The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 1

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 1

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 1

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 1

Synopsis

The first full commentary on Piers Plowman since the late nineteenth century is inaugurated with the publication of the first two of its five projected volumes.

The detailed and wide-ranging Penn Commentary places the allegorical dream-vision of Piers Plowman within the literary, historical, social, and intellectual contexts of late medieval England, and within the long history of critical interpretation of the poem, assessing past scholarship while offering original materials and insights throughout. The authors' line-by-line, section by section, and passus by passus commentary on all three versions of the poem and on the stages of its multiple revisions reveals new aspects of the poem's meaning while assessing and summarizing a complex and often divisive scholarly tradition. The volumes offer an up-to-date, original, and open-ended guide to a poem whose engagement in its social world is unrivaled in English literature, and whose literary, religious, and intellectual accomplishments are uniquely powerful.

The Penn Commentary is designed to be equally useful to readers of the A, B, or C texts of the poem. It is geared to readers eager to have detailed experience of Piers Plowman and other medieval literature, possessing some basic knowledge of Middle English language and literature, and interested in pondering further the particularly difficult relationships to both that this poem possesses. Others, with interest in poetry of all periods, will find the extended and detailed commentary useful precisely because it does not seek to avoid the poem's challenges but seeks instead to provoke thought about its intricacy and poetic achievements.

Andrew Galloway's Volume 1 treats the poem's first vision, from the Prologue through Passus 4, in all three versions, accepting the C text as the poet's final word but excavating downward through the earlier B and A texts. Stephen Barney's volume completes the framework for the commentary, dealing with the final three passûs of the poem, extant only in the B and C versions. Subsequent volumes will be the work of Ralph Hanna, Traugott Lawler, and Anne Middleton.

Overall, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman marks a new stage of concentrated yet wide-ranging attention to a text whose repeated revisions and literary and intellectual complexity make it both an elusive object of inquiry and a literary work whose richness has long deserved the capacious and minutely detailed treatment that only a full commentary can allow. Perhaps no poem in English appeals more than Piers Plowman to those readers who understand Yeats's "fascination with things difficult," yet The Penn Commentary will enable generations of readers to share in the pleasures and challenges of experiencing, engaging with, and trying to elucidate the difficulties of one of the towering achievements of English literature.

Excerpt

After some fifteen years of study of this poem, it seems to me more than ever that a new extended commentary on Piers Plowman in all of its versions has a range of useful purposes that are difficult to aim at by other means: to sum up, absorb, and assess the most useful work to date and make that available to a wide range of readers (with the assumption that these know at least enough Middle English to be picking up this poem in the first place); to solve as many unsolved puzzles as possible and ferret out a range of unexplored meanings with original research and ideas; and to find terms to appreciate the whole expanse of a work whose fine detail, existence in a set of more or less separate “versions,” and long process of poetic development are all extraordinarily complex and potent with meaning. the center of these purposes is to investigate with new ambition a work that seems to demand a wider range of literary history and perhaps literary sensibility than any other in the language, yet which situates itself far beyond what we narrowly define as “literature” by its profound and witty involvement in fields that we distinguish as theology, law, politics, economics, and many other domains of culture.

Each volume of this Commentary proceeds under similar assumptions and formats, but presents an individual scholar’s attention to and understanding of the poem, in a scope and with a degree of detail that have been less often pursued in treating Piers Plowman than other major medieval English poems, and in relation to a range of critical, literary, and other cultural contexts that each commentator deems pertinent. the Commentary is not a variorum, nor does it proceed within impersonally fixed boundaries of what aspects of these three versions and their contexts to cover; rather, it unfolds from the individual commentator’s knowledge, sensitivity, and judgment, and from a commitment to explicate in fine detail and more broadly one of the most important and challenging works of the later Middle Ages. the volumes of this Commentary do not withhold the individual commentator’s interpretive thought or opinions, but they are guided by a desire to present a range of observations, materials, and reasoning as fairly, rigorously, and evocatively as possible, sustained by the hope of generating further attention, investigations, and interpretations by others.

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