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John Gower, The Minor Latin Works: Introduction


1 Rigg, History of Anglo-Latin Literature, p. 287.

2 Fisher, John Gower, p. 99.

3 "The play upon light, sight, virtue, and their contraries" in De lucis scrutinio was "unbearably Miltonic" for Fisher (John Gower, pp. 129-30), who compares Gower's 103 lines to Milton's sonnet, "When I Consider How My Life Is Spent."

4 For a more substantial outline of the differences between Classical and Medieval Latin, see Medieval Latin, ed. Mantello and Rigg, pp. 79-92.
That John Gower's minor Latin poems should be among the last of his works to be translated into his native English in a way is apt, since they seem to have been among the last poetry he wrote -- although assigning most of them anything but approximate dates of composition is impossible. As the poem Eneidos Bucolis (attributed to a "Philosopher," but possibly by Gower himself; see Appendix 1) takes note, Gower's achievement in writing substantially in all three primary languages of his time -- Anglo-French, English, and Latin -- was a source of pride to others and, undoubtedly, to him too: into the final years of his life he continued to produce poetry in all three languages. At the very end, however (if we can read aright the poems Dicunt scripture and Orate pro anima, seemingly written, respectively, along with his will and for display upon his tomb), his final metered thoughts were in Latin, the language that Gower, like most of his contemporaries, associated with timeless authority.

As a late medieval English Latinist Gower exhibits, in his minor poems as elsewhere, most of the traits of his time -- which is to say, when compared to the great Augustan writers whose work he knew and admired (much of Ovid he seems to have got by heart), he comes at times somewhat rudely off, reliant as he was upon authorial models less classical than contemporary. (A. G. Rigg has observed, for example, that the Vox Clamantis "is the first substantial Anglo-Latin work in unrhymed elegiac couplets since Henry of Avranches [fl. 1220-60]" -- a comment that, depending upon one's opinion of Henry of Avranches, can betoken well or ill. Rigg does, in any case, suggest the extensive range of Gower's reading.)1 Moreover, in his later years, as these shorter poems illustrate especially well, Gower initiated experiments with rhyme and the mixing of metrical forms within the same poem. While these clearly indicate a desire to achieve greater stylistic ornamentation, both nevertheless place demands upon his language, and occasionally force grammatical anomalies when a rhyme must be had. On the other hand, instances of the onomastic play, a earlier poetic choice which, in its way, too, favors formal panache over clarity of sense, are rarer in the minor poems than in the Vox Clamantis. In these shorter pieces (much to the relief of some), Gower seems intent on different techniques.

Such habits make these last poems difficult to fathom on occasion; but for this there may be other reasons as well, driven by their subject matter. The three longest -- De lucis scrutinio, Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia, and O deus immense -- are all poems of social conscience in the "Gower tradition" of voicing opinions critical of powerful institutions and individuals. These poems that we know today come from manuscripts copied after the rise of Gower's ultimate patron, Henry IV, a time when, presumably, a Lancastrian partisan such as Gower found the world to be a bit safer (or at least easier to decipher). We have no earlier record of their transmission, or of what response Gower might have anticipated. Never, apparently, a courtier, but located across the Thames at Southwark during the years when these poems were written, Gower could conceivably take the pulse of his countrymen in greater variety than he might, had he been a Ricardian intimate like his friend Chaucer. Gower's knowledge of uncertain men and times may indeed have influenced his selection of Latin for these overtly political pieces, and that, perhaps, accounts for some of the obscure structure and language.

That said, however, it should be clearly noted that the best of these poems, and to some degree their collective range of subject altogether, can be read with more appreciation than apology. Gower's faults as a poet are his own, and have been much dwelt upon by his critics past and present, but by the same token so the legitimate strengths one finds here are also uniquely his. Certainly there is reason to know these poems for the light they shed on the intense partisanship and events of great moment surrounding the usurpation 1399-1400, and it is not difficult to anticipate that now, in translation, Gower's voice will be heard more often in historical studies.

In light of this, a brief overview of the last years of Richard II's reign might prove useful, by way of providing context for these poems. In early July 1397 the king arrested without warning his uncle, the duke of Gloucester, and the earls of Warwick and Arundel. Two months later a hastily summoned parliament, somewhat dubiously constituted in favor of the king, heard and upheld charges of treason against them, and also against Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury and brother to the earl, who attempted to intercede. The archbishop was stripped of his office in favor of Roger Walden, the royal treasurer, forced to forfeit his lands and sent into permanent exile. His brother the earl was executed; Warwick, apparently breaking into sobs during the proceedings, was spared the death penalty by Richard but sentenced to exile for life on the Isle of Man; and Gloucester, who had been shipped to Calais for safekeeping, was found "inexplicably" dead in his cell. (Testimony in 1399 later established that the duke had been smothered at Richard's order.) The lands and property of all three were claimed by the crown, only to be redistributed on the last day of the parliament session among the king's intimates as Richard, in an unprecedented display of royal power and cronyism, created a marquess and four new earldoms, and raised five earls to ducal status.

Nor was this the sum of the work of the St. Lambert's Day parliament. Gloucester, Warwick, and Arundel had all been leading members of the so-called Appellants, the body of lords who successfully forced Richard to submit to parliamentary curtailment of his authority and much to his resentment ruled, in effect, in his stead in 1387-88. The king's action against them in 1397 was widely understood to be revenge; but of greater significance politically was the repeal of laws restricting royal prerogatives passed a decade earlier by the so-called Merciless Parliament under direction of the Appellants. This was a necessary next step in restoring Richard to full power, and it was accomplished before parliament disbanded, not to meet again until January 1398 at Shrewsbury. Although there was no immediate reaction to all of this, neither amongst the commons nor the peerage (the presence of three hundred of the king's Cheshire archers surrounding the parliament hall having, perhaps, dampened spirits), a resultant subterranean unease seems to have been widespread across social classes thereafter -- which unease, it has been suggested, Gower shared and was to prove a turning point in his subsequent opinion of Richard.

Over the fall and winter of 1397-98 conditions darkened considerably -- even as their outcome may have seemed at first quite otherwise to the king. In addition to his attempt to reconfigure the peerage by creating new honors and breaking up old feudalities through the redistribution of lands, Richard set his sights lower, aiming to reform local civic institutions too. In moves that proved immensely unpopular among the commons, the king began replacing sheriffs around the countryside with others loyal to himself, while in many cases extending their tenure beyond the customary year's service. Appointments of a similar kind were made to the bench and to local commissions as well. But the main event of these months, which also seemed an opportunity to Richard, was a quarrel between Thomas Mowbray, newly created duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke, new duke of Hereford, son and heir to John of Gaunt and future king Henry IV, that erupted in charges and countercharges of treason at the Shrewsbury parliament. Richard, appearing at first inclined to believe his cousin Henry, had Mowbray imprisoned; following hearings spread over several months, however, a trial by combat was decided upon, and set for Coventry in September 1398. Yet there, rather than let "justice take its course," the king halted the proceedings in a scene famously rendered by Shakespeare, banishing Mowbray for life with forfeiture of property, and Henry the same -- although the period of exile was lessened almost immediately to ten years, with all lands to be held by the king in anticipation of Henry's return. As Henry had been himself an Appellant in 1387, albeit perhaps somewhat halfheartedly, and Mowbray may have had direct evidence of Richard's involvement in the death of Gloucester, the king had good reason to rejoice at their removal from the kingdom. For a brief time, with so many enemies banished and his authority appearing to grow, the world must have looked to Richard to be turning his way for good.

All his plans notwithstanding, matters began reversing themselves for the king in February 1399 with the death of John of Gaunt. Although not close to his nephew individually, Gaunt was loyal to the crown, and Richard had enjoyed his reliable support over many years. His death was a great loss, made much the worse by Richard's de facto confiscation of the duchy of Lancaster in direct contradiction of his several oaths to the absent Hereford to preserve Henry's inheritance until he should return from exile. But Richard wanted the vast Lancastrian revenues to fund his impending invasion of Ireland. He therefore altered Henry's banishment from ten years to life, assembled his army, and set sail in June for Waterford, leaving England in the care of his ineffectual uncle, the duke of York.

In France when he heard the news, Henry drew around him a small body of supporters, most of whom had gone into exile with him but with the important addition of Thomas Arundel, former archbishop of Canterbury. Arundel had his own scores to settle with Richard. Landing in England at Ravenspur at the end of June, Henry drew support first from the marcher lords, and subsequently from the nobility generally as he slowly traveled southward over several weeks, gathering strength as he went. Richard's arrogations of dynastic lands and elevation of his henchmen from 1397 worked against him: those with lands and titles feared the king's power to do the same to them. Conversely, Henry's repeated promises that his intent was solely to restore his rightful inheritance, and that he had no designs upon either the king's person or the crown, were reassuring. Richard compounded his difficulties by delaying his return to confront the threat for several weeks after learning of it; by the time he arrived in England in late July most of his home support had gone over to Henry. At the beginning of August Richard surrendered to Henry. A month later he was taken to the Tower of London to await his fate.

After Richard's surrender in August, Henry had summoned a parliament in the king's name to meet in Westminster at the end of September. Over the weeks prior to that body's gathering the intentions of Henry and his party shifted in regard to the crown. A committee was formed to study the situation, with a view toward putting Henry on the throne. The committee seems to have been issued a threefold charge: to determine what to do with Richard; to devise an effective plan to make Henry king; and, later, on the basis of the first two, to compose the text of a "challenge," or claim, to rule, which Henry could present at the upcoming parliament. Calls were issued to monasteries around the country to scour their chronicles for any item pertaining to the Plantagenet line, apparently to corroborate a rumor put about several years earlier by Lancastrian interests, to the effect that Edmund, known as Crouchback for his disfigured spine, was in fact the firstborn of Henry III, rather than Edward I. If true -- as it patently was not -- it would make Henry legitimate heir to the throne, through his mother. This was important because, even with Richard dead, Henry was not next in line; that place belonged to his cousin Mortimer. In the end, a plan evolved to induce Richard to resign power, thereby leaving a vacuum of leadership into which Henry could then step. At first Richard made this difficult. He agreed to cede governance to Henry, but not his anointed authority: Henry, in other words, could rule, but not be king, since in Richard's view kingship was a result of divine, not human, election.

With the parliament set to meet on 30 September, Lancastrian pressure on Richard grew until, on the twenty-ninth, he was finally coerced into signing documents of resignation. The next day the "parliament" met -- actually an unaccountable gathering of compromised partisans -- and responded to a reading of Richard's resignation with shouts of "Yes! Yes! Yes!" No formal vote was taken to accept it, nor was one recorded when the king was officially deposed; again, the "vote" was by acclamation, following the presentation of a lengthy collection of gravamina, or charges enumerating Richard's many crimes. Henry then read out the "challenge" prepared for him by his committee, which argued for his ascendancy on grounds of lineage, through Henry III; necessity (the country wanted proper governance) and the consequent will of God that he act; and the goodwill of his friends, which translated into "conquest." When he asked the multitude if it approved of his being king, the tumultuous answer was again, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" This "parliament" was then dissolved, having left not standard proceedings but rather an informal account of its activities inserted into the official rolls, known as the "Record and Process." Another body was summoned (with the same constituency) for 6 October. At this parliament, opened by Archbishop Arundel (who had regained both his ecclesiastical office and the chancellorship of the realm), Henry's kingship was acknowledged and the coronation set for 13 October. At this ceremony, largely to combat Richard's assertion that he alone could be true king affirmed by God, a special oil was used on Henry which, supposedly, had been given to Thomas à Becket by the Virgin Mary, to anoint a monarch destined to reunite the old Angevin empire.

With the coronation behind him, Henry nonetheless had still to deal with a Richard who, while powerless, yet was viewed by many to be the only sacral king. In December a plot by some of Richard's intimates and others was uncovered to slaughter Henry and his family at New Year and restore Richard to power. Although the revolt was put down, and several of the prominent ringleaders savagely punished, Henry took no further chances. Richard was removed north to the Lancastrian stronghold of Pontefract Castle, where he seems to have been starved to death in February on Henry's command. His body was then exhibited around the country, in order to demonstrate the reality of his death. Despite this, rumors of Richard's survival -- even of his escape into hiding -- persisted for the remainder of Henry's short reign, adding fuel to the flames of resistance that by 1402 had sprung up in Wales, in Scotland, and in England itself, where many of those who had believed and supported Henry's cause when it was merely to regain his rightful lands and title rebelled against his usurpation.

It was during these parlous times that Gower composed most of the poems included here, very probably at official urging, if not direct commission. It is likely, for example, that O deus immense was written in 1399, and reflects Gower's knowledge of the gravamina brought to bear at Richard's deposition. (Gower may, indeed, have been among the ecstatic crowd -- although such behavior hardly suits his persona.) Alternatively, it has been suggested that the poem was written with Richard in mind, during the upsurge of his autocracy in 1397-98. Another case in point might be the three poems deemed the "laureate group" by John Fisher -- Rex celi deus, O recolende, and H. aquile pullus -- which (probably in that order) Gower wrote for Henry, first to gild his "election" by the crowd at Westminster on 30 September 1399, next his coronation on 13 October, and then the elevation of young Henry of Monmouth to Prince of Wales on the fifteenth (or perhaps on the twenty-third, when the prince was also made duke of Aquitaine, to commemorate both simultaneously).2

All are important documents historically; but they are also poems admirable equally for their skill and craft. In Rex celi deus, to cite a single example, Gower centonically harvests over half the lines from Book VI of the Vox Clamantis, a section where previously they had offered advice to Richard II. Far from the "schoolboy plagiarism" with which Gower in less thoughtful days has been charged, the practice here if recognized would seem to yield a double reward: at once presenting subtle but convincing testimony of Gower's new loyalty, while honoring Henry's accession into what was Richard's role. Nevertheless, alongside, soto voce and subtlest of all, comes a characteristic Gowerian warning: kings' names are as interchangeable in poems as the temptations of power to overstep itself are pitfalls encountered by rulers of every time and clime.

Similarly remarkable in its making is De lucis scrutinio. Its attack upon the worldliness of contemporary society is scathing, the impact rendered the greater by the extended, sinuously adaptive metaphor of light and darkness around which the poem is built. Variously meaning knowledge, proper doctrine, the life and being of Christ himself, light stands in imperiled opposition to a plague of darknesses rising from human ignorance (gestative of schism and heresies) and willingness to exceed the boundaries of law, canonical and secular. No class is exempt here, from popes and kings to knights and commons, and at first glance it has about it a familiar ring of work done elsewhere, in fuller detail, in the Mirour de l'Omme and the Vox Clamantis. Read more closely, however, with full cognizance of the extraordinarily Miltonic biblical reflections Gower includes, especially of the psalms, the power of light and dark gathers an intensity and depth unsustainable over a longer poem (except for Milton's), and fully justifies the integrity of the separate, shorter work.3

At 321 lines, Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia is the longest of the minor poems, and by a great margin the one most copied in surviving manuscripts. Like De lucis scrutinio, its referential roots are deep in the Bible; but its central metaphor, no more the cosmic conflict of light and dark, has become concrete and corporeal -- worldly sins Pride, Lust, and Avarice and heresy presented as plague upon the body (an image Gower uses in other minor poems too) -- so is its range of substantiating reference that much wider, embracing doctrine traceable to Boethius, Alan of Lille, John of Salisbury, and Thomas Aquinas. Not precisely Gower's shorter tour de force (for this there could be several candidates), Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia nonetheless offers in relatively brief space a sounding of the depth and breadth of his learning. As an early reaction to the transformation of Lollard belief from the private to the public sphere, it holds significant interest as well: its occasion may well have been the nailing of the Lollard manifestoes on the doors of Westminster Hall and St. Paul's in 1395.

A word should be said, too, for the man John Gower as he emerges from the minor poems. The larger lineaments are there from acquaintance with the Mirour, Vox, Cronica Tripertita, and Confessio: the moral castigator of a lax humanity, his pious orthodoxy in politics and faith, the periodic outbreaks of prolixity, and judgments sometimes more proverbial than profound. But here are also glimpses of a different sort, a different face behind the mask. Est amor, thought by some to be incomplete, and Ecce patet tensus appear in their individual lives as stand-alone poems suddenly more suggestive of the Gower of the Cinkante Balades and the Traitié than of the Vox Clamantis, from which many of the lines of these two late poems are borrowed. They bespeak a softer underside, one the fierce old man found perhaps less easy to dismiss from himself in his latter years than, earlier, he did Amans' pale passion in Confessio VIII. Presul ouile regis and H. aquile pullus are redolent of prophecy, and show Gower the credulous, rather comic, medieval, his neck craned at the sky to see and learn the meaning of the comet of 1402, or huddled with a book of Merlin and a rumor from the street to glean the portents for his patron's benefit. Finally, in the prose and poetry of Quicquid homo scribat, Dicunt scripture, and Orate pro anima (sometimes called Armigeri scutum) we inherit a glimpse of Gower brought together with the "Four Last Things" that put a period to the lengthy sentence of his life, and project his imagining well beyond. That such poems should be "minor" assessed by length is no surprise: a number tell of infirmity, fatigue, the decay of strength with age at the time of their making that must needs cut all inspiration short. But in the process of translation, and the challenge to understand sufficient to supply these notes, I have often thought how richer by a degree or two we are that such bits exist, and how much lessened might we be, had their little been lost, by accident or through some deathbed authorial design.

    · S: Oxford, All Souls College, MS 98 [Primary base text for these poems].
    · C: London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.iv.
    · G: Glasgow, Hunterian Museum, MS T.2.17.
    · H: London, British Library, MS Harleian 6291.
    · Tr: London, British Library, MS Additional 59495 (Trentham MS).
    · B: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 294.
    · E1: San Marino, CA, Huntington Library MS Hm. 150.
    · E2: Ecton MS (in private hands).
    · F: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 3.
    · H2: London, British Library, MS Harleian 3869.
    · H3: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 92.
    · K: Keswick Hall, MS Gurney 121.
    · L: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud 719.
    · L2: Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral, MS A.72.
    · P2: New York, MS Rosenbach 369.
    · T1: Dublin, Trinity College, MS D.4.
    · T2: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS 581.
    · ∧: Wollaton Hall MS.
The primary source manuscript for the poems in this volume is Oxford, All Souls College MS 98 (hereafter S, according to standard denotation). Presented to archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel probably in 1402, without doubt S was assembled and corrected with Gower's approval from work begun (e.g., the text of the Vox Clamantis) before 1399. Rex celi deus, H. aquile pullus, O recolende, Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia, De lucis scrutinio, Est amor, Quia uniusque, O deus immense, Quicquid homo scribat, along with Eneidos Bucolis, possibly not by Gower, are contained in S. For versions of those poems not found in S, most (i.e., Orate pro anima, Unanimes esse, Presul ouile Regis, Cultor in ecclesia, Dicunt scripture) were taken from London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A.iv (hereafter C); for the others, manuscript sources are noted when each poem appears in the volume. All of the base texts have been checked for scribal variants (there are remarkably few) against other available sources by Michael Livingston, whose diligent notations of relevant instances are duly recorded in the Notes and gratefully acknowledged. Abbreviations in the manuscripts are silently expanded; wherever practicable, punctuation in the Latin and English translation has been aligned; and u/v is regularized to accord with traditional dictionary practice. Divisions in the poems, typically shown in the manuscripts with larger, rubricated initials, are here shown with bold initials, indention being used to indicated poetic structures. Other features characteristic of Gower's Latin have been left intact. The reader familiar with Classical Latin will note a number of differences between Gower's forms and those that might be expected. The following basic "rules" of Medieval Latin (though far from exhaustive) should help an initial reading of Gower's work:4
  1. i and j are interchangeable (e.g., reiecta for rejecta - De lucis scrutinio, line 6).
  2. -ae- is commonly -e- (e.g., sepe for saepe - De lucis scrutinio, line 20).
  3. -ti- is commonly -ci- (e.g., racione for ratione - De lucis scrutinio, line 75).
  4. Consonants commonly double before a short vowel (e.g., lollia for lolia - Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia, line 20).
  5. Diaeresis is commonly indicated by an added h (e.g., adhibit for adibit - De lucis scrutinio, line 102).
  6. ye- often substitutes for (h)ie- (e.g., yemps for hiems - Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia, line 187).
  7. p commonly appears between m and a following consonant (e.g., yemps for hiems, above).
  8. Final -d is unvoiced (e.g., set for sed - De lucis scrutinio, line 35).
In the standard edition of Gower's works, the minor poems are presented according to the order that the editor, G. C. Macaulay, found in his source manuscripts (S and C). Here whenever possible they are made to follow what can best be determined to be their order of composition, beginning with the earliest. This decision invites argument, in that it is not an easy matter in every case to date these poems. Four (O recolende, Rex celi deus, H. aquile pullus, Dicunt scripture) can be associated with historical events, which therefore provide at least a terminus a quo; five others (Est amor, Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia, O deus immense, Quicquid homo scribat, Presul ouile regis) have headings or marginalia suggesting when they were written. Where no chronology is inferable, manuscript order is followed. Special cases are addressed individually in the Notes.

Figure 1 (See printed volume for image)

This image is one of two nearly identical illustrations of a bearded man (presumably Gower) wearing a blue coat and brown hat, with three arrows at his belt, shooting a fourth at the globe of the world. The globe is itself divided in three, each division corresponding to one of the three natural elements that make up the world: air, earth, and water. These partitions also seem to have been executed in such a way as to recall so-called T-O maps in which the whole of the world is separated geographically into three masses: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Both here and in the parallel instance in Glasgow, Hunterian Museum, MS T.2, 17, fol. 6v., the image appears at the conclusion of the list of chapters for Vox Clamantis; the image being followed by the actual text of that great Latin work. In both cases, too, the image is connected with a 4-line Latin poem:
Ad mundum mitto mea iacula, dumque sagitto;
At vbi iustus erit, nulla sagitta ferit.
Sed male viuentes hos vulnero transgredientes;
Conscius ergo sibi se speculetur ibi.

"I send my darts at the world and simultaneously shoot arrows;
But mind you, wherever there is a just man, no one will receive arrows.
I badly wound those living in transgression, however;
Therefore, let the thoughtful man look out for himself."
These four lines also appear in this location in the Ecton Manuscript (fol. 10r), though the image of the archer is different from those in C and G. The archer is also very different in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud 719, fol. 21r, where he and the poem appear at the beginning of Book I of Vox Clamantis.

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