Gower Bibliography

Breaking the Vacuum: Ricardian and Henrician Ovidianism.

Simpson, James. "Breaking the Vacuum: Ricardian and Henrician Ovidianism." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29 (1999), pp. 325-355. ISSN 1082-9636


Simpson's agenda in this ambitious essay is re-open the question of the distinction between the "Renaissance" or Early Modern period and the later Middle Ages. He argues that two characteristics that are said to set off Early Modern writing—-a "historical consciousness" and awareness of historical difference and a consciousness of the self as unstable and open to construction-—are actually fully present in English Ovidian poetry of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century. His secondary purpose is to demonstrate that Early Modern poets such as Wyatt and Surrey were constrained by their discursive environment from the full measure of rediscovered historical consciousness with which they have been credited. Ovid is given a large place in his analysis as a model both for the use of history and for the poetic manipulation of the self, while Petrarch's role as groundbreaker is correspondingly diminished. The two poets that Simpson uses to represent the period around 1390 are of course Chaucer, represented principally in his argument by his "Complaint unto Pity," and in the portion of the essay that interests us the most, John Gower and CA. Simpson's comments on CA draw upon his discussion is his earlier Sciences and the Self (see JGN 15, no. 2, pp. 11-15), but they offer a subtler reading of Gower's debt to Ovid and of his use of the voices of Amans and Genius and they have a great deal more to say about the way in which Gower's historical consciousness is manifested in the poem. The CA is "driven," he claims, "by an Ovidian deflection, even neutralization of history, just as it reveals the conditions in which history and politics can be reactivated and reformed by the elegiac experience" (p. 333). The opening invokes the beginning of the "Amores," in which Cupid commands that Ovid abandon his historical subject and write about his own pain in love: after attacking the division of the contemporary political world, the narrator of CA finds himself in Book 1 subject to the command of Cupid and required to confess as a demonstration of his truthful service. "If the confession should reconfirm Amans' integrity as a faithful subject to Cupid, however, the rest of the poem can only confirm the impossibility of psychic integration under the tyrannical regime of Cupid. Amans can only speak from, and deepen, the fissures of a self already divided" (p. 335). His "self-division" is also a "division from the political and historical world" and "an alienation from history and historical meaning" (p. 336). Neither Amans nor Genius, through most of the poem, are able to assemble any of the multiple historical incidents that are offered as exempla into any coherent narrative, and thus the CA, "like the Amores, is driven by the iterative force of desire, which seeks refuge from the relentlessness of history by fragmenting it" (p. 337). Genius also functions, however, as the means by which Amans' world and the world of history on which he has turned his back are reintegrated. (Simpson has some interesting comments on the similarity between Genius' and Pandarus' roles here, who both instruct in the art of love and offer remedies against its inevitable delusions, like the praeceptor amoris of the "Ars amatoria" and "Remedium amoris.") The turning point occurs at the opening of Book 7, when Genius, producing stories from "the treasury of the imagination" (p. 339), is suddenly governed by "rational desire, and not by sexual desire alone" (ibid.). Book 7 is dominated by the tale of Lucrece, which exposes "the political motives and consequences of cupidinous rapacity. . . . [Aruns'] sexual and military activities . . . become indistinguishable. The world of elegy has been brought into direct contact and identity with the political world that it replicates. There can be no escape from politics, since the psyche itself constitutes a 'political' arena" (ibid.). Genius' very telling of the tale, however, "affirms the possibility of psychic reintegration, whereby the imagination, personified by Genius, operates as a mediator between abstract reasoning and sensual desire. The very possibility of the Lucrece story, told as an exemplum against tyranny in sexual and political practice, itself testifies to the possibility of an imaginative remembrance of stories that is not driven by concupiscent desire; an alternative, fully ethical and political exercise of the imagination is possible. The poem as a whole is a fable of the psyche, in which the relations of the soul mirror the ideal practice of (Gowerian) politics, whereby the abstract principle of the law, the king, has commerce with the body politic by the mediation of counselors (or Parliament) capable of imaginative apprehension. The poem does register the capacity to escape from to escape from Cupid's jurisdiction, and to return to the political discourse of the prologue. The return to the public world is, however, profoundly reformist" (p. 340). None of these possibilities, Simpson suggests, particularly the critique of absolutism, was possible under the much more oppressive discursive conditions of the 1530's and 1540's. This is not an essay that is adequately represented in an abstract, and it well deserves to be considered in its entirety. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 19.1]

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

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