Confessio amantis

Confessio amantis
   by John Gower
(ca. 1390)
   Confessio amantis (The Lover’s Confession) is the last major work by the English poet John GOWER. Completed in about 1390, the poem is Gower’s only major text in English, consisting of some 33,000 lines in octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets, a verse form popular in medieval French narrative poetry. Among the many tales included in the text are the “Tale of Sir Florent” (an analogue of CHAUCER’s WIFE OF BATH’S TALE), the “Tale of Custance” (an analogue of Chaucer’s MAN OF LAW’S TALE), and “Apollonius of Tyre” (the source of Shakespeare’s Pericles).
   In his prologue to the poem, Gower describes a meeting with King RICHARD II, who commissions him to compose a work for him. Gower decided that in writing for the English court, he would write in English (his previous works had been in French and Latin), and would make use of the fashionable COURTLY LOVE tradition to structure the poem. Playing on the poetic metaphor of the “religion of love,” Gower organized his book as a confessional manual for a lover. The narrator, the unhappy lover Amans, confesses his sins against Love to Genius, represented here as the Priest of Venus (Gower takes this notion from the ROMAN DE LA ROSE, in which Genius is the priest of Nature). The confession follows the order of seven deadly sins, and during the confession Genius questions Amans, demonstrating for him the nature of each sin through illustrative stories. But the Confessio amantis is only superficially concerned with courtly love. As Gower says in the prologue, he intends to take a middle way between instruction and pleasure in the composition of the poem. The instruction is always present beneath the pleasurable frame of the love story. The prologue is a long complaint about the corrupt state of society, and most readers have seen it as irrelevant to the rest of the poem. In fact, throughout the text Gower is chiefly concerned with his favorite themes: the decay of human society because of human beings’ lack of moral integrity and abandonment of reason, brought about by a deficiency of love—not the love personified by Venus in the poem, but rather caritas, the divine principle that brings unity to all creation.
   While Genius focuses on showing Amans the need to govern his passion by his reason, his tales almost never have anything to do with romantic love. More commonly they follow the pattern of the “Tale of Constantine and Sylvester” (in book 2), in which Constantine rejects the idea of being healed by the sacrifice of infant children as a violation of the universal principle of caritas, the natural law of God. In other tales it is clear that human beings’ abandonment of this kind of moral responsibility is the cause of society’s problems. Other aspects of Gower’s text illustrate his basic human compassion, even in extreme cases:His notorious “Tale of Canace” (in book 3) describes the title character’s incest with her brother, but Gower’s moral condemnation in the tale is saved for her father Eolus, who in a rage kills Canace and her child. Later the poignant ending of Gower’s text also reflects this compassionate tone. The lover is revealed as too old for love—a twist through which Gower emphasizes the transient nature of mundane love, and by contrast recommends caritas, the love that supports the common profit. Thus the Confessio amantis deals chiefly with moral responsibility and with divine love, but because its chief audience is intended to be the king, Gower adds book 7, a book on the education of Alexander intended to be a guide for King Richard. Again this book appears to be a digression from the love theme. But more than any individual, the king must follow natural law,must be a responsible moral agent, and that is the ultimate theme of the poem. It is possible that Confessio amantis was conceived as a companion piece for Chaucer’s LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN which may also have been a royal commission and which, like this poem, plays on the religion of love motif and is constructed as a parody of the GOLDEN LEGEND extolling the saints of Love. Perhaps alluding to this connection, Gower has Venus refer to her servant Chaucer at the end of his text. The Confessio amantis survives in 49 manuscripts and was printed by CAXTON. Manuscript evidence indicates that Gower revised his poem at least twice. The first version of 1390 praises Richard II. Within two years Gower revised the poem and left out the praise of Richard. By 1393 he had written another version, this time dedicating the poem to the future Henry IV, a prince in whom Gower had perhaps grown to have more confidence than he had in Richard.
   ■ Bullón-Fernández, María. Fathers and Daughters in Gower’s Confessio amantis: Authority, Family, State, and Writing. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.
   ■ Echard, Sian. A Companion to Gower. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 2004.
   ■ Fisher, John H. John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York: New York University Press, 1964.
   ■ Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936.
   ■ Macauley, G. C., ed. The Complete Works of John Gower. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899–1902. Peck, Russell A., ed. Confessio amantis. With Latin translations by Andrew Galloway. Kalamazoo: Published for TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications,Western Michigan University, 2000.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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