Gower Bibliography

John Gower and the Structures of Conversion: A Reading of the Confessio Amantis.

Olsson, Kurt. "John Gower and the Structures of Conversion: A Reading of the Confessio Amantis." Publications of the John Gower Society, 4 . Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992


Readers of JGN should be alerted that the copywriter who produced the advertising for this important new book seems to have read only the final chapter, and does not even come close to giving an accurate idea of its real contents. Olsson offers here a broad and detailed account of the structure of CA, in two different senses: first the relationship among the many components of its form, and second, its thematic structure, as Gower develops his argument from the Prologue to the conclusion. Olsson's most original contribution concerns the structure in the former sense. He describes the poem as a dialogue of several different voices: the narrator (e.g. in the Prologue); the "poet" of the Latin verses that mark the divisions in the text; the single-minded moralist of the Latin marginal glosses; Amans; and Genius, who himself speaks more than a single voice as he attempts to serve more than one master. None of these "voices" speaks for Gower himself: their interaction, however, provides the opportunity to raise questions, to consider problems, to elaborate "distinctiones," and to weigh alternative views which are finally reconciled only at the very end. In its assembling of a diversity of materials for a single purpose, Olsson invokes the model of the "compilatio," but in its posing of questions and its withholding of its resolution, the literary form that it most closely resembles, he argues, is the "demande." The conflicts and inconsistencies in the poem, particularly in Genius' discourse, have long been an obstacle, of course, for those who expected to find in CA no more than a versified sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins. Attempts to reconcile the great variety of views in the poem into a single coherent doctrine have given way more recently to the study of the poem's diversity. Both Winthrop Wetherbee and Alastair Minnis, for instance, have examined the creative tension between the Latin and vernacular portions of the text, in a collection reviewed in JGN 11.1. Olsson's is the most thorough and the most insightful study in the same genre. But while he finds a greater number of discordant voices in the poem than any previous critic, he attributes a more calculated purpose and a more specific end to the dialogue; and where Wetherbee, for instance, concludes on the poem's moral indeterminacy, for Olsson the uncertainty is all Genius', and is just a device to lead the reader through the process of discovering a moral truth. In a series of twenty short chapters, Olsson outlines the components of the structure as he finds them, and then proceeds to analyze the poem section by section to show how the argument proceeds. The themes that he traces — nature, reason, grace — and his account of how they are developed are familiar from his two long previously published essays on CA (see JGN 1.1, and 9.2), and as is usual of Olsson's writing, his account is too rich and too detailed to offer an adequate summary here. Some of the high points may be noted briefly: The Prologue, he argues, not only introduces some of the topoi of the poem, but also prepares the form that Gower adopts, for instance by emphasizing the uncertainty of wisdom and knowledge in this world. In Book 1, the disorders or the world are focussed upon love. The discussion of the "Sins of the Senses" raises the question of whether humans are compelled to love; in the rest of Book 1, the "jus naturae" is invoked to weigh the relation between compulsion and consent, both in Amans' behavior and in that of the characters in the tales. Book 2 presents positive examples of characters guided by "kinde" in Constance and in Constantine, though the excessive generosity of the latter raises the need for a guide beyond mere "kinde." Books 3 and 4 examines kinde further by distinguishing among grades of gentilesse, the highest form of which can only be attained through reason. In Book 5, the analogy to Midas shows Amans' love to be avaricious; the excursus on religions reveals it to be a form of fantasy akin to idolatry; and the tales, meanwhile, depict a world of vitiated nature urgently in need of grace. Book 6 contrasts the need for grace with Amans' hope and trust in Fortune; and Amans' need to grasp his own true likeness leads him, through his fantasy, to a "regio dissimilitudinis" instead. Book 7 presents the education that is the key to knowing oneself, the ability that Amans so sorely lacks, and it comes back to the question of choice, placing man in a field of causes that affect his moral decisions. It then frames the values that will be used to judge Amans' abandonment of both choice and reason in the final book. Book 8 begins with a statement of the need to restrain natural law with clear implications for Amans. At the end of the book, the categories of nature, reason, and grace are finally applied to Amans directly, and Gower uses Amans' old age as the means to articulate the need to understand one's own nature. Amans' recovery of his knowledge of himself allows him to review his life from a new perspective, and provides an analogy to England, which has also forgotten its true history. Most of these lessons emerge, of course, without the confessor's awareness: Olsson aligns himself with those who see Genius as an inadequate moral teacher, but in finding him merely indiscriminate, he does not join those who find that he actively leads Amans into sin. Olsson's argument also puts him firmly in the camp of those who find Amans guilty of an offense that puts him in need of moral correction: despite his very different view of the structure of the poem, his account of Amans' fantasy and self-delusion is very much like that offered by Peck. Also like Peck, he evaluates each tale as a moral exemplum addressed specifically to Amans' behavior and situation, and his thematic argument depends upon Amans' conversion to the morally correct stance that the poem advocates at the end. Despite the novelty of his views of the poem's structure, therefore, and even in contrast to them, this is in some ways a very traditional reading of the poem. But it is certainly among the best thought out and most thoroughly argued, and the thematic argument is solidly buttressed with evidence from outside the text. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 11.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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