Gower Bibliography

Kingship and the Body Politic: Classical Ecphrasis and Confessio Amantis VII.

McKinley, Kathryn. "Kingship and the Body Politic: Classical Ecphrasis and Confessio Amantis VII." Mediaevalia 21 (1996), pp. 161-187.


McKinley justifies Gower's frequently criticized departure from the content and structure of the rest of his poem in Book 7 of CA by citing the analogy of the classical ecphrasis, which she defines (rather more broadly than usual) as "a protracted (often book-length) narrative digression which may depend for much of its dramatic power on visual representation, but which is ultimately used by the poet to address a theme or themes (often political) which transcend the 'main story' of the larger poem" (pp. 161-62). She cites three principal examples to support her definition: Homer's description of Achilles' shield in the Iliad, Book 18, known to medieval readers in Baebius Italicus' first-century "Ilias Latina"; Virgil's description of Aeneas' shield in Book 8 of the "Aeneid"; and Orpheus's song in Book 10 of the "Metamorphoses," which McKinley describes as a "self-contained mini-epic" (p. 162). The first two of these interrupt the narratives in which they are contained in order to offer a broadened perspective on the action of the poem, Homer's with a view of the entire cosmos, extending down to a classical version of the "fair field full of folk;" and Virgil's with its summary of Roman history down to the time of the Caesars. Ovid's ecphrasis is rather different in nature, containing eight separate stories within a story, and offering a single coherent view of the "bewildering complexities and joys of human love." McKinley finds both structural and thematic resemblances between Book 7 and each of these. Ovid provides the model for a "fully coherent poem-within-a-poem" (p. 169), for the use of narratives within the ecphrasis, for the framing of tales within a tale (as in "The King, Wine, Woman and Truth"), and for the use of contrasting exempla. Though Virgil is ingratiating and Gower "cautionary" (p. 172), the Roman poet provides a precedent for Gower's address to his ruler; and though their agendas differ, "both poets employ the structural ecphrasis to project a social and political commentary on the ruler" (p. 173). Aeneas' inability to understand the vision of Roman history is recalled, moreover, in Amans' general cluelessness about the applicability of Genius' instruction to his own case. Homer/Baebius, finally, uses the ecphrasis as a way of juxtaposing microcosm and macrocosm: "the vision offered is much like a corrective lens, through which the character (Achilles; Amans) is shown a world whose concerns are much greater than his own and whose harmony depends upon his own active contribution to the social order" (p. 182). McKinley uses her comparison to works so dissimilar to one another as part of a general argument on the importance of Book 7 as the place in which Gower "convey[s] his own artistic, philosophical, and ethical vision" (p. 170). She sees a dual lesson in Gower's ecphrasis, one for Amans, on the foolishness of his love, and one for Richard II, on "importance of self-governance and proper kingship" (p. 170); and she suggests at one point that with Book 7 Gower "complicates the larger enterprise of the Confessio such that we are compelled to ask whether the larger outlying story of Amans isn't fundamentally a 'backdrop' however detailed, for Gower's more central explorations on kingship and polity" (p. 168; her emphasis). In the final part of her essay she examines the exempla in Book 7 for their contribution to Gower's purpose. She sees the tale of "The Jew and the Pagan," quite remarkably, as an allegory of Richard's relations with his subjects and as "the harbinger of the king's downfall" (p. 173); but she gives fullest attention to the tale of Lucrece, in which the two programs of the poem, on the excesses of kingship and of individual desire, most fully merge (p. 175), and in which the specific lessons for both Amans and the king are most explicit. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 18.1]

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

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