(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Baker, Denise N. “The Priesthood of Genius: A Study of the Medieval Tradition.” Speculum 51 (1976): 277-291. Considers Genius’s dual role in the poem as both a Christian priest and a priest of Venus in the context of contemporary literature.

Echard, Siân, ed. A Companion to Gower. Cambridge, Mass.: D. S. Brewer, 2004. A collection of essays analyzing Gower’s life and work. Includes a chronology of Gower criticism from 1778 to 2003 and an index.

Gower, John. Confessio Amantis. Translated by Terence Tiller. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963. A translation into modern English with both verse and prose summary to condense the poem into a manageable form and length for nonspecialists. Includes an informative introduction.

Mitchell, J. Allan. Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower. Cambridge, Mass.: D. S. Brewer, 2004. This book examines Chaucer and Gower’s use of exemplary rhetoric in the context of medieval narrative ethics. Includes bibliography and index.