Gower Bibliography

Love and Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis.

Nicholson, Peter. "Love and Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis." Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005 ISBN 9780472115129

Review

Peter Nicholson's "Love and Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis," weighing in at close to 450 pages, mightily qualifies as what would once have been deemed “a hefty tome." Especially given the reluctance these days of publishers to commit to books of such size, it says much about the risen status of Gower studies internationally that the University of Michigan Press backed this capacious project. But like all fine books, which are themselves their own best recommendation, Nicholson's study needs no external hand-up from a burgeoning critical interest in Gower. "Love and Ethics in Gower's 'Confessio Amantis'" speaks up for itself, confidently, often eloquently, thoroughly justifying its substantial heft. As Nicholson is clearly aware, however, his book will discomfit readers of a certain stripe, who will find it composed in a style of "forty years ago," as he himself (somewhat self-deprecatingly) has it in his preface (p. v). Apparently he means by this "close reading," and what he has produced is ample demonstration of why such an "old fashioned" methodology may still be the most effective approach to the multilayered CA, which as a work has largely eluded critical approaches "plus au courant." Taking as his starting points the notions first, that, to avoid the errors of the three blind Brahmins describing an elephant, the poem needs to be addressed not in parts but whole; and second that a half-century of focus on the CA as a political document is quite enough, Nicholson sets out to read Gower's poem from beginning to end, and "to argue that the principal subject of the Confessio Amantis is human love; that Amans is a quite ordinary mortal with his share of virtues as well as sins; that the issue in the poem is not whether Amans should be in love but rather how he might become a more virtuous lover; and most importantly of all, that the moral structure of the poem is the fundamental harmony rather than opposition between God's ethical demands and love's" (p. vi). A fairly ho-hum list, at first glance, and thus initially it seems odd that these are dubbed "rather large claims" (p. vi). Who doubts Amans’ piebald mortality, or that a "Lover’s Confession" would be about love? The validity of Nicholson's estimation--and the originality of his effort--very quickly become clear, however. Nicholson begins with an extraordinary opening chapter describing Machaut's influence on the CA which is sufficiently perceptive about the "dits amoreux" as to be independently publishable, and will no doubt be mined assiduously by "romanistes." Ultimately, however, his claims commit him to reading the CA not (as has been so often the case) primarily through the lens of its sources but, rather, transparently, one might say--altogether on its own terms. Hardly a novel notion in another field, but something Gower criticism has commonly avoided, given the magnitude of the task. The preference has been to read selectively, extrapolating conclusions about the full poem from this example or that, in accord with the fashion of adapting the text to theory. Nicholson, on the contrary, seeks to account for every tale, as well as most of the dialogue between Amans, Genius, and Venus, pressing his case that only such slow, digestive thoroughness adequately delivers Gower's thoughtful construction in its varietous dimensions. In the process he develops claims--all challenging, and for the most part well supported--that Gower organizes the eight Books of the CA in different ways, each requiring a separate imaginative response; that frequently individual tales are set out in clusters, informing and answering each other; that Books VII and VIII should be read more or less as a unit. This last idea, as Nicholson notes, he derives from a passing observation of John H. Fisher's which the latter failed to develop, and it may serve as a weather-vane for how Nicholson himself uses sources. More than a decade as bibliographer for the John Gower Society has given Nicholson a familiarity with the full range of Gower scholarship that is almost unique, and his own study, unsurprisingly, benefits immensely from his years of concentrated reading. Of those several claims named above, Nicholson's treatment of two undoubtedly will prove exceptionally influential. One is his treatment of Amans. Nicholson strives to view Gower's figure of the Lover with heretofore-unknown acceptance, crossing frequently into empathy. The result is an Amans no longer the familiar monochrome mouthpiece in a two-dimensional frame, but rather a figure altogether larger, a full-blooded person sprung free of the confines of allegory, engaged in an (ultimately bootless) affair of the heart in complex and legitimate ways. As Nicholson sees it, we are meant to care about Amans--a consideration itself permitting something larger, an in-depth evaluation of Gower as maker of fictions. (Indeed, "Love and Ethics in Gower’s Confessio Amantis" frequently has this quality of Russian dolls, as each discovery progressively reveals another.) Yet it is when Nicholson convincingly integrates Amans' feelings, as microcosm, with Gower's over-arching enterprise, to demonstrate in the macrocosm the multivalent power of love as it emanates from God and governs every facet of society and creation, that his work moves to a level above, and provides rich, original insight. Nicholsons is thus a more coherent, and consequently more satisfying, understanding of the CA and of Gower's art therein than any yet offered. Not that his will be the last word: there are various moments, particularly in his discussion of the controversial excursus on the pagan gods in Book V (and Gower's attitudes toward classical material generally), and his account of the inspiration and plan for Book VII, where the argument seems driven forward rather too quickly. From time to time, too, in making the case for Gower's use of Machaut Nicholson forgets how combinative Gower was in his use of sources, especially in the CA. And one might offer as well, without summoning revenants, that there are political messages strewn here and there amid the "locus amoenus." But such concerns have their airings elsewhere, and in no way detract from Nicholson's achievement. Clearly, not unlike Fisher's seminal "John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer" (1964) in this as in much else throughout, "Love and Ethics in Gower’s Confessio Amantis" is a book that will engage and enable Gower scholarship for a generation at least. [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 25.2]

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

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