Confessio Amantis, Volume 1: Preface

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Confessio Amantis, Volume 1: Preface

by: John Gower (Author), Russell A. Peck (Editor), Andrew Galloway (Translator)

The Confessio Amantis has been an important part of my thinking for more than three decades. This volume, the first in a set of three, includes the frame of the poem; that is, the Prologue, Book 1, and Book 8. The three-volume edition provides readers with a complete text of Gower’s poem, along with extensive glosses, bibliography, and explana­tory notes. Volume 2 of the edition includes Books 2–4, and volume 3, Books 5–7. Books 2–4 follow one kind of development, following in its structure the outline of Vice and its children found in Gower’s early French poem, the Mirour de l’Omme; then in volume 3 (Books 5–7) Gower of­fers another kind of development as he shifts his internal structure from romance banter and a formulaic confession to philosophical inquiry.

Despite the surface simplicity of the Confessio, the smoothness of its verse, and the ap­parent normality of its vocabulary, the poem is not easy to read. Gower’s syntax is sometimes convoluted, using word order that is unfamiliar to modern readers, particularly in its place­ment of coordinating conjunctions in medial positions instead of at the head of the clause, but also occasionally imitating French idioms. Often we encounter inverted word order, and occasionally headless clauses and unusual use of hidden prepositions. Gower is a writer keenly aware of how to make language work for him, however, and he shapes the syntax pointedly toward his purpose. His vocabulary is not as broad as Chaucer’s, but he uses words with distinctions of connotation that shift subtly from one context to another as shades of meaning change. One often encounters rime riche, which focuses attention on wordplay and the interiority of sense. Gower is alert to the innuendoes of language per­taining to law and legal matters. He also is well versed in French and Latin romance literature, which he uses with a grace and confidence that may slip past the casual reader. Thus this edition has sought to provide abundant glosses and notes to make his Middle English more fully clear to modern readers.

The Confessio Amantis is bilingual. This edition includes all Latin components of the poem along with translations. The Latin poetry is often graceful, although it sometimes seems to strive for difficulty and enigma; this opacity occasionally results in brilliantly signif­icant ambiguities, at other times in collisions of partial metaphors. Both effects are chal­lenging to translate. The Latin prose of the marginalia often has a legalistic ungainliness of style. But this quality provides congruities of idea that are important to the larger sense of Gower’s poem. His Latin skills affect his English as he refashions the vocabulary with neologisms, such as “reprise”; likewise, his Latin is occasionally a calque of fourteenth-century English. For example, Gower will use the infinitive of “to desire” (velle) to mean the noun “desire” (normally this would be desiderium or cupiditas in Latin — words that do not scan well in iambic hexameter or its hemistiches used in elegiac couplets). But this is a case where in using velle he is thinking of the English word “wille,” as in “to have your will,” where in his Latin he says habere velle, the two words wille and velle sounding alike. When he writes English he is sometimes thinking in Latin, and when he writes Latin he is sometimes thinking in English.

Gower’s poem is written in essentially the same dialect as Chaucer’s poetry, that is, the literary dialect of cultivated Londoners of the late fourteenth century. The orthography of Fairfax 3 looks different from Chaucer’s Ellesmere MS, however, largely because of the greater influence of French and Kentish spelling conventions in Fairfax. Commonly Gower (or his amanuensis) used ie as a digraph for /e/, a convention common in Anglo-Norman and in the Kentish dialect. So one finds chiere, hiere, hiede, siek, and the like in the Confessio where in Chaucer one would expect chere or cheere, here or heere, hede or heede, sek or seek. Gower’s scribe will not hesitate to use both Chaucer’s and the Kentish forms in rhymes like dede/wom­manhiede, and so on. Where Chaucer uses e or o, Gower regularly uses the Anglo-Norman digraph oe, as in poeple, proeved, moerdre, and coevere. Gower probably pronounced the vowel as /e/ or /o/ as did Chaucer. In the Confessio one also finds spellings that reflect Romance etymology instead of actual pronunciation, such as doubte which rhymes with aboute, deceipte which rhymes with conceite, and pleigne which rhymes with peine.

One encounters a few Kentish phonemes in Chaucer, but in Gower they are frequent, especially Kentish e from Old English y where we would expect in Middle English i or y. So we find in Gower ferst, senne, helle, and pet, where we would normally find first, sinne, hill, and pit in Chaucer. Gower’s scribes occasionally use i in all these instances, but we also find the Southern u for i, as in hulles or puttes for hills or pits. Finally, we find the Kentish participial ending -ende in the Confessio, where Chaucer normally uses -inge, though the latter form is also common in Gower.

In this edition of the Confessio I have followed the guidelines of the Middle English Texts Series and regularized u/v and i/j according to modern spelling conventions. I have also followed modern practices of punctuation and capitalization. As an aid to pro­nun­ciation I have placed an accent over -é if the vowel is long and given full syllabic value. So, instead of charite, cite, or pite the text will read charité, cité, and pité. According to this practice honeste and honesté will be distinguishable words, the adjective in two syllables, the noun in three. Sometimes unstressed -e is pronounced as -? or not at all. In the fourteenth century, pronouns and prepositions are undergoing rapid change and thus often prove to be con­fusing. Gower commonly uses hir for “her,” her for “their,” hem for “them” or “them­selves,” and him for “him” or “himself.” Dis­tinc­tion between the second person pronoun and the defi­nite article is made by spell­ing the one thee and the other the. I have capitalized pro­nouns referring to the Christian deity along with proper names for the deity, though these capitalizations do not necessarily occur in the Middle English or among many modern stylists. But the practice saves on glossing and often makes hard passages clear where, in Middle English, no ambiguity seems to have been intended.

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