Gower Bibliography

Past and Present: Gower's use of Old Books in Vox Clamantis

Urban, Malte. "Past and Present: Gower's use of Old Books in Vox Clamantis." In John Gower: Manuscripts, Readers, Contexts. Ed. Urban, Malte. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2009, pp. 175-94.


Urban focuses on the Vox Clamantis, and "offers a reading of old books, the past, and the present in the Vox as informed by a cultural agenda that sees the present as corrupted in the sense that it still carries at least traces of the qualities of the past, but seems to have lost all cultural memory of those traces. In my view, Gower is offering a thorough indictment of his contemporaries, but one that holds up the image of the past as a model for a return to social harmony Gower sees jeopardized by the events of the Rising of 1381" (176). Urban builds his argument around two images: that of Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the statue, from the Book of Daniel, and Walter Benjamin's view of cultural history in terms of the ‘monad' which results from a "shock" that "crystallizes" . . . "thinking suddenly stop[ped]in a constellation pregnant with tensions" as epitomized in Paul Klee's painting "Angelus Novus," once owned by Benjamin (177-78). For Urban, the VC is a "deeply apocalyptic" and represents "Gower's meditation on the meaning of history and his literary account of what he regards as significant in the history of England in the 1370s and 1380s" (180). Like the statue, society for Gower is crumbling about him; like the angel in Klee's painting, his attempt is to change directions through the gathering of bits and shards--which translates to wisdom from ‘old books' in Urban's hands. The two come together as Gower attempts "to reassert the authority of writing and with it the traditional social order" (186). This did not occur, of course, and "in the last instance . . . Gower is aware of the relative futility of his project as he formulates it in the early version of the Vox, where he can only point out the general flaws in his society, but cannot indict specific social agents" (194). Ultimately Urban sees an kind of irony in Gower's achievement: "The rebels' questioning of the social system by force is mirrored in Gower's poetic questioning of society and its almost aggressive highlighting of corruption. In this sense, Gower and his old books are implicated in both the rebels' and the Vox's criticism (and vice-versa)"(194). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 30.1]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Vox Clamantis

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