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Outlines of English and American Literature
William Langland
by Long, William J.


William Langland (cir. 1332--1400) is a great figure in obscurity. We are not certain even of his name, and we must search his work to discover that he was, probably, a poor lay-priest whose life was governed by two motives: a passion for the poor, which led him to plead their cause in poetry, and a longing for all knowledge:

  All the sciences under sonnė, and all the sotyle craftės,
  I wolde I knew and couthė, kyndely in mynė hertė.


His chief poem, Piers Plowman (cir. 1362), is a series of visions in which are portrayed the shams and impostures of the age and the misery of the common people. The poem is, therefore, as the heavy shadow which throws into relief the bright picture of the Canterbury Tales.

For example, while Chaucer portrays the Tabard Inn with its good cheer and merry company, Langland goes to another inn on the next street; there he looks with pure eyes upon sad or evil-faced men and women, drinking, gaming, quarreling, and pictures a scene of physical and moral degradation. One must look on both pictures to know what an English inn was like in the fourteenth century.

Because of its crude form and dialect Piers Plowman is hard to follow; but to the few who have read it and entered into Langland's vision--shared his passion for the poor, his hatred of shams, his belief in the gospel of honest work, his humor and satire and philosophy--it is one of the most powerful and original poems in English literature. [Footnote: The working classes were beginning to assert themselves in this age, and to proclaim "the rights of man." Witness the followers of John Ball, and his influence over the crowd when he chanted the lines:

  When Adam delved and Eve span,
  Who was then the gentleman?


Langland's poem, written in the midst of the labor agitation, was the first glorification of labor to appear in English literature. Those who read it may make an interesting comparison between "Piers Plowman" and a modern labor poem, such as Hood's "Song of the Shirt" or Markham's "The Man with the Hoe."]

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