The French Balades: Introduction


1 Thus the titles as they appear on the tomb today. We cannot be as certain that this order represents Gower’s intention as we are that all three titles were so displayed at installation.

2 The ascriptive headnote reads: “Carmen, quod quidam Philosophus in memoriam Iohannis Gower super consummacione suorum trium librorum forma subsequenti composuit, et eidem gratanter transmisit” [“A poem, which in remembrance of John Gower a certain philosopher composed in the following form and happily sent to the same man, to commemorate the completion of his three books”]. “Eneidos, bucolis” is known from five manuscripts: London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.iv; University of Glasgow Library, MS Hunter 59 (T. 2.17); London, British Library, MS Harleian 6291; Oxford, All Souls College, MS 98; and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 3, the latter two of which Gower is thought likely to have supervised in production. See further the discussion of “Eneidos, Bucolis” by Kuczynski “Gower’s Virgil,” pp. 172–73.

3 Chaucer famously expresses his concern about the mutability of English in Troilus and Criseyde V.1793–96; see further “Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn.” For Gower, English seemed shaky, a language in need of support: as he points out in the Confessio Amantis Prol.22–23 “fewe men endite / In oure Englissh” (second recension).

4 For the Latin, see Gower Major Latin Works and Minor Latin Works; the Mirour de l’Omme has been translated by Wilson. Of related interest is Itô’s translation of the Confessio Amantis into modern Japanese. (Koisuru Otokono Kokkai, or lit. “Confessions of a Lover.” My thanks to Toshi Takamiya for transcription and translation into English.)

5 The poems of “Ch” have been edited by Wimsatt, Chaucer and the Poems of “Ch”; for Chaucer’s remark, see his Retraction, line 1086.

6 Strohm, “Some Generic Distinctions,” similarly concludes that Chaucer understood a “tretys” to be “a ‘tale’. . . neither ‘storie’ nor ‘fable’ in its rejection of plot” but “with its emphasis on reasoned exposition” (p. 326).

7 I should acknowledge, however, that Charles of Orleans, though not English, composes in the mid-fifteenth century a balade sequence in Middle English that, like Pertrarch’s Canzonière, develops a vague love plot.

8 Single copies of poem 132 are known; for discussion and relevant bibliography see Barney’s note to Troilus and Criseyde I.400 in the Riverside Chaucer. No evidence exists, it should be pointed out, to indicate that Gower read Italian.

9 That Chaucer and Deschamps knew each other is strongly suggested by the latter’s poem, the so-called “Letter to Chaucer,” no. 138 in Oeuvres Complètes de Eustache Deschamps, 2:138–40. For discussion, see Wimsatt, Chaucer and His French Contemporaries, pp. 248–51, who also prints and translates Deschamps’ balade 138.

10 E.g., studies by Audiau, Troubadours et l’Angleterre, especially pp. 103–28; and Kar, Thoughts on the Mediæval Lyric, pp. 55–63.

11 See Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher, pp. 78–84.

12 Fourteenth-century French puys are discussed by Wimsatt, Chaucer and His French Contemporaries, p. 277.

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The French Balades: Introduction

by: John Gower (Author), R. F. Yeager (Editor)
from: The French Balades  2011

The English poet John Gower (d. 1408) has left substantial bodies of work in Middle English, Latin, and Anglo-French — all three, that is, of the major languages of his place and time. This accomplishment is truly remarkable, not only among poets in medieval England or on the Continent, but among poets generally, then or ever. It is hard to name anyone other than Gower who has done so, let alone in such quantity and with such skill. That Gower sought this singularity self-consciously, and was proud of it, requires no firmer evidence than a look at the tomb he designed for himself in Southwark Cathedral. Beneath his effigy’s head lie three great books bearing the titles of his most important poems: Vox Clamantis (composed in Latin), Confessio Amantis (in Middle English), and >i (better known by its French title, Mirour de l’Omme).1 Gower’s claim to be England’s trilingual master memoria in aeterna is echoed in the short poem in Latin elegiacs, “Eneidos, Bucolis,” attributed to an unidentified “Philosopher” in the manuscripts (but almost without doubt from Gower’s own hand), in which Gower is found superior to Virgil, whose Georgics, Bucolics, and Aeneid were written — after all! — in Latin alone.2 One can imagine conver­sations about choice of language taking place between Gower and his longtime friend Geoffrey Chaucer, with Gower firmly cautioning Chaucer not to tie his chance at immortality to a vernacular both poets considered to be woefully and whimsically mutable.3

Literary history has, of course, thus far proven Chaucer’s the better wager. More the linguistic optimist, and an intellectual true to his times, Gower failed to foresee his country­men’s rapid spiral into near-complete monolinguality. (The early fifteenth-century English rendering of the eighteen balades of the Traitié selonc les auctours pour essampler les amantz marietz by the Yorkshireman Quixley, included in this volume, demonstrates how soon the need took hold.) In consequence, and clearly much against his wish, for several hundred years Gower’s reputation has been based upon the Confessio Amantis and the comparatively brief “In Praise of Peace” — two of the finest Middle English poems, but amounting together to less than a third of his total oeuvre. The last half-century, however, has seen this situation remedied steadily, as one by one English translations of Gower’s Latin and Anglo-French poems have appeared.4 With the addition here of his two sets of balades, the Traitié and the Cinkante Balades, the complete poetry now is available to readers in both French and modern English.

It should be interesting, then, to see how future years will reassess Gower’s achievement — whether posterity in the end will validate his bet on three languages to echo the “Philo­sopher’s” judgment, or no. What, in any case, seems quite likely is that, had Gower chosen for his balades his premier native vernacular rather than French, the development of English letters might have taken a rather different course. Consider: Gower’s Traitié and Cinkante Balades are the only extant >i poems (“fixed forms,” that is, fourteenth-century French lyrics, essentially the balade, rondeau, and virelai, developed as literary styles from thirteenth-century dances) that we can be assured were written by a native Englishman, those of “Ch” (and Chaucer’s “many a song and many a leccherous lay” — presumably in French) notwithstanding.5 More significant still is the conceptual unity of Gower’s endeavors. Unlike the fifteen balades and chants in French of the otherwise-anonymous “Ch” — and unlike Chaucer’s known Middle English “lyrics” as well — the eighteen balades that make up the Traitié and the fifty-four of the Cinkante Balades are not separate, occasional pieces, nor is their appearance together at all arbitrary. In each collection Gower wrote and arranged the poems to be read together and, as a composite grouping, to evince a determinable shape. Hence his use of “traitié” — “treatise” — as a collective term for the eighteen balades he addressed to married lovers. Although there is some obscurity about just what constituted a “treatise” in fourteenth-century English critical parlance, that Gower in this case was signaling an argument with an attempt to persuade is quite clear.6 Married life is good, he says, adultery is bad, and here to prove it is a variety of cameos of the great and infamous, caught in flagrante and suffering the consequences. Thus technically we ought not think of the Traitié selonc les auctours pour essampler les amantz marietz as a “sequence,” at least not in the sense of Petrarch’s Canzonière or Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. The Traitié’s cameos develop no central characters, nor do they collectively narrate a larger story. The Cinkante Balades, however, do both. They therefore comprise a true poetic sequence, the first and only one known by an Englishman7 until Sidney’s three hundred years later. Sidney wrote Astrophil and Stella looking over his shoulder at Petrarch’s woeful song-and-sonnet “diary” of loving and losing Laura, and it is possible that a shadowy Petrarch lurks behind the Cinkante Balades as well. Certainly Chaucer’s Englishing of “S’amor non è” (Canzonière, poem 132) as Troilus’ song (Troilus and Criseyde I.400–20) suggests that Gower, too, despite our lack of evidence that he read Italian, could have been aware at least of the Petrarchan sequence, and learned from it how to embed a narrative within a collage of discreet poems.8

Whatever role, if any, Petrarch’s Canzonière may have played in Gower’s envisioning of the Traitié and the Cinkante Balades, it is nonetheless certain that, like their language, their major inspiration came from France, not Italy. Of the latter, one primary source, to be discussed below, was the vastly popular, multi-authored collection known as the Cent Balades. But most influential of all on Gower’s balades, and of course on Chaucer’s as well, were the examples of two contemporaries, Guillaume de Machaut and Eustache Deschamps, the latter of whom Chaucer, and perhaps Gower too, seems to have known.9 Both Machaut and Deschamps composed in many poetic forms, but in the end their apparent preference for the balade gave that structure its decades-long vogue. It is not going too far to posit that together their works and theories about writing account for Gower’s selection of balade form for the Traitié, the narrative arc of the Cinkante Balades, the faux epistolary style, the voices — perhaps even the personalities — of the Lover and his Lady, and the basic structure, in the Traitié, of three stanzas of seven lines each and no envoy, and in the Cinkante Balades, of three stanzas of eight lines each with a four-line envoy.

Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate how often Gower’s balades bear the fingerprints of his two great French contemporaries. Commentary following in notes to specific lines will show, for example, that his admiration for centonic appropriation, so variously prominent in his Latin poetry, extended to his French lyrics as well — a fact that may lay to rest at last two stubborn, interconnected speculations about what prompted his balade-making in the first place. Several among the few early readers in modern times of Gower’s balades found in them “evidence” — subject matter, images, sometimes even approximate lines — pointing to “troubadour influence.”10 The prospect that somehow Gower could have imagined himself a troubadour or a trouvère is urged by John H. Fisher, still Gower’s most insightful critic in many respects, to posit Gower’s membership in a London puy, a kind of poetic fraternity whose members strove each year to compose the finest poem in a predetermined genre, one of which was the balade.11 To be sure puys were relatively common in France, even in the latter fourteenth century, and detailed records recovered by Fisher remain from a London puy active in the thirteenth century.12 Short, however, of a fresh discovery linking Gower to something later (or, say, proof of his ability to own, or to read, Occitan books), it seems highly unlikely that troubadours, trouvères, or puys directly inspired any portion of either the Traitiè or the Cinkante Balades. Indirectly, of course, they play a role via their contributions to the larger tradition of amorous verse drawn on by Machaut and Deschamps — and through these latter, it is best to think, ultimately on Gower too. But certainly nothing “troubadour” turns up in Gower’s balades that cannot also be found, sometimes almost word for word, in the works of Deschamps, Machaut, and several of their French contemporaries.

Gower seems to have inhumed another lesson about the writing of balades from these poets as well, one worth mentioning since it is frequently overlooked, especially by new readers of his work. The Traitiè and the Cinkante Balades stand apart not only because they are Gower’s unique excursions into formes fixes, as far as we know, but also because there is no political cast to them at all. The Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis — the three great tomes decorating Gower’s monument — all concern themselves pointedly with social and political reform. So too do the Cronica Tripertita, “In Praise of Peace,” and most of his lesser verse in Latin. Clearly Gower put a high premium on this aspect of his art, and Petrarch’s example — if whatever partial acquaintance with the Canzonière Gower might have had ran deep enough — would have taught him how to introduce social and institutional criticism into the mix of his balades, had he wished to do so. That nothing of the sort appears either in the Traitiè or in the Cinkante Balades is therefore significant. It means that Gower had other, for him rather original, purposes for these poems. What these purposes may — or may not — have been will be addressed, along with matters of versification, dating, and manuscript provenance, in the separate discussions of each collection to follow.

Go To Traitié selonc les auctours pour essampler les amantz marietz, Introduction
Go To Traitié selonc les auctours pour essampler les amantz marietz
Go To Cinkante Balades, Introduction
Go To Cinkante Balades