Gower Bibliography

The Lancastrian Gower and the Limits of Exemplarity

Grady, Frank. "The Lancastrian Gower and the Limits of Exemplarity." Speculum 70 (1995), pp. 552-75.


Gower's longer poems, MO, VC, and CA, have frequently been studied with reference to the political events of the poet's time, especially the turbulent last decade of the reign of Richard II when VC and CA both apparently underwent substantial revision. Grady looks at a different work, the poem that Macaulay entitled "In Praise of Peace," in the context of a different era, the equally turbulent first years of the reign of Henry IV; and he finds that, rather than being an "inert, if elegant, piece of Lancastrian propaganda" as commonly thought, the poem actually betrays the "anxieties of its historical moment": that it reflects, more consciously than has ever been recognized, the incoherencies of the "legitimating discourse" that defended the rights of a conqueror and usurper to the throne, and also, in the subtlety of its strategy, the difficulties inherent in giving advice to a king. Gower opens his poem with a straightfaced echo of the rhetoric of the official Lancastrian justification of the usurpation, but his ostensible project, the advocacy of peace, is obviously difficult to reconcile with the necessity of defending Henry's use force to assert his right to the throne. The problems become evident when Gower resorts to his favorite technique of historical analogy: the exempla that he chooses must be forced to fit the context (as we can see by comparing them to the same stories in CA), and still fail to fully support his point. He begins his argument, for instance, by apparently offering a choice between Solomon's course and Alexander's. Each must be so beset by qualifications, however, that neither offers a clear model for Henry (the implications of the comparison to Alexander, in fact, seem particularly dangerous at this time), nor does either support the complex balancing of wisdom and the need for war that Gower finally advocates in lines 64-70. For the alert reader, the poet raises more questions here about Henry's rule and about the possibility of reconciling wisdom and conquest than he chooses to answer: rather than exploring the contradictions, both in the position he adopts and in his method, Gower merely plunges on. The later example of Constantine (lines 337-57) is even more contrived, for there are conflicting legends of his conversion, and Constantine thus offers no clear distinction between the "law of grace and pity" and "the law of right." But Gower selects what is necessary for his point, just as he selects, and omits a great deal, in the portrait that he chooses to paint of Henry, in order to draw the analogy between his king and Constantine. "We might atttribute this strategy to the triumph of hope over experience or, given the genre, advice over history," Brady writes. "But I would suggest that it is precisely Gower's twenty-five years' hard experience as a poet writing to kings about kingship that makes him simultaneously so conventional in his praises and so subtle in his exasperation. For that is what I take 'In Praise of Peace' to be, in the end — a poem of exasperation and a valediction to the mirror-for-princes genre, in which Gower's great fidelity to the genre's formal demands and deep grasp of its philosophical premises produce a text that is always on the verge of revealing the intractable paradoxes of that form and the incoherence (or tendentiousness) of that philosophy. 'In Praise of Peace' is a kind of fugitive art, constantly fleeing from the contradictions that it is incessantly uncovering." [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 15.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:In Praise of Peace

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