Gower Bibliography

Composing the King, 1390-1391: Gower's Ricardian Rhetoric.

Olsson, Kurt. "Composing the King, 1390-1391: Gower's Ricardian Rhetoric." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 31 (2009), pp. 141-73. ISSN 0190-2407


Olsson adopts as fact Gower's report of a royal charge from Richard II to write the what becomes the "Confessio Amantis," and deftly employs the Westminster Chronicler's vignettes of a dangerously volatile Richard to sketch the problematic position Gower very likely felt himself to be in, given his wish to advise the king honestly (Olsson presents it as a character trait which Gower could not compromise) and yet not incur his wrath. Gower's solution, Olsson argues, is to use "analogy to elicit judgment on a presumption of kingly power, and . . . he sets correction or a readjusting of perception as his goal. But rather than press for a verdict on this or that particular action, Gower works from patterns in Richard's conduct over the course of a decade to identify and address underlying and continuing problems in the governance of the realm" (146). To do this, "Gower creates [an] issue-based rhetoric in the portion of Book VII . . . devoted to explaining five virtues or 'pointz' of an ethical Policie—Trouthe, Largesse, Justice, Pite, and Chastite—as forming the basis of sound rulership" (147). In this essay, Olsson's focus is on Gower's management of Trouthe. The issue of kingly power had occupied controversy in Richard's court in the 1380's, and had led eventually to the Appellants' Revolt, Richard's near-disposition, and a reduced scope of kingship at the end of the decade. Gower, Olsson argues, makes this his focus in the tale of "The King, Wine, Woman and Truth" (Bk VII.1783-1984) his only exemplum on Trouthe, "significantly altering this tale from its source in 3 Esdras and his own synopsis of it in the Mirour de l'Omme" (147). In Olsson's view Gower does this in order to foreground (however subtly) his central point, i.e., that the "principal obligation of kingship [is] what a king swears to do in 'trouthe' as he is crowned" he then must do (152-53). The point was a risky one to make, Olsson notes, because "inconstancia regis" was a charge leveled at Richard often as the 1380's drew to a close. "Attracted more to the symbols than to the realities of governance". . . "Richard's preoccupation with maintaining his regal dignity . . . leads to neglect, a failure to uphold his coronation oath" (154/155). To teach the king how to do better, and why, Gower transforms the figure of Cyrus in the tale-within-a-tale told by the counselor Zorobabel into a tyrant, and projects the seducing courtesan Apeme as "the figure of fikelnesse (or Fortune) that, in the larger argument, will be offset by the trouthe of Alceste, the subject of Gower's second, newly added capsule tale and the means by which his Zorobabel will effect the transition to a fourth possible answer to Darius' question" about what entity possessed the most power universally. The answer is of course "Trouthe," and this, Olsson argues, is the point Gower wishes Richard to extract from the story, after seeing himself as both Cyrus and Darius, and—realizing that he should feel ashamed for the behaviors he has allowed himself to slip into—repent and change (156-65). Olsson then turns to the revisions of the poem which steadily excise Richard, and end indeed with Gower's submission of his poem to Henry IV for oversight and "correction." Arguing that "Gower's revision of the epilogue provides no evidence or a radical change of allegiance or of sudden alarm, a reaction to any one that the king has recently done . . . Gower appears to believe that change, or a refocusing and maturation, is possible and that his own fictive re-creation of the king could have a positive effect: that is suggested by the retention of the Thames narrative in the second recension of the poem" (169).In the subsequent revision, however, Gower shifts the focus of his audience from the king—i.e., Richard, and even Henry—to the other estates, particularly "to my lordis alle" (170-71). Olsson concludes, "But though Richard is no longer featured in the work, Gower's argument retains its vitality in providing a 'new' framework to guide discussion about kingship through the remainder of the reign and beyond. Indeed, this poem's continuing relevance for Henry IV is not far to seek." (173). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society JGN 29.2]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

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