Gower Bibliography

The Problematics of Irony in Gower's Confessio Amantis

Peck, Russell A.. "The Problematics of Irony in Gower's Confessio Amantis." Mediaevalia 15 (1993), pp. 207-229.


Peck addresses himself boldly and learnedly to one of the central concerns of recent criticism of CA. He begins by steering his way through modern notions of irony and textuality to settle on a definition that is traditional in implication, but adapted to the structure of the poem: "Irony, as I use the term, concerns itself with authorial intention, voicing, and the positioning of each voice, whether designated (Amans, Genius, Venus) or implied (author, source, ethical commonplace), in relation to the other" (p. 208). According to Wayne Booth, irony may be either "stable" and reconstructable, or "unstable" and indeterminate. The irony in CA appears to be stable, Peck notes; "that is, we have little difficulty determining the larger intention of the poet, for he is careful to explain his purpose in the Prologue and in the first section of Book I. Moreover, he adds Latin epigrams and marginal glosses to guide the reader as the poem progresses, and includes expository materials, especially in Book VII and the conclusion to Book VIII, which reiterate his basic goals" (p. 209). But if it is stable, it is not necessarily simple. In the main body of the poem, Gower creates a dialogue between two "unstable" figures, the comic, besotted Amans, trapped in the self-deception of his willful passion, and his confessor Genius, who doggedly but simplemindedly makes an appeal to Amans' non-existent reason. Amans' errors of judgment and self-perception are relatively easy to detect. Genius poses greater challenges: a "master at reduction" (p. 212), his simplified stories and simpleminded moralizations leave abundant room for, and indeed urgently require the exercise of, the reader's own ingenuity in the search for a stabilized meaning. Peck illustrates his argument with examples from the opening of Book 4, with Amans' first confession and Genius' first exempla on the sin of Sloth. Peck relentlessly problematizes the text, discovering inconsistencies in Amans' self-presentation and unanswered questions arising from individual tales and from their juxtaposition. He reaches forward and backward in the text in his search for the unspoken implications of Genius' lessons; at the same time, he offers a useful and cautious discussion of the dangers of reaching too far outside the text, allowing the traditional judgment of Aeneas contained in the commentaries on Virgil and Ovid to apply where it is consistent with Genius' purpose, arguing against the relevance of similar traditional sources regarding Ulysses, and allowing the traditional medieval interpretation of Pygmalion to enter in in a way that Genius does not intend. Peck's conclusion has as much to do with the complexity of Genius' role as it does with Gower's use of irony: "Genius resides at the crux of must issues of irony in the Confessio. Readings of the poem will usually be just as sound as they are subtle in dealing with the complexities of Genius' role. Too often he gets pigeonholed by one allegorical reading or another. Such placements may yield readings which seem stable if the premises of the commentators are accepted. But they must be seen as partial readings at best (p. 224). These partial readings, he implies, are all relevant, and place all of the burden on the reader to discover Gower's meaning. The irony of the structure of the poem that Peck implies but does not articulate is that such simple lessons should yield such great complexity, yet that from so much complexity Gower's purpose may nevertheless be ascertained. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 13.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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