Gower Bibliography

The Body Politic and the Politics of Bodies in the Poetry of John Gower.

Yeager, R.F. "The Body Politic and the Politics of Bodies in the Poetry of John Gower." In The Body and the Soul in Medieval Literature. Ed. Boitani, Piero and Torti, Anna. Cambridge: Brewer, 1999, pp. 145-165. ISBN 085991545X


One of the most studied images in Gower's writing is that of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, which appears both in VC Book 7 and in the Prologue of CA. Yeager takes a new look at the statue through the lens of the associated imagery of Christ's body and the body politic of the late Middle Ages. The opening section of his essay traces the history of the image from St. Paul, for whom the "body of Christ" provided a means of conceiving of the unity of the church in its many parts, to Boniface VIII, who revivified the metaphor in order to emphasize the supremacy of the "head." Secular theorists such as John of Salisbury, meanwhile, adopted the metaphor for political institutions as a way of expressing both the diversity of functions of the different ranks and also the naturalness of the political hierarchy. In the middle section of his essay, Yeager shows how this imagery is reflected in the chronicle accounts of the uprising of 1381, in which executions are almost without exception described as decapitations: the loss of the head represented from one point of view the breakdown of order in the destruction of God-ordained authority, and from the other (that of the peasants rather than the chroniclers), the overthrow of unjust rule. When Gower writes, in VC 7.5-6, "The golden head of Nebuchadnezzar's statue has now been cut off / Yet the two feet of iron and clay still remain" (Yeager's translation, p. 159), he is clearly invoking the same association between the body of the statue and organized hierarchical society, and echoing the views of the chroniclers. Yeager refers to Gower’s description here as "but slightly modified from Daniel" (p. 160). Actually, his discussion draws attention to a fundamental change that Gower has made, for in the Biblical version it is the feet of clay and not the head that are destroyed. Gower sticks more closely to the vision in Daniel in his second use of the image, in the Prologue of CA. Without noting the shift, Yeager argues that the statue also provides a key to the fundamental political message of Gower’s English poem. In support of his case, he also cites Gower's use of the episode of Nebuchadnezzar's madness from a later chapter of Daniel. In his conclusion he draws together a rich pattern of resonances from the different sources that he has invoked. The title "Vox Clamantis," he points out, associates Gower both with John of the Apocalypse and with John the Baptist. "And here beheading takes its place again, for of course the familiar icon of the Baptist is a severed head, symbolic at once of the dangers of speaking truth in the kingdom of Herod, a puerile, fitful tyrant, servant to his bodily lust and subject hence to rash decisions under Salome’s rule. . . . If the poet is the Baptist (and the John of Revelation), then Richard (by the completion of the Vox at least, and in the Cronica Tripertita) is a type of Herod" (p. 163). In CA, however, Nebuchadnezzar learns before it is too late. Gower "offers his king and country a second chance. That no one took it cannot be placed at Gower's door" (p. 165). In a private correspondence, Yeager lamented "probably the worst typo in my scholarly life" in the sentence with which this essay concludes, which should read as follows: "The wrongs in his society Gower continually tried to right, never more thoughtfully and connectedly than when he brings the body – bodies shaped in every kind – to our attention, as our guides" (p. 165). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 19.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Vox Clamantis
Confessio Amantis

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