Gower Bibliography

Gower’s Narrative Art

Pearsall, Derek. "Gower’s Narrative Art." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 81 (1966), pp. 475-484.

Review

In relation to criticism that views Gower as primarily a stern moralist and political commentator, Pearsall writes: "The current reappraisal of Gower is doing loyal service to Gower the man, but may be doing less service to Gower the English poet" (475). In describing Gower's narrative art, Pearsall focuses on the frame narrative and exempla of the CA, the excellence of Gower's verse having been observed sufficiently by C. S. Lewis. Pearsall views the CA Prologue as a recapitulation of the themes from the MO and the VC and as a transition to the subject of love, "which is, for all its blind instinctual nature, a unitive and not a divisive principle and in which therefore the reconciliation of division may be found" (476). Indeed, "Gower, despite the fiction of the lover's confession, is not providing instruction in the art of love, but using love as the bait for instruction in the art of living" (476). Part of Gower's artistic achievement lies in his humorous and sympathetic depiction of Amans. In Pearsall's assessment, the dramatic frame in which Amans plays an important part is less organic than that of Chaucer's CT, but less flawed than that of the LGW. The only count against the frame of the CA is the presence of some long digressive passages like the discourse on false and true religion and Book 7's excursion into politics, although Pearsall is ready to admit that these sections have "external validity" (477n8). As for Gower's stories, they depend on "the initial response of imaginative sympathy to the human condition" (478). Thus, Pearsall uses the story of "Constantine and Sylvester" to show how Gower's special achievement is to embody, in Constantine's soliloquy and in the description of his thoughts and feelings, the very substance (and not just the abstract truth) of human charity and pity. Gower's constant promotion of "humane Christian values" (478) is especially visible in his adaptation of Ovidian narratives, such as the tale of "Tereus, Procne, and Philomela." Gower mutes the horrors of Ovid's version in the interest of preserving "a plausible pattern of human behavior which will be susceptible of humane moral interpretation" (478). Gower treats Procne and Philomela with sympathy and develops their metarmorphoses "with great charm and tenderness" (479). The same is true for the transformation in the tale of "Ceix and Alceone," although in the story of "Pyramus and Thisbe" Gower omits the metamorphosis, likely because he could not stomach "the image of Pyramus' blood spouting high to stain the mulberry" (480). In every story, then, Gower aims to describe a meaningful pattern of human action. He develops Thisbe's speech over Pyramus' body where she questions justice and divine providence. His Iphis takes time to explain his decision to commit suicide and Gower turns Ovid's emotionless Araxarathen into a woman who is stricken with remorse and behaves "like a lady" (481). Similarly, the story of "Canace and Machaire" produces "a sober and compassionate meditation" (481) on love and law. Gower skillfully postpones the exposure of Canace's child, so that she can have the baby with her as she writes her final letter. In fact, it is "women who draw forth Gower's largest humanity, and his most deeply effective expressions of that humanity" (481). The story of Lucrece, for example, is "perhaps his most perfect realization of womanliness" (481), and the tale of "Jason and Medea" explores Medea's love with great pathos. Gower's "success with these classical stories is due in part to his ruthlessness. He has no respect for antiquity nor for the rich resonance of its allusiveness, and no hesitation at all in re-embodying its narratives in the social and moral contexts he understands" (482-83). Only a few stories – such as those of "Orestes" and "Deianira" – refuse this recontextualization and sometimes Gower's moral betrays his own best understanding of the meaning of a particular narrative. Pearsall concludes his argument with some comparisons with Chaucer's CT that demonstrate that "Gower, by any but these, the very highest standards, is an uncommonly fine narrative poet" (484). [CvD]

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

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