John Gower c. 1330-1408
English poet and essayist.
John Gower is considered one of the most important English poets of the fourteenth century, and some critics maintain that he played a significant role in originating English poetry along with his contemporary and friend, Geoffrey Chaucer. Gower's most notable literary work was the Confessio amantis (c. 1390-92), a widely studied tribute to Chaucer and meditation on love. Gower was a man very much in tune with the moral and social issues of his day—two of his greatest poems, the Mirour de l'Omme (c. 1376-79), and the Vox clamantis (c. 1377-81), teach moral lessons and at the same time provide commentary on the culture of his day. Chaucer dubbed him “moral Gower,” for he sought to shed light on not only the state of the culture he lived in, but on the medieval principles on which he believed society should be built. For two hundred years after his death, Gower was considered a poet of great craftsmanship and one who had a great influence on English poetry. Although he fell out of favor in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more recently he has regained his fame as a poet of unique skill.
Very little is known of Gower's life. Scholars estimate that he was born around the year 1330. While his birthplace remains uncertain, on the basis of his crest, it is thought that he may have been born in Kent or Yorkshire, into an upper-middle-class family. Some biographers believe he made a living as a lawyer early in his life. It appears that from 1377 until his death, Gower entered into semi-retirement to devote himself to his studies and his writings, and all three of his most highly regarded poems were probably composed within this period. His residence was near his friend Geoffrey Chaucer, and near the London literary scene. From his works, it can be surmised that Gower was well acquainted with the city of London. He was loyal to the Lancanstrian dynasty, and in 1392, when King Richard II had a falling out with the city of London, he admonished the King in a revision of the Confessio amantis. When Henry IV ascended the throne, Gower wrote and dedicated a sequence of Cinkante Balades (c. 1350-c. 1400) to him. In return, he received from the king the golden “S” collar, which is depicted in his effigy. His last poem, “In Praise of Peace,” (c. 1400) was written after the poet had become blind.
One of Gower's first published works, Mirour de l'Omme was a very ambitious undertaking, covering humanity's moral nature and religious obligation. The poem is divided into ten parts, each covering ten topics, each of which is a complaint against the ills of the world that have been brought on by sin. Gower's next major work, the Vox clamantis, is another moral essay, admonishing humanity to change its ways. The poet presents this piece from the perspective of a visionary whose will is good and whose mission is to help humanity “better understand the conditions of time.” In this work, Gower draws heavily on Latin writers in order to demonstrate that the moral condition of humanity had been scrutinized for hundreds of years. He uses beast allegories to illustrate how people turn themselves into beasts and are bent on the destruction of each other because of sin. Gower's greatest work, the Confessio amantis, went through several stages of development. This poem was designed to entertain as well as instruct—Gower concentrates on love in all of its manifestations: natural, sublime, cosmic, personal, social, and divine. The overall framework of the Confessio amantis is unique and compelling as the main character, the lover, travels throughout the story and experiences life lessons related to love in various forms. Toward the end of his life, Gower completed two ballad sequences, Traitié pour essampler les Amantz marietz, (c. 1397) and Cinkante Balades. The last poem Gower wrote, “In Praise of Peace,” makes a connection between peace and good rule, a concept he believed in throughout his life.
Throughout the years since his death, the influence of Gower's works has been substantial, and he has maintained readership to this day. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Gower was considered to be on a level with Chaucer, and both men were viewed as the fathers of English poetry. Gower was thought of so highly that the earliest biographers portray him as Chaucer's mentor, though it was Chaucer who first excelled as a poet. However, the things he was previously praised for—a pleasing style and poetry of wisdom—were less admired in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. In recent years, he has been rediscovered as a master craftsman and as a writer who keenly commented on the moral and social issues of his day. Most modern critics have dealt mainly with Gower's greatest work, the Confessio amantis. Critic Kurt Olsson claims that Gower “redefined his culture” in this work by analyzing the status of his society and in turn showing what attributes would make for a better one. Andrea Schutz's comments are in the same vein. To her, Gower's use of a mirror to show society its condition is a very powerful writing tool that accomplishes its purpose. Although some critics have stressed Gower's lack of style compared with Chaucer, Derek Pearsall maintains that his real gift is as a storyteller and that Gower should be remembered as the “keeper of the nation's conscience in a brilliant, violent and corrupt generation,” for that is what his aim was, to put mankind back on the right track.