John Gower (c.1330–October 1408) was an English poet who is remembered primarily for three major works, the Speculum Meditantis, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis, three long poems written in French, Latin, and English respectively. Gower's reputation as a poet has not been nearly as strong as his close contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, even though the two collaborated quite closely and wrote in rather similar styles. Both were among the earliest poets to write in Middle English, a language which, prior to then, had been thought too vulgar to be capable of literary merit. Like Chaucer, Gower wrote in a style deeply influenced by the Latin and European classics, and he helped to introduce a number of new poetic techniques to the English-speaking world. His primary medium was allegory. Allegory in the Middle Ages served to synthesize ancient and pagan traditions to the Biblical tradition. Gower uses allegory as a means of reflecting on the problems of the church, state and the life of the commoners as well as to examine the spiritual problems and temptations that keep one from realizing the ideals of religion.
Gower was very popular in his own times, and his influence on the fifteenth-century in particular is reckoned to be quite large. Nonetheless, with the passing centuries, he was criticized for being too moralizing and too didactic, and he eventually fell into almost complete obscurity. Only in recent decades has scholarship on Gower begun to re-emerge, and, although his poetry is somewhat antiquated, many have begun to appreciate its finer touches. Gower's mastery for writing verse in three languages is apparent in the linguistic skill of his masterwork, the Confessio Amantis, and, if nothing else, he is credited with expanding the vocabulary of Middle English substantially. Gower's influence on the poets of fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries is considerable, and although he has been overshadowed by Chaucer, his works are nevertheless of the highest quality.
Few details are known of Gower's early life. He was probably born to an affluent family from Kent in Southeast England, and may have been a landowner. It is thought that he practiced law in or around London, due to his familiarity with London life expressed in his poetry.
While in London, Gower became closely associated with the nobility of his day. He was apparently personally acquainted with Richard II: in the prologue of the first edition of the Confessio Amantis, (The Lover's Confession) he tells how the king, chancing to meet him on the Thames (probably circa 1385), invited him aboard the royal barge, and that their conversation then resulted in a commission for the work that would become the Confessio Amantis. Later in life his allegiance switched to the side of the future Henry IV, to whom later editions of the Confessio Amantis were dedicated.
Gower's friendship with Chaucer is also well-documented. When Chaucer was sent as a diplomat to Italy in 1378, Gower was one of the men to whom he gave power of attorney over his affairs in England. The two poets also paid one another compliments in their verse: Chaucer dedicated his Troilus and Criseyde in part to "moral Gower," and Gower reciprocated by placing a speech in praise of Chaucer in the mouth of Venus at the end of the Confessio Amantis.
Towards the end of his life, he took up residence in rooms provided by the Priory of Saint Mary Overeys, now Southwark Cathedral. In 1398, while living there, he married, probably for the second time. His wife, Agnes Groundolf, was to survive him. In his last years, and possibly as early as 1400, he became blind.
After his death in 1408, Gower was interred in the Priory church where he had lived, which still stands today.
Gower's verse is by turns religious, political, historical, and moral—though he has been narrowly defined as "moral Gower" ever since Chaucer graced him with the epithet. Ovid (43 - 17 B.C.E.) was perhaps the greatest single influence on his poetry; and like the Latin master, Gower's poetry tends towards the didactic. His primary mode is allegory, although he shies away from sustained abstractions in favor of the plainer style of poets such as Langland.
His earliest works were probably ballads in the Anglo-Norman language, which are not known to have survived. The first work to have survived is in the same language, the Speculum Meditantis, also known by the French title Mirour de l'Omme, a poem of just under 30,000 lines, containing a dense exposition of religion and morality. The poem is notable for its style as one of the first poems in Middle English to employ a regular stanza form rather than simple rhyming couplets. The highly allegorical work begins with a description of the devil's marriage to the "seven daughters of sin," followed by a similar passage describing the marriage of Reason to the seven virtues. The poem then veers into a fierce denunciation of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, and suddenly ends on a note of relief with a very long hymn to the Virgin Mary.
Gower's second major work, the Vox Clamantis, (the Voice of one crying out) was written in Latin: it takes as its subject the state of England, and incorporates commentary on the Peasants' Revolt that occurred during the composition of the poem. Gower strongly takes the side of the aristocracy, and appears to have admired the tactics Richard II used to suppress the revolt. The poem is essentially instructional in nature, and reflects on the three estates of the realm—the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners—condemning each in turn and providing lengthy instruction on what each estate must do in order to preserve the integrity of English society.
Gower's third work is the Confessio Amantis, a 30,000-line poem in Middle English, which makes use of the structure of a Christian confession (presented allegorically as a confession of sins against Love) as a frame story within which a multitude of individual tales are told. Like his previous works, the theme is very much morality, even where the stories themselves have a tendency to describe rather immoral behavior.
In later years Gower wrote a number of minor works in all three languages: the Cinkante Ballades, (Fifty Ballads) a series of ballades on straightforwardly romantic subjects, and several poems addressed to the new monarch Henry IV—in return for which he was granted a pension, in the form of an annual allowance of wine.
Gower's poetry has had a mixed critical reception. In the fifteenth century, he was generally regarded alongside Chaucer as the father of English poetry. Over the years, however, his reputation declined, largely on account of a perceived didacticism and dullness. During the twentieth century he has received more recognition, notably by C.S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love. However, he has not obtained the same following or critical acceptance as other major poets of the period.
Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Confession), at 33,000-lines, is considered to be Gower's masterpiece and one of the most substantial works of English literature to emerge from the fourteenth-century. The poem uses the confession made by an aging lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems, a structure similar to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where one frame-story is used to unify a great variety of individual vignettes. According to its prologue, the Confessio was composed at the request of Richard II. It stands with the works of Chaucer, Langland, and The Pearl Poet as one of the great works of late fourteenth century English literature.
In genre it is usually considered a poem of consolation, a medieval form inspired by Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and typified by works such as The Pearl. Despite this, it is more usually studied alongside other tale collections with similar structures, such as the Decameron of Boccaccio, and particularly Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with which the Confessio has several stories in common.
Composition of the work probably began circa 1386, with the completed work was published in 1390. The prologue of this first recension recounts that the work was commissioned by Richard II after a chance meeting with the royal barge on the River Thames; the epilogue dedicates the work to Richard and to Chaucer, as the "disciple and poete" of Venus. This version of the work saw widespread circulation, perhaps due to its royal connections (Peck 2000), and was the most popular of Gower's works, with at least 32 of the 49 surviving manuscripts of the Confessio containing this version.
The subsequent history is complicated and not entirely certain. Much revision took place, some of it by Gower and some probably by individual scribes. What follows is the conventional history as formulated by Macaulay (1901). The true story is probably somewhat more complicated (see e.g., Watt 2003:11–13 for an overview of recent work).
According to Macaulay, a second recension was issued in about 1392, with some significant changes: most notably, most references to Richard are removed, as is the dedication to Chaucer, and these are replaced with a new dedication to Henry of Lancaster, the future Henry IV. It has naturally been commonly assumed that this reflects a shift in the poet's loyalties, and indeed there are signs that Gower was more attached to Henry's party from this period; but while he did attack Richard later in the decade, there is no evidence that these early changes indicate any particular hostility towards either Richard or Chaucer (Peck 2000), and it has been argued that the revision process was not politically motivated at all, but begun rather because Gower wished to improve the style of the work (Burrows 1971:32), with the dedications being altered as a purely secondary matter.
A third and final recension was published in 1393, retaining the dedication to Henry. While only a few manuscripts of this version survive, it has been taken as representing Gower's final vision for the work, and is the best-known version, having served as the basis of all modern editions.
Gower's previous works had been written in Anglo-Norman French and Latin. It is not certain why he chose to write his third long poem in English; the only reason Gower himself gives is that "fewe men endite In oure englyssh" (prol.22–23). It has been suggested that it was the influence of Chaucer, who had in part dedicated his Troilus and Criseyde to Gower, that persuaded him that the vernacular was a suitable language for poetry.
With the exception of a 74-line letter "unto cupid and to venus" in Book VIII, Gower did not adopt the new iambic pentameter with which Chaucer had recently been experimenting, and which was to become the standard meter for English rhyme in the 15th century. He retained instead the octosyllabic line that had previously been the standard form for English poetry, and wrote it in couplets, rather than in the stanzas he had employed in his previous works. Gower characterized his verse in the Confessio as the plain style.
Gower's peculiar style—a curious blend of old and new—has not always met with appreciation, the shorter lines being sometimes viewed as lending themselves to monotonous regularity, but Gower's handling of a rather difficult meter has generally been praised. Macaulay (1901) finds his style technically superior to Chaucer's, admiring "the metrical smoothness of his lines, attained without unnatural accent or forced order of words." The work's most enthusiastic advocate was C.S. Lewis, who, though admitting that the work can be "prosaic" and "dull" in places, identifies a "sweetness and freshness" in the verse and praises its "memorable precision and weight" (Lewis 1936:201). Not all assessments have been so positive: Burrow (1971:31) describes it as "not so much plain as threadbare," and notes that the selective quotations of previous critics have served to draw attention to sections that are better poetry, but unrepresentative examples of the work as a whole.
The language is the same standard London dialect in which Chaucer also wrote. Gower's vocabulary is educated, with extensive use of French and Latin loanwords, some of them apparently original; for example, the Confessio is the earliest work in which the word "history" is attested in English (Peck 2000). That the work was aimed at a similarly educated audience is clear from the inclusion of Latin epigraphs at the start of each major section.
The Confessio is divided into a prologue and eight books, which are divided thematically. The narrative structure is overlaid on this in three levels: the external matter, the narrative frame, and the individual tales which make up the bulk of the work.
The external matter comprises the prologue, which spills over briefly into the start of Book 1, and an epilogue at the end of Book 8. Unlike the bulk of the Confessio, these have much in common with Gower's previous works (Pearsall 1966:475). In the prologue he details at some length the numerous failings he identifies in the estates of the realm (government, church, and commoners) of his time. This section ends with an account of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, drawn directly from the Biblical Book of Daniel, in which Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue's feet made of iron mixed with clay. Gower identifies this "mixed foundation" with the medieval world in which he lives, which he perceives as hopelessly divided and in danger of imminent collapse. Tens of thousands of lines later, the epilogue returns to these concerns, again touching on the matters which Gower believes each estate needs most urgently to attend.
In this context, the plan of the work given in the prologue is one of the most-quoted passages of the poem:
This is essentially what he does; the external matter and parts of the narrative frame, together with some long digressions (most notably the whole of Book 7, discussed below) make up the "lore," while the majority of the tales are wholly concerned with "lust."
The frame story as such is easily summarized. The narrator of this section, conventionally referred to as Amans or the Lover, wanders through a forest in May, as medieval lovers typically do, but he is wracked with despair. He invokes Venus and Cupid, who promptly appear and demand to know the reason for his sorrow. Amans relates to Venus that he is on the verge of dying from love, so she insists that he be shriven, and summons her chaplain, Genius, to hear his confession. When at last Genius pronounces Amans absolved of all his sins against love, Venus cures him of his infatuation.
As the work's title implies, the bulk of the work is devoted to Amans' confession. This broadly follows the pattern of Christian confessions of the time. Genius leads Amans through the seven deadly sins, interpreting them in the context of the courtly love tradition. He explains the various aspects of each one with examples, and requires Amans to detail any ways in which he has committed them. The design is that each book of the poem shall be devoted to one sin, and the first six books follow the traditional order for the first six sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, and gluttony.
At this point, however, Gower breaks his form and digresses: at the end of Book 6 Amans requests that Genius give him respite from the confession and teach him wisdom instead, and Genius responds in Book 7 by discoursing at length on the education given by Aristotle to Alexander the Great. In Gower's hands this becomes a treatise on good kingship, and it is in this book that it is most obvious how the work is intended to answer the royal commission. This notwithstanding, the digression, and the consequent flaw in an otherwise strict plan, is the most frequently criticized aspect of the poem's structure (see e.g., Pearsall 1966:476).
Book 8 returns to the confession. According to the traditional system, the final sin should be lechery, but since this can hardly be considered a sin against Venus, the topic of the final book is narrowed to the single perversion of incest. Though this is one sin of which Amans is innocent, Genius contrives to fill a book nonetheless by telling the longest and best-known story in the Confessio, namely Apollonius of Tyre, the tale (retold in a number of other sources) of a man, Apollonius, who, after having lost his wife and children at the hands of a tyrannical king, reveals to the world that the tyrant in question has been involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter (VIII.271–2008). The Apollonius story as found in Gower was adopted directly for Shakespeare's Pericles, and many critics have agreed that Gower's version has become definitive for English versions of the tale.
The treatment given to individual stories varies widely. The Apollonius is nearly 2,000 lines long, but at the other extreme, the distinction between tale and mere allusion is hard to define; for example, summaries of the story of Troilus and Criseide appear in three places (II.2456–2458, IV.7597–7602, VIII.2531–2535), but none can really be described as a "tale." It follows that it is hard to produce a definite figure for the number of tales in the Confessio, since the line between allusion and tale is hard to define. Even excluding the very shortest, however, there are over 100 individual stories (Macaulay 1908), making them more numerous than the strict 100 of the Decameron, and much more so than the Canterbury Tales.
None of Gower's tales are original. The source he relies on most is Ovid, whose Metamorphoses was an ever popular source; others include The Bible and various other classical and medieval writers, of whom Macaulay (1908) lists Valerius Maximus, Statius, Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Guido delle Colonne, Godfrey of Viterbo, Brunetto Latini, Nicholas Trivet, the Seven Wise Masters, the Vita Barlaam et Josaphat, and the Historia Alexandri Magni.
The best-known tales are those that have analogues in other English writers, since these are often studied for comparison. These include the Apollonius, which served as a source for the Shakespearean Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and the tales shared with Chaucer, such as the tales of Constance (II.587–1603, also told by the Man of Law) and Florent (I.1407–1875, also told by the Wife of Bath).
The Confessio was apparently popular in its own time; its 49 surviving manuscripts suggest a popularity about halfway between Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (80 copies) and Troilus and Criseyde (16 copies). Nonetheless, Gower, perhaps more than any poet of his period, has suffered through his close association with Chaucer, who as the pre-eminent poet of the English Middle Ages overshadows his peers in the same way that Shakespeare dominates the turn of the seventeenth century. Moreover, despite Gower's apparent popularity, critical reactions to his work have often been unfavorable.
In the fifteenth century, Gower and Chaucer were invariably regarded together as the founders of English poetry. John Lydgate praised "Gower Chaucers erthly goddes two," The Kings Quair was dedicated to "Gowere and chaucere, that on the steppis satt/ of rethorike," and George Ashby called Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate "primier poetes of this nacion" (quoted by Fisher, 1965: 3).
The first known criticism is an apparent reference in Chaucer's Man of Law's Prologue': the eponymous Man, praising Chaucer, observes that
Both these examples are references to the Confessio (Canace is III.143–336), and it has sometimes been thought that this passage was the direct cause of the removal of the dedication to Chaucer from the later editions of the work (see "Textual History" above). It should be noted that this veiled criticism of the Confessio's immoral stories is not necessarily inconsistent with Chaucer's famous dubbing of his friend "Moral Gower"; that passage, in Chaucer's Troilus, was likely written before Gower even began the Confessio.
Later generations have been equally unkind. The influential assessment of Puttenham (1589:50) found Gower's English verse inadequate in every respect:
Gower […] had nothing in him highly to be commended, for his verse was homely and without good measure, his wordes strained much deale out of the French writers, his ryme wrested, and in his inuentions small subtilitie: the applications of his moralities are the best in him, and yet those many times very grossely bestowed, neither doth the substance of his workes sufficiently aunswere the subtiltie of his titles.
By the nineteenth century, the Confessio was regarded by some as an established "monument of dulness and pedantry" (quoted by Coffman 1945:52). While Macaulay (1901, 1908) was cautiously appreciative, his contemporary Crawshaw (1907:61) attributed to the work "a certain nervelessness or lack of vigor, and a fatal inability to understand when he had said enough." Even C.S. Lewis, who admired the style of the work, was unconvinced by its structure, describing the epilogue as "a long and unsuccessful coda" (Lewis 1936:222).
Gower has also been given his share of appreciation. A fifteenth-century treatise printed by William Caxton describes "his bookes, called Confessionalle" as
In some cases he is praised and damned at once; Ben Jonson (1640) considers him dangerously attractive, and liable to damage young writers who might be tempted to imitate his style:
… beware of letting them taste Gower, or Chaucer at first, lest falling too much in love with Antiquity, and not apprehending the weight, they grow rough and barren in language onely
Peck (2000) manages to read this as unambiguous praise. And even the structure of his work has been declared perfect by some: Coffman (1945:58) argues that
[it] has a large integrity and unity based on a defense of [Gower's] ethical scheme for the universe …. Gower tells in the Prologue exactly what he is going to do. He does it well. It is worth doing. And he recapitulates in the Epilogue.
Watt (2003:11) sums up the divided critical reactions as "reflecting … the complexity of both the poem itself, which invites conflicting interpretations and contradictory reactions, and its textual history."
While Gower's work has generally been as well-known as the poetry of Chaucer, and indeed the two poets were joined in William Caxton's canon of English literature, it was Chaucer's works which became the model for future poets, and the legacy of the Confessio has suffered as a result. It is hard to find works that show signs of direct influence: the only clear example is the Shakespearean Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and there the influence is conscious borrowing, in the use of Gower's characteristic octosyllabic line for the character of Gower himself.
While not of immense importance as a source for later works, however, the Confessio is nonetheless significant in its own right as one of the earliest poems written in a form of English that is clearly recognizable as a direct precursor to the modern standard, and, above all, as one of the handful of works that established the foundations of literary prestige on which modern English literature is built.
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