Self-reflective gestures in literature are often considered a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Often, though, such expressions are purely descriptive, implying elements of a more or less stable aesthetic or literary theory; those which question the stability of the speaking subject itself or the object it considers are likely to be labeled post-modern or deconstructive. Yet such references regularly recur in texts from all ages. In two medieval poems, William Langland’s celebrated epic-length masterwork called Piers Plowman and the enigmatic lyric about the man in the moon, such passages provide striking and critical moments for the poems’ narratives and themes.
For all the obvious differences, “Mon in the mone stond and strit” has many affinities to Piers Plowman: colloquialism, the alliterative hemistichic line, criticism of friars, and the combination of rough realism (including lower-class settings) with suggestions of profound mystery are among the elements common to both poems. In each the narrative voice asserts itself in the action of the pieces, an involvement singularly complicated by its periodic nature and the shape-shifting elusiveness of the characters.
In Piers Plowman such instability is a fundamental and fruitful strategy throughout to such an extent that it can scarcely bear summarizing here. It must suffice in general to say that the confusion or mystic identification of Langland, the dreamer, Piers, St. Peter, and Christ is developed with great drama and subtlety. The process is, I think, more complex in each of the poem's successive editions and is prominent in many of the most striking and significant passages. It is altogether appropriate in terms of the specifically Christian myth with which Langland is working: the worshipper must imitate Christ, must indeed in some sense become Christ. It also functions, though, to remind the reader that the entire narrative is a kind of grand psychomachia enacted within the speaker’s soul or subjectivity. One unforgettable instance of self-reflexive assertion of the extraordinary narrative voice is in B XV 148 which encodes Langland’s name in the poem at just that critical point when, having found Dowel he is being guided toward his search for Dobet which will culminate in the visions of Christ. (In this same passus is found the daring line “Petrus, id est Christus,” exactly the sort of formulation that brought Meister Eckhart before the inquisitors.)
Though all commentators agree that “Mon in the mone stond and strit” is a mysterious text throughout, there can be no doubt that a decisive shift occurs in line 25. Prior to this the poem had consisted of description of the figure of the man in the moon along rather conventional lines, if here unusually elaborate. In line 25 the speaker suddenly turns from the relative detachment of this description and enters the poem with an imperative — the poem, indeed, goes on almost to dissolve in exclamation by its end. What had begun with a clear separation of subject and object becomes somewhat foggy in its distinctions of the mon, the hayward, the baily, the speaker, and Hubert (?) as meaning retreats into obscurity. The poem has been read in an unusual variety of ways. I‘m not sure how to distribute significance among such possibilities as the moon’s banished peasant as social commentary, an Anglified version of the Sabbath stickgatherer of Numbers, the pledge-ower (reminiscent of Walther’s “Fro welt ir suit dem wirte sagen”) , and a number of other competing associations. It is, at any rate, clear that what opens the poem is the entry of the speaker.
What had seemed a simple if imaginative and lengthy elaborated description of images that one may see in the moon is tossed into mystery when, in the third stanza, the celestial figure is seen in a former career, as a farm worker accused of crime. That move is suddenly succeeded by the opening of the fourth stanza where the persona leaps into second person, addressing the moon-man, summoning him down to earth. A bathetic invocation indeed, but the diction descends from there until the last four lines dissolve in exclamation. For the conclusion the speaker assumes the role of dunce who cannot understand why the moon cannot come to join him.
In both poems the subject and object are destabilized. The grand scheme of Langland’s poem depends on the sort of religious mystery in which higher and lower are identified with a sort of verbal spell. The promise of Christianity is that things are not as they seem. In reading the book of nature, every earthly phenomenon contains a host of allegorical potential, and the ordinary worshipper may aspire to blessedness. In “Mon in the mone stond and strit” the poem’s conundrums merely make it “writerly,” in Barthe’s term. Who is speaking, to whom, and what about is suspended every bit as much as in Melville’s The Confidence Man or Donald Barthelme. The reader returns to some works repeatedly because they offer such an elegant statement of a clear feeling or conviction and to others because, on the other hand, unable to formulate such conviction convincingly, they simply beckon from beyond in a way that can seem more familiar than the sharpest verisimilitude.