Medieval Poetics and Social Practice: Responding to the Work of Penn R. Szittya

By Seeta Chaganti | Go to book overview

DOWEL, THE PROVERBIAL, AND
THE VERNACULAR: SOME VERSIONS
OF PASTORALIA

Anne Middleton

The small bright feature that prompts this essay is the English dictum “do well and have well,” with which the Priest “construes” the text of the Pardon in English.1 While this moment has proved pivotal both to the ensuing formal unfolding of the poem and to the course of its critical history, I do not attempt here to traverse again either of the two large, ancient, and well-plowed topical fields (the “dowel triad” and the “pardon scene”) it has opened to critical industry, but rather begin with a more limited object: the early history, formal and registral consequences, and literary implications of the English locution itself. The exercise provides a small-aperture view through which some larger questions of rhetorical propriety latent in the scene, and in the poem generally, may be reexamined, particularly by those for whom the poem offers a supremely complex instance of “vernacular theology.”2

Universally categorized as “proverbial” by earlier medieval users of this adage, the Priest’s somewhat perfunctory “translation” of Truth’s message becomes the catalyst for the narrative, dialogic, and figurative development of the poem’s difficult third vision, which in turn establishes the modes of representation that govern the remainder of the poem. As the pursuit of Dowel turns gradually from an attempt to determine the minimally necessary and sufficient “legal” requisites for salvation—the poetic persona’s implicit notion of his aim at the outset of his quest—to imaginative self-knowledge and penitent self-scrutiny as the key requisites for the pursuit of perfection, the dialogic process of the vision also examines the register and rhetorical techniques that support this spiritual reorientation. The third vision explores the pastoral figurative arts appropriate to those who, like Piers, are “lerned a litel,” and their relation to the arts of “poetes.” Medieval attestations of the formulation “do well and have well” contemporary with the poem imply that the “proverbial” was a ubiquitous register

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