Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Thomas Arnold
John Gower (1325?1408)
[John Gower seems to have been born about 1330, and died in 1408, having been blind for eight or nine years before his death. He was a gentleman of ancient family, owning estates in Kent and Suffolk. The place of his birth is unknown; he is believed to have died in the priory of St. Mary Overies, Southwark, in the church of which, now called St. Saviours, his tomb may still be seen. The earliest of his three principal works, Speculum Meditantis, was in French verse, but it has not come down to posterity, nor is the precise time of its composition known. The second, Vox Clamantis, in Latin elegiac verse, was written between 1382 and 1384, and commemorates the rising of the commons under Wat Tyler in the former year, moralizing upon it and improving the occasion with astonishing prolixity. The third, Confessio Amantis, one of the best known of early English poems, was written between 1385 and 1393.]
THE POETRY of Gower has been variously estimated. It was a practice with the poets of the sixteenth century to link his name in a venerated trio with those of Chaucer and Lydgate, just as in the seventeenth century the names of Shakspere, Jonson, and Fletcher were often joined together as the great dramatic lights of the preceding age. In each case the effect of closer study has been to lead men to think that they have been joining gold with iron and clay. Shakspere, read attentively, rises high above the standard reached by Jonson and Fletcher; and in a yet greater degree has the genius of Chaucer, accurately studied and rightly felt, impressed the present age with the sense of his unrivalled eminence among his contemporaries.
Gower, a man of birth and fortune, must have lived in the cultivated society of his day. Of that society, French poetry, in its various forms of Fabliau, Rondel, Romance, Epigram, Chanson, &c., was one of the chief delights and distractions. With much imitative power, with the faculty of sustained attention, with a high appreciation for his own thoughts, and remarkable linguistic facility, Gower, when he betook himself to poetry, was sure to become a copious and prolific writer. But, possessing no originality, he was equally sure to remain pent within the imprisoning bounds of fashion and conventionality, to follow, not take the lead, to interpret, not modify opinion. He seems to have been without the sense of humour; we doubt if a single jest of his own making can be found throughout his writings. From this cause, although he may justly be called a moralist and a didactic writer, (Chaucer and Lydgate both speak of him as the moral Gower), the higher intellectual rank of a satirist must be denied him. The moralist declaims, the satirist paints; we are convinced of the deformity of vice in the one case, but we see it in the other. The faculties of the first dispose him to subjective estimates of men and things, those of the second to objective estimates. The one describes the offenders, the other makes them exhibit themselves. The moralist inveighs against the selfish cowardice of a degraded proletariat; the satirist puts a few simple words in their mouths, and we know them and their kind for evermore.
Several MSS. of the Confessio Amantis, Gowers principal poem, contain a passage in Latin prose in which he describes the three books which he had written, all with a didactic motive, doctrinae causa. The first of these, Speculum Meditantis, was in French verse. It was probably written between 1360 and 1370, at a period when the ladies at Edward IIIs court and their admirers would hardly have condescended to read a poem couched in their native English, a tongue not then believed to be suited to themes of love, mysticism, and chivalry. It was a strictly moral poem, treating of virtues and vices, and the methods of penitence and amendment; but it has absolutely vanished; and since from the account we have of the contents it is impossible not to believe that it was exceedingly dull, we may be reconciled to the loss. Gowers next considerable effort, the Vox Clamantis, a Latin elegiac poem in seven books, was suggested by the rising of the commons under Wat Tyler and others in 1381. Why he chose to write it in Latin it is impossible to say, unless we suppose that he wished to hide from the objects of them, under the veil of a learned language, the sharp censures on the classes of knights, burghers, and cultivators, which the poem contains. In a passage which is grotesque if not dramatic, the poet thus describes the ringleaders of the insurrection:
Watte vocat, cui Thomme venit, neque Symme retardat,
Recteque Gibbe simul Hicke venire jubent:
Colle furit, quem Geffe juvat, nocumenta parantes,
Cum quibus ad damnum Wille coire vovet.
Grigge rapit, dum Dawe strepit, comes est quibus Hobbe,
Lorkin et in medio non minor esse putat.
The murder of Archbishop Sudbury by the rebels is described, but with little of that local or circumstantial colouring which we should desire. All that they succeeded in doing, says Gower, was to send him to heaven,
For several years before the rising of the commons the fame of Chaucers English poetry must have been growing. Mere fashion could not hold out against the commanding power of that poetry; and Gower, when next he attempted a considerable work, found that he might as well write it in English. The Confessio Amantis was begun, he tells us, at the command of Richard II, who meeting him one day on the Thames, while the tide was flowing, called him into his barge, and bade him in the course of their talk to boke some newe thing. Thus incited, Gower planned a work
Whiche may be wisdom to the wise,
And play to hem that list to play.
The long prologue is taken up with an account of the then state of the world, in which he repeats much of the censure on the various orders of men that he had introduced into the Vox Clamantis. He deplores the decline of virtue and good customs, and the general tendency of things to grow worse. Love itself is diseased, and no longer the pure passion that it once was. Starting from this point, he devotes the greater part of the voluminous poem which follows to an examination of the various ways in which men offend against the god of love. The seventh or penultimate book only is an exception to this remark, being a sketch of the philosophy of Aristotle. The lover is represented as a penitent, who, being half dead from a wound inflicted by Cupid, and resorting to Venus his mother, is recommended by the goddess to apply to Genius her priest, and confess to him all the sins that he has committed in the article of love. With the seven deadly sins, pride, anger, envy, &c., for his groundplan, the penitent confesses under the head of each his misdeeds as a lover, and the confessor consoles and directs him by relating the experiences of former lovers in pari materia. This strange medley of things human and divine, of which notable examples exist in the works of Chaucer and Boccaccio, does not mean the consecration of the world of passion by introducing religion into it, but the profanation of religion by degrading its rites and emblems to the service of earthly desire. But in this commingling of the morality of Christianity and the morality of Ovid, the two elements agree no better than fire and water; and the sense of this, forcing itself upon the consciences of the nobler spirits that thus offended, led to those Retractations and palinodes which modern critics have regarded with so much wonder and disdain. Thus it was with Chaucer; thus with Boccaccio: to Gower perhaps, who wrote under the spell of fashion and in the groove of imitation, the precise character of the absurd confusion of ideas which reigns in his book was never sufficiently apparent to induce him to regret it.
The quarrels of poets are not relevant to the purpose of this book; otherwise we might be tempted to enter on the much-debated question of the relations between Chaucer and Gower, and the meaning of certain inserted or suppressed passages in their writings. We will only observe that since the discovery (in Trivets Chronicle) of the common source of the story of Constance, told by Chaucer in the Man of Lawes tale and by Gower in the second book of the Confessio Amantis, the chief reason for doubting the existence of a bitter feeling between the two poets has been removed. If Chaucer had, as Tyrwhitt and Warton thought, borrowed from Gower the story of Constance, it was hard to believe that he would speak roughly of him in the prologue to the very tale which attested the literary obligation. But no such obligation existed, and therefore the words may be taken in their natural bearing.1
That Gower was timid and a timeserver is a conclusion which it is difficult to resist, when we consider the changes made in the Prologue to the Confessio Amantis. In its original shape, as we have seen, it states that the poem was undertaken and made for kynge Richardes sake, and prays that his corone longe stonde. But in several MSS. all this is, not very skilfully, omitted or changed. In these the poem is dedicated to Henry of Lancaster, and is said to have been composed in the sixteenth year of King Richard, i.e., in 1393. Henry, afterwards Henry IV, could not have been called Henry of Lancaster till after his fathers death in February 1399. Soon after that date Richard II went over to Ireland; his unpopularity in England was great; the plot for supplanting him by Henry was set on foot, and with every month that passed the movement grew in strength. It was probably in the course of the summer of 1399 that Gower, perceiving how things were going, transformed his prologue so as to make it acceptable to the pretender whose success he anticipated. In the copies with the altered prologue he also omitted the lines of eulogy on Chaucer at the end, which the poem had originally contained. What could have prompted the omission but a feeling of estrangement? And for this estrangement the severity of the language just quoted from Chaucer supplies a probable motive.
The last considerable work of our author was the Cronica Tripartita, a Latin poem in three books, giving a regular history of political incidents in England from 1387 to 1399. As might be expected, the writer bears hardly throughout the poem on the unfortunate Richard. He seems to know nothing of the common story as to the manner of his death. The deposed king died, he says, in prison, from grief, and because he refused to take food.
Of Gowers shorter French poems, his Cinkante Balades, which exist in MS. in the library of the Duke of Sutherland, Warton has printed four. They are in stanzas of seven and eight lines, with refrains, and are written not without elegance; the opening of one of them is here printed.