Gower Bibliography

Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry: Alan of Lille's Anticlaudianus and John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Simpson, James. "Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry: Alan of Lille's Anticlaudianus and John Gower's Confessio Amantis." Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 25 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995


The Anticlaudianus is not the usual point of reference for studies of CA, and vice versa. The originality of the juxtaposition is one measure of the provocativeness and occasional brilliance of Simpson's vigorous and ambitious new study, which offers radically novel readings of both poems at the same time that it draws them together in an intriguing exploration of the nature of the humanist poetics of the Middle Ages. It is not possible here to summarize Simpson's entire argument, particularly on the Anticlaudianus. Readers will find what Simpson himself disarmingly labels a "preposterous solution" to the problems posed by the form of Alain's poem (which involves taking the two major sections into which it falls in reverse order) that renders the poem considerably more subtle, but that needs to be considered and evaluated by those more familiar with Alain's text. With reference to CA, Simpson's main points can be summarized as follows: (1) The entire poem must be conceived as a psychological allegory between two faculties of the same soul, Amans representing the Will (or alternatively Desire), and Genius Imagination. Simpson means this quite seriously: in chapter 8 he even describes the tales that make up the bulk of the dialogue as being summoned forth by Amans' Imagination from his memory of his own previous reading. The way in which Imagination serves the Will and is originally called forth by the Will explains many of Genius' most obvious limitations, particularly his encouragement of Amans' passion. (In support of his argument, Simpson cites particularly egregious examples of Genius' "pedagogy"; and as a source for Genius' voice in the poem, Simpson invokes the Ovidian praeceptor amoris of the Ars and the Remedia.) But though Genius serves Desire, he is not limited by Desire. During the course of the poem he invokes images and "information" that bring about both his and Amans' psychic restoration, and true to his function as Imagination, he finally serves successfully as a bridge between Will and Reason. (2) Like Anticlaudianus, the poem offers a program of instruction in the medieval "sciences" which gives priority to politics as the point of mediation between ethics and cosmology as well as a model for ethical "self-rule." Genius thus becomes increasingly rational as he moves from instruction on love to the citation of examples from the political domain, and as shown in Simpson'a analyses of the second half of Book 3 and of Book 7, politics serves as the vehicle for drawing Amans himself to greater personal knowledge and therefore greater self-control. (3) The form of the poem is thus a mirror of the formation of the soul. Simpson uses the multiple senses of ME "informacioun" as the model for his (and Gower's) conception of poetic form: in the process of transmitting "information" or knowledge (particularly on the proper hierarchy of the sciences), the poet "informs" or gives shape to his poem, and also "informs," both educates and gives "form" to, his reader. (4) Again as in Anticlaudianus, the actual protagonist of the poem is the reader himself. (The male pronouns are used advisedly; neither poet seems to have given much thought to female readers.) Since there is no stable authority figure in CA, the reader must participate in the construction of the meaning, and the process of "formation" with which the poem is concerned is not so much represented in Amans as it is enacted in the reader. Each of these proposals could be, and should be, the subject of considerable serious discussion. To take only the first: it is one thing to say that Anticlaudianus, in which one character is called "Ratio" and another "Fronesis" or "Prudentia," is a psychological allegory, and another to make the same claim of a poem in which the major characters are called "Genius" and "Amans." What is our standard for the validity of such a reading? Simpson's argument relies on his analysis of the multiple senses of "information" in chapter 1 and on his observations on the shortcomings of some of Genius' lessons. But does the opening scene of the poem, in which Amans prays to Venus and Venus then summons Genius to hear Amans' confession, really depict something so simple as the evocation of Imagination by the "concupiscent will" (p. 254)? As justification for the notion that Amans represents Will or Desire, Simpson quotes no less than three separate times the same passage in Book 4 in which Amans asks Genius for instruction in the craft of love (pp. 135, 150-51, 178) as if it were the defining moment in their relation. There are an abundance of other equally significant passages, however, that cannot easily be subsumed under so limited a notion of Amans' role. It is difficult to think of "Will," for instance, as being the site of the conflict between Wit and Will that Amans describes in Book 3 (see Simpson, p. 179-80). It is difficult to see how the faculty of Will can also be characterized as a senex amans who is subject to delusion (see Simpson, p. 160). And it is even harder to conceive of Desire responding to Genius' inquiry whether he has even been guilty of Rapine by saying, in one of the more striking passages of the dialogue, "Certes, fader, no; / For I mi ladi love so" (5.5532-33). If Amans is perhaps alternately the faculty of Will and a more fully constituted human subject engaged in a "confession," why is it necessary to consider him a faculty at all? If Amans is not merely a faculty, moreover, there is no need for believing Genius to be one. Simpson's argument on the deficiencies of Genius' instruction amounts to little more than the observation that his lessons (particularly at the beginning of a book) do not contain everything that he teaches by the end. There is thus a progression to his instruction, as we might expect from any teacher. The reduction of the poem to a psychological allegory may solve some problems, but it certainly introduces a considerable number of others. Simpson's insistence on the pervasiveness of the allegory helps justify his attempt to align CA with the Anticlaudianus, and it also underlies his argument on the reader's participation in the construction of meaning. It is not essential, however, to his argument on the poem's theme. His invocation of the centrality of the "science" of politics (which owes much, as he acknowledges, to Porter's essay in Minnis' Responses and Reassessments [1983]), offers a useful mediation between the Lewis-Bennett-Minnis school on the one hand and the Coffman-Fisher-Peck school on the other. (He rejects entirely the argument that the poem teaches Amans to transcend human love, represented by a large group of critics, most recently by Olsson [1992].) His reading is considerably more nuanced than Porter's is, moreover: it includes a recognition of the need to reserve a place for human desire both in the person and in the polis, and it attributes to Gower at the end a mixture of optimism over the possibility of reconciliation and integration, both in the soul and in the state, and some skepticism about the actual perfectability of real humans. His comparison of Gower's work to Alain de Lille's is particularly instructive in this very regard. The formal similarities go only so far. More interesting are the contrasts Simpson finds, for they do more to help place Gower as a poet of his own time. Where Alain is aligned with Plato and Vergil, Gower's sympathies are with Aristotle and Ovid. Alain is epic, elitist, and absolutist, calling for submission to a higher power; Gower is elegiac, consensual, constitutionalist, calling for reconciliation and mutual restraint, both personally and politically. The Gower that he presents is a more complex and more humane poet than we have become accustomed to in recent criticism. And if Simpson's argument on the reader's role and on the presentation of the "sciences" in the poem carries weight, then Gower is also much more sophisticated a poet than we imagined. His case deserves our close attention. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 15.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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