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'A Game of Heuene': Word Play and the Meaning of 'Piers Plowman.'

Mary Clemente Davlin, OP, Piers Plowman Studies, 7 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989). 147 pp. ISBN 0-85991-272-8. 27-50.[pounds]

Mary Clemente Devlin's book offers a rewardingly close reading of some of the puns and wordplay in four of the passus in Piers Plowman, I, IX, XI and XVIII. She sheds interesting and provocative light on a number of individual lines and words, demonstrating how the shifting and unstable nature of wordplay in the poem is symptomatic of the dreamer's stumbling search for truth and Langland's own exploration of Christian paradox. As she says, |Knowledge that there may be verbal play anywhere throughout the text makes the language of the whole poem seem unstable and unfinished; one is always wondering whether there is more meaning than that already perceived. Even when a play on words offers a vision of coherent relationships, [such a vision] is at best sudden and evanescent' (p. 111). This is evidently a familiar experience of reading the poem. Hugh White book is a similarly close reading of individual words and phrases, in order to elucidate Lingland's understanding of the concept of |Kynde' in the poem. Like Devlin, he shows how even minute scrutiny of the detail of the poem can broaden out into a consideration of general and important themes. He argues that the shifting ways in which Langland presents notions of |kynde' reflect a development in his understanding of the concept, and in particular a sympathy with the natural which outstrips that to be found in Chaucer or Gower.

Both these books primarily base their readings of the poem on the B-Text; Devlin uses the Kane-Donaldson edition, while White uses Schmidt. Devlin's use of Kane-Donaldson may give cause for alarm; quotation after quotation is studded with square brackets, indicating the editors' emendation of manuscript evidence or their incorporation of material from A or C, but Devlin farely explores the implications of different textual readings for her interpretations. White more than Devlin acknowledges that uncertain textual readings and the author's own revisions increase the complexity and instability of Langland's text, looking, for example, at differences in the various versions of the Prologue, and at the changes between the end of A and the corresponding section in B. The highly problematic textual and editorial history of the poem may occasionally worry the reader of both Devlin and White, given that both authors suppose consistent and self-conscious manipulation by the poet of minute verbal detail, extending without exception over the entire poem. Nevertheless, both books offer us valuable and thoughtful contributions to its interpretation.
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Author:Brewer, Charlotte
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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