John Gower Essay - Critical Essays


Anyone who reads only a few lines of John Gower’s poetry cannot help being struck by its intentional didacticism. Imaginative writing was typically didactic during the medieval age, but Gower’s moralistic streak was so pronounced that it prompted his good friend Chaucer to apply the adjective that has been inseparable from the poet’s name since it first appeared in Troilus and Criseyde (1382): “the moral Gower.”

Since it seems clear that Gower thought of himself first as a moralist and only secondarily as a poet, any examination of Gower’s poetry must concentrate chiefly upon theme. With Gower, the theme was nothing new or unusual; he was not an original thinker, but spoke with a voice rooted in tradition and mirroring the attitudes of the conservative, upper middle class to which he belonged. What is remarkable is the persistence of Gower’s chief theme through his three major works, the Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis; with almost monotonous consistency Gower stresses the degeneracy of the contemporary world because of the perversion and distortion of love. The love of which Gower speaks is the universal, divine love that in medieval thought (particularly as popularized in Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae, 523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century; and Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius’s In somnium Scipionis (c. 400, Commentary on the “Dream of Scipio,” 1952) was regarded as binding the universe in an ordered harmony. This universal order is divine law; thus law and love are immutably connected.

It is society in which Gower is chiefly interested. The laws governing society—human or “positive” law—should reflect the love and order of natural law, which humanity’s reason should recognize. Fisher, who was first to realize the importance of this concept of nature and human law in Gower’s three major works, calls those works a trilogy that takes its entire structure and meaning from this law/love idea. Thus Gower stresses the importance of individual reason and virtue in conjunction with legal justice that preserves the moral order for the common profit. For Gower, this meant preservation of the social order as well, and so the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, for example, becomes in the Vox Clamantis an illustration of humans rebelling against reason and natural law.

In addition, this preservation of law and order meant that the king occupied a uniquely vital position. Gower constantly stresses the importance of the principle of kingship in an ordered society. The king is charged with the responsibility of preserving legal justice and order among all three estates (clergy, nobility, and peasantry) and maintaining the moral integrity of the entire nation. This belief goes far in explaining Gower’s shifting attitude toward Richard II and his ultimate allegiance to Henry IV as a king more likely to fulfill this obligation. Important in Gower’s evaluation of Richard was his absolute insistence on humans’ responsibility for their own actions. He consistently attacks fatalism and the idea of the “wheel of Fortune,” stressing instead the responsibility of every individual, particularly the ruler, to follow the dictates of reason.

Gower’s revisions of his main works reflect this disintegrating opinion of Richard and link the three works to form a complete and systematic commentary on humanity and society. The encyclopedic nature of such an undertaking was typical of the Middle Ages, but Gower’s concern for unity and form was rare. His moral theme and the influence of other didactic treatises of his day suggested to him two particular organizing formulas: the seven deadly sins and the three estates. While it may be argued that such formulas provide arbitrary and artificial patterns of organization, it cannot be denied that Gower’s preoccupation with order and unity is strong; it may, in fact, reflect the theme of order so loudly proclaimed in the three works: form matches content.

Mirour de l’Omme

Gower’s earliest major work is the Mirour de l’Omme, which he refers to in later life as the Speculum Hominis and, finally, the Speculum Meditantis, the alterations being an attempt to bring the earlier poem’s title into harmony with Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis to suggest the close relationship of the three works. The Mirour de l’Omme survives in a single manuscript discovered in the Cambridge University Library in 1895 by Gower’s great editor, G. C. Macaulay. The manuscript consists of 28,603 octosyllabic lines of French verse, although the absence of several leaves at the beginning and end indicate that the complete poem must have been some two thousand lines longer. The verse form is a twelve-line stanza known as a Héliland strophe, popular among French moral writers of the period. The lines rhyme aabaabbaabaa, and the stanzas generally contain a pause in the middle and a moral tag or summing up at the end, in the last two or three lines. Macaulay describes Gower’s verse as strictly syllabic, while at the same time displaying a distinct English rhythm. He also stresses the uncanny regularity of the lines, finding only twenty-one of the more than 28,000 lines in the poem to be metrically imperfect.

Gower’s main concern in the Mirour de l’Omme is his constant theme of the decay of the world and society because of humanity’s turning from reason. He begins by calling sin the cause of all evils in the world, and in the first main section of the poem, Gower presents a manual of vices and virtues and delineates the efforts of the Devil and Sin to conquer man. Sin, it is said, was conceived by the Devil, who, enamored of his own creation, engendered upon her Death. Death, following his father’s lead, likewise intermarried with Sin and produced the seven deadly vices. The Devil then held a conference with his whole brood and with the World to plan how they might best defeat God’s plan and circumvent man’s salvation. The parallel between this and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) is of course striking, although it seems unlikely that Milton could have read the Mirour de l’Omme: As far as is known, there was no manuscript available in his time. Still, no common source has been found, so the problem of the relationship of the two works is unresolved.

In Gower’s work, the Devil is unsuccessful in his first attempt to win man over, since after much debate man follows the dictates of Reason. The Devil, however, increases his forces. After the seven daughters of sin marry the World, each has five daughters of her own, so that for some nine thousand lines, Gower delineates the five branches of each of the seven deadly sins. The entire progeny of vices then violently attack man, who comes completely under the power of Sin. God retaliates by sending seven virtues to marry Reason, and each of these has five daughters, to counter the thirty-five vices already described.

In the second main section of the poem, the next eight thousand lines, the author proposes to examine human society to determine whether the vices or the virtues are winning. Thus, Gower begins a complaint on the estates of man, reviewing every class of human society, beginning with the clergy, and moving through secular rulers, to the common people. Every rank of society is corrupt, according to Gower. The tone here is unrelentingly somber, yet this is probably the most interesting section of the Mirour de l’Omme because of the picture it gives modern readers of life in fourteenth century England. The descriptions are generally stock, but not necessarily untrue, and may be worth reading for the sake of comparison with Chaucer’s estates satire in the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400): Here Gower describes a gluttonous monk who loves hunting, a venal friar who abuses the office of the confessional by taking advantage of young women, a physician in collusion with the apothecary to bilk his patients, and shopkeepers who engage in any number of tricks to cheat customers—such as the tavern keeper who is able to get all the wines of Europe from a single cask. In Gower’s world view, the order of society reflected the divinely ordained harmony of the universe. Reason and the law of love kept all in order. Thus rebellion was tantamount to revolt against God and, because it perverted reason, turned men into beasts.

Having described the origin of sin and the effect of sin on society, Gower ends with a discussion of what man must do to be reconciled with God. Man must reform and pray to the Virgin to intercede for him; thus the poem ends with a Life of the Virgin. What is thematically most important in this section is Gower’s insistence upon man’s responsibility for his own actions. The condition of the world and society cannot be blamed on the stars, says Gower, nor are plants, birds, and fish at fault, since they follow the law of nature. Man is to blame: He is a microcosm and the chaotic state of the world reflects his sin.

In the final analysis, the Mirour de l’Omme is not a great poem. It is not even, by most standards, a very good poem. Its organization and versification are admirable, and it gives a useful picture of its age, and there are flashes of good poetry in the complaint on the estates, but the unity is destroyed by the poem’s inordinate length and monotony. Perhaps its relation to Gower’s other major works is of chief interest: written in French, the Mirour de l’Omme was intended as a “mirror” in which one of the cultivated French-speaking laity might examine his conscience. Personal virtue and individual responsibility are the themes, and from here Gower could expand into the areas of legal justice and royal responsibility.

Vox Clamantis

Gower’s second major work, the Vox Clamantis, is a poem in seven books, consisting of some 10,265 lines of Latin elegiac verse. Gower’s Latin lacks the smoothness and regularity of his French and English compositions, and the style is further muddled by his extensive wholesale borrowings from other Latin poems. Eric Stockton, the poem’s modern translator, enumerates thirteen hundred lines that were appropriated chiefly from Ovid, the Aurora (started c. 1170) of Petrus Riga, and De Vita Monachorum; nevertheless, in spite of the patchwork of sources, Gower keeps the train of thought coherent, and the fact that the poem survives in ten...

(The entire section is 4357 words.)