Confessio Amantis Summary
Although little is known about the life of John Gower, records indicate that he was born between 1327 and 1330 into a landholding, Kentish family, associated with the royal court while living near London, and died in 1408 as a respected poet. Gower also had a documented friendship with another well-known London poet, Geoffrey Chaucer.
The works of John Gower as well as those of Chaucer initiated a new tradition of vernacular English poetry relying on a syllabic verse structure. Confessio Amanitis is approximately thirty-three thousand lines, most of which are octosyllabic couplets rhymed aa bb cc in the London dialect of Chaucer. Prior to the Norman Conquest of England (1066), Old English poetry depended on a four-stress, alliterative line as its primary organizing device. With French as the official language between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, the English language and its poetic forms changed dramatically. When English again gained literary currency in the late 1300’s, continental influences produced in the works of Gower and Chaucer a type of poetry that employed set syllable counts and rhyme patterns. The dialect used by these two poets became the basis for Modern English.
Confessio Amanitis is the last of Gower’s long works and the only one written in English. Gower’s two other long works are Mirour de l’Omme (1376-1379; mirror of mankind), written in French, and Vox Clamantis (1379-1382; the voice of one crying out), written in Latin. He began work on Confessio Amantis around 1386 and published the first recension dedicated to Chaucer and Richard I in 1390. Gower published a new version of Confessio Amantis known as the third recension in 1392, this one dedicated to Henry of Lancaster. There is also an intermediate version that demonstrates a limited return to the original form. Of the forty-nine known manuscripts, thirty-one follow the first recension. Gower most likely oversaw the corrections to his manuscripts.
In the lengthy prologue to Confessio Amantis, Gower announces his intention to write a book in English that gives both pleasure and instruction to his audience. Gower uses his prologue to convey an urgent message about the present state of society, which has declined from a golden age of wealth, honor, and peace, a common theme in medieval English literature. Gower divides his complaint among the three estates of medieval society—the nobility, the clergy, and the laborers. It is clear that the lessons that follow in the body of the poem—warning against wrath, greed, and sloth, for example—apply as much to England and English society as to the lover.
In the body of the poem, the voice of the poet changes from the moralizing Gower to the love-struck Amans (“the lover”) who begs Venus, the goddess of love, and her son Cupid for relief from the woe of unrequited love. Venus asks first that Amans confess his sins against love to her priest Genius, the Confessor. Amans and the Confessor engage in a dialogue that lasts through the eight books of the poem. In each book, the Confessor questions Amans about his guilt in one of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lechery) as they pertain to love. Each sin is personified and subdivided into five attendants, or aspects, of the sin. Genius typically offers one or two exempla, or stories, to illustrate the dangers of each aspect of the sin. Book 7 addresses “The Education of a King” and includes lessons—also illustrated through exempla—valuable to both rulers and lovers. The tales are drawn from contemporary, historical, biblical, and classical sources, significantly Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). However, in his presentation of the tales, Gower does not merely recite them as they appear in his sources but adapts his exempla from their original form, and using rhetoric , he guides the audience’s response to his poem. The Confessor’s questions and admonitions along with the lover’s denials,...
(The entire section is 1,049 words.)