John Gower c. 1330-1408
A seminal figure of the Middle English verse tradition, Gower is considered one of the outstanding poets of the fourteenth century. Together with his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, Gower is credited with originating the genre of the poetic frame-narrative in the English vernacular. Gower's most acclaimed work, the Confessio Amantis (c. 1390-92), features a selection of tales in verse somewhat similar to Chaucer's well-known Canterbury Tales. Principally composed in English with Latin glosses, the Confessio Amantis treats the theme of love as narrated by Genius, an underling of the goddess Venus and personal confessor to the work's protagonist, Amans. The work is among the more influential in the canon of English literature, and includes within its many tales the story of Apollonius of Tyre that was to inspire Shakespeare's Pericles.
Despite the survival of a considerable amount of documentary evidence pertaining to Gower, relatively few solid facts of his biography are known. Scholars believe that the poet was born around 1330 and was the member of a landholding English family of the middle class from either Kent or Yorkshire. Of his education and early career very little is certain, although sixteenth and seventeenth-century biographers claim that Gower pursued the vocations of lawyer and civil servant. Extant documentation also suggests that he was actively involved in the trade of real estate for much of his career. Gower's first verse compositions were probably made in his youth, and likely included an assortment of balades, carols, and virelais (love songs) suitable to the age. No works that may be attributed with certainty to Gower's early period survive, although many of his minor verse compositions from about 1350 onward are extant. Gower's first major work of poetry, Mirour de l'Omme (also referred to as Speculum meditantis), was written around the period from 1376 to 1379, and initiates the salient period of his poetic career. From this time, Gower appears to have spent a good deal of his life in London, as his works attest to his intimate familiarity with the English capital and its inhabitants. At least one of his biographers suggests that Gower was the member of the London Pui, an all-male religious and musical organization devoted to charitable and social activities. Gower likely would have composed songs for the guild as part of his membership. In 1381 London endured a citywide insurgence known as the Peasant's Revolt, a popular uprising of provincial workers incensed by war taxation. The revolt prompted a scathing response by the author in the latest revisions of his moral elegy Vox Clamantis (c. 1377-81; The Voice of One Crying). While Gower probably began the composition of what is deemed his finest poem, Confessio Amantis, in the late 1380s, scholars date the final revision and completion of the work between 1390 and 1392. Initially dedicated to King Richard II, whose favor Gower pursued prior to the king's abdication in 1399, subsequent redactions indicate Gower transferred his allegiance to Henry of Lancaster, Richard's successor as King Henry IV. Gower's connections to the courts of both monarchs, however, appear to have been rather limited. Nearing the age of seventy, Gower married Agnes Groundolf in January of 1398. They lived together at Saint Mary Overeys Priory, a structure Gower was instrumental in rebuilding decades after its destruction in a fire. Some internal evidence from Gower's works has also led scholars to speculate that he may have been married previously, although this assertion cannot be proven. After his death in 1408 Gower was buried in the Saint John the Baptist Chapel of the Priory Church at Saint Mary Overeys.
Modern scholars enjoy access to a varied and rich manuscript collection of Gower's poetic works. Of the forty-nine extant manuscript versions of Confessio Amantis many have been excellently preserved and display a remarkable level of textual consistency, despite numerous variations in design. Most of these pieces originate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the acknowledged high point of Gower's acclaim as a poet. Fine, if far less plentiful, manuscript copies of Mirour de l'Omme, Vox Clamantis, “In Praise of Peace” (c. 1400), and other minor works are also available. Only examples of Gower's juvenilia (known because they are mentioned in his later works) are thought to have been irretrievably lost. While numerous textual advances to this corpus have been made by a host of contemporary scholar-editors, the standard English edition of Gower's collected poetry remains George C. Macaulay's four-volume Works of John Gower (1899-1902).
Major Poetic Works
Gower's poetic oeuvre features three extended works of special merit and interest—crowned by his lengthy Confessio Amantis,—as well as a selection of shorter lyrical, political, and occasional pieces. Written entirely in twelve-line octosyllabic stanzas, Mirour de l'Omme is a long moral-allegorical poem on the subject of the seven deadly sins and their progeny. Its rhymed French text concerns the subject of humankind's responsibilities and failings in a fallen world. The work begins by introducing the deadly sins in allegorical detail. According to the poem, Lucifer and his daughter, Sin, spawn Death, who in turn produces seven daughters—Pride, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Ire, Gluttony, and Lechery. Death sends these sinful daughters to earth for the purpose of despoiling humanity. Further sections of the poem consider an even broader diversity of evils, characterized as Death's grandchildren, who tempt the hearts of men and women, leading to suffering and corruption at all levels of society. Similar in theme if not manner, Gower's Vox Clamantis is likewise a moral treatise, here rendered in Latin verse. While the poem was composed in the years prior to the Peasant's Revolt, the first book of Gower's final revision contains a lurid vision of commoners transformed into destructive beasts, clearly meant to echo events in the city of London during the pivotal year of 1381. The title of the work alludes to the solitary voice of the biblical John the Baptist, and makes use of the apocalyptic vision from the New Testament Book of Revelations. The poem itself is divided into seven parts and decries the rife corruption and social disorder Gower saw in his own age, from the acquisitiveness of the clergy to the immorality of members of the knighthood and civil service. Later attached as a coda to the Vox Clamantis, Gower's Cronica tripertita (c. 1400), offers another allegory of beasts, in this case on the topic of immoderate rule. Gower's contemporaries recognized this work as a thinly veiled and vehement attack on the monarchy of Richard II.
Differing markedly in structure and content from both the Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis, Gower's English and Latin poem Confessio Amantis treats the overarching theme of love. Its principal figure is a woeful lover named Amans, whom Gower identifies as himself in the later portions of the poem. Frustrated by his faulty understanding of love, Amans/Gower seeks the aid of Venus. The goddess appears to him and, in response to his request for aid, sends her clerk, called Genius, to act as Amans's confessor. After learning of his subject's problems, Genius launches into a lengthy bout of literary instruction, reciting a number of illustrative and cautionary tales on the topic of love and its perils. Within this framework, Gower includes poetic versions of classical and medieval tales featuring such figures as Apollonius of Tyre (on incest), Constance (on martial fidelity), Narcissus (on self-love), and many more, all dealing in some fashion with a significant facet of love or its perversion. Gower's only departure from this otherwise sustained theme in the Confessio occurs in the poem's seventh book, which includes a lengthy digression on the qualities of ideal kingship.
Additional works composed by Gower include two balade sequences. The first, Traitié pour Essampler les Amantz Marietz (c. 1397), contains eighteen pieces celebrating the sacrament of marriage. The second, Cinkante Balades (c. 1350-1400) was dedicated to King Henry IV, and includes fifty-one short, elegantly crafted poems. Gower's Latin collection of Laureate Poems (c. 1400) is comprised of several works praising the newly crowned monarch, including “Rex celis deus” and “O recolende,” as well as a number of devotional pieces. His last poem, also addressed to Henry IV, is entitled “In Praise of Peace” and rejoices in wise, moderate rule and the benefits of social tranquility.
Since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when appreciation of Gower's verse reached its zenith, the poet has generally been placed in a subordinate position to his friend and contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer. Still, while he has steadfastly retained the epithet of “moral Gower” once given to him by Chaucer, Gower and his writings have struck some contemporary readers as far more subtle and complex than this simple name would suggest. Indeed, renewed scholarly interest in Gower's poetry at the end of the twentieth century has sparked a resurgence in Gower studies and a restatement of the poet's significance to the early development of English vernacular verse. Particular attention has been focused on Gower's masterpiece, the Confessio Amantis. In contrast, Mirour de l'Omme is usually considered the least accomplished of his three major works, although it is nevertheless thought to anticipate the later poem as a major source text. While scholars have tended to agree that the Confessio Amantis is Gower's most sophisticated and technically innovative work, it has frequently been studied in relation to both the Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis, as well as in regard to varied Latin and French sources, from Ovid's Metamorphoses to the medieval Roman de la Rose. Critics have also examined the unique qualities of Gower's Latin glosses to the predominately English text of the Confessio, or have taken an interest in Gower's late medieval perceptions of love, intimacy, marriage, and sexuality. The elaborate array of genres in the tales in the Confessio Amantis has likewise attracted scholarly attention. Finally, a number of critics at the turn of the twenty-first century have been drawn to the specifically political element of Gower's work, particularly visible in his shifted allegiance from Richard II to his usurper/successor Henry IV. Overall, while Gower's reputation has been overshadowed by those of his acclaimed fourteenth-century contemporaries, especially Chaucer and William Langland, the poet is now considered one of the most exceptional English literary figures of his age.