Langland, Milton, and the felix culpa.
White, Hugh. The Review of English Studies. v. 45 no. 179. 336-357. August, 1994.


SOME fifty years ago Arthur Lovejoy's article, 'Milton and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall',(1) illuminated Milton's participation in an ancient tradition which understands the Fall as a felix culpa, an ultimately happy event, giving rise to more good than would have been possible without it. The doctrine is, I think, obligatory for the Christian, who is committed to holding that God has the universe under benign control. Without it, the creation of man has to be seen as an error on God's part, something that goes horribly wrong. (It is not enough to suppose that, unequivocally bad though sin may be, God will make things all right again as if sin had never happened, since this would make human history a lengthy waste of time and effort: some positive benefit must accrue.) It is not surprising, therefore, to find Milton invoking the idea of the felix culpa in Paradise Lost. But there can be different kinds of assent to the doctrine.(2) In this piece I shall compare Milton's kind of assent with Langland's in Piers Plowman. Piers Plowman and Paradise Lost invite comparison as great religious poems probing the mysteries of sin and divine love, yet they are worlds apart. I shall suggest that the differences in their religious visions and in their natures as poetic artefacts are very much bound up with their respective attitudes to the felix culpa.

Lovejoy argues that a poem intent as Paradise Lost is on making the Fall seem deplorable has to deal rather delicately with the felix culpa idea, and that for this reason Milton reserved the explicit enunciation of the doctrine for the conclusion of the poem 'where it could heighten the happy final consummation by making the earlier and unhappy episodes in the story appear as instrumental to that consummation, and, indeed, as its necessary conclusion'.(3) But Lovejoy's words indicate a more enthusiastic endorsement of the doctrine than in fact we find. What Adam actually says is this:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done or occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much moregood thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.
                                                    (XII. 469-78)(4)
'Full of doubt I stand': this is not the unqualified enthusiasm of 'Adam lay ibounden', for instance:
Blissed be the time
That apple take was!
Therfore we moun singen,
'Deo gracias!'   (5)
or, indeed, of the liturgical formulation which is the beginning of the felix culpa topos: 'O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem!' (6) I suppose one might argue that it would be both dramatically inappropriate and morally improper for Adam, so recently enlightened as to the ultimate outcome of what he still should feel is a heinous transgression, to celebrate his sin in any other than a muted fashion, but we are certainly at liberty to take Adam as our spokesman on this matter and make his doubt ours too. Such doubt seems more in keeping with the real conclusion of the poem—Lovejoy is a little misleading when he suggests that we are offered the felix culpa at the end of Paradise Lost. The last lines of the poem describing the expulsion from Eden must, by virtue of their position and their extraordinary power, play a major role in shaping our attitude to the Fall:
High in front advanced,
The brandished sword of God before them blazed
Fierce as a comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapour as the Libyan air adust,
Began to parch that temperate clime; whereat
In either hand the hastening angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain; then disappeared.
They looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
                                                        (XII. 632-49)
The magnificence of these lines derives in large measure from their poising of hope against sorrow, of a forward perspective against nostalgia. The positives are certainly there, but we should recognize that the negative pull is very strong. The tears of Adam and Eve are wiped, providence is their guide, the world is all before them and they are again hand in hand, but even these positives are interwoven with regret: we remember an innocent hand-in-handedness and a time without tears, a time when reason within, not the remote and inscrutable providence, was their guide, and the exhilarating prospect of a world before them is clouded by our knowledge that the world traditionally partners the flesh and the devil in leading man into evil. On the other hand, the very last words of the poem, 'They . . . with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way', give us a series of negatives which do not call forth any positive counterweights: they emphasize error, reluctance, and desolation ('solitary' even manages half to deny 'hand in hand'). G. K. Hunter argues that, though in reflection on the whole poem we are bound to give assent to the felix culpa doctrine, it is difficult to feel the relevance of it as we read page by page, and states that 'our gratitude for the sad stilled humanity' of the final two lines of the poem 'must embody, if it is to affect us, the strong sense of present loss as well as the distant glimpse of redemption'.(7) This rightly stresses the negatives of the poem's conclusion.

The contrast with the ending of Langland's poem is striking. In Piers Plowman, as in Paradise Lost, we are presented with the beginning of the destruction of an enclosed place of goodness, Unity Holy Church, whose inhabitants have been corrupted, and the necessity of a journey into an uncertain, dangerous, and sinful world. Yet Langland's figure Conscience voices no nostalgia for Unity: there is no clinging to what will very shortly be the wreckage—the direction is unambiguously forwards:
'By Crist!' quod Conscience tho, 'I wole bicome a pilgrym,
And walken as wide as the world lasteth,
To seken Piers the Plowman, that Pryde myghte destruye,
And that freres hadde a fyndyng, that for nede flateren
And contrepledeth me, Conscience. Now Kynde me avenge,
And sende me hap and heele, til I have Piers the Plowman!'
And siththe he gradde after Grace, til I gan awake.
                                                        (xx. 381-7)(8)
This is determined and hopeful. It is, one suspects, a relief for Langland to be, as it were, on the road again. For journeying is something the poem rejoices in, giving its characters many journeys to undertake and frequently endorsing their undertaking them. It is, for instance, quite right for Patience to be on a pilgrimage and for Conscience to join him on it. Where Patience is going is not clear, but that does not matter, since what is important is the activity of journeying itself. Journeying can image openness to experience, the journey requiring one to give up security and expose oneself to God's will—Patience sets great store by Fiat voluntas tua. Certainly, Langland finds great value in the undergoing of the natural experiences of the fallen realm: Will's exposure to the ageing process in Passus xx leads to a vitally educative confrontation with God in his aspect as Kynde, who superintends the natural forces which wreak such destruction at the end of the poem:
And Elde . . . over myn heed yede,
And made me balled bifore and bare on the croune:
So harde he yede over myn heed it wol be sene evere

. . .

And hitte me under the ere—unnethe may Ich here.
He buffetted me aboute the mouth and bette out my wangteeth,
And gyved me in goutes—I may noght goon at large .

. . .

And as I seet in this sorwe, I saugh how Kynde passede,
And deeth drogh neigh me—for drede gan I quake,
And cryde to Kynde, 'Out of care me brynge!
Lo! how Elde the hoore hath me biseye:
Awreke me if youre wille be, for I wolde ben hennes!'

'If thow wolt be wroken, wend into Unitee,
And hold thee there evere, til I sende for thee;
And loke thow konne som craft er thow come thennes.'
'Counseille me, Kynde,' quod I, 'what craft be best to lerne?
'Lerne to love,' quod Kynde, 'and leef alle othere.'
                                                        (xx. 183-5, 190-2, 199-208)
And Will proceeds to Unity. In this we see how one of the negative aspects of fallenness contributes to salvation: physical decay incites one to cultivate the highest of spiritual fruits—love. So the suffering bound in with mutability has a positive role to play for Langland. For Milton in Paradise Lost that does not seem to be the case. There is no sense that the dissolution of the body prompts to anything spiritually good in Michael's gloomy catalogue of the privileges of old age:
This is old age; but then thou must outlive Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty, which will change To withered weak and gray; thy senses then Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forego, To what thou hast, and for the air of youth Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign A melancholy damp of cold and dry To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume The balm of life.                                                         (XI. 538-46)
And from what Michael says earlier it seems that fallen experience is something to be put up with rather than used creatively:
Ere thou from hence depart, know I am sent
To shew thee what shall come in future days
To thee and to thy offspring; good with bad
Expect to hear, supernal grace contending
With sinfulness of men; thereby to learn
True patience, and to temper joy with fear
And pious sorrow, equally inured
By moderation either state to bear,
Prosperous or adverse: so shalt thou lead
Safest thy life, and best prepared endure
Thy mortal passage when it comes.
                                                        (XI. 356-66)
In Piers Plowman the creative potential of immersion in post-lapsarian experience helps to explain Conscience's enthusiasm for the journey at the end of the poem. But that suffering should urge to love, though it permits an enthusiastic embracing of fallen experience, does not vindicate the Fall, for the disposition to charity is one that would have been ours had there been no Fall. Now, Langland certainly wants to endorse the doctrine of the felix culpa: Lovejoy noted his espousal of a common version of the idea in which the Fall is celebrated because it gives rise to Christ's Incarnation and his Redemption of man.(9) Langland's Repentance claims that God gave permission to sin:
And al for the beste, as I bileve, whatevere the Book telleth:
O felix culpa! O necessarium peccatum Ade!
For thorugh that synne thi sone sent was to this erthe
And bicam man of a maide mankynde to save—
And madest Thiself with Thi sone us synfulle yliche:
                                                        (v. 484-7)
But this is still not very clear or compelling (and the first line seems to recognize this) on the benefits accruing from the Fall: after all, unfallen man needed no Redeemer. Langland can offer better than this. First, there is the matter of knowledge. Here is one answer to the question of how sin is 'for the beste'. The Fall provides crucial knowledge for both man and God. In the debate between the Four Daughters of God in Passus XVIII Peace sets herself against Righteousness and Truth who argue that man is (rightly) doomed to damnation:
And I shal preie . . . hir peyne moot have ende,
And wo into wele mowe wenden at the laste.
For hadde thei wist of no wo, wele hadde thei noght knowen;
For no wight woot what wele is, that nevere wo suffrede,
Ne what is hoot hunger, that hadde nevere defaute.
If no nyght ne weere, no man, as I leve,
Sholde wire witterly what day is to meene.
Sholde nevere right riche man that lyveth in reste and ese
Wite what wo is, ne were the deeth of kynde.
So God that bigan al of his goode wille
Bicam man of a mayde mankynde to save,
And suffrede to be sold, to se the sorwe of deying,
The which unknytteth alle care, and comsynge is of reste.
For til modicum mete with us, I may it wel avowe,
Woot no wight, as I wene, what is ynough to mene.

Forthi God, of his goodnesse, the firste gome Adam,
Sette hym in solace and in sovereyn murthe;
And siththe he suffred hym synne, sorwe to feele—
To wite what wele was, kyndeliche to knowe it.
And after, God auntrede hymself and took Adames kynde
To wite what he hath suffred in thre sondry places,
Bothe in hevene and in erthe—and now til helle he thenketh,
To wite what alle wo is, that woot of alle joye.

So it shal fare by this folk: hir folie and hir synne
Shal lere hem what langour is, and lisse withouten ende.
Woot no wight what werre is ther that pees regneth,
Ne what is witterly wele til 'weylawey' hym teche.
                                                        (XVIII. 202-28)
A proper knowledge of joy requires the experience of its opposite that sin brings, and that very possibly goes for God as well as man. Certainly, God is envisaged making discoveries through his experience as man. Repentance had affirmed, like Peace, that God 'bicam man of a maide mankynde to save', but now we are permitted to see that God gains something from sin and the Incarnation that sin prompts. The Fall makes a positive difference at the highest point of the universe.

But it is not only in respect of his knowledge that God is affected. Christ's Incarnation, a free offering of God's mercy, once undergone seems to demand that that mercy shall continue to be exercised. As Christ explains:
And my mercy shal be shewed to manye of my bretheren;
For blood may suffre blood bothe hungry and acale,
Ac blood may noght se blood blede, but hym rewe . . .
Ac my rightwisnesse and right shal rulen al helle,
And mercy al mankynde bifore me in hevene.
For I were an unkynde kyng but I my kyn helpe—
And nameliche at swich a nede ther nedes help bihoveth:
Non intres in iudicium cum servo tuo.
                                                        (XVIII. 394-400a)
Repentance seemed to hint that God's relatedness to man might move him to mercy, when, having stressed how Christ took our nature, he went on:
And by so muche it semeth the sikerer we mowe
Bidde and biseche, if it be Thi wille
That art oure fader and oure brother—be merciable to us . . .
                                                        (v. 502-4)
But in the later passage there is no hint of deference to God's will: Christ's having become blood relative to man obliges him to be merciful towards mankind, since if he is not, he will be being unkynde, unnatural. The Fall, we might say, constrains the divine. The element of constraint is apparent a little earlier in Christ's speech when he announces that at the Day of Judgement
Fendes and fendekynes bifore me shul stande
And be at my biddyng wheresoevere be me liketh.
Ac to be merciable to man thanne, my kynde it asketh . . .
                                                        (XVIII. 374-6)(10)
Christ can do what he likes with the devils, but the kynde he shares with man ties his hands in dealing with them. Again, the Fall and what it sets in train really make a difference at the peak of the universe, forcing God in a certain direction.

Returning to Paradise Lost we may ask whether Milton offers anything similar to these suggestions of Langland's. What of knowledge?—the Fall, after all, is occasioned by the eating of the Fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. But the fruit's promise is essentially delusive. Adam comments:
O Eve, in evil hour thou didst give ear
To that false worm, of whomsoever taught
To counterfeit man's voice, true in our fall,
False in our promised rising; since our eyes,
Opened we find indeed, and find we know
Both good and evil, good lost, and evil got,
Bad fruit of knowledge, if this be to know . . .
                                                        (IX. 1067-73)
There is nothing very felix about this, and this pessimistic assessment of what is gained by the Fall in terms of knowledge is not elsewhere effectively gainsaid. Indeed the Father confirms it:
O sons, like one of us man is become
To know both good and evil, since his taste
Of that defended fruit; but let him boast
His knowledge of good lost, and evil got,
Happier, had it sufficed him to have known
Good by itself, and evil not at all.
                                                        (XI. 84-9)
There might be a certain naivety about the Paradisal couple, but they are fully aware of the joy they possess; one is not tempted to suggest that, like Langland's Adam, they do not know it 'kyndeliche'. It might be that they come to know, on surer evidence than they had before they fell, the enormous depth and reach of God's goodness, but since they knew already that God is all-loving and all-powerful, the force of the Fall here is only really to give occasion for an essentially redundant demonstration: there has never been any doubt that God's goodness is infinite and immense, and it should be no surprise to find testimony of this, as Adam does, in the working out of post-lapsarian history.

In so far as any positive, useful knowledge is gained by Adam and Eve, it could be described as an increment to an already existing awareness rather than something radically new, whereas in Piers Plowman the quality of the knowledge acquired through the Fall makes it something genuinely different: for this reason Langlandian knowledge is far more powerful as a compensation for the Fall than is Miltonic. The contrast between increment in Milton and innovation in Langland is apparent again if we consider what Adam says about the gains of the Fall: 'To God more glory, more good will to men / From God' (XII. 476-7; my italics). More of the same, it would seem, and since, in any case, we have always been aware that God's glory and his goodwill to men are both infinite, the consolation supposedly on offer here is perhaps a little threadbare. The Fall is much more convincingly portrayed as fortunate in Langland's version, where it makes a real difference to God, improving his knowledge and rendering his mercy towards mankind obligatory.

At one point the Son comes rather close to claiming that God benefits from the Fall:
See Father, what first fruits on earth are sprung
From thy implanted grace in man, these sighs
And prayers, which in this golden censer, mixed
With incense, I thy priest before thee bring,
Fruits of more pleasing savour from thy seed
Sown with contrition in his heart, than those
Which his own hand manuring all the trees
Of Paradise could have produced, ere fallen
From innocence.
                                                        (XI. 22-30)
But the passage ends offering a comparison of metaphorical, spiritual with literal, physical savours, and thus fails to say, what it had seemed to be about to affirm, that contrite post-lapsarian devotion is superior to that which man in his innocence could offer. It is perhaps significant that whilst Milton uses a form of words that contrasts the post- to the pre-Fall world to the advantage of the former, as if in obeisance to the felix culpa doctrine, he empties the comparison of paradoxical force and avoids really celebrating a felix culpa by setting against one another two unlikes.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps not entirely accurate to say that Milton's God is unaffected by the Fall. It can be held that the nature of the Son is permanently altered by the Incarnation he undergoes because of the Fall. The Father remarks:
  because in thee
Love hath abounded more than glory abounds,
Therefore thy humiliation shall exalt
With thee thy manhood also to this throne,
Here shalt thou sit incarnate, here shalt reign
Both God and man, Son both of God and man . . .
                                                        (III. 311-16)
There is some sort of gain here, but the elevation of the Son's manhood is presented as a personal reward for Christ, a recognition of services rendered, a kind of compensation for indignities undergone (the condescension of God in the Incarnation is what Milton stresses), rather than as something fraught with the most important implications for God's future dealings with mankind. As for the Father, he experiences the Incarnation personally not as positive and creative but as something of an inconvenience:
  well thou know'st how dear,
To me are all my works, nor man the least
Though last created, that for him I spare
Thee from my bosom and right hand, to save,
By losing thee awhile, the whole race lost.
                                                        (III. 276-80)
But the Father is neither changed nor challenged by the Incarnation. The root difficulty for Milton in the felix culpa doctrine may be his conception of God. The Father is presented as separate from the Son, and superior to him, and what happens to the Son in and through the Incarnation is not seen as having repercussions in the nature or procedures of the Father, who remains unaltered at the highest point of Milton's universe.(11)

It would appear, then, that Langland's God is much more closely implicated in sin and its effects than is Milton's. We have reviewed this implication as it finds expression in what happens to God, but it is also visible in God's relation to sin at its beginnings. In Paradise Lost much care is taken to lay the responsibility for sin at the door of creaturely free choice, as, for instance, when the Father demands
                whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall
. . .

They therefore as to right belonged,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Their maker, or their making, or their fate,
As if predestination overruled
Their will, disposed by absolute decree
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less proved certain unforeknown.
So without least impulse or shadow of fate,
Or aught by me immutably foreseen,
They trespass, authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formed them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves:
                                                        (III. 96-9, 111-25)
In Piers Plowman Langland does not try to get round the feeling that at root sin is God's responsibility. God could do away with sin now, if he so wished, and he need never have let it happen in the first place. In Passus XI Will sees sin in Kynde's (God's) realm of Myddelerthe, and, querulous as ever, asks Reason why he does not do something about it. Reason, after telling Will to mind his own business, asks:
Who suffreth moore than God? . . . no gome, as I leeve.
He myghte amende in a minute while al that mysstandeth,
Ac he suffreth for som mannes goode, and so is oure bettre.
                                                        (XI. 379-81)
Reason is not able to be more specific about the benefits of sin, but he goes on to insist that
  be a man fair or foul, it falleth noght to lakke
The shap ne the shaft that God shoop hymselve;
For al that he wrought was wel ydo, as Holy Writ witnesseth:
Et vidit Deus cuncta que fecerat, et erant valde bona.
                                                        (XI. 394-6a)
and that these remarks bear implication for sin is made plain when Reason suggests that by his very nature man has a propensity to commit sin:
For man was maad of swich a matere he may noght wel asterte
That som tyme hym bitit to folwen his kynde.
Caton acordeth therwith—Nemo sine crimine vivit!
                                                        (XI. 400-2)
It is clear enough here that, as Creator, God is in a strong sense responsible for sin, but this is made even more explicit in the C-Text when Ymaginatif reviews the vision of Myddelerthe:
Of goed and of wykke Kynde was be furste,
Sey hit and soffred hit and saide hit be sholde.
Dixit et facta sunt. Ac why a wolde bat wykke were, y wene and I leue
Was neuere man vppon molde bat myhte hit aspie.
                                                        (C xiv. 164-7)
In Paradise Lost we have the sense that the best is being made of a bad job: God steps in to clear up the mess of sin once it has happened (with his consent, indeed, but hardly as part of his original purpose): in Piers Plowman sin does not seem so much of an intrusion, appearing rather as part of the plan from the beginning—we would be justified in saying that God actually wills the mess.

The different ways in which God is implicated in sin in Piers Plowman make it unsurprising that sin in that poem should be viewed without reservation as something ultimately positive, something fraught with possibilities, something creative. But in Paradise Lost the distance Milton sets between God and sin compels us to see sin as essentially negative: transgression is never wholeheartedly celebrated as progression. This understanding of sin seems consonant with Milton's stress on obedience, submission to restraint and limit. It could be argued that obedience enjoys a primacy in Milton's felt sense of things even over love. For though obedience to God can be seen as an expression of love (see VII. 538-9), frequently when the relations of creatures to God are discussed the emphasis falls on obedience.(12) Certainly love for man is properly subordinate to obedience to God: the Son's 'meek aspect'
          breathed immortal love
To mortal men, above which only shone
Filial obedience . . .
                                                        (III. 267-9)
It is clear, in any case, that in the idea of obedience Milton finds a satisfactory focus for his vision of the good life. In Piers Plowman the status of obedience is not so secure. Langland abandons the attempt to see the good life as a matter of obeying Truth's commands: he abandons the pilgrimage to Truth as an image of the good life and with it Truth as a name for God the Father, perhaps preferring to its connotations of fulfilment of contract those attaching to the name Kynde—love, naturalness.(13) More specifically, the end of the Samaritan's speech in Passus XVII in a sense elevates love over obedience. Here we are told that certain sins, those of the flesh and impatience in bearing sickness, do not disqualify the sinner from receiving God's grace—one can disobey God in these areas and find both excuses and forgiveness (XVII. 330—43), but unkyndenesse, unnatural unlovingness, which 'quencheth' God's mercy (XVII. 345), must at all costs be avoided:
  unkyndenesse is the contrarie of alle kynnes reson;
For ther nys sik ne sory, ne noon so muche wrecche
That he ne may lovye, and hym like, and lene of his herte
Good wille, good word&#151bothe wisshen and wilnen
Alle manere men mercy and foryifnesse,
And lovye hem lik hymself, and his lif amende.
                                                        (XVII. 346-51)
The all-important moral activity here is presented not as a matter of reining oneself in within limits defined by pre-existing commands, but as an easy self-giving which is in accordance with what is natural to humanity, fallen though it be. Adam's last speech in Paradise Lost registers regretfully his transgression of limit in pursuit of knowledge—'Beyond which was my folly to aspire' (XII. 560)—whilst his statement of ethical imperatives gives obedience pride of place, and even love of God is a fear-filled activity, one conditioned by the risk of transgression:
Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God . . .
                                                        (XII. 561—2)(14)
It is not clear that Langland could affirm unequivocally with Adam, 'Henceforth I learn that to obey is best', since for him love to mortal man can compensate for failures of filial obedience. In the face of this love the significance of transgression dwindles, since the transgressor will be saved if he loves. Such a view harmonizes well with a recognition of the creative possibilities of sin.

The all-importance of obedience in Paradise Lost ties in with the exaltation of justice and of God's original dispensation. Although God affirms that 'mercy first and last shall brightest shine' (III. 134), the ground of his activity in respect of man's Fall is
Die he or justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
                                                        (III. 210-12)
The ineluctable demands of justice have to be met. In Passus XVIII of Piers Plowman, in many ways the climactic Passus of the poem, the status of justice is less secure. Like Milton, Langland deploys the idea of a vicarious payment by Christ as satisfaction for man's wrongdoing. But the circumstances in which amends are made allow us to entertain the thought that things are not exactly running according to justice. Christ argues that his soul is a fair exchange for 'alle synfulle soules' (XVIII. 329):
Ergo soule shal soule quyte and synne to synne wende,
And al that man hath mysdo, I, man, wole amende it.
Membre for membre [was amendes by the Olde Lawe],
And lif for lif also—and by that lawe I clayme
Adam and al his issue at my wille herafter.
And that deeth in hem fordide, my deeth shal releve,
And bothe quyke and quyte that queynt was thorugh synne;
And that grace gile destruye, good feith it asketh.
So leve it noght, Lucifer, ayein the lawe I fecche hem,
But by right and by reson raunsone here my liges:
Non veni solvere legem set adimplere.
                                                        (XVIII. 341-50a)
The fair exchange is a means of fulfilling the demand of 'good feith' that the guile used by the devil in seizing the souls of mankind in the first place shall be 'destruyed', brought to nothing. But there is a further fairness, if one can call it that, in that the act of grace which 'destruyes' the devil's guile pays out that guile by being itself guileful:
'With gile thow hem gete, ageyn alle reson.
For in my paleis, Paradis, in persone of an addre,
Falsliche thow fettest there thyng that I lovede.
'Thus ylik a lusard with a lady visage,
Thefliche thow me robbedest; the Olde Lawe graunteth
That gilours be begiled—and that is good reson:
Dentem pro dente et oculum pro oculo.'
                                                        (XVIII. 335-41a)
Christ's guile involves his taking on the likeness of man, as the devil took on the likeness of the 'lusard':
Thow fettest myne in my place ayeins alle reson—
Falsliche and felonliche; good feith me it taughte,
To recovere hem thorugh raunsoun, and by no reson ellis,
So that with gile thow gete, thorugh grace it is ywonne.
Thow, Lucifer, in liknesse of a luther addere
Getest bi gile tho that God lovede;
And I, in liknesse of a leode, that Lord am of hevene,
Graciousliche thi gile have quyt—go gile ayein gile!
                                                        (XVIII. 351-8)
But the superficial guile of the disguise of the King of heaven as a man is associated with a deeper guile: no genuine ransom has been offered, since the devils cannot keep Christ's soul—is this, after all, a fair exchange? I suspect we should take Christ's discourse about the 'quyting' of debt in 'good feith' as tongue-in-cheek: he teases the devils with a rehearsal of how he has technically fulfilled the Old Law in what is actually an act of high fraudulence—a fraud appropriately rendered, of course, to the father of fraud, whose original fraud means, as Gobelyn sees (XVIII. 293), that he has no 'trewe title' to the souls of man.

However, if the devil deserves no more than fraud, this does not mean that justice has been done in respect of man. Earlier in Passus XVIII the four daughters of God—Righteousness, Truth, Mercy, and Peace—have disputed over whether mankind will be saved. Righteousness affirms that
At the bigynnyng God gaf the doom hymselve—
That Adam and Eve and alle that hem suwede
Sholden deye downrighte, and dwelle in peyne after(15)
If that thei touchede a tree and of the fruyt eten.
                                                        (XVIII. 190-3)
Truth also thinks that mankind is doomed to eternal damnation (XVIII. 142-9a), whilst Mercy and Peace cannot deny the force of what their sisters say, though they 'hope' and 'preie' that it will turn out otherwise (XVIII. 151, 202-3). Christ later says that he did not promise mankind hell for ever (XVIII. 333), but two things are to be noted about this. First, God's purposes are not made apparent at the beginning; the original 'doom' is not strongly determinative—indeed what seemed to be its implications turn out not to be what happens. Secondly, Righteousness is presumably to be taken as voicing what would be appropriate were righteousness to operate in respect of mankind's ultimate fate. She may be wrong in assuming that God had doomed man to 'the deeth that is withouten ende' (XVIII. 379) in his original judgement, but her standing for eternal damnation seems to imply that such damnation is what righteousness requires—and that both for the sin of Adam, about which Righteousness speaks directly, and for the sins of his descendants to which Christ later turns. Indeed, in that later part of his speech Christ indicates that at the Day of Judgement 'alle wikked' (and that means all mankind) do in fact stand under sentence of death—that is, the second death of eternal damnation—a sentence passed righteously on sinners, we may take it, in accordance with God's own legislation:(16)
It is noght used on erthe to hangen a feloun
Ofter than ones, though he were a tretour.
And if the kyng of that kyngdom come in that tyme
There the feloun thole scholde deeth other juwise,
Lawe wolde he yeve hym lif, and he loked on hym.
And I that am kyng of kynges shal come swich a tyme
There doom to the deth dampneth alle wikked;
And if lawe wole I loke on hem, it lith in my grace
Wheither thei deye or deye noght for that thei diden ille.

Be it any thyng abought,(17) the boldnesse of hir synnes,
I may do mercy thorugh rightwisnesse, and alle my wordes trewe.
                                                        (XVIII. 380-90)
The analogies here seem to establish that it is a rather particular kind of righteousness through which mercy may be done and the original righteous determination of the law turned aside. Adherence to those laws which enshrine the right to escape due punishment when, fortuitously, the hanging rope breaks or the king chances upon the scene may fulfil a legalistic righteousness, but we may well feel that righteousness in the fullest sense is hardly shaping the action. In these instances, as apparently with God's mercy, a condemned criminal escapes his just punishment without there being any compensatory act to satisfy the claims of justice. Here not only does the original judgement, the judgement of righteousness and justice, fail to determine man's ultimate destiny (compare the 'doom' on Adam and Eve), but it is actually overridden by God's grace.(18)

There are, then, in Piers Plowman some questions regarding the justice of man's salvation. They arise, I think, because Langland moves towards seeing mercy as the primary grounding of God's activity in respect of man. In fact, ultimately the accommodation of his righteousness as a principle of action is apparently achieved quite outside the human sphere:
Ac my rightwisnesse and right shal rulen al helle,
And mercy al mankynde bifore me in hevene.
                                                        (XVIII. 397-8)
Passus XVIII dramatizes the moment when the Old Law of justice and retribution gives way to the New Law of forgiveness. It is reversal, turning of the tables, that Langland wants to stress, and as a result he gives the impression that the rules established at the beginning are in the end rather unimportant in the shaping of man's destiny. In Paradise Lost, on the other hand, where there is nothing to parallel the suspending of the death penalty by God's grace, the demands of the original promulgation are more potent. This seems entirely appropriate in a poem which celebrates obedience and which sees sin as essentially transgressive and negative, rather than positive and purposive.

The potency of the original rules in Paradise Lost links with Milton's stress on obedience to God, and both can be seen as expressions of a nostalgia for the unfallen: there is a turning backwards and a reaching towards that which is unconditioned by sin. We have already remarked on other manifestations of this nostalgia, and it is indeed dominant in Paradise Lost. Even the forwards directions with which Milton presents us are seen in terms of return to what has been—a regaining of the blissful seat, restoration (and we have seen how mere restoration is not enough to make the Fall fortunate):
              [Jesus] shall quell
The adversary serpent, and bring back
Through the world's wilderness long wandered man
Safe to eternal paradise of rest.
                                                        (XII. 311-14)
The 'back' here is very telling, as is the use of 'paradise' rather than some other term for the place of saved souls. Again, the best man can expect as he wanders the world is defined through what he has lost—'A paradise within thee, happier far' (XII. 587), where the positive 'happier far' competes with the nostalgia of the reference to paradise, and also poignantly recalls how Satan saw Adam and Eve 'Imparadised in one another's arms' in a 'happier Eden' (IV. 506-7)—a superior inner paradise is not something only available because of the Fall (I take it that what Satan sees here is the outward sign of a perfect love, a spiritual condition whose satisfactions far transcend those of the geographical paradise). Furthermore, the end of things is envisaged as a heightened recapitulation of what Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden. The Son will come in glory to judge man and to
                                                reward
His faithful, and receive them into bliss,
Whether in heaven or earth, for then the earth
Shall all be paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days.
                                                        (XII. 461-5)
Nostalgia notwithstanding, at least here, it might be said, there is a clear sense that things will be better than they were originally. But the impact of this as an affirmation of the felix culpa is not as great as it might be: first, we are once more confronted with increment rather than innovation (we do not seem to be dealing with a genuinely new heaven and new earth); secondly, it is difficult to imagine a happiness greater than that granted Adam and Eve in the original paradise (pre-Satan); thirdly, and most tellingly, no causal connections are made out between the increased happiness and sin: God could have granted it to unfallen man, for all that we can see. Michael's assertion at XII. 461 ff. does not render illegitimate the tentativeness about the felix culpa in Adam's response (469 ff.).

Intense awareness of loss suffuses Paradise Lost and tends to overwhelm any sense of the possibilities of fallen existence. This commitment to the perfect past may have its effect on the shape and structure of Milton's poem, as Langland's enthusiasm for fallenness perhaps affects the design of his work. Paradise Lost is a beautifully ordered structure which we could see as imitative of the unfallen, whereas Langland's poem does not seek to be a compensatory image of original order, but in the chaos which sometimes engulfs it, in its breakdowns and failures, fully confesses its immersion in fallenness.(19) The symmetry of Paradise Lost reinforces the centrality of the image at the poem's mid-point. Here Messiah ascends his chariot to cast the evil angels out of heaven—to separate unequivocally good from evil. In this gesture at the centre of the poem(20) one can perhaps see a yearning for the moral simplicity and moral power denied us by the Fall. Langland is not interested in indulging such yearnings, rather insisting on the perplexedness of moral endeavour, and moving remorselessly away from points of achieved moral vision in the poem to plunge the reader (and, one suspects, the writer too) once again into the uncertainties of moral exploration—and in these processes the poem enacts in an aesthetic realm the obligations of moral living in the world outside the poem. The realms of art and of fallen existence lie closer together than is the case with Paradise Lost. Thus, at the end of Piers Plowman Conscience's unhesitant embracing of the search for Piers beyond the limits of the poem constitutes an invitation to us to leave the poem behind and get on with our own search for goodness, whilst Paradise Lost makes many backward gestures which invite us back into the poem and the lost paradise it has depicted. In Paradise Lost strenuous moral endeavour is perhaps no more solicited than is indulgence in an elegiac mood of regret for the unfallen.

If some of the energies of Milton's poem invite us to turn away from fallenness, the work also seems to shy away from its own involvement in fallenness. Besides the imitation of unfallenness for which its order perhaps strives, we find Milton using the classical convention of invocation of the Muse in such a way as to suggest that the true author of the poem is, or at least ought to be, not a fallen human being but the divine, employing Milton as its mouthpiece. This sense seems strongest in the invocation in Book IX where Milton speaks of his
  celestial patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated verse:
                                                        (IX. 21-4)
and acknowledges that poetic failure is likely 'if all be mine, / Not hers who brings it nightly to my ear' (IX. 46-7). Milton is here writing as if the highest he can hope for his poem is that it should be the accurate record of divine dictation, the product of an obedient submission to antecedent authority. Poetic activity is represented as a kind of backward-reference to the perfection of a divine communication. On the other hand, Langland, perhaps exemplifying the openness to what may come which he commends in his character Patience, often does not appear to know where his poem is going, and, though the poem is presented as a record of dreams which may even be inspired by God,(21) what is seen in the dreams often needs further extension, elucidation, or exploration. Therefore we experience the poem as a continuing un'easy' struggle to apprehend new meaning, rather than as a presentation of an account, already, as it were, stabilized in the mind of the Heavenly Muse. As we have seen, the fracturedness of Piers Plowman makes it very obviously a thoroughly human work. But it is through collapse and frustration that the poem builds; only by rejecting the structures and formulations at which it from time to time arrives in its search for understanding, and by resisting temptations to premature rest can it move forward to its more comprehensive achievement (which appropriately remains unconsummated, unfinalized, as the poem ends in its preferred mode of journey). And the presence of mistakes and false directions is an important facet of the achievement of the poem, enriching its vision and enhancing its power. There is no need, in the end, for Langland to worry, as Milton does in the invocations of Paradise Lost, about getting things wrong. The development of Piers Plowman seems to require error, and the developed poem needs that error still. Culpa here is unmistakeably felix, as is appropriate in a poem which explicitly celebrates the creative aspects of the fallen condition.

Milton makes as if to detach his poem from the fallen world by suggesting that God has a large hand in its composition, and he asserts the greatness of his enterprise. In contrast, Langland compromises his poem by offering the view that it is a waste of time, the redundant product of an obstinate and misguided obsessive. Ymaginatif rebukes Will for writing poetry:
  'thow medlest thee with makynges—and myghtest go seye thi Sauter,
And bidde for hem that yyveth thee breed; for ther are bokes ynowe
To telle men what Dowel is, Dobet and Dobest bothe. . .'

I seigh wel that he seide me sooth and, somwhat me to excuse, Seide. . .
                                                        (XII. 16-18, 20-1)
That Will acknowledges the force of what Ymaginatif says suggests that Langland himself may feel that his poem is a sinful self-indulgence. Yet for Will backward-reference to earlier authorities is not sufficient:
Ac if ther were any wight that wolde me telle
What were Dowel and Dobet and Dobest at the laste,
Wolde I nevere do werk, but wende to holi chirche
And there bidde my bedes but whan ich ete or slepe.
                                                        (XII. 25-8)
Will needs to make his own explorations. This need is a tribute to the compelling quality not of perfection but of the perplexed, to the excitement of the fallen—and we remember that God 'auntrede hymself' to explore fallenness. If Langland is here questioning his exploratory engagement with the fallen, that he goes on writing his poem suggests that such questioning is unable to oust the feeling that his culpa, if culpa it be, bids fair to be felix, is a means, perhaps, to final felicitas.(22)



  1. This article was first published in ELH 4 (1937). I refer to it, however, as it appears in A. O. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore, Md., 1948), 277-95.

  2. Lovejoy, ibid. 293-4, notes that Milton does not bring out the 'strangest aspect of the paradox' as pointedly as he might. I suspect this has to do with a lack of complete conviction in Milton's assent to the felix culpa doctrine.

  3. Ibid. 295.

  4. Quotations from Paradise Lost are taken from The Poems of John Milton, ed. J. Carey and A. Fowler (London, 1968).

  5. Cited by Lovejoy, Essays, 292 and quoted here from R. T. Davies (ed.), Medieval English Lyrics (London, 1963), 162.

  6. Cited by Lovejoy, Essays, 285. The passage comes from the Exultet hymn in the Liturgy for Holy Saturday.

  7. G. K. Hunter, Paradise Lost (London, 1980), 24-5.

  8. Piers Plowman quotations are taken from the editions of the B-Text by A. V. C. Schmidt (London, rev. 1987) and of the C-Text by Derek Pearsall (London, 1978). All quotations are from the B-Text unless otherwise stated.

  9. Lovejoy, Essays, 291.

  10. The continuation here seems to require that men be brothers to Christ not only 'in blood' but also 'in baptisme', if they are to avoid damnation. It may be that Langland was alarmed by the audacity of what he has Christ say, for it seems, unqualified, to point towards universal salvation for men. Alarmed or not, Langland offers no qualification in the later passage at XVIII. 397-400a.

  11. Though she gives an account of the Incarnation in which the Father and the Son are presented as separate, with the Father superior to the Son, Langland's contemporary, Julian of Norwich, 'challenges' the Father by having the Son return from the Incarnation clad in a garment superior in beauty to that worn by the Father. See A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. E. Colledge and J. Walsh (Toronto, 1978), 513-45, esp. p. 543.

  12. See e.g. the Father's speech at III. 80 ff., the interchange between Raphael and Adam at v. 496 ff. (where, though free service is said to arise out of love, the issue is obedience), and the Son's presentation of the angels' sin as a failure of obedience to God (VI. 736-41), a passage in which he states that obedience to God is 'happiness entire' (VI. 741).

  13. Though Langland lets drop certain prominent aspects of his treatment of the idea of truth, he makes important use of the idea at the end of PP where he associates the text of Piers' Pardon, Redde quod debes, with truth (see xix. 195). Indeed, that text appears to envisage the good moral life in contractual terms. However, what Conscience, 'the comune', and the brewer say at XIX. 389-400 suggests that Redde quod debes essentially enjoins forgiveness of others—as does Spiritus Iusticie. The text of the Pardon accommodates the ideas of contract, truth, and justice, but Langland's glossing of that text through Conscience makes it clear that the fundamental moral desiderata for man enshrined in it are mercy and love, just as love and mercy are the grounds of God's activity in respect of man. On Redde quod debes see further R. W. Frank, Jr., Piers Plowman and the Scheme of Salvation (New Haven, Conn., 1957), 107-9, and H. White, Nature and Salvation in Piers Plowman (Cambridge, 1988), 110-11.

  14. Though fear of God is appropriate before the Fall (VIII. 168), being presumably 'filial' rather than 'servile' (see XII. 305-6), I doubt fear in this speech is released entirely from negative connotations to mean simply proper awe and reverence.

  15. The C-Text reads 'euere' for 'after' (C xx. 198).

  16. The text of the Pardon of Passus VII tells us that those who have done ill will go into eternal fire (VII. 110b). The inevitability of sin for all men is remarked at xi. 398-402, the end of Reason's reply to the Dreamer's complaint that Reason fails to 'sewe' 'man and his make, that no mysfeet hem folwe' (XI. 374). That Langland thinks of all men as 'wikked', as 'felouns', at XVIII. 380 ff. is indicated by his affirmation that God's mercy, rather than his 'rightwisnesse and right', will rule all mankind, and the citation of Psalm 142:2 'Non intres in iudicium cum servo tuo', words which are followed in the Vulgate by 'quia non iustificabitur in conspectu tuo omnis vivens'.

  17. Schmidt glosses this phrase 'should there be any circumstance to mitigate the gravity of their sins'. Pearsall takes it as referring to Christ's redemptive activity. I suspect, however, that it refers to the repentance of the sinner, as R. A. Waldron suggests in 'Langland's Originality: The Christ-Knight and the Harrowing of Hell', in G. Kratzmann and J. Simpson (edd.), Medieval English Religious and Ethical Literature: Essays in Honour of G. H. Russell (Cambridge, 1986), 80. The point is not that God is able to take account of all circumstances so as to deliver a perfectly just judgement, but that any degree of penitence in the sinner ('be it any thyng abought') elicits God's gift of grace. (Waldron's understanding accommodates the 'boldnesse' of the sins rather better than Pearsall's: the presumption of sin is 'quyted' by the humility of the repentant sinner.)

  18. Whereas the laws of the human realm in the XVIII. 380-90 passage constrain to mercy, law as it relates to God only permits mercy. Waldron, ibid. 80, is wrong to claim, on the strength of the analogy with the earthly law, that God's exercise of mercy is 'subsumed under justice'. Analogy with the human realm is not exact, and God is not bound in law to give grace. (Later in the Passus Langland suggests that God is naturally obliged by the humanity he shares with man to give him mercy.)

  19. This is not to deny that Milton's poem may in fact be all the more powerful for its actual (inevitable) immersion in fallenness, or even that Milton may use such immersion deliberately to creative ends, but to assert that, whatever else may happen, a nostalgic reaching after the perfect leaves its mark on Paradise Lost.

  20. On the centrality of this and on the symmetry of Paradise Lost see Alastair Fowler's introd. to the poem in Poems of Milton, 440-3.

  21. See, for example, VII. 144 ff.

  22. I should like to thank Jan Gorak, Tim Trengove-Jones, Malcolm Godden, Dan Jacobson, and Carl Schmidt, who all read and commented helpfully on versions of this piece.



  23. COPYRIGHT 1994 Oxford University Press (UK)
 




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