Gower Bibliography

John Gower's Images: 'The Tale of Constance' and 'The Man of Law's Tale

Yeager, R.F. "John Gower's Images: 'The Tale of Constance' and 'The Man of Law's Tale." In Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V.A. Kolve. Ed. Yeager, R.F and Morse, Charlotte. Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 2001, pp. 525-557.


Yeager takes as his starting point, in this essay that appears in a festschrift for V.A. Kolve, the latter's by now famous re-examination of the imagery of the Man of Law's Tale, with his discovery both of its primarily visual quality and of the rich layers of allegorical significance that it contains; and he applies Kolve's methods to the study of Gower's version of the same tale. Gower too was capable of arresting visual images: Yeager uses the examples of the massacre at the feast in CA 2.688-702, which is narrated from the point of view of Constance, the only survivor, and the tale of "Acis and Galatea" that comes earlier in Book 2 and that establishes in very concrete terms the signficances of fire and of water that will resonate throughout the later tale. But Gower's method is ordinarily not so visual, Yeager argues. Instead, "Gower relies on the working of his words qua words, on nuance and lexical suggestion. His images are briefer than Chaucer's, crossing more quickly sub oculos, alerting the consciousness scarcely at all while they creep into the memory, accumulating there nonetheless. Ultimately, these light images create a resonant sub-text which, once noticed, acts as effectively to the same purpose as Chaucer's more elaborate ones do, drawing us out of the literal towards higher levels of meaning" (527-28). He illustrates this thesis with some aptly chosen examples of particular words that in repetition acquire a meaningful resonance: "stiere," in the scenes in which Constance is set adrift on the sea, which subtly but effectively invokes God's presence as navigator; "good," which refers primarily to literal "goods" but which also establishes a contrast between Constance and her detractors and enables the depiction of the heroine as a representative of the church; "kepe," which is used particularly ironically by Domilde in 2.1036 but which elsewhere establishes the parallel between Constance's role and God's; the notion of motherhood, which Yeager points out occurs in some unusual contexts in the tale but which fits into the patterns created by the other imagery; and "joie," which especially at the end draws together the literal and the allegorical dimensions of Constance's story. The dominant recurring image in the tale, as in Chaucer's, is the sea, but Yeager establishes how differently the two poets used it: "In 'The Man of Law's Tale,' as Kolve has shown, it is 'the sea of this world' first and last, a medium alien to the ship of the Church, which alone provides safe transport to the hoped-for harbor. In 'The Tale of Constance,' however, the sea is, yes, the world, and something more—a medium of the Divine embrace and revelation (as water in every form always is in this tale, and generally in Book II of the Confessio Amantis), a physical expression of the power of a benevolent God, disguised to all but the truly faithful as a place of death, not life; so also the Christian mystery of baptism promises a 'dying' which in fact is the portal to a resurrected life; so Acis dies and is buried, to rise again as a spring recollective of the promise kept by the life and death of Christ; and so does Constance, twice come from the water, take on a kind of resurrection, as well" (550). As this last passage makes clear, this is a subtle essay, not well represented in summary. Insightful not only as a reading of this particular tale, it also, through the connection to "Acis and Galatea," opens up the possibility of a re-reading of Book 2 in its entirety, and here one has to feel that Yeager has missed a rather large chance. The book ends with the tale of "Constantine and Sylvester," with its obvious verbal and historical links to the tale of Constance in the protagonists' names, in their settings, and in their roles in the founding of the church, but even more importantly for Yeager's argument, in the rich significance given to baptism in the later tale, which echoes back upon the very episodes that Yeager describes so well in "Constance." Perhaps – and indeed one truly hopes – he has saved the exploration of these obvious connections for a future essay. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 20.2]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Style, Rhetoric, and Versification
Confessio Amantis

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