Gower Bibliography

John Gower's Poetic: The Search for a New Arion.

Yeager, R.F. "John Gower's Poetic: The Search for a New Arion." Publications of the John Gower Society, 2 . Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990

Review

Perhaps the most ambitious book on Gower ever written. In it, Yeager provides a wealth of insight into each of Gower's major works in his attempt to define Gower's "poetic," the assumptions about language and poetry that give coherency to his writing. His first chapter, "Stylistics," deals with the poet's attitudes towards language and his craft. Gower had a deep concern for language, Yeager asserts, citing as evidence his care for the correctness of his texts. And his comments on poetry, particularly in the opening lines of CA, reveal both a consciousness of style in relation to audience, and a strong sense of the poet's duty both to his country and to his language, echoing similar statements by Gower's admired models, Virgil and Ovid. Gower took both responsibilities quite seriously, and what appears most conventional about his verse -- his choice of English, his use of octosyllables, and the unvarying regularity of his meter and his rhyme -- Yeager attributes to his conscious attempt to create a poetic language that was adequate to his highest moral concerns. Yeager describes Gower's metrical practice in particular as a novelty and experiment, a conscious response to the metrical discord of his English predecessors and an attempt to set new standards for the language. The remainder of the chapter demonstrates that metrical regularity alone did not inhibit Gower in any important way. Yeager examines the poet's manipulation of pace and tone, his ability to create different "voices" for his two principals, and his use of alliteration, rhyme, and punning, illustrating at the same time both Gower's consciousness of language itself and his great skill in linking sound and sense. The second chapter, "Gower's Lines," extends the discussion of Gower's use of language to his relation with and attitude towards his predecessors, focusing on VC, MO, CB, and Traitié. The model for Gower's construction of his verse, Yeager maintains, is provided by his use of extracts from Latin authors in VC, following the example of the late classical cento. Giving the best available account of the manner in which VC was composed, Yeager rejects the notion of Gower as mere plagiarist, and describes him as an innovative experimenter with cento technique who consciously adopted the poetry of the classical past into a new context and for a different purpose. This technique of the cento is reflected in the "patchwork" construction of both MO and CA, and more importantly, in the self-conscious way in which Gower adopts borrowed language in each of his other poems. In MO, CB, and Traitié, the sources are not classical, but the French love poetry of Gower's immediate predecessors, particularly the Roman de la Rose. In the indelicacy of his language and the amorality of his presentation of love, Jean de Meun would have represented to Gower the abandonment of all of the moral responsibility that Gower felt was incumbent on the poet. His response was to adopt the vocabulary but to reject the ethos, and to turn the language of love poetry to higher ends. In MO, his strategy is reflected in the poem's structure: Yeager describes MO as an "anatomy of desire" set within "an envelope of amorous address," speaking to all lovers in the opening lines, but turning to the Virgin at the end, as the poet/narrator finally achieves his true calling (anticipating also Yeager's account of the structure of CA). In CB and Traitié, Gower's borrowing of the verse form and vocabulary of courtly poetry is more palpable, but his rejection of its values is all the more direct, as he "rehabilitates" the language of love in order to celebrate chaste marriage. Chapter three, "Transformations," focuses on Gower's adoption of narrative material in CA. Beginning with some of Gower's characteristic habits as a storyteller -- his use of "pointing," his rare use of visual imagery, and the ways in which he depicts a character's inner thought -- Yeager emphasizes both the deliberateness of effect and the "moral resonance" that Gower achieves with sometimes limited resources. He takes particular issue with C.S. Lewis, who found Gower little interested in his characters' mental processes, and points out how frequently and effectively Gower uses action to reveal cognition, especially in the case of Amans. Turning to broader issues in Gower's use of story material, Yeager classifies the exempla of CA into five different types according to the degree of transformation from the source and the positive or negative way in which the tale serves the announced moral lesson. He then gives a close reading of "Albinus and Rosemund" and "Tereus," illustrating how the poet, by his excisions and additions, has shaped the stories to the purposes of his frame, and how he has made them both psychologically and artistically more satisfying than the versions he found in his sources. In chapter four, "Exceptions Prove the Rule," Yeager confronts the portions of CA that have traditionally posed the greatest difficulties for readers: the discussion of Labor in Book 4; the lengthy account of the religions of the world in Book 5; the treatment of Sorcery in Book 6; the whole of Book 7; and the focus in Book 8 on the sin of incest. In each case, he attempts to show how these departures from the expected pattern of the confession conform to, and help define more clearly, Gower's overall plan for his poem. Yeager is at his best in explicating the poem in this chapter: his analyses of these sections and his explanations of their place in the context of CA as a whole are insightful and in large part original. Certain themes recur in his discussion: Gower's urgency to place his treatment of love in a broader moral context; his concern for the proper use of language, especially in poetry; his "adversarial rewriting" of the literature of the past, including, again, RR; and structurally, the anticipation in these sections of the poem's epilogue and conclusion. In the last chapter, "Arion's Final Song," Yeager strives to define precisely how Gower's plan for CA gave coherency to the diversity of materials that he assembled in his poem. The key, he argues, is to be found in the figure of Arion that Gower introduces at the end of his Prologue, the poet whose "lusti melodie" was capable of bringing peace and harmony to all creation and among all classes of men. Gower thought of himself as that Arion, Yeager maintains. The fictional story of the lover Amans is his "lusti melodie." It is also, however, the story of the narrator's growth in wisdom, and at the end, having rejected the foolishness of his love, this narrator "Amans/Gower," now bearing particular resemblance to the poet himself, offers his own prayer for peace in the epilogue, and also retells the story of his conversion in this poem so that we may follow his course and help bring about the harmony that he prays for. This course leads him by way of a redefinition of love, to include more than mere romantic passion, and also by way of a discussion of the roots of political harmony in Book 7. In each respect in which Gower has broadened the discussion of love, he has surpassed the ethical limits of the traditional love allegory even while imitating its form. CA is thus "a love poem designed to outgrow itself" (p. 265), and also another attempt to reform the language of the poetic tradition from which it springs. This summary can hardly do justice to the sophistication of Yeager's argument, or to the success with which he has woven together the diverse elements of CA into a whole and embraced Gower's different poems within a coherent vision. Portions of Yeager's analysis will already be familiar to readers of Fisher, Peck, et al., particularly his attempt to use Gower's social doctrine as the basis for the unity of Gower's work, but Yeager's discussion is richer, more detailed, and more sensitive to the complexity of Gower's verse than that of most of his predecessors. Yeager has provided a provocative new view of Gower as a poet, and because of his detailed familiarity with his subject and the sharpness of his eye, there is something of value on nearly every page, even for those who are not persuaded by his central thesis. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 10.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Backgrounds and General Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Vox Clamantis
Cinkante Balades
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

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