John Gower

Siân Echard

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
John Gower


John Gower (d. 1408) cared deeply about his legacy. Nearly thirty of the surviving manuscripts of his works include the Latin colophon Quia vnusquisque, in which he catalogues his three chief poems in three languages. The head of Gower’s effigy in Southwark Cathedral rests on these books: the French Mirour de l’omme; the Latin Vox Clamantis; and the English Confessio Amantis. Gower clearly had a hand in the design of his tomb, and while modern scholars have modified older notions of the degree of control exercised by the poet over the production of his works, it remains clear that he maintained a lifelong habit of revising and (re)arranging his oeuvre. Certainly any one of the books on the tomb speaks to a considerable achievement. The Mirour is a work of almost thirty thousand intricately rhymed octosyllabic lines. It begins with the fall of Lucifer, stages an allegorical combat between vices and virtues, moves on to satire of the estates, and begins to end (it is incomplete in the only surviving manuscript) in an appeal to the Virgin Mary. The Vox Clamantis shares elements of complaint and satire with the Mirour in its six final books, but it is particularly remarkable for its first book, often called the Visio Anglie, which offers a nightmare vision of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Vox consists of more than ten thousand lines in unrhymed elegiac couplets, and the transmutation of the peasants into cacophonous beasts in the Visio offers a tour de force of poetic pyrotechnics. The Confessio Amantis, more than thirty thousand lines in octosyllabic couplets, frames its many exemplary narratives in the conceit of a conversation between Amans and Genius. The prologue’s emphasis on division links this work to the same political and social concerns expressed in Gower’s other long works. In addition to these works, Gower also wrote shorter poems in all three languages, moving through the genres of lyric, complaint, chronicle, satire, and encomium. Yet despite this prodigious and accomplished output and its shoring up by both colophon and tomb and despite a 15th-century reception that linked Gower with Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate into a triumvirate of foundational English poets, Gower’s reputation rapidly faded after the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s epithet for his contemporary, “moral Gower,” became something of a curse in the post-Romantic era, and the undeniably medieval cast of Gower’s didactic poems further marginalized him. For a time scholarship on Gower marched in lockstep with scholarship on Chaucer and almost always to the former poet’s detriment. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, contemporary critical interests, including historicist, materialist, and feminist scholarship along with a renewed focus on multilingualism and on formalism, have moved Gower back into the spotlight, and a spate of translations is making the whole of the poet’s work available to a 21st-first century audience.

Article.  16001 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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