Vox clamantis

Vox clamantis
   by John Gower
(ca. 1381–1400)
   John Gower’s second important work, Vox clamantis (The voice of one crying), is a poem of 10,265 lines of Latin elegiac verse. The title is taken from Isaiah and from John the Baptist, and implies the prophetic nature of the poet’s words that call for the reform of society. Less adept at Latin than he was at French or English, Gower includes in his text extensive borrowings (some 1,300 lines) from Ovid, Godfrey of Viterbo, Alexander Neckam, Peter Riga, and other medieval Latin writers. The poem survives in 10 manuscripts, four produced in Gower’s lifetime. The manuscript tradition demonstrates that Gower revised the poem at least twice to reflect changing political conditions in England. Gower must have been nearly finished with Vox clamantis when the PEASANTS’ REVOLT occurred in 1381. At that time he added an introductory book to the poem that takes the form of an allegorical description of the revolt. In a DREAM VISION, the narrator sees bands of people changed into beasts marching across the land. For Gower, failure to follow the dictates of Reason is the cause of sin and turns human beings into beasts, and this introductory book shows the chaotic consequences for society of individual sins.Wat Tyler is presented as a jackdaw whose speeches upset the divinely ordained order of the world, and the book depicts the subsequent sacking of London and murder of the archbishop. The narrator, fleeing the chaos, takes refuge aboard a ship, perhaps representing Faith.
   The Narrator’s ship lands in England, where the inhabitants have rejected the law and love of God, which holds the universe in harmony and which should do the same for society. In book 2, the original opening of the poem, Gower deals with the question of how society has reached this chaotic state. Some would blame Fortune, he says, but this is merely failure to take moral responsibility: Human beings themselves are responsible. Gower follows this beginning with four books of ESTATES SATIRE, in which he criticizes the greed, lechery, and other vices that characterize the three estates (clergy, nobility, and common people) in a manner very similar to the final section of his earlier French poem, the MIROUR DE L’OMME. Book 6 turns to the responsibilities of the king to keep the peace and to rule justly in accordance with God’s law and love. But Gower concludes the poem, in book 7,with an apocalyptic vision beginning with the statue described in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream representing the degeneration of human society after the Golden Age and moving into a discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins that have corrupted the three estates discussed earlier. This is capped by a striking discussion of how the decay of the human body after death parallels the Seven Deadly Sins. Thus death, sin, and corruption are brought together, and Gower, the prophet crying in the wilderness, predicts an apocalypse for the English nation if order and justice are not restored. Each individual must reform, but the reform must take place from the top down. Thus the king’s responsibility is the greatest. It is in Gower’s attitude toward the king, RICHARD II, that his progressive revisions of Vox clamantis can be seen. In the early version of 1381, Gower shows an inclination to excuse the 14-yearold monarch for the chaos of society. In about 1393 Gower revised the poem to remove any excusing of Richard and to suggest the king’s responsibility for the unrest of his realm. In 1400,Gower appended to Vox clamantis another Latin poem, the Cronica tripertita. Here Gower sees Richard’s 1399 deposition by Henry IV as a direct result of Richard’s own sins. Gower’s interest in royal responsibility and the necessity of the king to rule in accordance with the natural law of God would continue to be apparent in his next and most important work, the English poem CONFESSIO AMANTIS.
   ■ Fisher, John H. John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York: New York University Press, 1964.
   ■ Macaulay, G. C., ed. The Complete Works of John Gower. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899–1902.
   ■ Stockton, Eric W., trans. and introduction. The Major Latin Works of John Gower: The Voice of One Crying, and The Tripartite Chronicle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.
   ■ Yeager, Robert F. John Gower: Recent Readings. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press, 1989.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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