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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIII. Prosody from Chaucer to Spenser

§ 2. Piers Plowman

The contemporary existence of such poets as Chaucer, Gower and whosoever may have written the Piers Plowman poems would be remarkable in any literature, at any time and from any point of view. In relation to English prosody it points, formulates, illuminates the lesson which ought to be learnt, in a manner which makes it surprising that this lesson should ever have been mistaken. The “foreign” element—the tendency to strict syllabic uniformity of the line and to further uniformity in its metrical subdivisions—receives special, and, for a long time, almost final, expression in the hands of Gower. The “native” reaction to alliterative accentual rhythm finds its greatest exposition—exposition which seems to disdain formally all transaction with metre and rime, though it cannot altogether avoid metrical colour—in the lines of Piers Plowman. And the middle way—the continuation of the process which has produced Middle English prosody out of the shaping of the Old English lump by the pressure of the Franco-Latin mould—is trodden by the greatest of the three, with results that show him to be the greatest. The verse of Piers Plowman does all that it can with the method—it makes it clear that no other knight on any other day of the tournament is likely to do better on that side—but it also shows the limits of the method and the weakness of the side itself. Gower does not quite do this, partly because he is weaker, and partly because he has a better instrument—but he shows that this instrument itself needs improvement. Chaucer shows, not only that he is best of all, not only that his instrument is better than the others, but that this instrument, good as it is, has not done nearly all that it can do—that there is infinite future in it. He experiments until he achieves; but his achievement still leaves room for further experiment.