Gower Bibliography

The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature.

Dean, James M.. "The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature." Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1997 ISBN 0915651041

Review

This is a scholarly book of a sort that we don't see very often anymore: broadly researched, thoroughly documented, nearly encyclopedic in its coverage, and without any particular theoretical disposition. Dean offers his work as a contribution to the history of ideas, and as a token of his thoroughness, in his introductory chapter, in addition to summarizing and commenting on earlier studies of the "world grown old" in medieval literature, he also offers a discussion of the difference between "idea" and a trope or topos (citing both Boas and Curtius); and indeed it is part of his argument that the "world grown old" is an "idea" rather than merely a rhetorical commonplace: that it encompassed a variety of different but related subtopics, and that in its breadth it provided the "organizing principle" for major works of later medieval literature. Dean's interest is in these works rather than simply in the growth and development of the "idea," and in that respect he distinguishes his own study from more traditional scholarship in the "history of ideas." While acknowledging the importance of recognizing conventions for what they are, he focuses on the ways in which individual authors apply and respond to the "ideas" that they use, including the ways in which different ideas co-existing in the same work are brought into relation with one another. Thus, after a very useful "Morphology of Subtopics," including the "ages of the world," the "world upside-down," "the ancient-versus-modern controversy (giants and dwarves)," and a number of others in his second chapter, the bulk of his book is given over to close study of five major medieval authors: Jean de Meun, Dante, Langland, Gower, and Chaucer. The Gower chapter is entitled "Social Deterioration and the Decline of Love in John Gower's Narratives," by which he means Gower's three major poems, MO, VC, and CA. In each, the poet "chronicles the sorry state of things and laments the world's decline from former, better eras" (p. 233), using the de senectute mundi theme as his structuring principle. In his separate consideration of each of these three works, Dean naturally focuses on those portions in which the de senectute mundi theme occurs. In MO, that would be the social anatomy in lines 18421-27360 in which each estate is criticized in turn for failing to live up to the model of virtue of their predecessors, often by means of the rhetorical construction "jadis . . . mais ore." In VC as well, "Gower portrays a deteriorating society and a world turned upside down" (p. 243). Book 1--the visio of the Peasants' Revolt--repeats the characterization of the peasantry in contemporary chronicles, and is a virtually unique instance in Ricardian poetry of an extended response to a particular contemporary historical event. Gower's treatment contains echoes of Langland, of Ovid, and of scripture. In the remaining books, he "anatomizes society as in decay" (p. 247), using familiar "world grown old" motifs. "These and other laments de senectute mundi are thoroughly conventional and yet given a new context by the account of the Peasants' Revolt and Gower's insistence throughout the Vox that there are modern applications to the ancient tropes. Throughout his narrative writings Gower implies that modern men and women live their lives according to archetypal scripts, ways of behaving and speaking instanced in ancient scriptural and classical texts and reenacted in modern conduct" (p. 248). The most pronounced image of the "world grown old" is the statue from Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the Book of Daniel, another instance of applying an old symbol to modern times, anticipating the appearance of the same image in CA. Also anticipatory of CA in the Cronica Tripertita, in which Richard is blamed for a lack of love. As in MO and VC, Gower finds the "chief example and root cause" of the declining world in "individual malfeasance" (p. 250). In CA, the individual's responsibility for the decline of the world in embodied in the poet/Amans, who is also old. As in Gower's earlier works, the central idea of CA is the "world grown old," particularly the decline of love; in this work, however, both the macrocosm and the microcosm have decayed. The Prologue to CA, repeating themes from MO and VC, reflects "Gower's persistent, strong concern for moral and terrestrial decline and particularly for the individual's responsibility in the decay" (p. 252). Gower repeatedly echoes the "jadis . . . mais ore" formula from MO, and also introduces again the statue from Nebuchadnezzar's dream. Dean emphasizes Gower's departures from the Biblical version of the dream, particularly in Gower's hope, represented in the overthrow of the statue, for an apocalyptic renewal of the world rather than merely a messianic kingdom. The statue is effective because it portrays the decline of the world in a specifically human image, which is emblematic for Gower of mankind's "original and continuing culpability for the world's 'health'" (p. 261). The focus on human sin prepares the way for the story of Amans, who, as an "example of improper loving" (p. 264), discovers his own responsibility for the decline of love in the world. While his age is not explicit at the beginning of the poem, he is described as having suffered his love-sickness for a long time, so that the discovery of his age at the end is not a shock but a recognition. The poet's incorporation of his own literal infirmities into the conclusion has an element of wit, but his age and his sickness both have "metaphoric overtones" (p. 267). "If the great world has grown old through division, improper loving, and a cooling of charity, so has Gower" (p. 268). He is both St. Paul's vetus homo and an image of the world at large, and as he shuffles off to seek dignity in penance, "he makes himself the butt of the joke and humbly acknowledges his complicity in the decay of society" (p. 270). This summary reveals both the strengths and the limitations of Dean's study. It is certainly useful to see the ways in which Gower draws upon and alters motifs and ideas that were current in his time, and to examine the connections among his three works. But the effort to do so can itself result in a very partial view, especially for a poem like CA. While such a study may indeed be adequate for MO and VC, fully half of Dean's discussion of CA is concerned with the Prologue, and most of the rest treats the final scene in which Amans is compelled to acknowledge his old age. Virtually everything else that occurs in between is summarized with the observation that "The exemplary stories themselves may owe more to 'lust' than 'lore," more to mirth than morality; but often Genius finds ways to link the stories and their applications with moral pronouncements de senectute mundi" (p. 266). He actually does so fairly rarely, and only in the "digressions," not in the tales. It would in fact be quite hard to demonstrate from the stories in CA that Gower saw the ancient past as in any way more virtuous than the present. Earlier, Dean declares "Although Gower scholars have questioned the appropriateness of individual tales within the books as illustrations of particular sins, Gower's moral, didactic intentions are clear enough" (p. 252). Elided here is virtually all of the recent discussions of the poem that would make of it something much more complicated and more sophisticated than the straightforward didactic work that Dean describes. And viewing the ending simply in terms of Amans' age allows no consideration of any of his specific lessons during the course of the confession or of the multiple inflections that have been given to both "Nature" and "Reason." Dean would take us back to Fisher's view of Gower's three major works as coherent in purpose if not indeed as three parts of the same composition. His method of argument also often resembles Fisher's, picking out only the passages in the poem that conform to his thesis with the implication that they constitute the whole. What Dean has provided is a valuable index to a central idea and to its associated motifs, which deserves to be incorporated into a more complete understanding of the complexities of a very complex poem. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 17.1]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Vox Clamantis
Confessio Amantis
Cronica Tripertita
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

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