Gower Bibliography

Chaucer and the Universe of Learning

Astell, Ann W. "Chaucer and the Universe of Learning." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996

Review

Astell views the "Canterbury Tales" within the tradition of the medieval compilation, not just sharing formal qualities with Dante's "Commedia" and Gower's CA but engaging in direct dialogue with them on issues of common concern. She discerns two patterns underlying the structure of CT: the soul's journey through the seven celestial spheres, as described by Macrobius, beginning with the Saturnine KnT and reaching the lowest point in the sublunary realm of Fragment VI; and the commonplace tripartite division of knowledge into the theoretical, the verbal or rhetorical, and the practical. The latter, of course, is also found as the ordering principle of Book 7 of CA, no mere coincidence in Astell's view, as Chaucer borrows from, and argues with, the philosophical scheme of his contemporary. The three divisions of philosophy occur in CT in a chiastic pattern: "Theorique" is represented in fragments I-II and IX, "Rhetorique" in fragments III-IV-V and VII; and "Practic" in fragments VI and X. Astell relies heavily on the ordering of tales in the Ellesmere MS, and also on the formal apparatus of this copy, with its learned apparatus (which she compares to Gower's incorporation of Latin marginalia in CA), suggesting the poem's clerkly origin and its adherence to the conventions of the compilatio. Though she refers frequently to Gower's works (particularly to Book 7 of CA), this is much more a book about Chaucer than it is about Gower. For her discussion of Gower she relies heavily on our standard authorities: Fisher, Coleman, and Strohm on Chaucer's and Gower's common audience; Minnis and Manzalaoui on Gower as a compiler of received knowledge; and Porter, Yeager, and Simpson on the centrality of Book 7 of CA, on its relation to the Prologue, and on Gower's emphasis on ethics and politics. Her conclusions on the relations among Chaucer, Gower, and Dante tend not to be too surprising: Chaucer tends to be "focused on the present rather than on the ancient past [as Gower is] or on the paradisaical afterlife [as is Dante]" (p. 84); Chaucer is more sceptical and more questioning of closed systems of knowledge than Dante is; and where Gower focuses rather narrowly on ethics and politics and the fashioning of a philosopher-king, Chaucer's view is broader, encompassing moral theology too, and directed to the fashioning of a humble Christian penitent. Astell's book finds its place in Gower criticism as the most complete attempt to date to link Gower to Chaucer in such a way as to suggest his importance to his more famous contemporary. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 16.2]

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

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