Gower Bibliography

False Fables and Exemplary Truth in Later Middle English Literature.

Allen, Elizabeth. "False Fables and Exemplary Truth in Later Middle English Literature." New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 ISBN 978-1403967978

Review

"When texts make exemplary claims," Allen writes (p. 2), "they express an aspiration toward exact alignment among authorial purpose, narrative form, and audience response." Allen investigates the many possible disruptions of that alignment and the ways in which medieval authors such as Gower and Chaucer, through their consciousness of those disruptions, explore both the nature of fiction and the limits of exemplarity. Allen sets out the "contradictory strains" of what she calls the "exemplary mode" (declining to see it limited to a single genre) in her introduction, "Towards a Poetic of Exemplarity." Exemplary texts offer to teach a general moral truth based upon a particular event. They often attempt to control the interpretation of the event and its application through extra-narrative comment and through the comments of an "inscribed audience" made up of both the participants and spectators. But especially in the late medieval period, there is an increasing awareness of the historical contingency of all interpretation and therefore also of the role of the reading audience in creating meaning. There is also increasing awareness of the mediating effects of narration itself and of the paradox created by allowing affective response to shape if not to determine moral meaning. Concern over the inability to control the reader's response leads in some quarters to a Plato-like distrust of all representation. For others, of a more Aristotelian bent, the participation in the evaluation and the application of the particulars of a narrative – the very necessity of interpretation – implies that reading itself is a moral act and that "the very experience of exemplary discourse is itself a form of moral activity" (16). Consciousness of the problematic nature of the reader's role is reflected, in poems such as Chaucer's and Gower's, by the inclusion of a responding audience, whose interpretations are not just dependent upon their own circumstances but are also limited in comparison to those that the actual reading audience is invited to imagine; and consciousness of the role of formal structures in shaping moral meaning is reflected in the large number of Middle English exemplary texts that are "disjunctive, interrogative, ambiguous, or indeterminate. . . . Through aesthetic rather than simply directive methods, exemplary literature registers plural and unpredictable audiences. The literature itself raises questions of how its own contingent forms might constitute moral education and bring about social good" (23). Allen thus seeks to draw our attention back to "the profound medieval concern with the moral consequences of reading" (25). "Medieval exemplary literature," she writes (26), "does not simply demand obedience but inquires into its own social benefit, examines its own poetic indeterminacy, and argues for its audiences' moral freedom" (26). Gower provides the second of her major examples (pp. 53-82). She has less to say than one might expect from her introduction about the dialogue frame of the poem and about Amans' role as recipient of Genius' lessons. She does comment that, "Framed by the discussion of love between Amans and Genius, Venus's priest, the Confessio's examples are embedded in a courtly context that mediates their exemplary application to the public world invoked in the book's Prologue" (66-67). She thus implicitly defines the agenda of the poem as political, and more specifically as an attempt to mediate between private and public in a search for the meaning of the "common good." Gower conducts this search rhetorically, by way of copiousness, with all that that implies about the significance of each particular example and of the role of the reader in applying them to the general lesson: "The contingencies of various, and changing, political circumstances call into question the clarity of exemplary alignments among author, tale, and moral; kingship as constructed through exemplary discourse emerges as a continual, effortful process of imagining general unity. If examples make the singular common, they also indicate the degree to which, for Gower as for his classical predecessors, political virtue must be constantly reformulated rhetorically, in the re-presentation and reinterpretation of new exemplary instances" (67). In her discussion of this process, Allen naturally focuses on Book 7. She takes a fresh look at Gower's own discussion of rhetoric in 7.1507-1640, linking "plainness" to the illusion of a single, stable moral or political truth, "uninterrupted by figurative uses of language" (68), and Caesar's use of "colored" language, in his plea for mercy, with the "copious" procedure of CA itself, deriving a concept of political virtue from the multitude of contingent circumstances in which it must be exercised. In excluding the possibility of pity, "plainness," the rigid adherence to the law, is finally to be associated with tyranny, and proper governance is dependent not just upon eloquence and copiousness but upon fiction-making itself. Allen relies upon two principal examples for her argument, the tales of Lucrece and Virginia, and her rereading of the latter in comparison to its ultimate source in Livy provides some of the best evidence for her claims both about the design of CA and about the late medieval understanding of exempla. Genius describes the tale as a "wonder thing" (7.5134), moving it from the realm of history to that of fiction. He also dismisses each of the devices that Livy relies upon to defend Virginius' killing of his daughter as a defense of the Republic that Appius defiles. Instead, he describes Virginia's death as the result of an act of murderous rage, and "where Livy emphasizes the opposition between Virginius and Appius, Gower emphasizes their similarity. . . . Gower's Virginius, like Appius, acts according to an ungoverned will that overcomes his imaginative capacity for mercy toward his daughter" (77). Each is also guilty of a "literalizing interpretation of political fiction" (80), Appius of the analogy between ruler and ruled, Virginius of the analogy between the ordinary man and a king, and it is the latter that produces the more horrifying result as the father slays his daughter. "By shifting the tale away from the public realm in the direction of the familial, then, Gower calls attention to the unsteadiness of the relations between public and domestic tyrannies, and between public benefit and private desire. These relations emerge as necessarily metaphorical: it is the failure of both Appius and Virginius to recognize the metaphorical status of political fictions that generates their respective acts of cruelty. For Gower, the gap between individual desire and public policy must be mediated by the tools of fiction. Kingship, then, emerges as a process of reading political fictions, not only the theoretical fictions of the body politic, and the common profit, but also the narrative fictions of his own mirror for princes" (80). An earlier chapter treats The Book of the Knight of the Tower, arguing that the author's use of narrative implies a role for the reader in creating interpretation that is at odds with his desire to control his readers' education. Later chapters treat Chaucer's and Lydgate's versions of the tale of Virginia, the former destabilizing Virginia's exemplary value even more disturbingly than Gower, the latter responding to both of his predecessors in his own effort to "institute poetic order" (101); the "Interlude" attached to the post-Chaucerian "Tale of Beryn" as a response to "The Pardoner's Tale"; and Henryson's Testament of Cresseid as a response to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 26.1]

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

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