Gower, Maker of Tales
To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come,
Assuming man's infirmities
To glad your ear, and please your eyes.
It hath been sung at festivals,
On ember-eves and holy-ales;
And lords and ladies in their lives
Have read it for restoratives:
The purchase is to make men glorious,
Et bonum quo antiquius, eo melius.1
If you, born in these latter times,
When wit's more ripe, accept my rimes,
And that to hear an old man sing
May to your wishes pleasure bring,
I life would wish, and that I might
Waste it for you like taper-light.
I tell you what mine authors say.
— William Shakespeare, Pericles, I.Prol.1-16; 202
Scripture veteris capiunt exempla futuri,
Nam dabit experta res magis esse fidem.
[Writings of antiquity contain examples for the future,
For a thing experienced will afford greater faith.]
— Vox Clamantis, Prol. to Book I, lines 1-23
Thanne telle I hem ensamples many oon
Of olde stories longe tyme agoon.
For lewed peple loven tales olde;
Swiche thynges kan they wel reporte and holde.
— Chaucer's Pardoner, CT VI(C)435-384
For Gower, old tales and their power to shape a "lewed peple" (to quote the Pardoner) are not something to be scorned.5
Tales enable the mind to rethink itself. Coming as they do from outside one's immediate consciousness, they embody a culture's sense of order and help to place the reader within the ethical terms of the culture. They clarify the meanings of right and wrong and thus can serve as the restorative of which Shakespeare's Gower speaks. Tales forge identities. The Confessio Amantis
, like the "writings of antiquity" that Gower mentions in the Vox Clamantis
, is written to provide a bridge between the past and an anticipated future, a bridge that gives its audience a better sense of the present.6
As Gower explains, the reading of old tales affords its participants "a thing experienced" (experta
), a means of testing knowledge personally the way one might momentarily test any kind of sensual information, whether from nature or parchment, by trying it out in the mind to find out how it might be true.7
In the Confessio
, the experiencing of a tale equates with testing it. Each tale demarcates a trial through which one has the potential to learn and grow. In this sense, the plots of Gower's stories are deliberately experiential
. They are about
experience, but likewise they provide examples to be tested in the mind
. Their plots develop through choices made by characters who, like the readers assessing them, anticipate some hoped-for denouement.8
Gower thinks within concepts of knowing that are ancient, though mainly articulated in the fourteenth century by writers steeped in the ideas of St. Augustine, who explored relentlessly the illusions people spin about themselves as they explore the interstices between time, memory, experience, consciousness of the present, and one's relationship with language.9
All such ideas are crucial to Gower the storyteller.10
In his attempt to understand temporal relationships and the psyche, Augustine takes his example from literary experience, as if reading affords the best means of perceiving how time and mind work:
Say I am about to recite a psalm. Before I start, my anticipation includes the psalm in its entirety, but as I recite it, whatever I have gone over, detaching it from anticipation, is retained by memory. So my ongoing act is tugged [distenditur] between the memory of what I just said and the anticipation of what I am just about to say, though I am immediately engaged in the present transit from what was coming to what is past. As this activity works itself out, anticipation dwindles as memory expands, until anticipation is canceled and the whole transaction is lodged in memory. And what happens with the whole psalm is equally what happens with each verse of it, each syllable — and with the whole long liturgy of which the psalm may be a part, or with the whole of any man's life, whose parts are his own acts, or with the whole world, whose parts are the acts of men.11
Augustine privileges reading as a synecdoche for the mind's capacity to create a present in relation to the confines of the past and the anticipation of the future. Such a practice provides a useful substructure for Gower's ideas about tale-telling in relation to the moral goals of his Confessio
. The present he wishes to understand is perpetually transitive. His tales are parts of a whole that offer diverse access to the present. In the Confessio
tales testify through fiction what the case may be.12
Gower's conceptualization of literary "experience" as useful testimony compares well with Chaucer's. In the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women
, Chaucer, like Gower, honors books as a key of "remembraunce," observing, "Wel ought us thanne honouren and beleve / These bokes, there [where] we han noon other preve" (LGW
Prologue, F.26-28). Initially, the juxtaposition seems to be between the experience of reading and that of daily practical experience, as if to say, we believe books until some better empirical proof may be found.13
But upon reflection "the other preve" is, like a thing experienced (experta
), better understood as the testing of any deeper understanding or perceptual revision, whether practical or theoretical. That is, books are understood mainly in the head; but so too is nature. Both nature and books are texts that perplex the viewer. Belief and thought are not, however, binary oppositions; rather, thought, with its perpetual reinvention of both past and present, challenges and sustains belief, whether in Gower or Chaucer.14
Like Vox Clamantis
and much of Chaucer's poetry, Confessio Amantis
is deliberately a bookish poem, rooted in old texts — scripture veteris
. But it is likewise empirical, albeit within the fictive framework of an imagined "lover of the world" quizzed by a responsive intellect, a "genius" that puts to the test memory in response to history (the texts of the past). Rooted in old texts, this testimonial confession is a poem of
the present, a poem for King Richard now
in 1390 or for England in 1392.15
This precise historical positioning introduces a philosophical proposition akin to the problematics of understanding experience. Janet Coleman sees this locating of texts within specific historical contexts as a new and distinguishing feature of later fourteenth-century English literature.16
The point is, of course, not simply to locate fiction within historical contexts; rather, it is part of an attempt to explore the relativity of time itself to fictive formulations within the mind. The mind is a perpetual plot-maker as it invents narratives it imagines to be the present (the way things are at the moment) within a metaphysic of temporality. In this regard, the Confessio
, like so many other late-fourteenth-century poems,17
creates a fiction of soul-searching. But it is soul-searching of a special kind. Gower's argument takes as its goal the accessing of the present by reconfiguring the past. Although the poem is ostensibly textual — that is, an interweaving of old maxims, proverbs, tales, social propositions, political alignments — it is also a subtly psychological work, a poem that through its rhetoric explores how
the human psyche can understand itself within history — now
Gower is the first English writer to use "history" as an English word.18
He regularly rhymes the term with "memory," for to his way of thinking history and memory are correlative. That is, without history, there can be no memory; and without memory, there can be no history. But the point of historical knowledge is not to enable people to live in the past, or even to understand the past in the way we would expect a modern historian to proceed; rather, it is to enable people to live more vitally in the present — "The present time which now is" (CA
8.258), as Gower puts it. The present is, for Gower, a state of mind every bit as much as the past or future must be. And it is for this reason that the tales must be told and "experienced." Just as the past must be perpetually reinvented (and Gower is a master at such invention), so too must the present be perpetually reinvented if one is to have any notion of oneself in a locatable way. One claims the present by locating it within the terms of memory. In his tale-telling, Gower enters into a refined phenomenology where time, history, memory, and a fictionalizing of the past make discourse of the "now"-world presentable.
In Confessio Amantis
, Gower is preeminently a storyteller. Through the voice of the poet and Genius, his surrogate contact with practical matters and the wisdom of antiquity, Gower revitalizes a treasury of old tales, thereby provisioning his new vessel with reclaimed ideas — a "tally" of tales for taking mental stock of the natural order of things.19
Like Chaucer's Pardoner, who shrewdly uses tales to influence people — "For lewed peple loven tales olde" (CT
VI[C]437) — Gower conjures old tales as a means of wooing an audience toward a confessional self-reassessment. Like the Pardoner, he is well aware that people use stories to "reporte and holde" (CT
VI[C]438). He is also aware that tales can deceive. Genius' stories are full of manipulators, who, like the Pardoner, tell tales as a means of satisfying their greed; in fact, Gower creates some of Middle English literature's most notorious deceivers, characters like Mundus in the Tale of Mundus and Paulina in Book 1 or Nectanabus in Book 6. But unlike Genius' villains or Chaucer's Pardoner, Gower's motive is not venal. That is, his tales are bound to the good intention of the teller and what he imagines the desirous intentions of his audience to be. Certainly Gower would entertain, but he is shrewdly aware that he has little control over his willful readers. He can only woo them and attempt to manipulate their responses through his rhetoric. The tales, he says, are to be "Somwhat of lust [pleasure], somewhat of lore [wisdom]" (Prol.19).20
But, inevitably, his intention is intuitive — a feeling that people commonly yearn for the good and that the soul's welfare is generative within the outlines of a Christian doctrine that conforms with the goals of his society at large.
This earnest side of Gower's intention received adverse criticism in the early part of the twentieth century, which tended to view him as a moralist, rather than as a poet of the first rank. But more recently the challenge of writing moral verse artfully has been better appreciated. John Fisher praises Gower's "absolute integrity, his coherent grasp of the ideals of his day, and his fearless expression of the moral judgments growing out of those ideals."21
In his Vox Clamantis
, a poem written c. 1378-82, Gower spoke as a moralist, delineating the ideals of social behavior through the genre of complaint. In the Confessio
(c. 1386-90) he now offers a new, more subtle formulation where moral assessment takes place through the nuances of fiction. As Kurt Olsson puts it, "This poem is as effectively moral in its 'game' as it is in its earnestness, and in both things together Gower will challenge and ultimately reward the careful reader."22
Gower's tales stand as "ensamples" for stock-taking and are central to the poem's overall strategy of using entertainment for the winning of mental health and God's pardon. Though his own intention is good, Gower knows that the success of that triangulation between writer, text, and reader, and therefore the success of his whole enterprise, lies in the relativity of language and the intention of his reader.
For Gower, the value of a tale resides in its capacity to take its audience some place. Plots, like time, move, and they move people, stretching their feelings, as Augustine puts it23
; they lay out an ethical geography and provide direction through an imaginary terrain. But the direction is never single-dimensional. The poem speaks with many voices simultaneously — the voices of Genius the confessor and Amans the lover, and with the voices of all the characters within the examples. These fictive voices are framed by another more subtle fiction, the voice of John Gower the poet, with his concerns about the welfare of England. Just as the voicing of the poem is multidimensional, so too are its settings. Sometimes the settings may be specifically identified places or times, or they may lie in the spaces between Genius' attempts to guide Amans in his confusion and erratic love and his efforts to account for that love. Although the voicing of "Gower the poet" functions in a narrative parameter within the poem larger than that of Genius, the poet's frame "story" is, nonetheless, akin to Genius' confessional scheme in that the "poet," like Genius, wishes to take his audience simultaneously in two directions: 1) toward a better understanding of the commonweal of the state, and 2) toward a better understanding of the welfare of the soul.
Reading as Therapy
Confession nurses by healing the cracks in the psyche which have come about through the degenerative anxieties of time and careless beholding. The one confessing must provide a narrative for his chaotic behavior, a “tale” that can be read and weighed by the interrogator. To approach the psychological demands of the poem, Gower introduces a debate between competing mental components — Amans, Venus, Genius, a mistress of the imagination who never appears but is ever yearned for, a forgotten sense of common profit, and so on — who are personified to give testimony to the ramifications of ill health. Augustine discusses the mental faculties at length, providing a terminological basis for analysis of aberrant human behavior, particularly of the brain enfeebled by the Fall.24
Augustine argues that the mind of humankind was created to reflect the Trinity and thus consists of three principal agents: Memory, Intellect, and Will.25
Early in his writing Augustine sees the Intellect (cognate with the Second Person) as the superior faculty upon whose right use healthy human behavior depends; later, as his theology becomes increasingly subtle, he shifts the primary focus of problems in human behavior to the Will (cognate with the Third Person).26
It is to the later writings of Augustine that the fourteenth century, with its latent distrust of reason (though not of Christ), found itself most attracted. With the new fourteenth-century emphasis on empirical thought and an individual’s responsibility for personal governance, attention in ethics is increasingly concentrated on free choice and the struggle to assess the intermingling of desire and moral behavior.
Augustine’s focus on willful behavior was developed by Boethius into questions of intent,27
which relocate Will (love) as a function of heart as well as brain. Intention is bound to desire — what one wants and wills — and often develops from an imagined deficiency that one wishes to remedy. By the eleventh century “brain science” had developed spatial models of the brain which are akin to Augustine’s, but with some modifications deriving from Galen.28
Medieval diagrams of the brain introduce a new faculty to Augustine’s scheme, imaginativa
, which functions as a cognitive server for intellect and memory. A representative account of brain functions may be found in Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum
, written before 1250, but translated into English by John Trevisa in the later fourteenth century:
The innere witte is departid aþre [into three] by þre regiouns of þe brayn, for in þe brayn beþ þre smale celles. Þe formest [the frontal cell] hatte [is called] ymaginatiua, þerin þinges þat þe vttir [outer] witte [i.e., the senses] apprehendiþ withoute beþ i-ordeyned and iput togedres withinne. . . . Þe middil chambre hatte logica þerin þe vertu estimatiue is maister. Þe þridde and þe laste is memoratiua, þe vertu of mynde. Þat vertu holdiþ and kepiþ in þe tresour of mynde þingis þat beþ apprehendid and iknowe by þe ymaginatif and racio.29
works with intuitions from the senses to create the mental experience of images in the brain, separate from the external forms. Under the influence of will, ymaginative
can combine forms into new forms not found in nature. In some brain diagrams the first cell is subdivided between sensus communis
This image-making component of the brain is particularly attuned to sight and hearing.31
Gower draws upon the concept when he discusses the primacy of sight and hearing as the senses most influential in cognition. As he puts it in the Latin verses early in Book 1, before line 289: Visus et auditus fragilis sunt ostia mentis
, “Vision and hearing are fragile gateways of the mind.” Genius then goes on to excoriate abuse of these two senses which are deemed crucial to understanding.
As a personification in the Confessio
, Genius is closely related to the frontal lobe of the brain, ymaginative
, as he presents and manipulates images while putting tales together. In Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale, St. Cecile explains to Tiburce the “sapiences three” of the brain — “Memorie, engyn, and intellect also” (VIII[G]338–39). “Engyn,” derived from ingenium
, is that tale’s term for imaginative
, a term in whose jurisdiction Genius is an evident component. In Gower, Genius is the principal agent of therapy as he presents tales to the willful Amans in hope of engaging his intellect. Gower develops Genius from two well-known medieval counterparts, one in Alanus de Insulis’ De Planctu Naturae
and the other in Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose
. In these two antecedents Genius represents a combination of natural reason, ingenuity (what we would call invention or “creativity”), and procreativity. He is subservient to Nature, and Nature, being God’s creation, is essentially good. That she is subject to time and mortality is not her fault, but rather humankind’s, who, in sinning, act “unnaturally.” There is an essential ambiguity here: desire is natural and may lead to natural fulfillment; or, if ungoverned (i.e., willful), it may lead to “unnatural” disaster. The rightness of desire depends upon the functions of both will and intention. Genius looks after Nature’s mortal creatures; he is pleased when each finds satisfaction proper to its created purpose. So too in Gower, where Genius’ primary means for judging behavior is to decide whether an act is natural or “unkynde.” Genius is a most felicitous choice for analyzing the witless love crimes of Amans against Nature. It is to Genius that Amans must turn for penance, since, in his idleness, “genius” and his right use of inward visualization are what have become twisted.32
The confessor, with his “lust and lore,” attempts to help Amans re-create a more balanced view of himself.
Within the strictures of Gower’s psychomachia, Genius serves as Venus’ priest, but this does not make him necessarily subservient to her or even entirely sympathetic with her motives. In Alanus, Venus and her son Cupid help Genius to fulfill his office of replenishing Nature (that is to say, the sexual urge for singular pleasure which Venus and Cupid instill in creatures does help Nature to reproduce her kind). But although Gower’s Genius enjoys the assistance of Venus and the god of love, he nevertheless objects scornfully to their selfish demands when they turn natural love into unnatural fantasies or mutually exclusive and unfruitful games. In fact, from the beginning of the poem it is clear that his interests are more imaginative than Venus’. He will speak of more things than love, at least love as cupidinous Amans has come to define the term. Usually he tells tales pertaining to specific sins, then, at Amans’ request, tells additional tales pertaining to the lover’s particular relationship with the sin. In order to help Amans see beyond his infatuation, Genius will, as the poem progresses, ultimately instruct him in all the humanities. The climax of his argument is Book 7, in which he explains the education of a king, lessons in governance which Amans must learn if he is to reclaim and rule the lost kingdom of his soul. Genius knows that love founded on mutuality, on what both Gower and Chaucer (among others) call “common profit,” is the only love that is consistently satisfactory. Although Genius’ understanding of higher love is limited, he can appreciate it as history has revealed it, just as Jean de Meun’s Genius appreciates without fully understanding the “beau parc” of the good shepherd with its “fontaine de vie” toward the end of Roman de la Rose
. Most certainly he can see from his natural vantage point that in the events of human behavior the love of Cupid is inconstant and that that of Venus usually ends in mockery. History demonstrates that this is so. That Venus would send Amans to Genius is understandable, however, in that she owes her very existence to the phenomena of time and nature over which Genius has perceptual jurisdiction.
Genius provides the impetus for Amans’ therapy. His tales serve as a visual guide for the inner eye.33
But the therapy itself can take place only through Amans’ choices, under the guidance of his memory and intellect. Just as the first cell of the brain is subdivided into sensus communis
, likewise the second cell, that of the intellect, is divided into two parts too, namely phantasia
. Intellect enables humankind to reason, estimate, and calculate. Some diagrams of the brain refer to this cell as the residence of logica
, others of ratio
. This cell too is subject to will and intention. Phantasia
is an especially volatile area and, like reason, can be perverse. That is, through misintent reason can become ratiocination, and fantasy, instead of providing a godlike, generative function, can become a foolish wishfulfiller of the sort that the lover commits himself so strongly to in the middle books of the Confessio
, where he projects scenario after scenario on how he will win his lady or humiliate his opponents.
The third cell, memoria
, which Augustine had compared to God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity from which all else comes, is more than simply a storehouse of past recollections. For Gower, memory is central to his psychopharmicon whereby, as in Boethius, the whole process of therapy might be seen as self-recovery after a severe case of forgetfulness.34
Memory and motive are linked by Triumphus Augustinus de Anchona and others, motiva
being the impulse toward the good that is deep-seated in memory. Augustine had linked the idea to what he called divine illumination, a Platonic recollection of eternity and divine purpose with which every person is born and for which every person unwittingly yearns. In the Confessions
, Augustine uses container metaphors to describe memory — a treasury or storehouse, a vast hall (X.viii.14), caves and caverns (X.xvi.20), or “the stomach of the mind” (X.xiv.21–22).35
Although, as we have seen, it may be difficult to realize the present within time, it certainly may be realized in memory, where a whole lifetime may be present, except for what is lost by forgetfulness (see Augustine,Confessions
X.xvi.24). Memory is “an awe-inspiring mystery . . . a power of profound and infinite multiplicity,” Augustine observes (X.xvii.26). For everyone, the desire for happiness is located in the memory. Memory enables the mind to put fragments together and in this regard is a primary source of happiness in the processes of therapy (see Confessions
X.xx.29–xxv.31–32). Of all faculties, memory, more than any other, makes possible the grasp of numbers that helps satisfy the soul’s need for right order.
Boethius and Augustine emphasize that confession is remembering. So too in Gower, where memory provides the key to Amans’ restoration. It is his means of reclaiming his forgotten, natural self in order that he may be released from its fantastic, willfully unnatural substitutions. The Confessio
begins by asserting that lore of the past needs to be drawn into “remembrance” (Prol.69, 93); by remembering we begin not only to perceive the agencies by which men have corrupted themselves but also to rediscover the meaning of “common profit.” Repeatedly, Genius emphasizes that the tales are to be held in remembrance, and Amans again and again asks to be questioned so that he might recall what he has forgotten. The process of forgetting, confessing, and remembering is neatly epitomized in the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, based on Daniel 4. Gower places the story near the end of Book 1, as a model of therapy. In a vision Nebuchadnezzar saw what his fate would be if he continued in his vainglorious pride. He called Daniel to him, who explained what the dream meant. But the king forgot; he let the counsel “passe out of his mynde” (1.2951). The consequence of his forgetfulness is loss of human status. He is turned into a dumb ox and for seven years eats grass, drinks from the slough, and sleeps among the bushes, until finally he remembers what he has lost and prays for forgiveness. He makes a covenant with God and vows to follow humility, at which point, in the twinkling of an eye, just as he reformed his mind so too his body is reformed. Needless to say, when he returned to his throne he remembered to reform his behavior as a king also. Only his vainglory he forgot: “Evere afterward out of memoire / He let it passe”(1.3038–39).
Gower presents memory as the Lover’s means of drawing the loose ends of his distracted self together. Memory enables him to see himself wholly. The antithesis of memory and unified vision is forgetfulness and “divisioun.”36
In the Prologue Gower uses the metaphor of division extensively to depict the decrepitude of fourteenth-century England. For Gower, sin is intimately tied to his concepts of memory and time. Sin equates with forgetting. Forgetting is the mind’s willful divergence from the ordained order of things. As Gower puts it, sin is “moder of divisioun” (Prol.1030), and division is “moder of confusioun” (Prol.852). Time as we know it began with the Fall. As “moder of divisioun” sin substitutes illusion in place of divine presence. Genius’ therapeutic tales are designed to provoke memory and serve as an antidote that makes possible the objectifying of illusion so that the deluded sinner might regain control of a just sense of being. By providing a position outside one’s “confusioun,” therapeutic tale-telling helps to make possible a reconsideration of the self-deceit of sin.37
To forget one’s ordained purpose is to disintegrate into disjunctive fragments. Gower’s favorite emblem of disintegration, an emblem he used in Vox Clamantis
as well as the Confessio
, he took from Daniel 2: the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the monster of time, with its head of gold, chest of silver, belly of brass, and legs and feet of iron and clay (Prol.585 ff.).38
Gower places the narrative immediately after his critique of the three estates. Although most of the scribes of Gower manuscripts place an image of the dreaming Nebuchadnezzar at the beginning of the story (c. lines 578–96), the illustrator of the Fairfax 3 manuscript begins the poem with the image, as if to establish the Prologue’s central theme (see figure 2), namely, the degeneration of time in the divisive decades in England at the end of the fourteenth century. Like others, the Fairfax illustrator depicts the king asleep, dreaming of a monster who towers over him. Significantly, the monster is in the shape of man for, as Gower explains, the corruption of time is the consequence of man’s severance from God: “al this wo is cause of man,” who is himself “the lasse world” (Prol.905 ff.). Like the Bodley 294 illustrator, the Fairfax illustrator follows the marginal gloss to lines Prol.1031–41 and picks up the detail from Daniel 2:34 that tells of a great stone cut from the mountain not by human hand that will crush to powder the clay feet of the monster (see illustrations 2 and 4). In both illustrations, the boulder hurtles toward the statue at that apocalyptic moment when time and the monstrosity of sin will instantly be destroyed and time and sin shall be no more.39
In the text of the poem, as Genius introduces the story of Nebuchadnezzar, he reminds the reader of a perspective beyond time, where sits
The hyhe almyhti pourveance foreknowledge
In whos eterne remembrance
Fro ferst was every thing present. (Prol.585-87)
As people become increasingly forgetful, they lose that sense of the present to become progressively divided from God and eternal memory. Gower extends Daniel’s exposition on the vanity of princes beyond that of the Bible so that it reaches even into the fourteenth century. The clay feet epitomize wars with France and civil strife in England as bitter divisions within Christendom crumble into such factions as the Great Schism and Lollardy.
By analogy, these times of division apply to “the lasse world” of the lover, as well. Through metaphors of division Gower links the romance plot of Books 1–8 with the estates critique of the Prologue. Like England, Amans too is a state at war with itself, unable to arrive at a treaty suitable to the demands of its many factions. He is, indeed, his own worst enemy. Toward the end of his confession, Genius will compare him to a burning stick that reduces itself to ashes.
Intimately related to Gower’s views on memory and division are his views on poetry. He concludes his discussion of Nebuchadnezzar’s monster of time with the story of Arion, the bard whose song was so sweet that it restored peace wherever it was heard:
. . . of so good mesure
He song, that he the bestes wilde
Made of his note tame and milde,
The hinde in pes with the leoun,
The wolf in pes with the moltoun,
The hare in pees stod with the hound;
And every man upon this ground
Which Arion that time herde,
Als wel the lord as the schepherde,
He broghte hem alle in good acord;
So that the comun with the lord,
And lord with the comun also,
He sette in love bothe tuo
And putte awey malencolie. (Prol.1056-69)
citizenry (common people)
This second exemplum that concludes the Prologue functions with a thrust opposite to the fractiousness of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, introducing a poetic of amelioration within which the poem operates for the betterment of humankind. The poet is society’s rememberer who sees with a unified vision to charm people out of their melancholy and “divisioun.” He teaches people to laugh, not hate (Prol.1071). Gower must surely have seen his own purpose in the example. His poem, like the music of Arion, or like the songs of Apollonius and his daughter Thaise in Book 8, would provide therapy in troubled times. We shall see, in fact, that before the poem is over even Amans will smile and become England’s poet.
Gower's Rhetoric of Abridgment: The "middel weie"
Gower’s rhetorical strategy claims to locate the argument of his English poem along a “middel weie” (Prol.17), a pathway between
rigorous instruction and entertainment. One might make much of the “in-betweenness” of Gower’s poem. The Confessio
mediates between audience and idea. But it is also in-between in its fictional relativity. Gower is sometimes labeled old-fashioned and conservative in his ethics,40
but there are ways in which quite the opposite is the case. Gower’s method is part of a radically new fourteenth-century philosophy of reading (albeit based on ancient literary principles), a method that might be labeled phenomenological epistemology, where one knows mainly by exploring spaces between
fictions. His radical epistemology is akin to Chaucer’s where the poet presents his persona as a figure caught indeterminately between magnets of equal strength (Parliament of Fowls
, lines 148–49); or Boccaccio, attempting to know truth through fiction;41
or Langland learning truth through peregrinations amidst the false; or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing
attempting to unknow what is “known” because of the limitations of realizable knowledge. A middle way can never be stable. It is always configured by what it is between. Yet this relativity of middling may be the only means through which stability can be imagined in a temporal world. Betweenness is inevitably a matter of metonymy, where the name of one thing is used to get at the features of another. It should come as no surprise that the subjunctive mood is more prominent in Gower’s poem than the imperative. Through its fictive propositions, the Confessio
is more a study in possibilities than in moral certainties.
To travel his “middel weie” Gower claims that the style of his English poem, like that which is proper to confession, will be “plein” (see 1.357); that is, “me liketh to comune / And pleinly for to telle it oute” (1.70–71) in order to make the message more accessible to an untutored as well as a clerkish audience. From its stylistic medial point, the Prologue addresses all three estates; that is, although initially dedicated to the king, this poem addresses all people — the lewed as well as the learned. Its primary themes are similar to those of Chaucer in his contemporaneous ballade, “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” with its strongly Boethian hope for security of place rather than permutation, stability rather than fickleness, truth rather than deceit, pity and mercy toward fellow men rather than covetousness and oppression. Chaucer’s appeal to King Richard in the envoy to that poem puts the matter succinctly: “Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse, / And wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse” (lines 27–28) — all themes recurrent in Gower.
In the Confessio
, Genius’ tales often admonish, but the strength of Gower’s proposition, like Chaucer’s, is that tales do have the capacity to “wed” people in a tie that, despite turbulent times, could reunite social practices with ideologies. The fickle divisions within the state and within the soul perpetually require mending. Gower would have his tales participate in that remedy. When read carefully they may help to provide the only therapy possible for heart and soul, a therapy that comes from one’s own assessment of the fictionally mediated experience. That is, the moral effect of Gower’s argument can only be found in the most uncertain realm of all — the inceptive intuitions of his audience. How the audience will respond, Gower can only guess, and, like Chaucer, pray for the reader’s good intent.42
As Gower puts it in Book 8, “kep the sentence of my lore . . . [and] go ther vertu moral duelleth” (8.2923–25),43
a sentiment exactly in keeping with the ethical economy of both Gower and Chaucer. But “keeping” is, he knows, a tricky business.
Part of the moral strength of the Confessio
lies in Gower’s mastery of his craft, a mastery of design that tallies the smallest of details. Measure defines his verses, a concept pivotal to the poem’s utopian vision. There is a singing quality to Gower’s tales. Indeed, in this poem he writes some of the most mellifluous, precisely measured verse in Middle English.44
This textual richness contributes well to the keeping of the sense. Likewise, Genius’ tales always have a strong storyline — a sense of going some place. His plots are as rich in invention and as carefully crafted as the narratives of the ancients rediscovered by Genius for his (and Gower’s) particular purposes. He has, moreover, a keen awareness of differences of voice not only between characters and levels of fiction, but between himself and all constructed versions of himself as poet.45
C. S. Lewis points out, “Gower everywhere shows a concern for form and unity which is rare at any time and which, in the fourteenth century in England, entitles him to all but the highest praise. He is determined to get in all the diversity of interests which he found in his model, and even to add to them his own new interest of tale-telling; but he is also determined to knit all these together into some semblance of a whole.”46
We should not think of this “whole” as an aesthetic absolute, however, though his poem certainly is well constructed. Its aesthetic is shaped not so much by its completeness as by its tangential probing. The tangents may contradict one another, though they proceed from common questions. From beginning to end, the Confessio
is a cluster of tales (texts and propositions) that require one to respond. It is a poem best understood as a sequence of queries rather than an anthology of answers.
The Genre of the Confessio Amantis
In setting up his romance narrative Gower creates an expository frame that, in the manner of complaint, excoriates the ills of the world as they are manifest in the three estates, and then, in the end, he returns to the persona of “John Gower” to pray for the welfare of the kingdom.47
All but two of the tales are found in the “framed” portion of the poem, where Gower moves more intricately into his multilayered fiction. The two exceptions are the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue of degenerative time (Prol.585–880), followed by the story of Arion (Prol.1053–88). Both tales are exemplary of key issues in the Prologue, namely, 1) the destructive effects of divisiveness in modern times, and 2) the need for imaginative amelioration through restorative tales. As we have seen, they identify the critical and salvific concepts that support the basic thesis of the poem’s progress.
The interior section of the poem (Books 1–8), composed in the genre of confession/ consolation, presents hundreds of tales in diverse subgenres drawn from dozens of sources and organized in terms of the seven deadly sins. Recent critics have referred to Gower as a “compiler,” an archivist who collects examples according to some system of organization.48
It is a useful term, since Gower several times refers to himself as compilator
in his Latin marginalia. But “compiler” scarcely gets at the poetic vision Gower is attempting to construct. Kurt Olsson has demonstrated a shift in terminology from compiler to author as the poem progresses, suggesting that Gower is becoming aware of what his work is capable of accomplishing as he gets further into it.49
It may well be that the shift in terminology is part of the poem’s dramatic design. What seems initially to be compilation — a treasury of lore for a culture-hungry audience — becomes upon reflection something much more “original.” Every act of memory is a step toward originality as details of the past are reviewed. Gower must have been acutely aware of this creative dramatic process from the outset. I can think of no instance in which a “story” is simply retold as it is found in its source. Sometimes the transformations are broad, like his rewriting of the Tale of Narcissus; sometimes they are subtle, as in his adapting of biblical accounts. But the old material is always reworked according to his plan and re-presented, one might say, according to the new contexts of the present world. Divisive times require prolific exempla as remedy, along with a good bit of wit. Through the several personae that Gower manipulates one is perpetually alerted to what Anthony Farnham refers to as the poet’s “keen awareness of the didactic value of misdirected seriousness” and an “almost perverse comic sense.”50
The later fourteenth-century literary scene in England, newly attuned to incipient strategies of history, delights in diversity of signification. In rhetoric and the arts it is a time of multiple signifiers,51
where, instead of this
being equitable with that
, the sign is equivocal, linked provocatively with this
, and several others
Gower himself is a master at multiple voicing. A tale may be read one way in terms of its immediate context, another way in relation to its source, another still in relation to its narrator (usually Genius), or in a further way in terms of Amans’ prejudicial response to the tale; and finally it must be read in terms of the historical Gower and the several purposes of the whole poem.53
Gower is perpetually conscious of the relativity of meaning to the different voices in his poem along with the alterable meanings of signs in relation to their sources and contexts. This hermeneutic of conditional perception anchored in diverse suppositions underlies the flexible choices of genre through which he makes particular statements.
There is, however, a distinctly definable plot to the fictive section of the poem — namely, the “tale” of Amans in debate with Genius. In a broad view, the Confessio Amantis
is one of several Middle English poems that may be classified as poems of consolation. It is a genre with a powerful philosophical appeal to the later fourteenth century. The confessional aspect of the genre owes much to St. Augustine though, in the fourteenth century, the principal model behind the soul-searching is Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy
. The likenesses of the group (which includes poems such as Pearl
, Usk’s Testament of Love
, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess
, The Parliament of the Three Ages
, and, in a more complex way, Langland’s Piers Plowman
) lie in both subject matter and plot structure. Frequently consolation poems are dream visions, though the Boethian model is technically not a dream vision (nor is the Confessio Amantis
, for that matter),54
but rather a projected condition of displacement. In each the primary subject is the narrator’s restless state of mind, which may, in turn, reflect upon some unstable social situation. The plot is the narrator/dreamer’s search for repose, a search which, given the contingencies of time, can never be completed with full satisfaction. Given the uncertainty of circumstances, the means of argument within the plot is confrontational as well as confessional.55
The skeletal structure of a Boethian consolation plot normally follows four main steps.56
1) There will be an opening description of the narrator’s physiological confusion and spiritual inertia, his displacement and alienation. His psychological turmoil will be presented as an illness he suffers within Fortune’s domain. Usually, the illness will manifest itself in some form of death wish. The invalid may express a desire for help, but at the same time acknowledge that he does not know where to find it. 2) The distracted, dis-eased narrator will then perform some act of choice that will precipitate a change of scene, whereupon new “characters” will appear which are projections of different fragments of his anxious self or his environment. The new setting is now in the realm of the mind, where the heart of the quest will take place. 3) The argument of the poem will be conducted through dialogue between the narrator and the new characters. This multiplication of voicing is the most elastic part of the genre. It enables the poet to explore conditional propositions through the suppositions of each, thus opening for the reader an intellectual playground in which problems may be dramatized. It is here and in the conclusion that the author will exercise the most originality as he chooses particular devices suitable to the intention of the argument. But regardless of the device, whether it be a hart hunt as in The Book of the Duchess
, a walk beside a river coming from Paradise as in Pearl
, a hunt by a poacher in a deep wood as in The Parliament of the Three Ages
, a search for salvation amidst a field full of folk as in Piers Plowman
, or a confessional debate with Genius as in the Confessio Amantis
, the argument will most likely begin with questions of identity, such as “What or who am I?” “Where am I?” or “What is the trouble with my soul?” It will then progress through a series of partial revelations (tales, if you will) which present themselves dramatically and bear some similarity to Boethius’ baring of his wound in order that Philosophy might apply the appropriate medicine. 4) The analysis and therapy will end with a tense moment in which the disturbed persona will waver, then achieve a revelation, usually partial, that will precipitate his return to the dilemma that initiated the search. The narrator may still be baffled by the meaning of the dreamlike experience, but he will, at least, have a better sense of what is at stake.
The Confessio Amantis
is organized along the lines I have outlined, though Gower will, as we shall see, exercise a great deal of ingenuity in working within them. His most radical change is the introduction of a complex social analogue in the frame narrative that qualifies readings within the romance plot. Such a scheme is highly ambitious and even daring57
as Gower attempts to conjoin social criticism presented in a nonfictional mode with fiction. At least the effect leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about Gower’s convictions regarding the urgency of his argument; we find ourselves dealing with England as well as the Lover,58
aware that the two are somehow interconnected. Since this political side of the poem’s frame narrative is likely to give modern readers of the Confessio
the greatest difficulty, I will preface my discussion of the poem’s romance structure with an attempt to locate the concerns of the poem within the divisive political circumstances of the late 1380s to which the Prologue and the conclusion to the frame allude.
Politics and Society
The Prologue focuses emphatically on division within the state as cause of the woes of the times. As a social document the Confessio
is securely anchored in the time of its origins — Gower has seen to that. The social concerns are not simply conservative or aristocratic,59
though conservation of social structures is, for Gower, a primary concern. Few poets have been so deeply committed to the welfare of present times as Gower. That commitment was evident in his Anglo-Norman Mirour de l’Omme
, where he first assesses English society within a gridwork of sins and remedies. Likewise, in his subsequent Latin work, the Vox Clamantis
, one finds a comparable commitment toward understanding aberrations of the present time. Both of these earlier works are devoted to discursive analysis of the layout of social and political culture. The welfare of the kingdom remains a focal concern of the Confessio Amantis
, especially in the Prologue and in the diatribe against war in Book 3 (Wrath), the discussions of labor in Book 4 (Sloth), of religion in Book 5 (Avarice), in the extended discourse on the pedagogy of the king of Book 7, and, finally, in the appeal for good rule in the conclusion to Book 8.60
But the Confessio Amantis
is more densely layered than Gower’s earlier works. The frame narrative and the digressions of Books 4, 5, and 7, lay out what Gower perceives the sociological problems of the day to be, particularly factious aggressions within the three estates that disrupt the commonweal, peace, and unity.
In 1390, when Gower first completed and began circulating Confessio Amantis
, England was at a relatively quiet moment between two turbulent decades. Peace after turbulence is indeed a concern of Gower’s poem, from its beginning to its conclusion.61
To a Londoner like Gower, living close to the seat of England’s government, the decade of the 1380s had been an extended nightmare. The decade had begun with pervasive economic and political crises that led to the Uprising of 1381, a bloody protest that, as it descended upon London, reverberated through all levels of society but solved little. Gower might well have witnessed the burning of John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace and the siege of the Tower from his residence at St. Mary Overeys, across the river in Southwark. When young King Richard had shown his mettle in facing the rebels in Smithfield,62
it must have seemed a demonstration of royal courage that Gower would have admired greatly, an action that might well have added a note of sincerity to the dedication to Richard in the Prologue and concluding dedication of the Confessio
But the king had reason to admire Gower in return, which may have been a factor in his inviting the poet onto his royal barge (see Prol.*24–*92, the first recension account of the particular occasion out of which the Confessio
grew). Earlier, in the late 1370s, Gower had attempted to address the factiousness of that “disastrous decade”63
by means of the Vox Clamantis
(c. 1377–81), a precautionary complaint against greed and private aggrandizement among the aristocracy as well as the unruly behavior manifested by the dissidents. In the 1370s the executive government of Edward III had been attacked on all sides by often vicious factions that assailed the clerical ministers of state, impeached the king’s chamberlain and a number of lesser officials, murdered the chancellor and treasurer, and indiscriminately massacred officers of the law and minor civil servants. In the Vox
, Gower’s attack on such behavior is forthright and carefully reasoned, albeit in Latin. The social critique of Vox Clamantis
was read primarily by ecclesiasts and men of law, though it must also have been known to some in the royal court and perhaps even the king himself. At least, he would most likely have known something of Gower’s recounting of the terrors of the revolt in 1381.
As kings go, Richard was remarkably learned. In the prince’s adolescence Simon Burley had served as his tutor, and it is possible that Richard’s interest in books may have been instilled by Burley.64
The extent to which he was affiliated with or encouraged writers in English in the younger days of his rule can only be surmised. He was evidently fond of Chaucer and may have been aware, at least, of the literary interests of others. Anne Middleton, in her discussion of Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love
, projects a literary coterie in London in the last two decades of the fourteenth century who took pride in the composing of vernacular literature and wrote for each other.65
These wordcrafters — men like Chaucer, Langland, Gower, Usk, the Pearl
-poet, Strode, Clanvowe, Hoccleve, and later Lydgate, along with the craftsmen of dozens of other anonymous literary gems, such as The Alliterative Morte Arthure
, The Stanzaic Morte Arthur
, The Storie of Asneth
, and The Pistel of Swete Susan
— wrote with the resourcefulness of a new Renaissance mentality that defined what Coleman calls “England’s literary golden age.”66
Gower, along with Chaucer, was at the center of the group. We know something of the genius of these writers through their comments upon each other. Their reputation, particularly that of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, lasted into the high Renaissance of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, where they were praised for the marvelous inception in England of literary delight.
Although the degree to which the king was aware of such remarkable beginnings is unclear, he must have known something of what was happening. Gower’s Latin Vox Clamantis
may be the work to which Richard alludes in the 1390 Prologue to the Confessio Amantis
, when he invited Gower aboard the royal barge on the Thames to encourage him to write “Som newe thing . . . That he himself it mighte looke / After the forme of my writyng” (lines *51–*53).67
It is after this meeting that Gower presumably began working on the Confessio Amantis
. Whether he actually began writing the poem with the Prologue we do not know. It is conceivable that the Prologue was written later, though certainly no later than 1389. Perhaps the meeting on the Thames that the Prologue refers to occurred c. 1385, before the machinations of the Appellants began, though the remainder of the Prologue probably alludes to the later events.
Like the Vox
, the Prologue to the Confessio
offers a critique of the times. The critique is similar to that of the Vox
, perhaps not so much because Gower thinks in patterns as because the times of the 1380s are so similar in their factionalism to those of the 1370s. In the years immediately after the great revolt, England could scarcely be seen to be at peace, even though the unruly bloodshed had been quelled. The punitive and restrictive laws that were enacted offered little security or satisfaction to anyone. In 1386, baronial unrest in opposition to the young king spilled over into Parliament. Anticipation of the impending attack on the king and his counselors may explain Chaucer’s resignation from his position in the Customs Office and his move out of London. Chaucer was certainly loyal to the king as he took up residence in Kent where the queen resided. He served in the Parliament of 1386 as a member from Kent, perhaps to act in support of the crown. But during the next year and the year following things did not go well for the king.68
In November of 1387, three powerful barons — Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick — attacked Richard through his counselors. With support from Derby (Henry of Lancaster) and Mowbray, they “appealed” five of Richard’s administrators and principal supporters — Neville, De Vere, Suffolk, Tresilian, and the Lord Mayor of London Nicholas Brembre, along with four knights of the royal household, including Thomas Usk, a man of letters friendly to Chaucer and Gower, and Simon Burley, young King Richard’s friend and tutor. Suffolk and Neville fled. Tresilian and Brembre hid out in London. De Vere went to Chester to assemble an army. Burley wanted to go into hiding, but De Vere persuaded him to stand his ground firmly with the king. When De Vere and Richard’s men were defeated at Radcot Bridge all were at the mercy of the Appellants. There was talk of deposing Richard, but that drastic action was opposed by Derby and Mowbray. Instead, the Appellants turned upon Richard’s administration: On 3 February 1388, when the “Merciless Parliament” convened, they caught, tried, convicted, and executed Brembre and Tresilian. When Neville and Suffolk fled to the continent, the purge focused upon Burley, who was popular with Londoners and many of the baronry. As Scott puts it, Gloucester, his integrity on the line, forced a conviction “on the feeble charge of ‘leading Richard in his youth to form a corrupt court,’ the only charge out of eight on which he could force a confirmation. All the power which Derby exerted, and even the plea of Queen Anne on her knees at Gloucester’s feet, failed to deter Gloucester’s vengeance, and Burley went to the scaffold in the Tower.”69
On March 4, Thomas Usk, Chaucer’s friend and associate in the arts, a man doubtless known to Gower, was likewise executed.70
Condemned as a traitor “faux and malveise,” Usk was sentenced to execution in a most brutal manner. After being drawn and hanged, he was “immediately taken down and, after about thirty strokes of the axe, beheaded.”71
Brutalities such as these demonstrated the trauma of the factious behavior that Gower had written about in Vox
and which underlie the appeal for peace in the Prologue to the Confessio Amantis
. But where in Vox
the focus was on all three estates, particularly the commons, here the focus is more on the first estate — the baronry and the king.
After the ugly scenes of 1388, however, quieter days were in sight. In 1389 Richard declared himself free of tutelage and capable of rule as a monarch of full age. Chaucer returned to London to become Clerk of the King’s Works. For the next few years there was some stability at court and its surrounding environs. After the atrocities earlier in the decade it seems that all parties were making an effort to cooperate. When Richard claimed his sovereignty the Appellants and their enforced administration withdrew quietly. Warwick retired to his estates, Arundel planned a crusade to the Holy Land, and Derby went to Prussia, where Gloucester followed. As May McKisack points out, Richard had been “carefully unprovocative,” and with John of Gaunt’s return from Portugal there seemed to be a “general restoration of unity.”72
Some have thought that when Richard fell at odds with the city of London in 1392 Gower turned his loyalties away from the king to embrace Henry, count of Derby, who had been one of the Appellants at the time of the Merciless Parliament. But there is no sound evidence that Gower was hostile toward the king early in the decade. The dedication to Henry is certainly sincere, but the poet is careful to keep that version separate from the earlier one. The Ricardian Confessio
continued to be recopied until the end of the century when Richard was deposed. At that point Gower clearly was disappointed in the king and makes his disappointment evident in his attack on Richard and his courtiers in the Tripartite Chronicle
, which he appended to the Vox Clamantis
. But many tumultuous events transpired between 1390 and 1399. The world itself seemed to have changed.
The Romance Plot of the Confessio Amantis
After the Prologue, Gower mutes his critique on the turmoil of the times to focus, instead, on the mental tumult of a distracted lover. In the confessional section of the text Gower turns the crisis of political division into a psychological crisis that leads to a kind of schizophrenic behavior that the poet addresses through the therapy of tale-telling. The romance plot of the Confessio
(in effect, the dream) begins as the poet, announcing in the Latin marginal gloss that he will assume the guise of a lover, tells how he, filled with “woful care” on a “wofull day” in May, puts his “wofull chance” (1.74–75) into the hands of Fortune as he sets out for the wood. Everything around him seems happy and gay but Amans is miserable. He is unhappy
I was further fro my love
Than erthe is fro the hevene above. (1.105-06)
Once in the wood the lover throws himself to the ground and wishes he were dead. Then he awakens in his pain and, filled with self-pity, cries out to Cupid and Venus, who suddenly appear before him and transfix his heart on love’s fiery dart.73
This opening description defines the lover’s disorientation and thus establishes the main considerations of the romance plot. Trapped within the contradictions of Nature and his own desire, Amans, in his fantasy, has set himself apart from the mutual pleasures of Nature’s domain in hope of enjoying singular pleasures. His main desire is to pamper his secretive emotions. The piercing of his heart by Cupid’s dart clinches his loss of natural freedom. He is trapped by his amorous confusion, and many tales will pass before he returns home from dysfunctional spiritual exile.
When Venus first addresses Amans, she asks him questions of identity typical of the consolation genre: “What art thou, sone?” (1.154, 160). Amans replies, “A caitif that lith hiere: / What wolde ye, my ladi diere?” (1.161–62). The question is reminiscent of Boethius’ Consolation
, where Philosophy asked, “What are you?” of that narrator. The right answer is, of course, “A man.”74
But in his infatuation Amans has forgotten what a man should be. Rather than a creature of free choice, he sees himself as a helpless, supine “caitif.” He asks to be cured of his affliction, but Venus says:
"Tell thi maladie:
What is thi sor of which thou pleignest?
Ne hyd it noght, for if thou feignest,
I can do thee no medicine."75 (1.164-67)
hide the truth
help you with
Her question is reminiscent of Philosophy’s request that Boethius bare his wound by reiterating his illness truthfully (see Consolation
, 1.pr.4). But Venus is no Dame Prudence or Lady Philosophy. Her intention is quite the opposite, her demands a parody of Philosophy’s. Her motives are defensive and courtly, based on suspicion rather than mutual trust. She has learned how to deal with “[f]aitours” (1.174). In her world nobody trusts anybody. Let Amans explain his intentions!
Gower’s use of confession as a device for developing his argument is a felicitous choice, “a master-stroke which organizes the whole of Gower’s material,” C. S. Lewis observes.76
The device opens limitless possibilities for variety and dramatic effects. But Gower did not choose the device for literary reasons alone. Confession, as Gower understood it, is an act of self-discovery. It is for him what psychoanalysis is for us. Confession begins with a review of experience in an effort to find out why it is that we are the way we are, in order that we may ultimately reintegrate our minds and emotions. “You have forgotten what you are” (see note 61), Philosophy tells Boethius: Amans’ problem is precisely the same. Having displaced his affection for the commonweal with a lover’s doting alienation, he is not only far from his heart’s desire, but even uncertain of what that desire is. Venus sends him to a confessor named Genius, who will become his attendant spirit. To Genius he appeals:
"I prai thee let me noght mistime
Mi schrifte, for I am destourbed
In al myn herte, and so contourbed,
That I ne may my wittes gete,
So schal I moche thing forgete.
Bot if thou wolt my schrifte oppose
Fro point to point, thanne, I suppose,
Ther schal nothing be left behinde.
Bot now my wittes ben so blinde,
That I ne can miselven teche." (1.220-29)
question me about my confession
Confessing, like tale-telling, is an exercise in timing. Given the confusion amidst temporalities of earth, mistiming is virtually inevitable. But at least his intention is good, and that is no small matter. Indeed, by the end of the poem nothing will be left behind: Genius, “with his wordes debonaire” (1.231), will search out the circumstances of Amans’ soul, and through his questions redefine man in his rightful historical environment so that Amans may remember what he is and forget what he is not.
Amans’ search for repose is, of course, analogous to England’s search for peace and just administration. To regain his psychological homeland he must reclaim within himself each of the three estates. First he must reclaim his “commons,” that is to say, his emotions which labor helps to regulate. The discussion on labor (Book 4.2363–2700) dwells mainly on alchemy and the writings of great men of letters. Amans does not take well to Genius’ suggestion that he should study Ovid if he wants advice on dealing with his passion. He says he will heed no suggestions about giving up his lady. In the conclusion, after a long labor of penance, he changes his attitude, however, and, in Book 8, it is Ovid and the other men of letters who aid him in his
final metamorphosis. Then a transformation as remarkable as any alchemy takes place, as we shall see, when Venus fixes up his kidneys (seat of the passions).
The discussion pertaining to the second estate (Book 5.729–1970) is more involved. Significantly Amans himself asks for instruction in the history of religions. His training begins with an outline of the pagan gods, then of Judaism, and then of Christianity. The sequence delineates the steps toward true revelation. That most of the exposition deals with the pagan deities is understandable if we keep in mind that the pagan world is simply the mutable world in which men spend most of their time. The tone of this portion of the poem is light, as Gower enjoys the incongruity of having Genius mock his godly accomplices, the classical deities. For Amans to discover objectively the ridiculousness of the pagan gods would be a crucial step toward recognizing the ridiculousness of his own pagan behavior as he attempts to do homage to Venus. But the lesson does not soak in yet. Only in the Epilogue, after he has recognized the old man in himself, does he get beyond pagan behavior to reinstate intelligently his second estate.
The hardest thing for the disconsolate rebel to accept is responsibility for his first estate, and, indeed, the instruction of Amans in the first estate (Book 7) provides the climax to the exposition, where Amans himself, out of curiosity, requests the discussion. The point seems to be that he has become sufficiently engaged in what Genius has to say to forget momentarily his infatuation. In Book 7 Genius’ opening account of the universe defines the boundaries of the domain over which Amans should be king by natural right, and the discussion of man defines the rational creature Amans has forgotten. The ethical generalizations on Truth, Liberality, Justice, Pity, and Chastity define positive means for dealing with cupidity once Amans has realized what cupidity is. They provide the means through which a person cares for his soul. As Genius notes near the end of the poem:
For conseil passeth alle thing
To him which thenkth to ben a king;
And every man for his partie
A kingdom hath to justefie,
That is to sein his oghne dom.
If he misreule that kingdom,
He lest himself, and that is more
Than if he loste schip and ore
And al the worldes good withal:
For what man that in special
Hath noght himself, he hath noght elles,
No mor the perles than the schelles . . . . (8.2109-20).
domain (judgment, head)
With the restoration of Amans’ sense of right rule the romance comes to its conclusion.
The Tales of Book One
Several of the most memorable stories of the Confessio
are found in Book 1. These tales, coming as they do immediately after Gower’s disquisition on memory and the evils of forgetfulness, exemplify admirably Gower’s idea of tales that “reporte and holde,” to borrow the Pardoner’s phrase, as a momentary stay against the “lewedness” of the post-lapsarian world. Book 1 is devoted to Pride and is arranged around that sin’s five subdivisions — Hypocrisy, Murmur and Complaint, Presumption, Boasting, and Vain Glory.77
Throughout the book Gower’s remarkable powers of invention are evident in the variety of tales he tells — from short exempla like the Tale of Aspidis (lines 463–80) to tales of complex moral choice like the Tale of Mundus and Paulina, the Tale of Florent, the Trump of Death, the Tale of Albinus and Rosemund, or the Tale of Three Questions. One cannot help but be captivated by the stark composure of the Tale of Mundus and Paulina (lines 761–1059), a seduction narrative exposing Hypocrisy, where the deceitful Mundus (whose name could
mean “pure,” but ultimately proves to be a signifier of the corruption of the “world”),78
under the sneaky posture of divine guide, attempts to destroy the innocent Paulina.79
Even though she, with the assent of her husband, gives her body to the “god’s” use (or thinks that she has done), she is the one who remains pure, despite the fact that she has been deceitfully dealt with by a corrupt man. The storyline is poignantly modulated with dramatic irony to demonstrate the power of family and community solidarity to underscore the point that innocence can be corrupted only by thought, not the hypocritical conniver.
The Tale of Florent (lines 1407–1861) is a loathly hag narrative, a likely source for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale.80
In this tale Genius claims to be focusing on the evils of Murmur and Complaint, though the crux of the plot hinges upon the virtue of being true to one’s word.81
Truth requires that one accept the responsibilities of one’s decisions. Like the Tale of Mundus and Paulina, the Tale of Florent explores proper governance of the will. Neither Paulina nor Florent will, like Amans, fall captive to some absurd passion in an obscure wood through some misguided abuse of their wills, even though accidents beyond their ken befall them. In the story a young knight named Florent makes his way along a tortuous pathway defined by uncertainties. At the outset he seeks adventures in the western marches of England. Fortune leads him into a conflict in which he is “be strengthe take” (1.1423) and imprisoned in a castle. In the fighting he unfortunately slays Brachus, the son and heir of the “capitain” of the region (1.1419–30). The mother and grandmother of Branchus murmur and complain, demanding revenge, but fear that in exacting it they will incur the wrath of the emperor, to whom Florent is of “cousinage” (1.1437).82
So they plan to entrap Florent through a cleverly contrived test of his character. Knowing that Florent is renowned as a knight who is true to his word, they plot to get him to commit himself to answering a question that he cannot understand. This compulsion to answer the unanswerable characterizes many of Gower’s stories, thereby epitomizing the dilemma that Gower sees at the root of human need. If Florent is true to his word and returns without the answer, they can destroy him by law without fear of reprisal from the emperor. If he is false and does not return to his sentencing, then he will have destroyed himself by being untrue. For Gower, the issue here is not that Florent does not know the answer through his own cognizance — that had been true of Paulina, as well. Rather, the concern lies in how
he deals with a problem that exceeds his grasp. A tale is by definition a test — a tally-taking — whether for the participants in the plot or the reader attempting to understand it. Every tale is paradigmatically a testing of the will. Florent’s enemies have designs on his life. They imagine that he will fail to answer the impossible question and thus forfeit his life. The irony is that in Gower’s moral scheme the old queen who puts the question to him is quite right: the only way he can
be destroyed is by his own choice. The queen is wrong only insofar as she imagines that she can destroy him through subtle aggression. Florent is saved more by his integrity than by the queen’s error or the old hag’s answer. The hag knows this well and, in turn, counts upon his integrity for her own survival, just as he comes to count upon hers.
The grandame’s test requires that Florent reveal what it is that women most desire. He searches for a year and is unable to discover an answer. On his return to his doom, filled with uncertainty, he meets a loathly hag whose hideousness is described. She tells him that she can supply the answer if he will agree to marry her. He at first refuses but then, thinking that she is old and cannot live long, agrees. She gives him the answer:
That thou schalt seie, upon this molde
That alle wommen lievest wolde
Be soverein of mannes love:
For what womman is so above,
Sche hath, as who seith, al hire wille;
And elles may sche noght fulfille
What thing hir were lievest have. (1.1607-13)
would most desire
that woman [who] is thus of a higher rank
she would most desire to have
Armed with the answer he returns to the marches and is granted, perforce, his freedom. But being a man true to his word he is scarcely free, for, being now subcontracted,83
he must return to the wood where he met the hag and fetch her to be his wife. They are married and he, that night, must perform his marriage duties. When he turns toward her in bed he sees a lovely woman of “eyhtetiene wynter age” (1.1803). Now, in the presence of beauty, he is eager to embrace, but she tells him that he must constrain his will and choose whether he would have her fair by night or by day. He leaves the choice to her and learns that in granting her sovereignty of choice he has rid her of a curse placed upon her by a hateful stepmother. She is, in truth, the daughter of the king of Sicily who is now, through Florent’s obedience to his word, released from the curse. Thus, they live long and happily in joy together.
No summary can do justice to the wit of Gower’s narrative — its efficiency of plot, its amusing descriptions, the playful tone in which the dilemmas of Florent are cast, and the skill with which Genius has recast a tale that “clerkes . . . this chance herde” (1.1856) and wrote down “in evidence” (1.1857). The narrative is very different from the Wife of Bath’s more complexly narrated version of the story. But, given the demands of confessional interchange that Gower has established, the Tale of Florent is well-suited to its task. As in the case of Mundus and Paulina, personal and community welfare are inextricably interconnected. The true of heart bypass the hypocrite and murmurer. Despite the uncertainties of the fallen universe the community somehow remains coherent.
The Trump of Death, a tale exemplifying Presumption (Surquidry), differs in tone from the tales of Florent and of Mundus and Paulina, but shares similar concerns. Like the latter, its plot is austere. But it is deliberately more single-dimensional, with sharp focus on the chastening power of death. Like Mundus, the Trump of Death has a villain, but this time the villain is a member of the family — the king’s brother, who does not, in fact, intend to be villainous. Instead of being motivated by lust, his motivation is a kind of presumptuous jealousy. The brother sees himself as superior to most of humankind, and when the king, upon meeting two ancient and decrepit pilgrims, gets down from his royal chair, embraces them hand and foot, and gives them gifts, the self-righteous brother feels humiliated that his kinsman would so abase himself. He complains that the king has dishonored the royal family by such behavior. The king, in return, teaches his proud brother a lesson in humility. He sends the Trump of Death to his kinsman’s house.84
The brother knows that once the trumpet has sounded there is no reprise for him or his family. They all must die. The brother puts sackcloth on himself and his family and goes barefoot to the king to plead for his life. The king replies that when he (the king) saw the two pilgrims he was so reminded of his own death that he had honored them by bowing before them. Now it is the proud brother who brings “disgrace” to the household, as is evident by his going “despuiled [naked] thurgh the toun,” dragging his wife and children with him “In sihte of alle men aboute” (1.2218–21). Were he wise, he would know that death awaits every person. Dignity resides only among the humble. I earlier referred to the tale as single-dimensional. That is its strength. As an exemplum against Surquidry the tale focuses unremittingly on presumption; there is little development of character except as it pertains to the crime. The pace is swift, the conclusion illustrious. The king leaves the brother to his own fate, albeit now chastened by the king’s judgment upon him.
The Tale of Albinus and Rosemund (1.2459–2661), a tale of choice and its inevitable consequences, illustrates the sin of Boasting (Avantance). Albinus, king of Lombardy, defeats Gurmond, king of the Geptes. He smites off Gurmond’s head and makes an ornate drinking cup of the skull. He then marries Gurmond’s daughter, Rosemunde, “A fair, a freissh, a lusti on [one]” (1.2483). She proves to be a loving wife, until Venus “In al the hoteste of here [their] love” (1.2492) turns her wheel.85
Albinus invites all his worthy knights to dinner and serves Rosemund from the cup: “Drink with thi fader,” he orders (1.2551), and Rosemund drinks. When Albinus then boasts of what he has done, she feigns illness and withdraws, plotting the destruction of her boastful husband. Her maid Glodeside has taken Helmage, the king’s butler, as her lover. Rosemund slips into her maid’s bed, and when Helmage comes to “kepe his observance” (1.2605) Rosemund reveals herself and blackmails him into poisoning the king. The three then steal away to Ravenna, where the Duke, learning of Albinus’ death, poisons all three of the fugitives. Like the Trump of Death, this tale moves forward swiftly and irrevocably. The king’s boastful scorn destroys them all, as one presumption leads to another.
Book 1 ends with a summary narrative, the Tale of the Three Questions, a very complex story in contrast to the Trump of Death or the Punishment of Nebuchadnezzar discussed earlier; it is a story designed to tie all the subdivisions of Pride into a single, compelling narrative. As in the Tale of Mundus and Paulina, the Trump of Death, and the Tale of Albinus and Rosemund, the tale focuses on familial rapport — where one kind of gendered relationship (here a father and daughter) leads to another (husband and wife). The presentation of the daughter, upon whose wisdom the welfare of the whole family — and kingdom — depends, is truly remarkable. The wise Peronelle (for so she is named at the end, 1.3396) provides the pivotal wit that makes possible a felicitous conclusion. There is no villain in this tale. But there are many kinds of boundaries that are pressed to their limits, only to dissolve through verbal play. The antagonists are two men who take pride in their learning. Both are distinctly limited by their intellectual achievements. The one is the king, who rightly becomes learned (a good thing in a king, as Richard himself might attest), except that he becomes so enamored of his learning that he challenges all comers in the kingdom to contests of wit, which he, of course, always wins. The other is a knight who, in solving one of the king’s problems, makes the king envious and determined to destroy his rival for breach of decorum (i.e., kings are supposed to win). The king poses three difficult questions; the knight must answer all three within three weeks or be put to death. The questions seem unsolvable and, in grief, the knight returns to his home, certain that his lot is hopeless. When his fourteen-year-old daughter, whom he has trained in logic, asks if she may stand in for him, he, mainly because of pride in his fatherly office, refuses: no man would be foolish enough to put his life in the hands of his daughter. But she insists that there are some answers a woman can give that a man cannot (compare the Tale of Florent). She then thoughtfully solves all three of the riddles in the presence of the king, who is so impressed with her reasoning that he, being a bachelor himself, allows that he would wed her were she not a commoner. Nonetheless, he will give her one wish. Courteously, she asks nothing for herself, but wishes that her father, who has suffered so painfully for his presumption, be made a peer. The king immediately bestows a title upon him, whereupon the daughter then observes that the one obstacle between herself and the king has been removed — her father is a nobleman. The king, pleased with her wit, weds her.
This charming tale, perhaps the most popular of all tales in the Confessio
celebrates wit, intellect, and familial love, which answer all the subdivisions of Pride to the mutual satisfaction of the whole community. It celebrates, moreover, the integrity of women, women with voices. All the disconcerting problems are solved through wordplay, wordplay that dissolves and re-establishes new boundaries that both contain and liberate people. Gower’s heroes and heroines are perpetually challenged by life’s riddles. In the relativity of their responses lies their only hope. The tale establishes a paradigm that defines for Gower the value of a well-disposed will in the semantics of salvation. As a summary tale, the Tale of the Three Questions is most akin to another summary tale, the Tale of Apollonius in Book 8, which serves as a romance epitome of the whole poem.
Book 8, the Tale of Apollonius, and the Conclusion
The conclusion to the Confessio
has afforded readers a great deal of difficulty. Book 8 poses four separate problems: 1) the discussion of incest; 2) the Tale of Apollonius; 3) the concluding sequence of the romance itself; and 4) the Epilogue. As Book 8 begins the reader is confronted with the question of why Gower does not deal with the seventh sin (Lechery) as he dealt with the other six. In Book 1 Genius had said he would exorcise Amans of all seven sins, but now, instead of discussing Lechery and its various servants (Mirour de l’Omme
names five: fornicioun
, and fodelit
), he speaks briefly of the laws governing marriage, then discusses incest, and that is all. C. S. Lewis has suggested that Genius cannot speak of the sins of Venus since he is her priest. It is true that in Book 5 Genius tried to avoid talking about Venus when he described the Greek gods, but when he was specifically called upon to do so he showed little inhibition and minced no words. There may be other reasons for the apparent alteration of his plan as well.87
First, a technical problem. In treating other sins, Genius had discussed each as a category of behavior and then (usually) had applied each to love. Thus many of the preceding tales deal with lechery. By Book 8 Genius has already told stories about fornication, adultery, and infatuation of various sorts. He has also told tales of incest. Why then would he single out incest as his final moral category for discussion? The answer may lie in the peculiar relationship of that vice to the illness of Amans.
Medieval writers commonly associated self-love and singular profit with incest. In Roman de la Rose
, for example, the dreamer’s self-indulgence, at first defined by Guillame de Lorris as Narcissism, is enlarged upon by Jean de Meun in the Pygmalion story where the narcissistic lover falls so greatly in love with his creation that consummation occurs, the progeny of which continues in incestuous love when Cinyrus and Myrrha beget Adonis. The term incest
comes from Latin in
- (not) castus
(chaste); it commonly designated unnatural spiritual, as well as sexual, union. Its antidote, in the Mirour
, at least, is Continence. Of all sins it preeminently typifies crime against family and thus against community. It is implied, then, in the selfishness of all sins. In fact, the word the Patristic Fathers generally used for sin — cupiditas
— originates in the myth of Cupid, who incestuously loved his mother as if he were blind, the aftereffect being indeed loss of his wits. But the best illustration of this attitude towards incest may be found in Gower’s own Mirour de l’Omme
. That poem begins with an allegorical genealogy of Sin. She and all her unnatural brood are the products of incest. Born of Satan’s selfish love, Sin is seduced by her father. She gives birth to Death, who in turn incestuously loves his mother, the get of this couple being the seven sins. Satan then takes his grandchildren and begets on them thirty-five subspecies of Sin. These are no true marriages: all are unnatural and motivated incestuously by lechery. Instead of creating harmony, they bring division of what should not be divided. We are reminded of the formula in the Prologue to the Confessio
, where Sin is mother of division and division the mother of confusion.
Such an interpretation of incest is supported in the text of the Confessio
itself. At the end of Book 7, after Genius finishes telling of the instruction of kings, Amans says his heart is still restless. He wonders if something pertaining to love has been “forgete or left behind” (7.5425). Genius acknowledges that one thing remains “Thi schrifte for to make plein” (7.5431) and that is to speak “Of love which is unavised” (7.5433). After a Latin epigram condemning the treachery of Venus’ love, Genius summarizes the creation story, the fall of Lucifer, and the generations of humankind from Adam. His point is to explain how marriage laws developed and to show where men should place their love. Rather than isolating incest as a particular species of lechery Genius seems mainly concerned with exploring connotations. He speaks of “unavised” love, “mistimed” love, and “unkynde” love, and in the epigram to the story of Apollonius he speaks of excessive and immoderate love, though never does he specifically use the word incest. Although Genius is ostensibly talking about incest, and although Amans understands him only in its narrower sense, all of his generalizations seem designed to encourage the reader to look on this sin as an epitome of the selfish and unnatural qualities of cupidinous love in general. Two circumlocutions stand out particularly in this regard. Genius objects to men who passionately “taken wher thei take may” (8.152) and, again, to a man who knows no good “Bot takth what thing comth next to honde” (8.163). Here the focus is clearly on nearsighted love. After he has told the story of Apollonius, Genius observes that instead of taking whatever love is close at hand, men should “Tak love where it mai noght faile” (8.2086). His point seems to be that Amans should stop feeding morosely on his emotions and look to something more important.
The story of Apollonius dramatizes this idea superbly. Antiochus is the man who indulges himself myopically, taking where he may what is near at hand. But the effects are terrible. He becomes worse than a beast:
The wylde fader thus devoureth
His oghne fleissh, which non socoureth, whom no one helps
And that was cause of mochel care. (8.309-11)
Having abandoned his natural office of father, he corrupts his other office, that of king, and adjusts laws to satisfy his foolish desire. To avoid dealing with his inner anarchy he becomes a tyrant, slays his daughter’s natural suitors, and puts their heads on the town gates. Sin breeds sin: “with al his pride” (8.2004), he slothfully ignores his natural responsibilities (“Him thoghte that it was no sinne,” 8.346), lecherously gluts himself on his own flesh, enviously hides his daughter from other men, and then even becomes a murderer “full of rancour and of ire” (8.500). Ultimately he becomes too “unkynde,” and God strikes him down with lightning.
Apollonius, on the other hand, shows what it means “to love in good manere” (8.2010). He fulfills admirably Genius’ five points of policy (Truth, Liberality, Justice, Pity, Chastity) which should govern a king’s behavior (see 7.1711–5397). He adheres to Truth, accepting responsibilities and fulfilling promises. He exemplifies Liberality in providing wheat for the starving people of Tharse and in properly rewarding the physician Cerymon for saving his wife. He understands the importance of Justice and brings wicked Dionise and Strangulio to trial according to the laws of their own land. He has Pity on the people of Tharse, first in giving them food and then in respecting their laws and judgment when their king has offended him. And he adheres to Chastity, not only in the winning of his wife and in the care of himself and her memory after her supposed death, but also in the care of his daughter. He is confronted with a situation like that which confronted Antiochus. When Thaise sings to him to woo him from his melancholy, he feels strong love for her. But he does not impose on her. Rather than taking what is near at hand and thus losing his daughter, as Antiochus did, he recovers his daughter by loving chastely. Diana rewards him for his chastity by enabling him to recover his wife. He in no way behaves incaste
Apollonius’ story is admirably suited to the conclusion of the Confessio
. In addition to exemplifying good kingship and condemning incontinence, its plot provides a model for Amans at the end of his quest. Apollonius is a lover in exile who also is trying to regain his homeland. Fortune is a most bitter enemy, pursuing him with storms and assassins, stripping him of friends and possessions. She denies him his identity at every turn, making him a prince without a country, a husband without a wife, and a father without a child. Even so, he maintains his integrity. Although driven to the brink of despair, so far in fact that like Saul he strikes out, he recovers with the aid of his daughter. Thaise is his good seed. Like her father she too is victimized by Fortune, narrowly escaping murder only to end up in a brothel. But she, like her father, remembers her skill in music and science to save herself and also advance the community. Both she and Apollonius have learned to maintain their spiritual estates. The tale thus ends on a note of joy after woe: Apollonius finally achieves a happy homecoming. No more exile for him. He becomes king of all the lands he attended, and governs them “of on [one] assent” (8.1990).
Amans’ homecoming differs from Apollonius’ in that his exile is a spiritual exile. He has learned from Genius’ examples, but at the same time he has not learned. He misses the point of Apollonius’ story, though he does now ask directly for advice. He is at least that much closer to Truth. He speaks plainly: “teche [me] / What is my beste, as for an ende” (8.2058–59). Genius tells him to seek love which may not fail; let trifles be. He calls Amans’ love sinful and says he should free himself before it is too late:
"Yit is it time to withdrawe,
And set thin herte under that lawe,
The which of reson is governed
And noght of will. And to be lerned,
Ensamples thou hast many on
Of now and ek of time gon,
That every lust is bot a while;
And who that wole himself beguile,
He may the rathere be deceived." (8.2133-41)
many a one
But Genius insists that Amans must make the decision himself; he can only show the way. He then poses his last question, the ultimate question of Christian humanism: “Now ches if thou wolt live or deie” (8.2148).
But Amans is simply not ready to make that choice. Although the preliminary questions have been asked and illustrated, their meaning has not yet come home. Again he dodges to protect his emotions. His defense is that characteristic “but you don’t understand” of lovers:
Mi wo to you is bot a game,
That fielen noght of that I fiele. (8.2152-53) feel
He wants sympathy. Yet at the same time he begins to realize rationally that Genius’ advice makes sense. As he starts using reason the point of view of the poem shifts. Instead of dialogue and debate between Genius and Amans, we now have first-person narration.88
The effect is to make the debate seem to be going on within Amans, while at the same time he seems to be looking down at himself:
Tho was betwen mi prest and me
Debat and gret perplexeté:
Mi resoun understod him wel,
And knew it was soth everydel
That he hath seid, bot noght forthi
Mi will hath nothing set therby.
For techinge of so wis a port
Is unto love of no desport;
Yit myhte nevere man beholde
Reson, wher love was withholde;
Thei be noght of o governance. (8.2189-99)
What; not even so
wise a bearing
the same (one)
In this divided state of mind, Amans begs Genius to present his supplication to Venus. Genius agrees. Then Amans, quite objectively, tells how he sat upon a green and wrote with tears instead of ink his appeal. The appeal itself is clearly by a man “noght of o [one] governance” (line 2199): one voice pleads to Nature for release from love’s cruelty, and the other pleads to Venus for satisfaction. Yet the effect of his writing is to formalize his dissatisfaction so that he can cope with it. The complaint stands sharply in contrast to his emotional outburst in Book 1 when Venus first appeared. Although Reason does not yet hold sway, she is at least present. His analysis of his malady is accurate, and although his desires are still at odds with his analysis, he is beginning, in these twelve stanzas of rhyme royal, to impose order on them.
The effect of Amans’ prayer is immediate. Venus appears less than a mile away.89
Again she asks, this time in mockery, who he is. “John Gower” (line 2321), he responds. The point here is not to let the world know who wrote the poem. Rather, it marks a new beginning. Amans has come a long way from “A caitif that lith hiere” (1.161). His homeland has been identified; what remains is the repossession. Venus acknowledges the schizophrenic intention of Amans’ “bille” (8.2324 ff.) but offers no help. She leaves the dispute to Amans and Nature. Amans must reconcile himself with Nature or be refused any consolation. Gower cleverly has Amans recount her words in retrospect as he ponders her whimsical rejection of his appeal. It is he who acknowledges, now with keen awareness, that “olde grisel is no fole” (8.2407). Her only counsel is “Remembre wel hou thou art old” (8.2439). That acknowledgment causes Amans to faint, which brings him to the final step in his re-education.
In his swoon Amans envisions a parliament of lovers. These lovers are those whose stories Genius has just told. They pass in review before him — first those caught up in the heat of their desire, then those betrayed by love who are in sorrow. In contrast he sees the four constant women whose example of goodness the whole world remembers. This vision designates Amans’ recognition of the moral implications of what he has learned. In this act of remembrance he incorporates the meaning of the past into himself. The scene shifts from the recollection of the examples from history to the historians themselves. Old Age approaches Venus, accompanied by his train of lovers — David, Aristotle, Virgil, Plato, “Sortes,” and Ovid. These authors of the past pray for Amans’ release. It is their prayer which is answered: Cupid removes the fiery dart. The wisdom of antiquity answers the needs of the present, once the present understands through its own experience. It is a matter of community regained.
The rest seems simple. As Amans comes out of his trance Venus places an ointment on his heart, his temples, and his kidneys, implying the restitution of his three estates (the kingdom of his soul, the sanctuary of his intelligence, and the residence of his passions). She also gives him a mirror that he might recognize the old man he has become. This time he does not swoon. He looks directly at himself, reason returns, and he is made “sobre and hol ynowh” (8.2869). Venus laughs at him and asks him what love was. Amans cannot answer: “be my trouthe I knew him noght” (8.2875). His fantasy has gone so far from him that it is as if Cupid had never been.
Genius gives Amans absolution — a “peire of bedes” (line 2904), with the motto Por reposer
— and Venus tells him to return to his books, where moral virtue dwells.90
Then she returns to the stars. Amans is on his own. For a brief but telling moment he stands in amazement:91
has all his labor, all his lust come to this — an old man and some beads? Then, like Troilus at the end of his romance, he smiles at it all. The smile is the final clue to his release. In that moment,
Homward a softe pas y wente,
Wher that with al myn hol entente
Uppon the poynt that y am schryve
I thenke bidde whil y live. (8.2967-70)
This phase of the reiteration is complete: Amans has become “John Gower,” poet. In that role he does what he can do — pray for the welfare of his other self, the kingdom of England.
The concluding sequences in the two main versions of the poem are quite different,92
yet at the same time similar. In the 1390 Ricardian version, after an amusing admonition by Venus to Chaucer “upon his latere age” that he should leave off serving Venus in verse since the “lond fulfild is overal” with such “testament[s] of love” (8.*2941–*55),93
the poet prays that the king “Richard by name the secounde” (8.*2987) be blessed by God the creator; like Chaucer in “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” he exhorts the king to have pity on the people and rule in justice, peace, and accord. He then presents his poem to Richard, and, “feble and old” (8.*3070), makes his peace with the world — “Whan game is best, is best to leve” (8.*3087). In the Lancastrian ending the admonition to Chaucer is deleted and replaced by an eloquent prayer for the State of England. The prayer serves as a kind of Epilogue to the poem and grows quite naturally out of the romance plot, as Gower quite brilliantly fuses his larger social theme with Amans’ story. This prayer for England’s welfare stands in striking contrast to the infatuated pleas of Amans before he was shriven. Having regained his sense of kingdom Gower prays, now as poet, for common profit, right use of memory, and good governance.
For if men takyn remembrance take notice
What is to live in unité,
Ther ys no staat in his degree
That noughte to desire pes . . . . (8.2988-91)
It is a heartfelt desire for peace after the deep social wounds of the 1380s, a desire that was already by 1392 becoming threatened once again and would ultimately be utterly frustrated as the century came to its conclusion with the overthrow and execution of the king. In response to Richard’s heavy-handed treatment of Henry by exiling him and confiscating his estates, Gower, like many others in England, turned against Richard. The king’s irresponsible behavior seemed to annihilate the peace and accord Gower so desired. It was as if the events of time were once again demonstrating the wisdom of Gower’s prophetic vision.
Manuscripts of Confessio Amantis
John Fisher lists and classifies forty-nine manuscripts of the Confessio Amantis
, with an additional eight manuscripts which include excerpts from the poem. 94
The manuscripts are usually divided into three versions (recensions). The first recension was probably composed between 1386 and 1390. Thirty-two of the manuscripts fall into this category. After 1390 Gower continued working on the poem, adding lines and tales. Seven manuscripts fall into this category, which is sometimes referred to as the second recension. In 1392 Gower revised a first recension manuscript, changing the dedication of the poem from Richard II to Henry, count of Derby (later Henry IV). This version changes the account of his meeting Richard on the Thames, substituting instead verses in praise of England. It also deletes an encomium on Chaucer. Ten manuscripts survive that are based on the 1392 revision, referred to as the third recension.95
A Spanish translation (dated 1400) which purports to be based upon a Portuguese translation of the poem survives in a single manuscript. I have consulted the following manuscripts in composing this volume:
Fairfax 3. Bodleian Library 3883. Late-fourteenth century. [The premiere third recension manuscript. The manuscript has been carefully revised and corrected by the first hand, perhaps “under the direction of the author.”96
In addition to CA
, the manuscript includes Gower’s Traitié
and Carmen multiplici viciorum pestilencia
. There is some punctuation in the manuscript, which seems to be carefully carried out. The Latin verses usually occur in the columns of Middle English verse, with the Latin commentary in the margins. The manuscript also consistently marks in the margins changes of speaking voice in places where dialogue occurs. Genius is identified as Confessor
and the lover as Amans
. I have used Fairfax 3 as my base text and included all the Latin apparatus.]
Bodley 902. Bodleian Library. Early-fifteenth century. [A revised first recension manuscript of high quality, used here and by Macaulay for the first recension conclusion to Book 8, which remarks on Chaucer and the "testament of love." The first leaf of this manuscript is missing, thus the need to rely on Bodley 294 for the Richardian Prologue.]
Bodley 294. Bodleian Library. Early-fifteenth century. [A second recension manuscript, used by Macaulay for the passages that were replaced in the Prologue of the third recension.]
St. John's College, Cambridge, 34.B.12. First quarter of the fifteenth century. [A first recension manuscript similar to that used as the basis for the third recension. Includes CA
only. The text and spelling are closer to Fairfax 3 than any other first recension manuscript. The punctuation usually agrees with Fairfax 3. This manuscript omits much of the Latin marginalia found variously in the other manuscripts.]
Huntington El. 26 A.17 (the "Stafford Manuscript"). Late-fourteenth century. [A second recension manuscript of very high quality text. Includes CA
only. Unfortunately, the manuscript is missing seventeen leaves.]
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, 63. Mid-fifteenth century. [A second recension manuscript that is closely related to the Stafford manuscript. Includes CA
and Cato's Disticha
Manuscripts of Gower's Other Major Works
Trentham Hall (Duke of Sutherland, Dunrobin Castle, c. 1400).
Mirour de l'Omme
(c. 1376-78), also known as Speculum Hominis
and Speculum Meditantis
Cambridge University Library MS Additional 3035 (before 1400).
12 manuscripts survive:97
Group A: Before the Great Uprising
Group B: After the Great Uprising
Group C: After 1400, including the Cronica Tripertita
at the end
Modern printed editions are based on All Souls College, Oxford, MS 98 (c. 1400). Other important manuscripts include Bodleian MS Digby 138 (early-fifteenth century) and British Library Cotton Tiberius A.iv (c. 1408).
Five manuscripts, four of which are appended to Vox Clamantis
. The manuscript favored by modern editors is All Souls College, Oxford, MS 98.
Found in the five manuscripts of Cronica Tripertita
. Include "Rex celi deus," "H. aquile pullus," "O recolende," "Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia," "Tractatus de lucis scrutinio," "Ecce patet tensus," "Est amor in glosa pax bellica," "Eneidos bucolis," "O Deus immense," and "Quicquid homo scribat."
In Praise of Peace
Trentham Hall manuscript (c. 1400).
Chronology of Gower's Life and Works
Go To Prologue
Go To Book 1
Go To Book 8
John Gower is born, probably in Kent or Yorkshire, into a family of considerable prominence and means, which held land in Kent, Yorkshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk; kin to Sir Robert Gower.
Geoffrey Chaucer born.
Gower purchases Aldingdon Septvauns, an estate in Kent. The purchase was later contested by the crown, but in 1368 Gower’s claim is adjudged just. During this decade Gower appears to have prospered, perhaps in some legal or civil office.
Gower acquires a manor of Kentwell in Suffolk which formerly had belonged to Sir Robert Gower.
Gower disposes of the manors of Aldingdon and Kentwell.
Gower writes Mirour de l’Omme, an allegory of about 32,000 octosyllabic lines composed in twelve-line stanzas. He appears not to have had the poem recopied, since only one fragmentary manuscript of the poem is known to exist. It may be that Gower wrote the work for his own pleasure in what turned out to be a trial run for his two greater poems, both of which draw on it. Although the poem is in French, Gower later changed its title to Speculum Hominis, then to Speculum Meditantis, so that it might correspond to the Latin titles of his other works.
The Mirour is a commentary on the dilemma of fallen man. Its structure is panoramic, like a triptych which tells allegorically the genealogy of sin and the corruption of the time world, then offers a catalogue of vices and virtues that neatly classifies the errors of man and the remedies open to him, and finally presents an exaltation of the Virgin Mary, who offers frenzied man a realizable hope for extrication from the bewildering world. Like Vox Clamantis, it includes an extended section on the three estates.
King Edward III dies; the regency for Richard II, age 10, is established.
Gower takes up residence at St. Mary Overeys Priory, where he spends most of the rest of his life. Tradition claims that in this year Gower financed repair and restoration of the priory, which had burned a century and a half earlier. The priory had its own scriptorium, where Gower may have supervised the copying of his poems.
In about 1377 Gower begins work on Vox Clamantis, a moral essay of seven books written in Latin elegiac verse. The title is prophetic and derives from the gospel account of John the Baptist who comes as the voice crying in the wilderness. The tone throughout is apocalyptic. Gower seems to have begun composition with what is now Book 2 and to have completed the poem shortly after the Uprising, adding at that time the allegorical dream vision which constitutes Book 1. Eighteen years later, after the ascension of Henry IV to the throne, he added the Tripartite Chronicle to the poem.
Book 2 announces the poem’s title and defines man’s loss of eminence in the universe: Fortune is not to blame; the fault of man’s alienation lies in himself. Books 3 and 4 offer a bold diatribe against the corrupt clergy and religious orders. Book 5 is an attack on knighthood, which has also failed. Book 6 attacks those who have corrupted the laws themselves — lawyers, judges, and the king. Book 7 summarizes man’s desperate condition by recounting Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the degeneration of the time world through incursions of Sin and Death. Book 1, written last, provides a brilliant dramatization of the consequences of irresponsible behavior of the upper echelons of society. By means of dream fable, Gower depicts the nightmarish world of a society gone berserk, where even the common men, in whom Gower elsewhere has great faith, turn themselves into animals ravaging each other. Book 1 ends with an emblem of chaos in which common profit has been totally obliterated. In a dramatically memorable scene, the narrator, unwillingly caught up in his narrative, finds himself isolated in a wilderness, afraid of all men about him, who seem surely bent on his destruction. This book should not be understood simply as an attack on the commons in revolt against hierarchy, but rather as a dramatic statement of the consequences of a whole society in disintegration, the causes of which Gower analyzes in the remaining books. To Gower the Peasants’ Revolt must have seemed veritable proof of the validity of his prophetic attack on corrupt religious and civil authorities.
Chaucer gives power of attorney to John Gower and Richard Forester while he travels abroad on the continent.
The Rising of Essex and Kentishmen and their march on London in June. The burning of John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace and execution of Archbishop Simon Sudbury and others. The king’s confrontation of the mob at Mile End and the killing of Wat Tyler.
Gower is granted manors of Feltwell in Norfolk and Moulton in Suffolk, which he rents to Thomas Blakelake, parson, for £160 per annum.
Chaucer dedicates Troilus and Criseyde to “moral Gower” and “philosophical Strode.” (The term “moral” should be understood to include that which pertains to the mores of society, as well as ethics.)
Gower begins work on Confessio Amantis; Chaucer begins work on the Legend of Good Women.
The Merciless Parliament and the Lords Appellant defeat King Richard and his faction and execute Nicholas Brembre and Thomas Usk, both of whom were friends of Chaucer and known to Gower.
Richard II declares himself monarch of full age, free of tutelage.
Gower completes the first recension of the Confessio Amantis which he dedicates to the young King Richard, who had encouraged him to write the poem, and to his friend Geoffrey Chaucer. Thirty-one of the forty-nine known manuscripts of the poem follow this recension. It was popular because of the account of the king’s commissioning of the poem and because of the dedication to Chaucer.
Gower continues work on Confessio Amantis. During this period and, perhaps, beyond he does some revision of Books 5, 6, and 7 of the poem, adding new material and occasionally rearranging the old. In 1392 he issues a copy akin to Fairfax 3 which revises the conclusion of the poem to exclude praises of King Richard; to the Prologue of this edition he adds a dedication to Henry of Lancaster. That 1392 version, sometimes referred to as the third recension, was occasionally recopied, though not to the extent that the 1390 edition was. This Lancastrian recension of the poem does not include the passages which had been added to the middle books. The Fairfax 3 manuscript is the principal manuscript of this group, and although it is a relatively small group, it represents perhaps the most carefully prepared revision of the poem. It is conceivable that Gower himself supervised the corrections of Fairfax 3.
In return for the issue of Confessio Amantis now dedicated to Henry of Lancaster, count of Derby, Henry presents Gower with an ornamental collar.
Gower composes various lesser Latin poems, including “Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia,” “O Deus immense,” and “De Lucis scrutino.”
Gower writes a sequence of eighteen French balades entitled Traitié. Each balade is of three stanzas in rhyme royal, without envoy; the eighteenth balade has a fourth stanza which functions as envoy to the whole sequence.
Gower marries Agnes Groundolf. This may have been his second marriage. If so, the first marriage must have been in his younger days, some years prior to his residence at St. Mary Overeys. The marriage to Agnes Groundolf may have been a matter of convenience in order that someone might care for the aging poet who was, according to tradition, on the verge of blindness.
Richard II is deposed by act of Parliament; Henry of Lancaster becomes King Henry IV. Five weeks after his coronation Henry grants Gower two pipes per annum of Gascony wine, perhaps in response to Gower’s writing of the Tripartite Chronicle, an allegorical attack on Richard’s court and the rescue of England by Henry.
Gower dedicates and presents Cinkante Balades to King Henry. He also writes at this time his so-called laureate poems (“Rex celi deus,” “H. aquile pullus,” “O recolende”), praising the king in whom he placed such high hope, and also his last English poem, In Praise of Peace. This latter poem may have been written after the poet had become blind.
Geoffrey Chaucer dies.
John Gower dies and is buried in St. Mary Overeys Priory Church. He now lies in Southwark Cathedral.
CONFESSIO AMANTIS, VOL. 1, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES
"The older a good thing is, the better." The phrase is proverbial, though Hoeniger (Arden Shakespeare edition, p. 6) notes that communius is more common in the proverb than antiquius. Shakespeare's choice of antiquius is well attuned to the poet Gower's concerns. Ancient texts provide the purchase necessary for cultural amelioration and for their "restorative" value to the psyches of men and women "in their lives." The proverb with communius is found in T. Lodge, Wits Miserie
(1576), where it is quoted as an axiom of Aristotle, and in Marston, The Dutch Courtezan
, ed. Hoeniger, pp. 5-6. For a brief discussion of Shakespeare's understanding and use of Gower in Pericles
, see the Explanatory Note to Book 8, line 271 (below).
The Latin text of Vox Clamantis
is from Gower, Complete Works
, ed. Macaulay, 4:20. The translation is based on that found in Gower, Major Latin Works
, trans. Stockton.
For discussion of these specific lines from the Pardoner’s Prologue with regard to tale-telling, see Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative
, pp. 18–19, who offers thoughtful considerations on “holding” tales in the memory for purposes of mental dialogue.
Some portions of this introduction are adapted from the introduction to Confessio Amantis
, ed. Peck (1968).
As medieval writers frequently recognized, the present is an illusion. It can only be sensed. St. Augustine puts the matter succinctly: “it is in you, my mind, that I measure periods of time” (Confessions
XI.xxvii.36). Having contemplated the “present” as a lifetime, a year, a day, or an hour — all of which measures are instantly more a matter of past than present, he observes, “if you can think of some bit of time which cannot be divided into even the smallest instantaneous moments, that alone is what we can call ‘present’. And this time flies so quickly from future into past that it is an interval with no duration. If it has duration, it is divisible into past and future. But the present occupies no space” (Confessions
XI.xv.20). Compare The Cloud of Unknowing
’s theory of atoms of time which, if surpassed, place one momentarily in the presence of God, the only true present (see chs. 4 and 6).
Fourteenth-century writers repeatedly insist that truth is relative to the perceiver. Consider Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess
, where the narrator rereads his Ovid to test it in his mind, wondering “yf hit were so” (line 233). See note 12. Petrarch’s observations on the value of old sayings and ancient writings are useful in understanding what Gower means by experta
and how a medieval reader might “experience” old books and ideas. In a letter to Giovanni Colonna di San Vito (25 September 1342) Petrarch writes: “Nothing moves me so much as the quoted maxims of great men. I like to rise above myself, to test my mind to see if it contains anything solid or lofty, or stout and firm against ill-fortune, or to find if my mind had been lying to me about itself. And there is no better way of doing this — except by direct experience, the surest mistress — than by comparing one’s mind with those it would most like to resemble. Thus, as I am grateful to my authors who give me the chance of testing my mind against maxims frequently quoted, so I hope my readers will thank me” (Letters from Petrarch
, p. 68).
Hope, anticipation, and need of a good ending, despite the lack of certainty of where we are now or where we are going, is one of the most characteristic considerations of Middle English literature. It is found repeatedly in questions such as Chaucer’s “not wot I . . . Ne where I am, ne in what contree” and his search for “any stiryng man / That may me telle where I am” (House of Fame
, lines 474–79), or Will’s perpetual search in Piers Plowman
, or such poignant lyrics as “Kindely is now my coming” with its “Scharp and strong is my deying, / I ne woth whider schal I” (Luria and Hoffman, Middle English Lyrics
, #237, lines 5–6).
St. Augustine is the doctrinal authority most cited by philosophers such as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Roger Bacon, theologians such as Wyclif, and writers such as Gower, Chaucer, Langland, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing
For Augustine, time is movement, a “shuttling of the future into the past, moving through an immeasurable point” (Wills, “Augustine’s Magical Decade,” p. 30). That immeasurable point is the present, which we try to understand or make exist sensibly through the abridgments of mental acts. Augustine argues that “without creation, no time can exist” (Confessions
XI.xxx.40). Being a phenomenon of creation, time can be understood only by measure, by relationships of moments (see Confessions
, XI.xxvi.33 and XI.xxvi.34–36). Time is thus a kind of fiction — a tale, if you will — a distension of once-upon-a-time moments, stretching feeling according to measures made “real” as the mind expands itself through anticipation of the future and recollection of the past (Confessions
XI.xxxi.41). Time enables one to frame the present even though we cannot know what it is. We make tales of time through which we imagine that we can grasp its being.
XI.xxviii.38, as translated by Garry Wills, St. Augustine
, p. 90; Wills’ brackets.
Garry Wills notes that Augustine’s term confessio is synonymous with testimonium, confiteri
meaning “to testify.” For Augustine “even inanimate things confess — testify to — their Creator: ‘Their beauty is their testimony’ (Pulchritudo eorum confessio eorum, Sermones
241.2)” (St. Augustine
, pp. xiv–xvi). Wills’ explanation of Augustine’s concept is useful in grasping the intentions of Gower’s confessional tactic where telling serves a key part in a restorative procedure. The many parts of his poem challenge the reader even as Genius and Amans provoke and test each other.
Compare Gower’s Nam dabit experta res magis esse fidem
(for a thing experienced will afford greater faith). See the opening epigram of this Introduction.
For example, in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess
the narrator reads a text from Ovid, then goes over it repeatedly (“[I] overloked hyt everydel”) to discover “yf hit were so” (lines 232–33); that is, he rereads to get at what might
be taken as the “truth” of the matter. That “truth” is, of course, contingent upon the capabilities of the perceiver, capabilities qualified by the reader’s prejudice and intellectual capacities. Boethius puts the matter shrewdly: “alle thing that is iwist nis nat knowen by his nature propre, but by the nature of hem that comprehenden it” (Chaucer’s translation, Boece
, 5.pr.6.2–4). Gower works from a similar concept, fully cognizant of the relativity of experience to language. Although “experience” may be no authority, as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath amusingly explains (CT
III[D]1 ff.), it is the primary means available to people for testing the possibilities and probabilities out of which they discover the relativity of knowledge. For discussion of the philosophical issues here see Peck, “Phenomenology of Make Believe,” pp. 250–58.
Gower first circulated the poem in 1390 with a dedication and concluding prayers addressed to King Richard. In 1392, he changed the dedication and conclusion to honor Henry of Derby (later King Henry IV) and to conclude with prayers for the state of England. See “Politics and Society,” below, pp. 19 ff.
Compare Chaucer’s setting the Man of Law’s Tale on April 18, or the dream in HF
on the tenth day of the tenth month, or his frequent use of May 3 as an auspicious day. The effect is to relate fiction to historical moments in “real” time.
For example, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde
, and Book of the Duchess
; Langland’s Piers Plowman
; the anonymous Pearl
; and Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pélerinage de la vie humaine
Gower probably borrows the term from OF estoire
, which is in turn derived from late Latin in the twelfth century to indicate “a (vernacular) narrative of past events, presented as true, and whose authenticity is attested by an authority” (Damian-Grint, “Estoire
as a Word and Genre,” p. 198). The term was perhaps borrowed to differentiate romanz
from more “historical” kinds of writing. Chaucer never uses the word “history,” though he does use the aphetic form, “storie” (which he rhymes with “memorie”), in Troilus and Criseyde
, where Criseyde, considering her life, observes: “Men myght a book make of it, lik a storie” (5.585).
I make the “tally” pun to heighten the connotations of tale
in Gower’s usage. Both tale
have the same root, the Old Teutonic *tala
, as in the verb taljan
, meaning to mention things in their natural or due order, to relate, enumerate, reckon (see OED
). Both words, along with tell
, imply a process of ordering, of taking account. When the wife in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale tells her husband to score the debt on her “taile” (CT
]416), she makes a triple pun on tail/tale/tally, with related puns on accounting. Gower regularly utilizes two components of the pun, those of tale and tally, in the economics of his narrative, though he does not make puns on tail
as readily as Chaucer.
The “lust” and “lore” phrasing is akin to Chaucer’s telling of tales for “best sentence [wisdom] and moost solaas [entertainment]” (CT
I[A]798). Coleman (Medieval Readers and Writers
, p. 16) argues that most works in the period were written not merely to entertain but rather to inspire readers to criticize and eventually reform social practice. While this may be true, it is also true that the writers of the 1380s and 1390s were acutely aware of the limitations of literary assertion, as well as the dangers of political criticism and attempts by writers at reform. See Ferster, Fictions of Advice
, on the use of Latin traditions as a means of disguising discontent in advice literature. See also Middleton, “Idea of Public Poetry,” pp. 101–02, and Peter, Complaint and Satire
, p. 70.
21 John Gower
, p. v.
22 Structures of Conversion
, p. 2.
It is perhaps noteworthy that medieval medical diagrams of the brain often label the figure as “Disease Man.” The diagrams identify the areas of the brain where specific diseases might be located. See Clarke and Dewhurst, Illustrated History of Brain Function
, figs. 5, 7, 9, 12, 13, 16, and 17.
Augustine’s most detailed discussion of mental faculties appears in De Trinitate
, Books 9–11.
A comparable shift of focus occurs in northern Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries as the ideology of a monastic culture, focusing upon the Intellect, sees pride as the primary sin. But gradually, as the commercial revolution takes place and the educational centers shift from monasteries to universities, inns of court, and a culture of guildsmen, the focus shifts to the Will as the faculty most often abused, with sins of avarice and greed as the greatest threats to human welfare. See Little, “Pride Goes before Avarice”; Lopez, Commercial Revolution
; Yunck, Lineage of Lady Meed
; Bloomfield, Seven Deadly Sins
; and Baldwin, “Medieval Merchant.”
On the prominence of intention in Boethius see Consolation
3.pr.11 and 12, 4.m.1 and pr.2, and 5.m.4 and pr.6. By the fourteenth century intention has become a central concern of civil law as well. See Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale on the complexity of self-adjudication as every aspect of motive becomes essential to the assessment of behavior. For general discussion of the concept see Bowers, Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman
, and Dihle, Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity
See Clarke and Dewhurst, Illustrated History of Brain Function
, pp. 10–48. The concept of three primary functions of the brain, namely, Imagination, Reason, and Memory, goes back to Galen, as far as medieval writers are concerned. Nemesius, bishop of Emesia (c. AD 390), and Augustine first propose a cell doctrine of brain function (Clarke and Dewhurst, p. 10), which dominates diagrams until well past the medieval period.
Capitulum x [f. 21va
], Bartholomaeus Anglicus, I.98.
E.g., the three-cell diagram of the brain in Triumphus Augustinus de Anchona, in Opusculum perutile de cognitione animae
, revised by Achillini (1503), printed by Kolve (Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative
, p. 25; discussed, p. 23). See also Clarke and Dewhurst, Illustrated History of Brain Function
, p. 27.
See the diagrams in Clarke and Dewhurst, Illustrated History of Brain Function
. In some instances, the cells in the frontal lobe, identified with sensation and imagination, are linked directly to the eye. E.g., the drawing c. 1310 in Cambridge University Library Gg.l.l, fol. 490v (figure 39 in Clarke and Dewhurst; see also figures 24, c. 1410, and 32, c. 1501, which also link the eyes directly to the brain). One conclusion that might be drawn is that a diseased brain is simply an unbalanced one, often unbalanced by a failure to guard the eye or ear.
See Kolve’s perceptive discussion of the role of the inner eye and seeing ear particularly as adjuncts to memory in the process of cognition (Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative
, pp. 27–58).
See Kolve (Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative
) on the prominence of visual images and the inner eye in the therapeutic process of reading. Even the nose has an “inner eye” capable of projecting images in the brain. See illustration 63 in Clark and Dewhurst (Illustrated History of Brain Function
, p. 43) for a fourteenth-century drawing of the eye in relation to the brain that also crudely depicts the eye of the nose.
See especially Consolation
1.pr.6, where the disconsolate narrator has been diagnosed as having forgotten who he is.
Geoffrey of Vinsauf, in Poetria Nova
, a work known to both Gower and Chaucer, devotes his concluding chapter to the metaphor of memory as stomach of the mind and to the right ways to feed it (ch. 5, trans. Nims, pp. 87–91).
On the evils of division and dividedness see the Prologue, lines 127, 333, 576, 654, 782, 799, 830, 851, 889, 893, 966, 967, 971, 992, 996, 1010, 1022, and 1030.
It is noteworthy that many of the manuscripts of CA
include a miniature of Amans kneeling before Genius in hope of receiving a blessing. The image provides a visual meditation on the therapeutic ideal of reading the cultural ideology of Genius’ orderly narratives as they, addressing Amans’ confusion through his eye and ear, encourage moral reconsideration. See illustrations 1, 3, and 5.
See Griffiths, “Confessio Amantis
: The Poem and Its Pictures,” pp. 163–78, and Emmerson, “Reading Gower in a Manuscript Culture,” pp. 167–70, for discussion of the recurrent illuminations in Gower manuscripts. The illustration depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is the most often repeated of any representation. Griffiths refers to it as “the dream of precious metals,” an inadequate title given Gower’s pointed use of the image and the narrative on which it is based. Aside from the fact that iron and clay can scarcely be called precious metals, the point of the account in Daniel and Gower is to demarcate the divisive degeneration of time as human society becomes progressively fragmented by the monstrosities of sin. A preferable designation might be “the dream of the monster of time and the monstrosity of sin.” See illustrations 2 and 4 for examples of this image.
See Apocalypse 21. In VC
7 Gower explores ideas of the apocalypse in detail; there he depicts his narrator as one who bears the name of John of the Apocalypse as he begins his diatribe against the ills of the fourteenth century. See Salisbury, “Remembering Origins,” pp. 175–77, on Gower’s riddling on his name.
Coleman, Medieval Readers and Writers
, pp. 127–28.
See Boccaccio on Poetry
, ed. and trans. Osgood, especially Book 14, chs. 8–14, on the possibilities of knowing through fiction.
In Book 8 Gower prays with “hol entente” (line 2968) that he and others will find a means of understanding the confusion of their lives. In the concluding section he prays for the state of England, first that the clergy act justly and “[a]ftir the reule of charité” in “hope
that men schuldyn se / This lond amende” (lines 3003–05; emphasis mine) and that the king will “entende” toward “rightwisnesse” (line 3069). As Gower laid out so clearly in the Prologue, after God destroyed the Tower of Babel, His entente
(line 1023) was to isolate humankind within diverse languages. For comparison, see Chaucer who, like Gower, repeatedly invites his readers, trapped in their diverse personal languages, to amend his verse, the implication being that, given the instability of language and his own limited understanding, the most important text lies in the reader’s perception. See the Retraction (CT
I[X]1082), The Parson’s Tale (I[X]60), and Troilus and Criseyde
(3.1332); with an amusing variant in HF
(lines 92–93). On the limitations of humankind’s dullness of wit as a psychological inevitability as well as a modesty trope, see Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century.”
The lines are spoken by Venus as she admonishes “Gower” to leave her court to return to his books. Gower may have got the idea from the Prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women
(F text), where Alceste sends Chaucer back to his books to work apart from Cupid’s court, albeit still exploring the modes of courtesy within society.
See Lewis, Allegory of Love
, pp. 201–13, on the merits of Gower’s plain style. It “has a sweetness and freshness which we do not find in the ‘polite’ style of later periods. Often a couplet in Gower sounds like a snatch of song” (p. 201). See also Burrow’s Ricardian Poetry
, especially pp. 50–51. Gower’s metrical proficiency might be compared with that of Ben Jonson, who much admired Gower and often referred to him in his discussion of grammar in his treatise, The English Grammar
. So attracted is Jonson to Gower and his more famous contemporary Chaucer that, in Timber, or Discoveries
, he warns teachers to “beware of letting them [students] taste of Gower
, or Chaucer
at first, lest falling too much in love with Antiquity . . . they grow rough and barren in language onely. When their judgements are firme, and out of danger, let them reade both, the old and the new” (Ben Jonson
, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 8:618).
Excellent examples of Gower’s careful manipulation of fictive voicing of his persona occur in Vox Clamantis
where, in the headnote, line 16, he presents himself quasi in propria persona
[as if in his own person] while speaking of the uprising of 1381. Macaulay observes: “The author takes care to guard his readers against a too personal application of his descriptions” (Complete Works
, 4:377). But Gower also wants to keep his reader aware even in this expository moment of issues of fictive voicing. Compare the Latin gloss in the margin adjacent to lines 59 ff. in CA
1, where Gower explains Hic quasi in persona aliorum, quos amor alligat, fingens se auctor esse Amantem
[Here the author, fashioning himself to be the Lover as if in the role of those others whom love binds]. See Galloway (“Gower in His Most Learned Role”) on Gower’s differentiations of persona in VC
46 Allegory of Love
, pp. 198–99.
See Dimmick, “‘Redinge of Romance’ in Gower’s Confessio Amantis
,” for considerations of CA
under the umbrage of romance conventions.
On Gower as compiler see Minnis, “Late-Medieval Discussions of Compilatio
,” pp. 386–87, and Medieval Theory of Authorship
, pp. 194–200; Olsson, Structures of Conversion
, pp. 1–15; and Edwards, “Selection and Subversion.” Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship
, speaks of Gower as “a compiler who tried to present himself as an author” (p. 210). But Olsson challenges the imputation of failure in Minnis’ assertion (p. 5); he finds in the term compilator
“a means of identifying issues and strategies that become central to Gower in the work; the procedure of compilation impinges significantly on how he understands history and organizes moral experience itself.” Such activities “energize his authorship” (p. 5) rather than weaken it. See Schutz, “Absent and Present Images,” on the poem as a mixed genre that functions through mirroring.
49 Structures of Conversion
, pp. 5–15.
“Art of High Prosaic Seriousness,” pp. 164–65.
Part of the delight may be attributed to a new awareness of the relativity of knowledge and a loss of confidence in abstract equations. If direct knowledge of truth is impossible for temporal creatures, then one can only know through likenesses, which is a kind of knowing and not knowing simultaneously. See Myles, Chaucerian Realism
, particularly the second chapter, and Peck (Kingship and Common Profit
and “Phenomenology of Make Believe”).
A good example of delight in multiple possibilities of meaning may be found in Pierre Bersuire’s “De formis figurisque deorum,” the opening chapter to his Ovidius Moralizatus
, in which he discusses numerous ways in which classical mythology may be interpreted. See Peck’s discussion of Bersuire and the complexities of irony and multiple voicing in Gower (“Problematics of Irony, pp. 219–21). Behind such hermeneutics lie the playful practices of the Victorine school in the twelfth century, particularly works like Hugh of St. Victor’s De arca noe
, with its piling on of meanings for the ark in diverse contexts, or Anselm’s propositions on the volatile relationships between fiction and perceived truth in the Monologion
, or Boethius’ representation of wordplay and the house of Dedalus, in the popular Consolation of Philosophy
(3.pr.12). In the fourteenth century, contemporaneous with Gower, consider the heteroglossic ideation of Margarete
in Usk’s Testament of Love
, or the daisy in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women
, or the pearl in the poem of that name, or the perpetually shifting semantic valences of Piers in Piers Plowman
. One is reminded of Duns Scotus in his use of suppositional logic in his development of an empirical science, where four quite different arguments are given to explain a proposition, an if this, then that
strategy in which all propositions become correlative to the procedure of the argument. This “newe science,” as Chaucer calls it (Parliament of Fowls
, line 25), becomes a way of looking at things with results contingent upon the suppositional premises of initial propositions. What Usk called “delight in making” becomes a concept for reading as well as a formula for composing, a matter rather different from compiling.
See Donaldson (Speaking of Chaucer
, pp. 1–12) on the voicing in Chaucer, particularly in CT
, which comes closest to the considerations required in the assessing of Gower’s voicing. In the same vein see Olsson (Structures of Conversion
), who, after observing that Gower, according to a Senecan model of voices in a chorus wherein multiple voices speak as one, observes that Gower, nonetheless, “works to separate, to create for the work an impression of compilatio
, and does so by authoring divergent outlooks. Indeed, as he breaks his own voice out into many voices in his fiction of a compilation, he does by very different means what Chaucer does through his pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales
” (p. 12).
Though technically not a dream vision, Boethius’ Consolation
was consistently regarded as one, given the fact that the narrator is lying ill upon his bed and Philosophy comes to him as if in a vision. In setting up his exemplum Gower might have put his narrator to sleep, then had him meet Venus and Genius, but such a literalization of the shifting categories of mind was not necessary. All the poet needs to do is to project fictive situations which serve the same requirements as the discrete boundaries of a dream world. All thought is a kind of dream, and as Chaucer puts it in HF, “dreme he barefot, dreme he shod” (line 98), that is, whether he is sleeping or awake, he is still dreaming.
The best discussion that I know of the debate components of the poem is Olsson’s discussion of the tumultuator
conventions through which Gower creates dispute and discord for the unbinding of ideas. See especially Structures of Conversion
, pp. 13–15 and 70–72.
This portion of my argument is adapted from my earlier edition of CA
(1968), pp. ix–x.
The daring lies in criticizing people of higher social station in the fourteenth century but also in imagining that the moral force of the form might make a difference. See Ferster, Fictions of Advice
, pp. 31–38 and 108–36, and Middleton, “Idea of Public Poetry,” pp. 91–92 and 95–104, on the danger of such literary activities.
His model for such a strategy might have been Chaucer or, perhaps, Jean de Meun in his continuation of Le Roman de la Rose
. See Middleton, “Idea of Public Poetry,” pp. 89–90, on the bridging of metaphysical and moral philosophy in fourteenth-century English literature.
As Gower’s critique cuts across all three estates, his position is not too dissimilar from Langland’s in Piers Plowman
B.6, where Piers sets up rules of governance on his half acre. In Gower the commons is governed by the king and the church, though all three share responsibility for good rule. It is an evil time when the commons rebel, but an especially evil time if proud churchmen or aristocrats promote themselves at the cost of the kingdom. See Emmerson, “Reading Gower in a Manuscript Culture,” pp. 171–75, on CA
as a public poem.
None of the expository sections — on the difficulty of justifying war, on the origins of labor and the professions, on the history of religion, and on the education of the king — appear in this volume, though they will occur in volumes 2 and 3 of this edition. For detailed summaries of the expository sections, see my one-volume edition of selections from CA
(1968), pp. 192, 222–23, 242–48, and 368–414.
Peace became for Gower almost a mania in his recurrent attempts to address the political chaos of England during his lifetime. It is not only central to his three major works, Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis
, and Confessio Amantis
; at the end of the 1390s, after the deposition of Richard, he wrote the Tripartite Chronicle
, lamenting the greed of Richard’s party and celebrating the justice of their overthrow. His final English poem is In Praise of Peace
, c. 1400, a poem that hopes Henry’s new administration can restore peace to the nation. The theme of peace is also found in such works of Chaucer as “Lak of Stedfastnesse” and The Tale of Melibee, both of which works bear close ties with CA
See Coleman, Medieval Readers and Writers
, pp. 126–56, for an account of Gower as a witness to history in VC
, and Staley, “Gower, Richard II, Henry of Derby, and the Business of Making Culture,” for discussion of CA
in its day. For a general survey of social events and responses to the “hurling time” of the uprising see Peck, “Social Conscience and the Poets.” For a useful anthology of literature of protest from the period see Dean, ed., Medieval English Political Writings
The phrase is McKisack's, in The Fourteenth Century
; see p. 384, for a summary of the "disastrous" events.
See Saul, Richard II
, pp. 15–16, and Maude V. Clarke, Fourteenth Century Studies
, pp. 120–23. Burley’s library holdings included Egidio Colonna’s De regimine principum
, a book akin to VC
. See Coleman, Medieval Readers and Writers
, pp. 18–19, on Burley’s book holdings. It is likely that Richard would have understood and appreciated the advice-to-princes genre, at which Gower was particularly adept. See also Michael J. Bennett, “Court of Richard II and the Promotion of Literature,” and Kerby-Fulton and Justice, “Langlandian Reading Circles.”
The most thorough discussion of Gower’s relationship with his fourteenth-century audience is Coleman, Medieval Readers and Writers
, pp. 126 ff. The genius of Middleton’s more succinct observations lies in its shifting of the audience of Gower from an aristocracy or coterie of ecclesiasts to a group of writers whose bond lies not in their social privilege but in their delight as men of letters in wordcrafting and the clerical arts of bookmaking, what Usk refers to as “perdurable letters” (3.923), those “sleigh inseer[s]” who “can souke hony of the harde stone, oyle of the drye rocke” and “lyghtly fele nobley of mater in my leude ymagination closed” (Testament of Love
3.104–06). See Middleton, “Thomas Usk’s ‘Perdurable Letters,’” pp. 63, 68–70, 88n35, and 94–104, where she specifically considers Gower.
66 Medieval Readers and Writers
, p. 14.
Another possibility of work by Gower known to the king might be early love poems (in French) which later were incorporated into the Cinkante Balades
. See Macaulay, vol. 1, p. lxxiii, on the history of the Balades
For succinct discussions of the events following 1386 and Usk’s execution, see Saul, Richard II
, pp. 193–94, and Scott, “Chaucer and the Parliament of 1386.” For a more detailed analysis see McKisack, Fourteenth Century
, pp. 424–61. See also Stow, “Richard II in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis
,” pp. 13–24.
Scott, “Chaucer and the Parliament of 1386,” p. 85; see also Saul, Richard II
, p. 194.
See Strohm, “Politics and Poetics,” pp. 83–112, on the politics surrounding Usk’s execution; Kerby-Fulton and Justice, “Langlandian Reading Circles,” pp. 59–83, for discussion of Usk’s intellectual confreres; and Shoaf’s introduction to his edition of Usk’s Testament of Love
, pp. 5–7, for a general survey of the issues. On possible links between Usk and Gower’s VC
, see Summers, “Gower’s Vox Clamantis
and Usk’s Testament of Love
,” pp. 56–59.
71 The Westminster Chronicle
, ed. and trans. Hector and Harvey, p. 315.
72 Fourteenth Century
, pp. 464–65.
The romance devices here — the wandering in May, the music of the birds, the woeful frustration of the lovesick persona, the encounter with Venus and Cupid, and Cupid's fiery, captivating dart — are all found in the opening section of Guillaume de Lorris' Roman de la Rose
, which sets the tone for many a fin amor
love quest in France and England well into the fifteenth century and later. The love language signifies that the narrator has become "Amans" and that the subject of the poem will henceforth be the love fantasies of Fortune's child.
Compare Philosophy's catechism for Boece as she attempts to identify the specifics of his illness (Consolation
1.pr.6): "'Whethir wenestow,' quod sche, 'that this world be governed by foolyssche happes and fortunows, or elles wenestow that ther be inne it ony governement of resoun?'" (lines 7-10, Chaucer's translation). Boece is unable to answer the question reasonably, which brings Philosophy to her next crucial move: "Remembrestow that thow art a man?" (lines 55-56). When the disconsolate Boece stumbles on his definition of what a man is Philosophy knows where to begin her therapy: "'Now woot I,' quod sche, 'other cause of thi maladye, and that ryght greet: thow hast left for to knowen thyselve what thou art'" (lines 68-70).
Venus raises an important consideration in the seeking of counsel, namely, that the suppliant tell his tale truthfully: otherwise the adviser cannot address the problem accurately. Compare The Tale of Melibee, where Dame Prudence insists that for the counsel to be of value the suppliant must tell all truthfully. Contrast the summoner in The Friar's Tale, who boasts that he lies to his confessor so that he can get away with whatever he wants.
Lewis goes on to suggest that "the confession in the Roman de la Rose
taught Gower nothing except, possibly, the name and office of Genius." The confessional device "is, as far as I know, entirely Gower's own and he has seldom received full credit for it" (Allegory of Love
, p. 200n).
These are the five subdivisions of Pride that Gower had outlined in the Mirour de l'Omme
. The first four books of CA
follow the arrangement of sin in the earlier poem; the last four vary the pattern extensively.
For discussion of the pun on mundus
:pure and mundus
:world, see Peck, Kingship and Common Profit
, pp. 41-45.
For an unusual presentation of the tale see Hines, Fabliau in English
, p. 215, who, in consideration of exempla and the fabliau, discusses fabliau components in the Tale of Mundus and Paulina. The tone of Gower's poem is, of course, altogether different from that of most fabliaux. That is, I do not think Gower means it as a joke, despite the peculiar sexual behavior.
Gower wrote the tale sometime between 1386 and 1390. The Wife of Bath's Tale was most likely written after 1392 as part of that creative outburst that produced what Kittredge and others called "the marriage group."
See Echard, "With Carmen's Help," pp. 32-34, on ambiguities of voicing in the tales of Florent and Albinus and Rosemond as revealed by various manuscript glosses. Echard demonstrates that the glosses, but often the text as well, deliberately displace the focus of the argument, particularly with regard to nature.
Perhaps the point here supports the moral dimension of the tale, in that, in Christian ideology, all children of God hold "cousinage" to the "emperor" (i.e., to God, the ultimate authority and watchman). How God's kingship functions, however, is always an unknown. In this tale the key to familial solidarity lies in the keeping of one's word, which is the end toward which the moral speaks.
This problem of being caught between contracts and sub-contracts is a favorite issue in Middle English romances. See, for example, Amis and Amiloun
and Sir Amadace
for extreme situations, though double contracts, often in conflict with each other, show up in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
, The Alliterative Morte Arthure
, Sir Degaré
, and Havelok the Dane
, to name a few. The will is perpetually subcontracted and required to make decisions without having the necessary information to differentiate between commitments. Ever since the serpent's subcontracting of Eve in the Garden of Eden, humankind is trapped by the need to choose amidst conditions that are not understood, and then be subjected to the necessities of consequence.
The tale incorporates admirably a larger analogue wherein God, King of the Universe, having humbled himself by descending from his royal seat in carnal form, still permits Death to continue his ways to serve as a reminder against pride. Humility, rather than pride, is the surest way of preparing for Death's trump.
The turning of the wheel is normally the prerogative of Dame Fortune. Here Gower links Fortune's wheel to Venus, who "kepth the blinde whel" (line 2490) and turns it so that lovers fall (line 2493).
In the fifteenth century, The Tale of the Three Questions is the most anthologized tale from CA
, appearing apart from the rest of the poem in five manuscripts. See Edwards, "Selection and Subversion," pp. 259-66.
See the Explanatory Notes to Book 8 of CA
for detailed discussion on the issues of incest both in the poem and as an ethical and social problem.
It is perhaps noteworthy that Chaucer likewise uses the shift to first person in the conclusion to his Canterbury Tales
, where, from the Prologue to The Canon Yeoman's Tale on, he uses first-person narrative in the Prologues and Retraction. As in Gower, Chaucer seems to be manipulating voice so that he moves back into the voice not simply of Geoffrey but of the poet himself and asks for prayers on his behalf in the Retraction as he puts fiction aside to consider more personal issues.
The point here is another instance of Gower's insight into the relationship of time and space. When the right time is discovered space collapses. Compare Chaucer's Book of the Duchess
where, after the long ordeal in the woods exploring the black knight's unconsolability, the wood, in an instant, disappears, and the "long castel" appears "from us but a lyte" (lines 1318, 1317), now that the knight has faced his grief and seen it through "be my trouthe" (line 1309). The dreamer has found the moment that he can now move "homwarde" (line 1315).
The instruction to return to his books is reminiscent of Cupid's command to Geoffrey at the end of the Prologue to LGW
The dreamer's awakening in amazement is a prominent feature of dream visions and visionary poems like CA
where the poet, returning to his first voice, is left to pick up the pieces as he returns home to everyday duties. Compare the conclusions to Pearl
, The Book of the Duchess
, and The Parliament of the Three Ages
Perhaps the best comparison of the two endings is that of Echard, "Pre-Texts."
The phrase “testament of love” seems to echo the title given to Usk’s Boethian apology that he wrote in prison while awaiting execution. Middleton (“Thomas Usk’s ‘Perdurable Letters,’” p. 88n35) argues persuasively that the phrase indirectly praises Usk and that Gower certainly knew Usk’s treatise. See also Usk, Testament of Love
, ed. Shoaf, p. 12.
94 John Gower
, pp. 303–09.
For a detailed description of the individual manuscripts, see Gower’s Complete Works
, ed. Macaulay, 2:cxxxviii–clxvii.
See Gower, Complete Works
, ed. Macaulay, 2:cxxx.
See Fisher, John Gower
, pp. 306–08.