Gower Bibliography

Moral Chaucer and Kindly Gower

Rosemary, Woolf. "Moral Chaucer and Kindly Gower." In J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ed. Salu, Mary and Farrell, Robert T. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979, pp. 221-245.


According to Woolf, Chaucer's apostrophe to Gower as "moral" and Coleridge's reference to the "innate kindliness" of Chaucer's nature have had a distorting effect on modern criticism. Woolf argues that it would be more appropriate if the two descriptions were inverted. While Gower writes some narratives that can be considered "moral," in general Gower is willing "to absent himself from didacticism in the Confessio" (223). At times "this suspension of moral judgment works well, liberating a fresh and illuminating sympathy for his characters; at other times it leaves the story flaccid, the controlling moral pattern of the source being disregarded" (223). To demonstrate this thesis Woolf examines a number of stories that fall under the category of lust and its five subdivisions (i.e., sexual acts against nature, incest, rape, adultery, and fornication). Gower's sympathy is particularly evident in his treatment of homosexuality and incest. Achilles, Iphis, and Canace are all characters whose innocence and lack of conscious moral responsibility are emphasized. The story of "Canace and Machaire," for instance, postpones the death of Canace's baby and subordinates it to the death of Canace herself; she is shown to be the helpless victim of her father Aeolus, whose wrath is the main focus of the exemplum. To win this kind of moral freedom from his sources, one of Gower's strategies is to attach his stories to other deadly sins than the ones they are usually applied to. Gower's tales of rape, for example, are scattered through at least four books other than Book 8 on lust. Sometimes, however, Gower's effort "to penetrate with an unscolding eye into the depths and ramifications of human weakness" (219) leads him to debase some of the key terms of his poem. In the story of "Mundus and Paulina," the sympathy created for Mundus (whose reason is said to be overcome by love) is based on a very narrow understanding of "kinde" as referring merely to sexual instincts. Here Gower follows Vincent of Beauvais, but Woolf suggests that he "would have done better not to repeat him" (229). Similarly, in the tale of the "King and the Steward's Wife," Gower creates a happy ending that shows a serious lack of sensitive moral judgment. By having the king marry the steward's wife he condones a bigamous marriage. Yet another partial failure is the tale of "Iphis and Anaxarathen," related by Ovid as a cynical story used to seduce a woman, but told by Gower as a warning against despondency in love. In Gower, the tale's "moral outlines are extraordinarily fuzzy" and the attempt "to sentimentalise the cynical, to sympathise with characters for whom the plot forbids sympathy, is a failure" (231). Whereas Gower is often uncritically kind, Chaucer is much more moral. Since Chaucer is a poet highly conscious of genres, and of the different moral codes appropriate to them, "he can suspend ordinary moral judgment simply by indicating a classical setting for his tales" (232). When Chaucer tells the story of Lucretia in the LGW he uses an allusion to Augustine to hint that the heroine's suicide is wrong. Likewise, Chaucer's story of Tereus and Progne "adopts the clever strategy of lapsing into a kind of mumbling reluctance to tell it and indeed stops short" (233). By contrast, Gower, unaware of the morally perilous nature of his material weakly completes the story. The rest of Woolf's essay (234-45) provides a close reading of The Merchant's Tale, The Franklin's Tale, and The Wife of Bath's Prologue to illustrate Chaucer's more serious treatment of love and lust. [CvD]

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

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