John Gower

John Gower

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John Gower was an English poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

, a contemporary of William Langland
William Langland
William Langland is the conjectured author of the 14th-century English dream-vision Piers Plowman.- Life :The attribution of Piers to Langland rests principally on the evidence of a manuscript held at Trinity College, Dublin...

 and a personal friend of Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...

. He is remembered primarily for three major works, the Mirroir de l'Omme, Vox Clamantis
Vox Clamantis
Vox Clamantis is a Latin poem of around 10,000 lines in elegiac verse by John Gower that recounts the events and tragedy of the 1381 Peasants' Rising. The poem takes aim at the corruption of society and laments the rise of evil...

, and Confessio Amantis
Confessio Amantis
Confessio Amantis is a 33,000-line Middle English poem by John Gower, which uses the confession made by an ageing lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems. According to its prologue, it was composed at the request of Richard II...

, three long poems written in French, Latin, and English respectively, which are united by common moral and political themes.

Life


Few details are known of Gower's early life. He was probably born to an affluent family from Kent
Kent
Kent is a county in southeast England, and is one of the home counties. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the Thames Estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of...

 (Southeast England), and may have been a landowner. It is thought that he practiced law in or around London.

While in London
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, he became closely associated with the nobility of his day. He was apparently personally acquainted with Richard II
Richard II of England
Richard II was King of England, a member of the House of Plantagenet and the last of its main-line kings. He ruled from 1377 until he was deposed in 1399. Richard was a son of Edward, the Black Prince, and was born during the reign of his grandfather, Edward III...

: in the prologue of the first edition of the Confessio Amantis, he tells how the king, chancing to meet him on the Thames (probably circa 1385), invited him aboard the royal barge, and that their conversation then resulted in a commission for the work that would become the Confessio Amantis. Later in life his allegiance switched to the future Henry IV
Henry IV of England
Henry IV was King of England and Lord of Ireland . He was the ninth King of England of the House of Plantagenet and also asserted his grandfather's claim to the title King of France. He was born at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, hence his other name, Henry Bolingbroke...

, to whom later editions of the Confessio Amantis were dedicated.


Gower's friendship with Chaucer is also well documented. When Chaucer was sent as a diplomat to Italy in 1378, Gower was one of the men to whom he gave power of attorney over his affairs in England
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

. The two poets also paid one another compliments in their verse: Chaucer dedicated his Troilus and Criseyde
Troilus and Criseyde
Troilus and Criseyde is a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer which re-tells in Middle English the tragic story of the lovers Troilus and Criseyde set against a backdrop of war in the Siege of Troy. It was composed using rime royale and probably completed during the mid 1380s. Many Chaucer scholars regard it...

in part to "moral Gower", and Gower reciprocated by placing a speech in praise of Chaucer in the mouth of Venus
Venus (mythology)
Venus is a Roman goddess principally associated with love, beauty, sex,sexual seduction and fertility, who played a key role in many Roman religious festivals and myths...

 at the end of the Confessio Amantis.

Towards the end of his life, he took up residence in rooms provided by the Priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral or The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, Southwark, London, lies on the south bank of the River Thames close to London Bridge....

). In 1398, while living here, he married, probably for the second time: his wife, Agnes Groundolf, was to survive him. In his last years, and possibly as early as 1400, he became blind.

After his death in 1408, Gower was interred in an ostentatious tomb in the Priory church (now Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral or The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, Southwark, London, lies on the south bank of the River Thames close to London Bridge....

), which remains today.

Works


Gower's verse is by turns religious, political, historical, and moral—though he has been narrowly defined as "moral Gower" ever since Chaucer graced him with the epithet. His primary mode is allegory
Allegory
Allegory is a demonstrative form of representation explaining meaning other than the words that are spoken. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation...

, although he shies away from sustained abstractions in favour of the plain style of the raconteur.

His earliest works were probably ballade
Ballade
The ballade is a form of French poetry. It was one of the three formes fixes and one of the verse forms in France most commonly set to music between the late 13th and the 15th centuries....

s in Anglo-Norman French
Anglo-Norman language
Anglo-Norman is the name traditionally given to the kind of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period....

, some of which may have later been included in his work the Cinkante Ballades. The first work which has survived is in the same language, however: it is the Speculum Meditantis, also known by the French title Mirour de l'Omme, a poem of just under 30,000 lines, containing a dense exposition of religion and morality.

Gower's second major work, the Vox Clamantis
Vox Clamantis
Vox Clamantis is a Latin poem of around 10,000 lines in elegiac verse by John Gower that recounts the events and tragedy of the 1381 Peasants' Rising. The poem takes aim at the corruption of society and laments the rise of evil...

, was written in Latin: it takes as its subject the state of England, and incorporates commentary on the Peasants' Revolt
Peasants' Revolt
The Peasants' Revolt, Wat Tyler's Rebellion, or the Great Rising of 1381 was one of a number of popular revolts in late medieval Europe and is a major event in the history of England. Tyler's Rebellion was not only the most extreme and widespread insurrection in English history but also the...

 that occurred during the composition of the poem. Gower takes the side of the aristocracy, and appears to have admired the techniques Richard II used to suppress the revolt.

His third work is the Confessio Amantis
Confessio Amantis
Confessio Amantis is a 33,000-line Middle English poem by John Gower, which uses the confession made by an ageing lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems. According to its prologue, it was composed at the request of Richard II...

, a 30,000-line poem in octosyllabic English
Middle English
Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century....

 couplets, which makes use of the structure of a Christian confession
Confession
This article is for the religious practice of confessing one's sins.Confession is the acknowledgment of sin or wrongs...

 (presented allegorically as a confession of sins against Love) as a narrative frame
Frame story
A frame story is a literary technique that sometimes serves as a companion piece to a story within a story, whereby an introductory or main narrative is presented, at least in part, for the purpose of setting the stage either for a more emphasized second narrative or for a set of shorter stories...

 within which a multitude of individual tales are told. Like his previous works, the theme is very much morality, even where the stories themselves have a tendency to describe rather immoral behaviour. One scholar asserts that Confessio Amantis "almost exclusively" made Gower's "poetic reputation."

In later years Gower wrote a number of minor works in all three languages: the Cinkante Ballades, a series of French ballades on romantic subjects, and several poems addressed to the new Henry IV
Henry IV of England
Henry IV was King of England and Lord of Ireland . He was the ninth King of England of the House of Plantagenet and also asserted his grandfather's claim to the title King of France. He was born at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, hence his other name, Henry Bolingbroke...

—in return for which he was granted a pension, in the form of an annual allowance of wine.

Gower's poetry has had a mixed critical reception. In the 15th century, he was generally regarded alongside Chaucer as the father of English poetry. Over the years, however, his reputation declined, largely on account of a perceived didacticism and dullness. During the 20th century he has received more recognition, notably by C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis , commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as "Jack", was a novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist from Belfast, Ireland...

 in The Allegory of Love
The Allegory of Love
The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition , by C. S. Lewis , is an influential exploration of the allegorical treatment of love in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance....

(1936). However, he has not obtained the same following or critical acceptance as other major poets of the period.

List of works


  • Mirour de l'Omme, or Speculum Hominis, or Speculum Meditantis (French, c.1376–1379)
  • Vox Clamantis
    Vox Clamantis
    Vox Clamantis is a Latin poem of around 10,000 lines in elegiac verse by John Gower that recounts the events and tragedy of the 1381 Peasants' Rising. The poem takes aim at the corruption of society and laments the rise of evil...

    (Latin, c.1377–1381)
  • Confessio Amantis
    Confessio Amantis
    Confessio Amantis is a 33,000-line Middle English poem by John Gower, which uses the confession made by an ageing lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems. According to its prologue, it was composed at the request of Richard II...

    (English, c.1386–1393)
  • Trait√© (French, 1397)
  • Cinkante Balades (French, 1399-1400)
  • Cronica Tripertita (Latin, c.1400)
  • In praise of peace (English, c.1400)

See also

  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre
    Pericles, Prince of Tyre
    Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a Jacobean play written at least in part by William Shakespeare and included in modern editions of his collected works despite questions over its authorship, as it was not included in the First Folio...

    , a play by Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

    , based on Gower's work and featuring Gower as the Chorus.
  • Henry IV Part II includes Gower as a messenger
  • In Henry V
    Henry V (play)
    Henry V is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to be written in approximately 1599. Its full titles are The Cronicle History of Henry the Fifth and The Life of Henry the Fifth...

    , Gower is the ideal English soldier

Further Reading

  • Nicholson, Peter ed. 1991. Gower's Confessio Amantis: A Critical Anthology. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer. ISBN 9780859913188.
  • Dutton, Elisabeth ed. 2010. John Gower, Trilingual Poet: Language, Translation, and Tradition. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer. ISBN 9781843842507.
  • McCabe, T. Matthew N. 2011. Gower's Vulgar Tongue: Ovid, Lay Religion, and English Poetry in the Confessio Amantis. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer. ISBN 9781843842835.

External links