Gower Bibliography

John Gower and John Lydgate: Forms and Norms of Rhetorical Culture.

Mitchell, J. Allan. "John Gower and John Lydgate: Forms and Norms of Rhetorical Culture." In A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350--c.1500. Ed. Brown, Peter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007, pp. 569-84. ISBN 9780631219736


In their self-appointed roles as public poets, both Gower and Lydgate meditate on ancient and medieval ideas of rhetoric, the aspect of practical politics by which the eloquent presentation of words can "improve, provoke, enable and judge the social order" (569). At the same time, when their texts depict characters using rhetorical craft, we find great ambivalence about rhetoric's benefits and hazards, its rewards and risks. Despite rhetoric's pragmatic power, it remains constrained by 'human ineptitude and powerlessness,' narrative complexity, and the contingencies of audience response" (570). Although rhetoric expects response from audience, it cannot guarantee results. Gower expresses his optimism about rhetoric through two legendary harpists: Arion (in the Confessio's Prologue) and Apollonius of Tyre (in its Book 8). They frame the CA and "embody a rhetorical ideal" that pacifies, unifies, and rules society. In this idealized past, rhetoric is a subsidiary component of ruling a kingdom. Book 7, however, complicates this picture by recategorizing rhetoric into a "verbal science that employs but is not bound to possess congruity or integrity" (573), as shown by Gower's exempla of Ulysses, Tiresias, Phebus' crow, and Laar. Here, expediency trumps morality, tales and their lessons are misaligned, and exemplary lessons within the CA contradict one another. Rather than suspecting Gower of undermining exemplary rhetoric, we should remember that rhetoric is a practical art, provoking readers "to think 'about' rather than simply 'along with' the rhetoric" (575). In these and other examples, Gower provides his readers a way to conduct the ethical work of finding "the middle weye" (Prol 13). Lydgate also presents rhetoric as an effective necessary component for civil society. As his nostalgic depictions of Cicero in "Fall of Princes" indicate, however, rhetoric frequently fails to fulfill its civic functions. Like Gower, Lydgate promotes rhetoric's practical benefits; he also emphasizes the ways a refined language can civilize a people. Despite this affirmation of aureation, Lydgate is "highly conscious of the problems and possibilities of verbal artifice" (578), an awareness displayed in such poems as 'See myche, Say Lytell, and Lerne to Soffar in Tyme,' 'Say the Best, and Never Repent,' and the 'Churl and the Bird,' which explore the complex and frequently paradoxical referentiality between surface and core meanings. [CB. Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 28.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Style, Rhetoric, and Versification
Confessio Amantis

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