Gower, John

Gower, John
(ca. 1330–1408)
   John Gower was a friend and contemporary of fellow poet Geoffrey CHAUCER. He enjoyed a literary reputation second only to Chaucer’s in his own lifetime and throughout the 15th century, and Shakespeare himself borrowed the plot of his Pericles from Gower’s Apollonius of Tyre. His body of work has not been as palatable to more modern tastes as Chaucer’s has; thus Gower’s reputation has suffered since the 17th century. Still Gower is remarkable for having written major poetic compositions in three different languages: French (the MIROUR DE L’OMME), Latin (VOX CLAMANTIS), and English (CONFESIO AMANTIS), a feat no other English poet can match.
   Gower was born in Kent, and his English verse shows characteristics of the 14th-century Kentish dialect. He seems to have been from an uppermiddle-class family, and may have been educated as a lawyer. He wrote some early love poems in French that were collected in the Cinkante Ballades before 1374. But he turned to more serious literary endeavors in the mid-1370s, perhaps due to his friendship with Chaucer, which must have developed about this time since, when Chaucer left on a trip to Italy in 1378, he gave Gower his power of attorney.
   Between 1376 and 1379, Gower wrote a long moralizing poem in French called Mirour de l’omme (Mirror of man). In this text Gower stresses the decline of society because of man’s turning from right reason. Not unlike his contemporaries LANGLAND and Chaucer, he includes a long section of ESTATES SATIRE, that is, satire of the three “estates” (nobility, clergy, and commoner), including satires of individual professions within those estates.
   By this time Gower seems to have been a major benefactor of the Priory of St. Mary Overeys in Southwark. He may have contributed to its 1377 restoration. By the 1390s, Gower was living in an apartment at the priory. It has been suggested that some of the manuscripts of his works were actually produced at the priory under Gower’s own supervision.
   He followed the Mirour de l’omme with his Latin work Vox clamantis (The voice of one crying), a poem that begins with a powerful description of the PEASANTS’ REVOLT OF 1381 as a frightening example of the chaos into which society falls when its members neglect the rational strictures of natural law. Gower goes on to criticize the three estates again, and then adds a section addressing the duty of the king to uphold the law and remain morally responsible. It was these two works chiefly that led Chaucer to call him “the moral Gower” in his dedication to TROILUS AND CRISEYDE (ca. 1385).
   Gower’s last major work, written between 1386 and 1390, has always been his most popular. The Confessio amantis, apparently commissioned by RICHARD II to be written in English, is organized as a confessional manual in which a lover is examined by a priest of Venus and confesses his sins against love. Yet Gower begins his English poem with another description of moral corruption and the decay of society because of man’s turning from Reason. The tales that follow, in fact, have little to do with the kind of COURTLY LOVE the king seems to have had in mind when he gave Gower the commission, but have more to do with caritas, or universal love, and with moral responsibility.
   Gower spent a good deal of time in his later years revising his major works, partly to make them more closely complement one another, and partly to reflect his growing disenchantment with Richard II. He had praised Richard’s rule in the first version of the Confessio amantis in 1390, but in a revision shortly afterward, he omitted the flattery of Richard, and in 1393, Gower revised the poem again, rededicating it to Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV). Later still he revised the earlier Vox clamantis, replacing lines that had excused the young king with lines that condemned the state of English society. When Henry deposed Richard in 1399, Gower wrote a partisan history of the events in the Cronica Tripertita, for which Henry granted him an annuity. By this time Gower was in ill health.He married his nurse, Agnes Groundolf, on January 25, 1398, and apparently went completely blind in 1401. He died in October of 1408, leaving his goods to Agnes and the priors of St. Mary’s, where he was buried. His effigy in Southward Cathedral depicts his head lying on three large volumes representing his three major works.
   All of Gower’s major poetry expresses his moral theme, and it seems clear that he wished to be remembered more as a moralist than as a poet. Still he was technically an admirable craftsman of verse, and his French and English verses are smoothly metrical octosyllabic couplets. It was largely this technical virtuosity that made him most admired in the generations immediately following his death. Today his work seems unattractively didactic to many readers. Of all his works, Confessio amantis is Gower’s most entertaining and therefore currently the most likely to be read, and includes not only the source for Shakespeare’s Pericles, but also the “Tale of Florent” and the “Tale of Constance” (analogues of Chaucer’s WIFE OF BATH’S TALE and MAN OF LAW’S TALE, respectively).
   ■ Burrow, J. A. Ricardian Poetry: Chaucer, Gower, Langland. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.
   ■ Fisher, John H. John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York: New York University Press, 1964.
   ■ Gower, John. Confessio amantis. Edited by Russell A. Peck. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.
   ■ Macaulay, G. C., ed. The Complete Works of John Gower. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899. Reprint, Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1968.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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