Gower Bibliography

Chaucer's Language and the Philosophers' Tradition

Burnley, J. D. "Chaucer's Language and the Philosophers' Tradition." Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979

Review

Burnley's book argues that for authors like Gower and Chaucer, "culture, whether courtly or scholastic, was international and multi-lingual; the linguistic boundaries which trouble modern critics did not constrain their consciousness, and the connotations and associations of the words they used extended into the literary traditions of French and Latin" (8). Gower's trilingual poetry, for example, shows that for Gower language was largely a question of stylistic register. In addition, Chaucer and Gower's audience must have been composed of educated men like civil servants and lawyers who would have had the linguistic competence to appreciate the rich philosophical and ethical complexity of their thought and language. After Burnley's introduction, Gower appears sporadically throughout the book, most prominently in chapters 1 ("The Tyrant") and 4 ("The Philosopher"). In the former, Burnley describes Gower's political convictions and his method of contrasting the "rex tyrannus" with the exemplary king. Burnley defends Gower against allegations of sycophancy and argues that Gower tended to dissolve real historical kings into exemplary figures in line with (for Gower) salient historical and rhetorical patterns. While Richard II was young, Gower saw himself as Aristotle advising Alexander, but he gradually came to envision himself more as Seneca restraining the madness of Nero. Burnley then describes how the Senecan tradition throughout the Middle Ages viewed tyranny as primarily a psychological problem, and thus signified by the presence of cruelty and anger and by the lack of reason and pity. In chapter 4, "The Philosopher," Burnley comes back to Gower, this time focusing on two tales that teach patience and stoicism, the tale of "The Patience of Socrates" and the tale of "Diogenes and Alexander." Burnley suggests that in the latter, "the names of the participants are inconsequential" (71), because Gower's main point is to create a conceptual opposition between the philosopher and the tyrant, and between reason and the will. Aside from these extended discussions of Gower's work, Burnley makes a number of other brief references to Gower. He mentions, for instance, that Gower views politics as well as the virtue of prudence as aspects of practical philosophy (45, 54-55); that Gower's term "Folhaste," used in relation to the stories of "Jupiter, Juno, and Tiresias" and "Pyramus and Thisbe," is a rare word in Middle English (47-48); that Gower frequently conflates pity and mercy and describes Christ's incarnation as an example of God's pity that extends beyond justice (139, 143); that Gower's story of the "Donation of Constantine" tackles the issue of the virtuous pagan; and that Gower understands "gentillesse" as a virtue consonant with courtesy and reasonable living (152). [CvD]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Vox Clamantis
Confessio Amantis
Cronica Tripertita

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