William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version

William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version

William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version

William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C Version

Synopsis

William Langland's Piers Plowman is one of the major poetic monuments of medieval England and of world literature. Probably composed between 1372 and 1389, the poem survives in three distinct versions. It is known to modern readers largely through the middle of the three, the so-called B-text. Now, George Economou's verse translation of the poet's third version makes available for the first time in modern English the final revision of a work that many have regarded as the greatest Christian poem in our language.

Langland's remarkable powers of invention and his passionate involvement with the spiritual, social, and political crises of his time lay claim to our attention, and demand serious comparison with Dante's Divine Comedy. Economou's translation preserves the intensity of the poet's verse and the narrative energy of his alliterative long line, the immediacy of the original's story of the quest for salvation, and the individuality of its language and wordplay.

Excerpt

Though the day has finally, and happily, passed in which the prospect of reading any of the three versions of William Langland's Piers Plowman was characterized as daunting, if not downright onerous, approaches to the work, especially those of first-time readers, still demand support. One of the first gestures of such support has come in the form of translations into Modern English prose and verse, primarily of the poet's second version, known as the B-text or version, referred to throughout this work as B. Joining the company of these renditions is this poetic translation of C, the third and last (running 7,338 lines) version of Langland's great poem. A reading of this verse rendering, the first and only complete translation of C into Modern English, requires, in turn, a measure of support that assists and guides, without overwhelming, the attempt to experience Piers Plowman as a poem from the late fourteenth century that is still worth engagement in the late twentieth. Would not Langland take satisfaction in knowing that his poem about his own difficult and trying time, full of enigmatic, troubling signs of change and doom, speaks now to more readers than ever before in our own apocalyptically winding down brave disaster of a century?

Though the case for a translation of C should need no special pleading, the general promulgation and sometime unexamined acceptance of the notion that B is the superior work of art of the two does call for a few words of consideration. Because much of what divides the partisans of B from those of C consists of preferences for specific passages, episodes, and even characters that appear exclusively in one or the other version, it is unlikely that either side will ever completely win over the other. Yet it is possible that B has enjoyed its privileged status during the modern era of Piers Plowman studies in part because that version has been more frequently edited, translated, and taught. I would suggest that this high rate of circulation of B has been, in turn, at least a partial result of so many of our leading specialists in the poem favoring it over C precisely because they have had a definitvely edited, fully annotated, and carefully inter-

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