John Gower Gower, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Cinkante Balades (poetry) c. 1350-1400

*Mirour de l'Omme (poetry) c. 1376-79

Vox Clamantis (poetry) c. 1377-81

Confessio Amantis (poetry) c. 1390-92

Traitié pour essampler les Amantz marietz, (poetry) c. 1397

Laureate Poems (poetry) c. 1400

In Praise of Peace (poetry) c. 1400

The Works of John Gower. 4 vols. (poetry) 1899-1902

*This work is also known as Speculum Hominis and Speculum Meditantis.

Denise N. Baker (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Baker, Denise N. “The Priesthood of Genius: A Study of the Medieval Tradition.” Speculum 51, no. 2 (April 1976): 277-91.

[In the following essay, Baker vindicates Gower's characterization of the allegorical figure Genius in the Confessio Amantis, which has often been viewed as inconsistent and faulty.]

The allegorical figure Genius plays a significant role in three important works of medieval literature: Alain de Lille's De planctu Naturae, Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose, and John Gower's Confessio Amantis. Although scholars have commented extensively on the meaning and function of Genius in the first two works, the...

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Linda Barney Burke (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Burke, Linda Barney. “Women in John Gower's Confessio Amantis.Mediaevalia 3 (1977): 238-59.

[In the following essay, Burke discusses the surprising absence of “negative female stereotypes” in the Confessio Amantis.]

It is readily apparent to readers of the Confessio Amantis, especially to those who are familiar with the earlier works of Gower, that the great English poem is imbued with a tone of mellowness, sensitivity, and compassion for the limitations of human nature.1 What has not been so apparent is that an important reason for this benign atmosphere is the almost total absence of negative female stereotypes and...

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Alastair Minnis (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Minnis, Alastair. “‘Moral Gower’ and Medieval Literary Theory.” In Gower's Confessio Amantis: Responses and Reassessments, edited by A. J. Minnis, pp. 50-78. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983.

[In the following essay, Minnis applies the medieval concept of “ethical poetry” to the Confessio Amantis.]

Chaucer was paying Gower a considerable compliment when he dubbed him ‘moral Gower’. It is one of the ironies of modern criticism that this accolade has given recent readers of Confessio Amantis a stick with which to beat its author. In the minds of many, Gower is simply a ‘moral philosopher and friend of Chaucer’, the latter property...

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Charles Runacres (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Runacres, Charles. “Art and Ethics in the ‘Exempla’ of ‘Confessio Amantis’.” In Gower's Confessio Amantis: Responses and Reassessments, edited by A. J. Minnis, pp. 106-34. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983.

[In the following essay, Runacres investigates the “fruitful balance between pleasurable instruction and instructive pleasure” in the Confessio Amantis.]

At the beginning of the ‘Prologus’ to Confessio Amantis, Gower announced that he was relinquishing the single-minded pursuit of ‘wisdom’ (‘Prologus’ 13) which had characterised his earlier poems. His new work would mingle delight with the profit, in such a way that the...

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Richard Axton (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Axton, Richard. “Gower—Chaucer's heir?” In Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, edited by Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt, pp. 21-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Axton determines that Gower was indebted to Chaucer, despite being the elder poet.]

The idea of Gower as Chaucer's heir looks at first unpromising. It seems that Gower was the older and that, although he outlived Chaucer and the century by eight years, by then he was blind and poetically inactive. ‘Chaucer's master’, as Dr Johnson called him, has usually been counted as creditor and Chaucer as debtor in scholarly reckonings of the...

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James Dean (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Dean, James. “Gower, Chaucer, and Rhyme Royal.” Studies in Philology LXXXVIII, no. 3 (summer 1991): 251-75.

[In the following essay, Dean examines Gower's application of the rhyme royal verse form, particularly its use for specific types of poems.]

Everyone knows that Chaucer was one of the first users, if not the inventor, of rhyme (or rime) royal—also called “Troilus-measure” or the “Troilus-stanza”—a stanzaic verse form of seven decasyllabic lines rhymed ababbcc. Until recently the term “rhyme royal” was thought to be a nineteenth-century coinage to characterize the stanza form of James I's The Kingis Quair (c. 1425),...

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Kurt Olsson (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Olsson, Kurt. “The Confessio and Compilation.” In John Gower and the Structures of Conversion: A Reading of the Confessio Amantis. pp. 1-15. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992.

[In the following essay, Olsson interprets the Confessio Amantis as a compilation, in which Gower assembled materials from a wide variety of sources and organized them to create new or expanded meanings.]

One of John Gower's undoubted claims to join the company of important late fourteenth-century English poets, including Chaucer, Langland, and the Gawain-poet, lies in the vast knowledge he made available to his public. In three long, encyclopedic poems, he gathered...

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Russell A. Peck (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Peck, Russell A. “The Phenomenology of Make Believe in Gower's Confessio Amantis.Studies in Philology 91, no. 3 (summer 1994): 250-69.

[In the following essay, Peck examines the Confessio Amantis in terms of medieval theories of perception and representation.]

Oure wit may not stiȝe vnto the contemplacioun of vnseye thinges but it be ilad by consideracioun of thinges that beth iseye.

—John Trevisa, De proprietatibus rerum1

Often we speak of things which we do not express with precision as they are; but by another expression we...

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Kurt Olsson (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Olsson, Kurt. “Love, Intimacy, and Gower.” Chaucer Review 30, no. 1 (1995): 71-100.

[In the following essay, Olsson considers Gower's works in light of his presentation of intimacy and love and the many different forms that each can take.]

Recent discussions of intimacy and the “terrible desire for intimacy”1 reflected in our culture often center on questions about sexuality, and that tendency should not surprise us. Throughout its history as an English word, “intimacy” has been used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and since Freud, we have become accustomed to looking for sexual undercurrents in other forms of interpersonal...

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Frank Grady (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Grady, Frank. “The Lancastrian Gower and the Limits of Exemplarity.” Speculum 70, no. 3 (July 1995): 552-75.

[In the following essay, Grady argues that “In Praise of Peace” shows Gower's loyalty to the Lancastrian dynasty at a time when its existence seemed very tenuous.]

Giving advice to Henry Bolingbroke was a pastime that could be very rewarding or very dangerous. Consider the following two cases. In May 1401, a little over nineteen months after Henry had deposed his cousin Richard and ascended the throne, his friend and confessor Philip Repyngdon, at that time the abbot of St. Mary de Prè in Leicester and chancellor of Oxford, sent Henry a long...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Nicholson, Peter. An Annotated Index to the Commentary on John Gower's Confessio Amantis. Binghamtom, N. Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989, 593 p.

Useful bibliography of criticism on Gower's masterwork.

Yeager, Robert F. John Gower Materials: A Bibliography through 1979. New York: Garland, 1981, 155 p.

Provides an annotated bibliography of Gower criticism and a list of editions of his works.


Fisher, John H. John Gower, Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York: New York University Press, 1964, 378 p.


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