Gower Bibliography

The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography

Pearsall, Derek. "The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography." Oxford: Blackwell, 1992 ISBN 1557862052

Review

This publication of a new biography of Chaucer by one of our foremost medievalists ought to be of major interest to Gower scholars as well. Pearsall's work will be compared most often to Donald Howard's (see JGN 7, no.1), which is often cited in his new biography, not always in disagreement. (John Gardner's biography is referred to only once, and dismissed as "licentiously fictional" [p.4].) Where Howard worked hard to establish connections between Chaucer's life and his writing, to the point of using Chaucer's writing as evidence of how he thought, Pearsall keeps the two sources of our knowledge about the poet distinct. He gives a careful weighing of the documentary evidence, and is generally impatient with speculations that cannot be supported by the record, while his discussion of Chaucer's major works is mostly critical in nature, and though necessarily brief, could be read profitably apart from the biographical context in which it is placed. He also creates a very different view of Chaucer's "personality" – somewhat less genial, less tolerant, even a little less wise and less sure of his own opinions than the received view of the poet, a more complex and more interesting reading of the "man," in part because it is less familiar and also therefore less predictable. As a result of his method, Pearsall ends up giving much less attention to Gower than Howard did. He cites, of course, the known facts: the grant to Gower of power of attorney in 1378, Chaucer's and Gower's mutual references in their poetry. But where Howard had a great deal to say about their attitudes and responses to one another, based mainly on the perceptible differences between their works, Pearsall is nearly silent on their personal and literary relationship, and offers no speculations on what their friendship might have meant for their respective poetic careers. He summarizes the evidence for their "quarrel," but concludes that "it may well be a fiction" (pp. 131-33); he notes the possibility that LGW and CA may have been begun in a spirit of "friendly competition" (pp. 195-96); and records the speculation that Chaucer might have borrowed his manuscript of Trivet's Anglo-Norman Cronicles from his friend (p. 242). Otherwise, his references to Gower, like those to Langland and the Gawain-poet, are generally comparative in nature, and are sometimes used to support assertions about Chaucer that cannot be documented directly. Gower's statement about his youthful composition of songs in French (MO 27340-41), for instance, is quoted in the discussion of how Chaucer's earliest writings were also probably in French (p. 64), though typically, the evidence that either composed for a Puy is labeled "not very convincing" (p, 316, n.7). And a bit more remarkably, Pearsall uses the vision in VC Book 1 as an expression of Chaucer's as well as Gower's attitudes towards rebellion, before proceeding to a discussion of the differences between the ways in which they embodied their views in their poetry (pp. 145-47). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 13.1]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Biography of Gower

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