Gower Bibliography

The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II

Middleton, Anne. "The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II." Speculum 53 (1978), pp. 94-114.

Review

Middleton undertakes to describe the essential spirit of Ricardian Poetry. By means of a survey that includes Chaucer, Langland, Gower, Thomas Usk, and the Lollard Knights, Middleton suggests that the essential feature of this late-fourteenth century literature is its aim "to be a 'common voice' to serve the 'common good'" (95). This public poetry is not topical in nature, but is rather defined by "a constant relation of speaker to audience within an ideally conceived worldly community, a relation which has become the poetic subject" (95). This is a secular poetry, and "its central pieties are worldly felicity and peaceful, harmonious communal existence" (95). It "speaks for bourgeois moderation, a course between the rigorous absolutes of religious rule on the one hand, and, on the other, the rhetorical hyperboles and emotional vanities of the courtly style" (95). As a result, even the topic of love has a clearly public dimension. Thomas Usk, in his Testament of Love presents himself as "a vernacular philosopher of love," but his more immediate concern is with the trials of his public career. Gower's Testament of Love, the CA, is likewise written out of the understanding that love is above all "a communal and historical bond" (97) rather than a transcendental force or a merely erotic drive. The notion of public poetry also reveals the similarities between Gower and Langland. Both are "essentially 'one-poem' writers" (98) who revised their work to keep it socially current. In addition, their poetry addresses the entire community rather than a coterie or patron. Even when Gower writes to Richard II, the king "is not the main imagined audience, but an occasion for gathering and formulating what is on the common mind" (107). This understanding of audience may also have occasioned Gower's cancellation of his reference to Chaucer in the CA, for such a reference, while accessible to a coterie audience, would not suit the "commune" at large. The attempt to speak for all citizens, also evident in Gower's "In Praise of Peace," brings with it a unique style. Middleton calls it a "plain style" that is "socially and psychologically well suited to the presentation of lay morality and large experiential truths" (98). For instance, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales represents an attempt to let each pilgrim present his own experience of the world in his own speech, and so the narratorial "I" stretches itself "to the point of transparency" by occupying "the whole field of moral vision" (99). Another word that describes this plain style is "common," whether in its adjectival form (for instance, in the Ciceronian "common profit," or res publica) or as a noun (either to denote the commonwealth as a whole, or specifically the third estate, the commons). All of these forms demonstrate "its uniformly non-abstract, non-speculative cast" (101) as well as the fact that the word is hardly ever used in a pejorative sense. The style of public poetry is well suited to a vision of poetry as "a mediating activity" (101). Ricardian poets invariably seek out a "middle style" (101), between "ernest and game," and "sumwhat of lust, sumwhat of lore" (qtd on 101-02). For Gower this medial course implies "a perspective less exclusively detached and cosmic, more implicated in, and circumscribed by, the mortal world" (102). This perspective is evident in the character of Gower-as-Amans, which Middleton calls "an implicated speaking presence" (102). Moreover, the whole enterprise of telling old exempla presents "a 'middle weie' between past and future, between truth and our need for it" (102). In the Latin colophon to the CA this middle way is associated with a notion of labour, for Gower locates his enterprise "between work and leisure" ("inter labores et ocia"; qtd on 101). The view that poetic composition for the instruction of others is a fully legitimate way of doing one's share of the world's work lends surprising dignity to the otherwise fairly modest claims of poetry. Gower claims to speak for the "common vois" and what this voice seeks is above all peace and social harmony. This explains why Gower writes "In Praise of Peace," as well as why Amans opposes Genius' argument that war confers glory which wins love. In relation to Amans, Middleton suggests that we should not dismiss the figure of the persona (Chaucer-the-Pilgrim, Gower-the-lover, Will-the-truthseeker) as merely a fictive character and therefore dramatically circumscribed. Even though the persona might not precisely represent the opinions of the author, we should nevertheless take him "seriously" (108), for the suggestion he offers is that in this life we will never transcend worldly experience. As such, the persona represents a heroic effort to achieve a common vantage point, an effort that is finally not treated satirically (incidentally, here and in the Appendix Middleton interacts with John Peter's work on satire and complaint). Indeed, this reality of living experientially is demonstrated by the fact that the figures of instruction (Genius as well as Will's teachers) are "a remarkably inept lot and not especially well disposed to help the seeker" (110). The limits to knowledge and perfection in the here and now are also evident in the lack of poetic closure in Piers Plowman and the CA, for these works do not end "in world-transcendence, but in some form of return to the world" (111). In her own form of closure, Middleton leaves it for others to speculate as to the historical causes for the public poetry that flourished in Ricardian England. [CvD]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
In Praise of Peace
Style, Rhetoric, and Versification
Confessio Amantis

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