Gower Bibliography

Lessons from the Great Clerk: Ovid and John Gower

Harbert, Bruce. "Lessons from the Great Clerk: Ovid and John Gower." In Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art From the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Ed. Martindale, Charles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 83-97.


According to the editor of this volume, in his splendid essay on the many faces that Ovid has presented to poets and readers down through time, Harbert shows that Gower is "in some ways the leading Ovidian of the Middle Ages" (p. 1). Harbert does not actually do quite so much, but he does give a useful survey of Gower's use of Ovid in VC and CA. He finds that the degree and nature of Ovid's influence vary greatly in the two works. In VC, according to statistics borrowed from Stockton, Gower's borrowings range from about 2% of his lines (in Book 3) to about 12% (in Book 1, in the vision of the mob and the destruction of the city). In the passages most marked by Ovid, Gower has taken not just lines but also themes, and "as he borrows more and more from Ovid we find his work, even the original passages, becomes better not worse. Ovid is now not merely a quarry for Gower, but an inspiration" (p. 86). In CA, on the other hand, though the borrowings are more extensive (some 40 tales, in whole or in part), the framework of the confession is entirely unlike Ovid's, and Gower's octosyllabic couplets are not as well suited for translation as Chaucer's five-stressed line. Consequently he remolds rather than merely translates. His many alterations betray the influence of the common use of Ovid for exercises in both embellishment and condensation in medieval rhetorical training; of his use of Old French sources, which suggested "a tendency to concentrate more on the state of mind of the characters and less on the external world than Ovid" (p. 88); of native English romances (cf. Gower's "Acteon"); and of the Bible (cf. his "Arion"). He remains equally free of all his sources, however, and a consideration of his handling of scenes of transformation and of his "Pyramus and Thisbe" and "Jason and Medea" reveals both his independence and his ability to blend details from different texts. In contrast to VC, "the mode of narration of the Confessio is so different from Ovid's that Gower seems by this stage to regard Ovid's poetry as little more than raw material, to be manipulated and transformed without regard to its origin" (p. 96). The one place in CA that might have been inspired by Ovid comes in a surprising place, in the "palinode" and the revelation of Amans' old age: the germ for the persona that Gower adopts here is perhaps to be found in passages in the Tristia that he also drew from in his meditations on his solitude after he flees London in Book 1 of VC. Harbert has also written on the story of Tereus in Ovid and Gower in Medium AEvum, 41 (1972), 208-19. Other essays in the present volume take up single Ovidian themes in later writers and treat the influence of Ovid on Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dryden, T.S. Eliot, the Elizabethans, and the Augustans. Review by C.H. Sisson, TLS, July 15-21, 1988, p. 772.] [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 8.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Style, Rhetoric, and Versification
Vox Clamantis
Confessio Amantis

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