Gower Bibliography

"Betwene Ernest and Game": The Literary Artistry of the Confessio Amantis.

Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. ""Betwene Ernest and Game": The Literary Artistry of the Confessio Amantis." American University Studies, Series IV: English Language and Literature, 110 . New York: Peter Lang, 1990


Olsen's book is an attempt to apply modern linguistic and structuralist techniques to the study of CA in order to heighten the modern reader's appreciation for Gower's "literary artistry." Each chapter takes a different approach to the work, and Olsen makes only a modest effort to link them. In chapter 1, "Reading the Confessio Amantis: The Analogue of Dante's Vita Nuova," she uses VN in an attempt to define the genre of Gower's poem. Both works use both the vernacular and Latin, and both prose and verse; each uses a similar comic protagonist, who must be distinguished from the author; each is about love; each uses an encounter with the god of love to explore the nature of religious love; each refers in some way to the "Book of Memory," etc. In each case, the similarity helps explain what modern readers might find peculiar about Gower's poem. Chapter 2, "The Grammar of the Confessio Amantis," uses "grammar" in the Todorovian sense, but instead of examining the structure of individual tales, Olsen discusses the CA as a whole, and investigates the uses of various sorts of "juncture" (the Latin epigrams, and the change from one speaker to another) to create "narremes" in the poem, taking most of her examples from Books 7 and 8. Chapter 3, "Puns and the Language of Poetry in the Confessio Amantis," is an expanded version of an essay that originally appeared in In Geardagum 7 (1986), 17-36 (see JGN 6, no. 2). A pun links two different meanings (one of which may be suggested by only a similarity rather than an identicality of form), each of which is somehow appropriate to the context. When the juxtaposition is unexpected the result is often merely humorous, but in the more meaningful examples, the fact of linkage (which might draw attention to contrast as well as similarity) is itself significant, and the very equation of the two meanings it itself meaningful to the poem. Chapter 4, "Linguistics and Literary Structure: Metonymy and the Confessio Amantis," extends the discussion to rhyming puns, "rime équivoque," or as it is more usually called, "rime riche." Olsen considers several different types of "rime équivoque," concentrating on "Apollonius of Tyre." Where others might see merely a play on the inherent paradoxes of language or a way of creating rhetorical effect or parallelism, Olsen emphasizes a semantic equivalence between the rhyming words that alludes to thematic associations created by the narrative itself. Chapter 5, "Type-Scenes and the Structure of Narrative: The Sea Voyages in the Tale of Appolinus," is a revised version of the paper first published in the 1987 festschrift for Milman Parry (see JGN 7, no. 2). Olsen shows how Gower adopted a paradigm that descends ultimately from Anglo-Saxon oral poetry in describing the eleven separate voyages of Apollonius, and how he inverts the usual pattern in the voyages of Thaise and Taliart. In chapter 6, "'Of Storial Thyng': The Relationship of the Tales of Gower and Chaucer Reconsidered," she dismisses the biographical speculation that marks so much of the discussion of the relation between the two poets. She discusses instead how they shared the same "metalinguistic consciousness," and how the works of each provide a context for the other, using as her examples their "pliant" treatment of heroines borrowed from classical writers. Where their artistry differs, she concludes, "it is basically a matter of taste" which poet's works one prefers (p. 98). This is obviously a difficult book to summarize, and also to assess. Though any effort to update the criticism of Gower is salutary, the application of critical techniques can also be performed mechanically, sometimes at the expense of a close reading of the text. In chapter 1, for instance, not everyone will be persuaded that the long list of similarities between CA and VN constitute the definition of a "genre." Nor will everyone accept all of the conclusions that Olsen reaches, for instance that the (very different) mixture of languages and forms in VN "reminds us that we need to read the Latin commentary in the Confessio as part of the work" (p. 7; compare the essay by Derek Pearsall, below) or that the comparison to VN really solves the problems posed by Gower's Prologue and Book 7. Similarly, Olsen's identification of the "narremes" in Book 8, while leading to interesting remarks on the relation between Apollonius and Amans, also leads her to dismiss the closing prayer as a "marginal incident" (p. 22); how many readers have insisted on the basis of content that it is central instead? Her discussions of theory are not always as helpful as they might be. In chapter 4, for instance, she establishes a linkage between the "conventional" and the "metonymic" and between the "rhetorical" and the "metaphorical" that is confusing if not completely arbitrary, to this reader at least. It doesn't help that many of the examples of "rime équivoque" that she discusses as "metonymic" are meaningful only because they reinforce a metaphorical sense of one of the words involved. Some of her insights (e.g. her observation that the virtues in Book 7 derive more from a courtly than from a theological tradition, pp. 28-31), are not dependent upon the method she is following, and others, such as her comparison of the denunciation of Venus and the problems posed by VN, chapter 25 (p. 10), are submerged among a mass of much less interesting observations. Whatever its limitations, there is much that is worth considering in this volume. It is also worth pointing out that this is the first book-length critical study of Gower by a single author to appear since 1978, and only the fourth such study devoted to the Confessio Amantis alone, ever. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 9.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Language and Word Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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