Gower Bibliography

Gower's Quarrel with Chaucer, and the Origins of Bourgeois Didacticism in Fourteenth-Century London Poetry

Galloway, Andrew. "Gower's Quarrel with Chaucer, and the Origins of Bourgeois Didacticism in Fourteenth-Century London Poetry." In Calliope's Classroom: Studies in Didactic Poetry from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Ed. Harder, Annette and MacDonald, Alasdair A and Reinink, Gerrit J. Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007 ISBN 904291808X


Galloway here positions the CA as significantly more important for what it "yields…to political and social theory than [what] it does either to clerical didacticism or love poetry" (p. 246). In a direct challenge to contemporary views, he reads the long-discredited "quarrel" between Gower and Chaucer as legitimate, but only if properly understood as reflective of a debate within a self-consciously mercantilized polity, not about issues of amour courtois and/or moral stricture, but rather about the nature and limits of power between what he argues is Gower's Lockian optimism and Chaucer's Hobbesian pessimism with regard to self-interest both public and private. It is a debate that reveals itself in Chaucer's failure to complete the "Legend of Good Women," which Galloway claims was abandoned not because Chaucer "became bored with its repetitive form and moralising requirements" (p. 259) but rather because he found the "task of showing an ideal union of political and moral absolutism" quite "impossible" (p. 259). "The unfinished Legend of Good Women, with its chillingly 'realist' view of atomized absolutist self-interest, and its demands for an encompassing absolutism that would merge moral authority with secular power," Galloway asserts, "was a major instigation for Gower to write the Confessio Amantis—at least as important as any commission by King Richard II" (p. 259); indeed, for Galloway, "the entire Confessio is a long and pre-emptive answer to the absolutist social didacticism of the "Legend of Good Women," one showing how governance of self-sufficient entities and self-interested society should be imagined in another way" (p. 260). Like Locke (whom Galloway likens to Gower among other ways by taking "Two Treatises on Government" to be an answer to Hobbes' "Leviathan," which he compares to Chaucer's LGW), Gower for Galloway is a kind of "constitutionalist" (p. 256), who continually creates narratives supporting the potential of "a consensual urban community to establish a principle of justice and freedom to pursue secular self-interest" (p. 262). Chaucer's trajectory after turning his back on the incomplete LGW is to the Canterbury Tales, which Galloway assesses from the perspective of the Manciple in the work's final tale as expressing its author's ultimately "bitter disenchantment about the possibilities of any governance over self-interest" (p. 264). This is a vision so dark as to move outside either a Lockian or a Hobbesian position, one that "anticipates later and more sweeping critiques of 'bourgeois philosophy'" such as those offered by Horkheimer and Adorno (p. 265), and Galloway contrasts it staunchly with "Gower's overarching optimism…that, with enough self-sacrifice (by himself or others) he and his poetry might offer [a] socially harmonising" alternative to "the Manciple's black concluding pessimism for any harmonious framework, poetic or social, containing a world of absolutism inherent in natural existence" (p. 266). In the end, while Galloway deems Chaucer the more "penetrating" ironist and—in a carefully turned phrase significantly pointed by his italics—"less 'intellectually' absolutist," he concludes that it is "Gower's Lockian genius, with his distinctive literary brilliance in conveying it [that] deserves far fuller credit than it has received" (p. 266). [RFY. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 27.2]

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

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