Poem of the Day – some lines from Piers Ploughman

Love is the plant of peace and most precious of virtues;
For Heaven hold it ne might, so heavy it seemed,
Til it had on Earth yoten himself.
Was never leaf upon linden lighten thereafter,
As when it had of the fold flesh and blood taken;
Then was it portative and piercing as the point of a needle.
May no armour it let, neither high walls.
For-thy is love leader of all our Lord’s folk of  heaven.

It is a long time since I read Langland’s Piers Ploughman, which I read once – fast and furious – as an undergraduate and once, or  perhaps twice, in the slow, considered way  I developed when I taught  Continuing Education classes. Read it aoud for weeks  or months. The room that comes to mind when I try to recall ‘the last time I read Piers Ploughman‘ is a room I taught in long, long,long ago.

This morning I was  looking through The Oxford Book of English Verse  for a poem for today when I stopped here, perhaps arrested by the second line – the idea that love is, or was, ‘heavy’  – drawn to Earth by something like a massive gravitational pull. That Heaven couldn’t hold it is astonishing! There’s asci-fi element to the these few lines which I love – the sense of relationship between spheres. Love is ‘leader of all our Lord’s folk of heaven.’

A few words puzzle me – ‘ne’ – it’s a negative so the line means something like ‘Heaven might not hold it’. ‘Yoten’ – of course, it’s gotten, that ‘y’ is a ‘g’ in modern English. ‘For-thy’ – , hmm not sure, thought it meant  perhaps ‘for this’.

Once I had thought through some of these language glitches, the lines seemed to hugely expand in my mind. The first line – ‘Love is the plant of peace and most precious of virtues’ – had seemed to me at first almost a cliche, and I hardly read it, I just rushed past, (though now I am back here again, ‘the plant of peace’ is good, and offers me a moment’s rest, like when you notice something in a garden). But on first read, I was  hurtling through, til lines two and three stopped me in my rushing tracks:

For Heaven hold it ne might, so heavy it seemed,
Til it had on Earth yoten himself.

That Love must be on Earth, is not airy-fairy, is not heavenly but has got to be here, compelled , like something falling, pressing towards where it must be. And then, astonishingly, once love was here, it became as light as anything you can imagine – can go anywhere, can pierce anything and is – great word – portative – it GOES! You can carry it with you.

Yesterday at The Reader, our Patron Erwin James came for lunch and an after-lunch talk and reading from his book Redeemable. (See my post about that  book here.) He spoke of Joan, the prison psychologist, who had taught him to believe he was ‘redeemable’. Erwin talked movingly of the intentions of many people working in prisons – ‘those people are there because they want to help’.  He was visibly moved  when he spoke of Joan. Reading today’s poem I’m thinking of Joan, her care and  love for  fellow humans ‘portative and piercing as the point of a needle.’

Erwin spoke also of the front needed to survive in prison, and the fear behind the front. I thought of that in the line ‘May no armour it let, neither high walls.’ (Neither armour nor high walls can stop love).  He spoke of doing push ups to make himself strong and powerfully fronted. I asked him what he had done for mental strength, and he answered  without hesitation, ‘reading’.  Joan gave him ‘Crime and Punishment’ to read.  Tough love, but love all the same, ‘portative and piercing as the point of a needle’.

Love is so light now, Langland compares it to a ‘leaf upon linden’  – that’s a Linden tree, we have some in Calderstones Park,  light, fluttering, huge, scented … I’ll post a picture of one when they come out into leaf again.




One thought on “Poem of the Day – some lines from Piers Ploughman

  1. Rob Foxcroft September 13, 2017 / 12:51 pm

    Dear Jane, Thank you for your beautiful comments on William Langland’s lines, as moving a passage as any in our literature. It is included in my book – for all the reasons you explain so well.

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