John Gower was born about 1330. That he was a Kentishman is indicated by several aspects of his English verse that were characteristic of the fourteenth century Kentish dialect. It has been suggested that he was descended from the Gower family of Langburgh, Yorkshire, and that he moved to Kent at an early age. This must remain conjecture, however, since no documentation exists, and little is known of Gower’s early life. He was almost certainly a member of an upper-middle-class family and perhaps was a retainer in some noble house.
During the period 1365 to 1374, Gower was involved in a number of speculative real estate transactions in Kent. He may have been a lawyer, since his works display a keen knowledge of the legal profession. Probably about this time Gower was writing the short love poems in French that would later be collected in the Cinkante Ballades. Gower could have become familiar with French courtly poetry had he been connected in his youth to a noble household. However, the ballades show little influence of the contemporary school of French poetry, and Fisher has conjectured that he may have written the poems for the London Pui, a semireligious middle-class fraternal organization that held poetical contests at its feasts.
By the mid-1370’s, Gower’s literary career reached a turning point, as he became at once more ambitious and more sober. One influence could have been his association with Chaucer, which may have begun about that time, since by 1378, when Chaucer left for Italy, they were close enough for Chaucer to have given Gower his power of attorney. Gower now set his mind on a very moralistic and very long French poem, the Mirour de l’Omme. He followed this almost immediately by another moralizing poem, this time in Latin, called Vox Clamantis. In the first book of this poem, Gower presents a vivid and frightening picture of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, from the perspective of a conservative, upper-middle-class landholder. He sees in the revolt the concrete epitome of the abstract evils of the world that he describes at length in the Mirour de l’Omme and the remainder of the Vox Clamantis.
By the late 1370’s, Gower seems to have already begun his relationship with the Priory of St. Mary Overeys in Southwark. He was a major benefactor of the priory, and he possibly contributed largely to its restoration in 1377. He is known to...
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