Gower Bibliography

Heavenly Sign and Comic Design in Gower's Confessio Amantis

Hiscoe, David W.. "Heavenly Sign and Comic Design in Gower's Confessio Amantis." In Sign, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Literature. Ed. Wasserman, Julian N. and Roney, Lois. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989, pp. 228-44.


In his earlier essay in PQ, 64 (1985), 367-85, Hiscoe argued that Genius' storytelling in CA was actually an inducement to sin in the guise of moral preaching, in an elaborate display of rhetorical trickery modeled on Ovid, and that the reader's role was to signal his or her own superior moral sense through laughter. He makes a similar case in the present essay, but couches it in terms of a medieval theory of "signs." "The comic strategy of Confessio Amantis," he writes, "is built on the medieval assumption that the process of assigning meaning mirrors the spiritual condition of the humans who engage in the process" (p. 229). Citing Augustine and Ockham, he describes how, as a consequence of the fall, "words themselves remain empty of any significant content unless transformed by a speaker's awareness of how verbal signs gain ultimate authority solely from their capacity to call up Christian truths to their speakers and to their audiences" (p. 230). The same demand is placed upon secular literature; and the readers have the same role in constructing the meaning from their own experience with the power of language to refer to spiritual truths. In the Confessio Amantis, Genius is a spokesman for fallen mankind who cannot see the spiritual content of his own discourse, and he repeatedly either befuddles or distorts the meanings that the readers, from their position of superior understanding, are able to supply. In his earlier essay Hiscoe used "Ceix and Alceone" (CA 4.2927-3123) as his primary example, and drew upon Ovide Moralise as a guide to the moral that Genius misunderstands. In this essay he uses "Adrian and Bardus" ((5.4937-5162) to show how Gower handles tales without background in the mythographical tradition. Such tales are given "evocative details" that "urge readers to expect heavy spiritual weight; instead they are entertained with the spectacle of a storyteller comically unable to understand or control the inherent significances of the tales he himself chooses to tell" (pp. 232-33). "Adrian and Bardus," in Genius' telling, is laden with language that alludes to Christian redemption, but Genius fails to pursue any of the spiritual implications that are offered. Adrian is another, more literal, representative of mankind after the fall; Bardus comes in the role of savior; but neither fulfills his role according to expectation as the "fictional details spin madly toward no apparent end" and "Genius' story confounds itself at all possible planes of interpretation" (p. 238). In applying the tale to Amans' situation, finally, both Genius and Amans overlook the fact that his cupidinous love is a symptom of the attachment to worldly things that the tale should warn against, and in his defense of his fidelity, Amans quickly becomes tangled in the same sorts of equivocation that mark Genius' tale. One may subscribe to all of the theory in this essay without accepting any of what Hiscoe deduces in applying it to the reading of CA. In drawing us outside the text, Hiscoe may have paid too little attention to it: as only one instance, Bardus does not come "riding into the scene on an ass" (p. 236), but "walkende with his asse" (CA 5.4957); it makes a difference if one insists that we are supposed to make an identification with Christ. Like most "ironic" readings of the poem, moreover, Hiscoe gives us only two choices: either the poem is a dry moral treatise, a "compulsively scholastic gathering of ethical lore" (p. 228), or it is a "tour de force of comic skill and audience engagement" (same page). Most recent criticism has been concerned with carving out a large middle ground in which, for instance, Amans' love might not be purely cupidinous, and his fidelity to his lady might in some lights be held to be commendable. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 8.2]

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

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