Sunday, 28 March 2010

Langland's Passion, I: Palm Sunday

At the beginning of Passus 18 in the B-text of Piers Plowman, the poem veers unexpectedly into an account of Christ's Passion, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem. Through the course of various dream visions, the protagonist Will has heard numerous arguments about God's mercy (among multiple other subjects - this is a poem of many arguments!), and he is struggling to understand what salvation means. Now he begins to see it in action:

Wolleward and wet-shod went I forth after
As a reckless renk that recketh of no woe,
And yede forth like a lorel all my life time,
Til I wax weary of the world and wilned eft to sleep,
And lened me to a Lenten - and long time I slept;
Rest me there and rutte fast til ramis palmarum.
Of gerlis and of Gloria, laus greatly me dreamed
And how osanna by organye old folk songen,
And of Christ's passion and penance, the people that ofraughte.

Early in his dream Will encountered a ploughman, Piers, who at first looks like an embodiment of the ordinary Christian who understands his faith through love and not reason or argument. But Piers keeps popping his head up at moments of crisis, when Will is most confused, and every time he appears he is imbued with a greater significance and power. The last time Will saw him, he was defending the Tree of Charity from the attacks of the devil, protecting the fruit which grows there - men and women, the fruit of the love of God. Now Piers is mentioned again, and he is more important than ever:

One semblable to the Samaritan, and somdeel to Piers the Plowman,
Barefoot on an ass's back bootles came prikye,
Withouten spores other spear; spakliche he looked,
As is the kynde of a knight that cometh to be dubbed,
To geten him gilt spurs on galoches ycouped.
Then was Faith in a fenestre, and cried "A Fili David!'
As doth an herald of arms when aventrous cometh to jousts.
Old Jews of Jerusalem for joy they sungen,
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Will, always asking questions, turns to the personification of Faith (looking out of a window) and asks him to explain what's going on. Who is this knight coming to fight a combat? 'Piers fruit the Plowman' is 'the fruit of Piers the Ploughman', the human souls for whom Christ is about to die:

Then I frayned at Faith what all that fare bymente,
And who should joust in Jerusalem. "Jesus,' he said,
"And fetch that the fiend claimeth - Piers fruit the Plowman.'
"Is Piers in this place?' quod I, and he preynte on me.
"This Jesus of his gentries will joust in Piers' arms,
In his helm and in his haubergeon - humana natura.
That Christ be not biknowe here for consummatus Deus,
In Piers paltok the Plowman this prikiere shall ride;
For no dynt shall him dere as in deitate Patris.'

Like many a hero of chivalric romance, Christ doesn't fight in his own armour but in the arms of another knight, Piers the Ploughman; and so now Piers represents the human form of God incarnate on earth. You could never have guessed this at his first appearance in the poem, and that's one of the things which is so wonderful about Piers Plowman - you can't read it without feeling that the dream has a life of its own.

Now, in explaining to Will, Faith introduces the manner in which the poem will present Christ's Passion, as a combat - a joust - between Christ and the forces of evil, between life and death:

"Who shall joust with Jesus?' quod I, "Jews or scribes?'
"Nay,' quod Faith, "but the fiend, and false doom to die.
Death seith he shall fordo and adoun bring
All that liveth or looketh in land or in water.
Life saith that he lieth, and layeth his life to wedde
That, for all that Death can do, within three days to walk
And fetch from the fend Piers fruit the Plowman,
And lay it where him liketh, and Lucifer bind,
And forbeat and adown bring bale death for ever:
O Mors ero mors tua!'

The idea that Life and Death are arguing about whether Christ will triumph - even that they're laying bets on it ('to wedde' is 'as a wager') - is so typical of this poem's approach to personification and to the resolution of debates. Everything has a voice; everyone has an argument to make. Even as the narrative gets deep into the Biblical story, it doesn't leave behind this characteristic love of dialogue - notice how the voices of the crowd come through in those scraps of liturgical and scriptural Latin, and how it's through Faith's explanation that Will learns what's going on. I love that.

Piers Plowman is not particularly concerned with the gory emotive details of Christ's suffering and death, the prints of nails and the drops of blood we find elsewhere in medieval poetry; the poem cares about what it all means, and what its result will be - human salvation. It is always confident in Christ's triumphant Resurrection, and here the Passion is a battle, a heroic event. O Death, I will be your death!

No comments: