Gower Bibliography

John Gower's Use of Ovid in Book III of the Confessio Amantis

Hatton, Thomas J.. "John Gower's Use of Ovid in Book III of the Confessio Amantis." Mediaevalia 13 (1989), pp. 257-274.


Hatton's examination of Gower's alterations of the tales he borrowed from Ovid in Book 3 provides a succinct demonstration of the ironic mode of reading and interpreting CA. Three premises are evident in his study. Genius, "a personification of man's natural urge to reproduce his species, . . . represents a carnal force" (p. 257), and is thus neither a proper confessor nor a reliable guide to the meaning of his own tales. Amans himself is deeply in need of spiritual correction, guilty of "lecherous designs" (p. 262) and "inordinate concupiscence" (p. 263). The tales offer the needed correction, but in a way unperceived by both Genius and Amans: some of the tales Genius manages to get right, but in most, he either twists the story to support an invalid lesson, or ignores the traditional moralization. In both cases, the readers can supply the true meaning from their own previous familiarity with the tales. Applying these premises to Book 3, Hatton comes up with some rather new readings for a number of tales, and discovers a previously undetected pattern to Gower's, if not Genius', instruction. To summarize only the high points of his argument: In "Canace and Machaire," Genius alters Ovid in his attempt to excuse the children's incest. In fact, they and their father are equally to be blamed: the tale illustrates the two components of the "sensate" part of the human personality, concupiscence and irascibility, and shows how the indulgence in lechery leads to a surrender to wrath, exactly as has happened in Amans. The baby adds an allegorical dimension: born of a surrender to concupiscence that parallels that of Adam and Eve, the baby is "expelled into a wilderness by the anger of the father" (p. 264), and becomes subject to the natural law that leads to death. In "Tiresias and the Snakes," Genius tells only half of the tale found in Ovid: juxtaposed to "Canace and Machaire," the parting of the snakes suggests a disturbance of the balance between irascibility and concupiscence, with its tragic consequences. In being transformed from a man into a woman, moreover, Tiresias is changed from a spiritual to a sensual being. "Jupiter, Juno, and Tiresias" is also allegorical. Jupiter equals human reason, and Juno sensuality. In deciding against Juno, Tiresias aligns himself with reason. "In revenge sensuality may blind him physically, but his spiritual nature gives him a higher kind of sight" (p. 266). (Hatton actually misrepresents Gower's version here, and overlooks some significant departures from Ovid.) The following tales illustrate the disastrous consequences of surrender to the passions, while Diogenes, like Socrates earlier, provides an example of control of the passions for Amans to follow. "Pyramus and Thisbe" illustrates the dangers of self-destructiveness that attend a surrender to the passions. Genius' alterations emphasize the irrationality of the lovers and their service to Venus and Cupid, and thus their similarity to Amans. And in "Phoebus and Daphne," the alterations support the traditional moralization of the tale as a confrontation between concupiscence and virtue in which virtue is both preserved and rewarded, but Genius misses the point, attributing Phoebus' lack of success to Fortune. In sum, Genius' lessons on wrath are sound enough, but the principal lesson that emerges from these tales, undetected by the confessor, is that as long as Amans remains a servant of concupiscence and of Venus, he cannot hope to escape wrath or to act in a reasonable way. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 10.2]

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

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