The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 5

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 5

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 5

The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman - Vol. 5


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 passages 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.


In 1986 four friends agreed to join with me in the preparation of a commentary on Piers Plowman. We decided to divide the poem into five portions, with each of us primarily responsible for one stint, but with all of us fully collaborating in the work of all. One of us, John Alford, was unable to continue with his work, though he has graciously reviewed our draft efforts; Andrew Galloway consented to take his place. This segment of the commentary, the fifth part but the first completed, will be followed in due course by installments from my colleagues, all professors of English: part one by Andrew Galloway (Cornell); part two by Ralph Hanna (Keble College, Oxford); part three by Anne Middleton (California, Berkeley); part four by Traugott Lawler (Yale).

The time seemed right for a general commentary on the poem. the notes to Skeat’s edition of Piers Plowman, fine as they are, have long been outdated by the progress of scholarship, particularly in the last generation. By 1988 the B Version of the poem in the Athlone edition (1975) had been stimulating a burst of new scholarship, and the C Version (1997) was on its way. We were very grateful in the early stages of our work to be able to use the hitherto unpublished text of the C Version, as prepared by George Russell and George Kane. This, and other advice and encouragement, were very kindly supplied to us, eight years before their publication, by the editors.

Our goals are several. Although the form of this commentary has obviously the look, and some of the character, of explanatory notes to the poem, keyed to sequential lemmas of the text, we aim to take seriously the etymological base of the term “commentary,” and to apply thought to the poem, that is, to perform literary criticism. It is our conviction that Piers Plowman, more than most poems, yields its riches to close examination of its individual passages and lines, and correspondingly less in its larger movements. First of all, then, we claim to have been attentive to the detail of the poem.

Although we hope to have explored all the previous scholarship and criticism of the poem, we have referred only to that work of other students of the poem that furthers understanding. This is not, then, a Variorum commentary. Nor does it provide preliminary information of the kind found in editions of . . .

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