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!'Full of doubt I stand': this is not the unqualified enthusiasm of 'Adam lay ibounden', for instance:
Blissed be the timeor, 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 poemLovejoy 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 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 wreckagethe direction is unambiguously forwards:
'By Crist!' quod Conscience tho, 'I wole bicome a pilgrym,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 willPatience 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 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 fruitslove. 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 sentIn 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: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,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;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 moweBut 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 standeChrist 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 earThere 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 becomeThere 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 sprungBut 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 theeThere 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,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?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.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 lakkeand 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 asterteIt 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,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 beginningwe 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 loveIt 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 Kyndelove, 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 graceone can disobey God in these areas and find both excuses and forgiveness (XVII. 33043), 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;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,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 himThe 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,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.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 resonBut 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 soulis 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 fraudulencea 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 GodRighteousness, Truth, Mercy, and Peacehave disputed over whether mankind will be saved. Righteousness affirms that
At the bigynnyng God gaf the doom hymselveTruth 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 determinativeindeed 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 requiresand 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 deaththat is, the second death of eternal damnationa 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 felounThe 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,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 beena regaining of the blissful seat, restoration (and we have seen how mere restoration is not enough to make the Fall fortunate):
[Jesus] shall quellThe '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
rewardNostalgia 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 heavento 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 explorationand 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 deignsand 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 makyngesand myghtest go seye thi Sauter,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 telleWill 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 fallenand 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)
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