Gower Bibliography

Aspects of Love in John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Bakalian, Ellen Shaw. "Aspects of Love in John Gower's Confessio Amantis." Studies in Medieval History and Culture. . New York: Routledge, 2004

Review

"Modifying nature, keeping one's natural instincts under reason's control, and learning to love properly is a duty which Genius tries to teach Amans in John Gower's Confessio Amantis," Bakalian begins (xvii), and she explores Gower's presentation of this theme in four chapters. In the first, she outlines the background to Gower's depiction of the struggle between Nature and Reason, and she uses the tales of "Albinus and Rosemund" and "Pyramus and Thisbe" as illustrations of two types of loss of reason and their consequences. Chapter two takes up the tales of the four virtuous wives who appear in the Company of Lovers in Amans' vision in Book 8, Penelope, Lucrece, Alceste, and Alceone. In each, the husbands and wives "enjoy a mutual and reciprocal love, and in their marriages reason tempers sexual passion; hence their worlds exude peace and harmony" (xviii). In chapter three, Bakalian examines for contrast the tales of Deianira, Medea, Dido, Phyllis, and Ariadne, who love imprudently (in three of the five cases outside of marriage), and who suffer the consequences. Ruled by kinde rather than reason, they "live in a world ruled by discordia, revenge, destruction, and death" (xix). The final chapter examines lovesickness as an example of the loss of reason and compares Amans' condition to that described in medieval medical handbooks and to the lovesickness depicted by Chaucer and Ovid. If the emphasis on reason as the proper guide of conduct in CA is not new, there are few studies that undertake to explain as patiently or in as great detail how Gower incorporates this principle into the structure of his exempla. In emphasizing the moral lessons of the individual tales, moreover, Bakalian's study is a valuable reminder of how much the poem has to say about conduct in love that is not encompassed within Amans' abandonment of love (or is it abandonment by love?) in the poem's conclusion. Her principal method is close reading, and she displays a particular sensitivity to the emotional impact of Gower's sometimes spare lines, particularly in the poet's depiction of conjugal tenderness and happy married love. She also displays a particular alertness to the moral choices faced by the women in the tales, and in fact one begins to suspect, as one considers the tales that she has chosen as her examples and the way in which she focuses on the female characters in each, that this book either evolved from or was evolving towards a study of Gower's depiction of women. One of Bakalian's principal recurring themes is the moral responsibility that women bear for their own decisions. As she summarizes this aspect of her discussion in her conclusion: "Gower's poetry often defies the feminist theory which places woman as victim and man as perpetrator. In the Confessio he is neither partial to man nor woman, and although it appears his sympathies lie with women, it is rather that he views woman as man's equal; if he is responsible for his actions, then so is she. Gower's unique insistence upon equality in the Confessio proves this point: man cannot blame woman, and woman cannot blame man" (153). The chapter in which the theme of woman's moral responsibility emerges most strongly is the third, and this is also the chapter that may give most pause to some readers. Deianira, Dido, and Phyllis are usually not blamed for the fact that their lovers left them, but Bakalian wants us to believe that they were the victims of their own lack of prudence as much as they were of their lovers' deceit and that their abandonment is also the appropriate consequence of their remaining unmarried. These are new readings that deserve consideration, but I doubt that all will be convinced, especially since the explicit moral lesson in each case is directed elsewhere. Ariadne's fault is even harder to find since she is married, as is Medea, whose principal "crime" occurs only at the end of the tale, and it is condemned neither by Genius nor by the gods. There is other evidence of strain as Bakalian makes her argument. Her treatment of "Albinus and Rosemund" is perhaps a best attempt to deal with a very problematic exemplum, but I think that she simply misreads the tale of Penelope and Ulysses in Book 4. She is not alone here, but instead of a condemnation of Ulysses' sloth, doesn't the tale instead commend his ability to fulfill his duties both in war and at home, in contrast to the preceding example of Eneas? Though this is a small book, moreover (159 pages of text, plus notes and introduction), Bakalian betrays a wish to incorporate everything that she has read, with the result that she doesn't always take a clear stand on some general issues of direct relevance to her case. She never faces the ambiguities of Nature's role in CA, for instance, at times offering moral guidance and at times needing to be restrained by Reason. She also never gives a clear statement of Genius' role, throwing up her hands on the question in note 79 to page 115, and then on pages 129-30, declaring even less helpfully: "[Genius] may be the priest of Venus, but he is also the voice of rational judgments, advocating the use of reason as man's best defense against foolish love errors, and recommending married love over amorous pursuits without a marriage license. Gower's Genius is a character in whom pagan, Christian and Gowerian philosophies meet, yet he is not a reliable authority figure." And in chapter 4, the extensive discussion of the symptoms and treatment of lovesickness (drawn in large part from Mary Wack's very useful compilation) proves more instructive on Troilus (for the way in which his condition transcends the merely medical) than it does for Amans. Hard questions still remain. If Amans cannot help being in love (because of Nature), then how is he himself to blame? His love is unreasonable, Bakalian insists, but the only real evidence that she cites is that it is unreciprocated, another fact for which Amans himself is hardly responsible. He is old, but his age only becomes relevant in the conclusion, where it serves not as proof of his foolishness but as the means of his release: he is "cured," Bakalian acknowledges, not by his own reason but by another external force beyond his control. The questions I raise here remain some of the largest unresolved issues in our reading of the poem, and it doesn't strengthen Bakalian's case, either on the precise role of reason in CA or on the nature of a woman's choices, that she skirts them. She does, however, have some interesting new perspectives on the particular tales that she considers that might eventually be incorporated within a more general understanding of the poem. Though this is a small book, moreover (159 pages of text, plus notes and introduction), Bakalian betrays a wish to incorporate everything that she has read, with the result that she doesn't always take a clear stand on some general issues of direct relevance to her case. She never faces the ambiguities of Nature's role in CA, for instance, at times offering moral guidance and at times needing to be restrained by Reason. She also never gives a clear statement of Genius' role, throwing up her hands on the question in note 79 to page 115, and then on pages 129-30, declaring even less helpfully: "[Genius] may be the priest of Venus, but he is also the voice of rational judgments, advocating the use of reason as man's best defense against foolish love errors, and recommending married love over amorous pursuits without a marriage license. Gower's Genius is a character in whom pagan, Christian and Gowerian philosophies meet, yet he is not a reliable authority figure." And in chapter 4, the extensive discussion of the symptoms and treatment of lovesickness (drawn in large part from Mary Wack's very useful compilation) proves more instructive on Troilus (for the way in which his condition transcends the merely medical) than it does for Amans. Hard questions still remain. If Amans cannot help being in love (because of Nature), then how is he himself to blame? His love is unreasonable, Bakalian insists, but the only real evidence that she cites is that it is unreciprocated, another fact for which Amans himself is hardly responsible. He is old, but his age only becomes relevant in the conclusion, where it serves not as proof of his foolishness but as the means of his release: he is "cured," Bakalian acknowledges, not by his own reason but by another external force beyond his control. The questions I raise here remain some of the largest unresolved issues in our reading of the poem, and it doesn't strengthen Bakalian's case, either on the precise role of reason in CA or on the nature of a woman's choices, that she skirts them. She does, however, have some interesting new perspectives on the particular tales that she considers that might eventually be incorporated within a more general understanding of the poem. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 23.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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