless and generous labor for the Piers Plowman community.