Gower Bibliography

Gower's Vulgar Tongue: Ovid, Lay Religion, and English Poetry in the "Confessio Amantis"

McCabe, T. Matthew N. "Gower's Vulgar Tongue: Ovid, Lay Religion, and English Poetry in the "Confessio Amantis"." Publications of the John Gower Society, 6 . Cambridge: Brewer, 2011 ISBN 9781843842835


Gower's choice to write in English, McCabe argues, is reflective of the poem's ambitious new moral project, to define a lay spirituality, accessible to a vernacular audience, free of clergial mediation, and focused on the immanence and accessibility of grace. McCabe's thesis touches on virtually every important issue in the recent criticism of the CA, and he can be found both drawing from and also drawing careful distinction from such scholars as Middleton, Simpson, Scanlon, Copeland, Wetherbee, and Mitchell, among several others. His argument is both wide-ranging and very closely grounded in the text, and it offers a novel view of what might be considered some of the most familiar aspects of the poem. Chapter one, on "Gower's Ovidian Voice in English," makes two main claims. First, the separate but parallel ways in which both the Prologue and the main body of the poem engage with the "Metamorphoses" helps establish the link between the larger concerns for moral and social reform of the former and the more personal amatory themes of the latter; and second (here following Wetherbee), Ovid provided an authoritative source that could be confronted directly, without mediation. In defense of the first claim, he points to the common emphasis on mutability and change (e.g. in the example of Nebuchadnezzar) and with political and psychological "division." To support its link to the "Metamorphoses," he traces the Prologue's depiction of the fallen world to the description of primal chaos with which Ovid's poem begins. He also draws an interesting link between the discontinuous argument in the Prologue and the "discontinuities and ruptures" that mark Genius' description of love. In support of his second claim, he draws a persuasive contrast between the CA and earlier medieval moralized retellings of Ovid, which substitute the glossator's authority for the poet's. Ovid speaks to us directly in the CA, McCabe asserts, and especially in the tales of metamorphosis, leaves the reader with implications that cannot be constrained even by Genius' moralization. Chapters two and three look more closely at the implications of Gower's choice to write in English. In chapter two, "English Writing and Lay Theology," McCabe detects no attempt on Gower's part to elevate the vernacular or to displace the authority of Latin. The form of the poem, he points out, preserves the hierarchy of languages, with Latin maintaining its position at the top. Gower chooses English as "an alternative medium," not only appropriate to the subject matter but also, both because of its marginal status and because of the much broader implicit audience, "likely to achieve quite different results" (89). One difference can be seen in the more reserved claims Gower makes in the opening of the CA about the reliability of the medium and the effectiveness of books, compared, for instance, to passages in VC. A more revealing difference lies in his treatment of theological subjects in the CA, which in contrast to both of Gower's earlier long poems are less abstract, less concerned with the subtleties of doctrine, and more indebted to the liturgy than to academic or clerical discourse, emphasizing "good works and due observance of traditional church practices, . . . the core of lay religious experience" (95). In chapter three, "At the Limits of Clerical Discourse," he extends the argument to embrace the other expository sections of the poem, notably Book VII and the discussion of the history of the sciences in Book IV, in both of which he finds a similar tentativeness, an awareness of their "belatedness" with regard to Latin, a similar refusal to draw upon clerical discourse, either to replace it or to claim its authority, and a similar accommodation to his vernacular audience. But far from being forced by circumstance, McCabe insists, Gower embraces his role as "burel clerk" (which he glosses as "lay," 68) and betrays his "enthusiasm for the intimate power available in the mother tongue" (101). In all three long poems, Gower appeals to the "vox populi" and he criticizes the clergy, and he "shows himself equally eager in all three poems to revitalize Christian doctrine of self and society" (116) by "finding out alternatives to clerical learning" (121). McCabe finds the key to Gower's method in the CA in the two most explicitly theological tales in Books I and II (which also provide their conclusions), "The Three Questions" and "Constantine and Sylvester." The first is marked by the inversion of weak and strong and by the exaltation of Humility, following the example of Christ, the paradox of whose incarnation (the doctrine of "kenosis") was an important theme in other fourteenth-century vernacular religious texts (121). "Constantine and Sylvester" privileges "bodies and actions" over "ideas and doctrines" (138). Together, the two tales provide a model for both the elevation of the vernacular and for the constitution of an accessible vernacular theology. Chapters four and five seek to define more precisely the nature of the poem's vernacular spirituality by examining key sections in which theological issues are not presented as explicitly. In chapter four, "Kinde Grace," McCabe returns to Ovid, particularly to the tales of metamorphosis, first as punishment, then as reward. These tales are significant first because in the very mystery of the transformations they invite a readerly response that is primarily affective and that cannot be contained by Genius' attempt to moralize, and second, because of the vagueness of agency yet the essential rightness of the outcome, they seem to display the immanence of grace in Nature, which is also to say that it is constantly present and accessible without the mediation of clergy. Love, implicated in Nature, is also shown to be linked to grace, but by way neither of allegory nor of moral prescription. "Rather, by emphasizing the provisional character of earthly love, these particular stories keep earthly love as their primary concern, but they additionally sacralize this love, thus encouraging readers to see spiritual realities that lie less beyond any textual sensus literalis than beyond earthly love itself" (190). In chapter five, "Ethics, Art, and Grace," McCabe turns to the conclusion to the poem, and he offers a reading of Amans' "beau retret" that reconciles his failure to achieve his love with the essentially optimistic theology of the rest of the poem. Amans' confession is marked in part by his effort to learn the "art" of love that will enable him to find success. The final and longest tale of the poem, "Apollonius of Tyre," is also concerned with "art," the "how to" not just of achieving love but also of ruling a kingdom; and it demonstrates how humans grow wiser through experience. The tale is also dominated by chance and unpredictability beyond the control of the best efforts of any human. The happy ending is brought about by Providence, acting, finally, in cooperation with the virtuous efforts of the characters. "On its own, art is inefficacious because good fortune does not depend finally on learning. However, in its penultimate movement through the wanderings of Apollonius, the poems affirms as a necessary coadjutor with providence a kind of learning that is reduced to the status of an improvisatory, inherently fallible art" (214-15). Such a trajectory provides a model for the final experience of Amans, whose lack of success with is lady is a reminder that failure is part of learning, and that no art can guarantee success. Amans' impotence is his final disqualification for love, and as such, it stands as a figure for all earthly love. But the ending is also a demonstration of the mysteriousness of grace, as Amans' rejection by Venus opens the way to a love that "mai noght faile" (CA VIII.2086). McCabe's conclusion emphasizes the "oblique didacticism" (227) yet strong moral commitment of Gower's "middel weie." "Gower's love ethic, like Ovid's, celebrates its evasion of textual capture, but ends not in despair but in grace" (230). McCabe's argument attributes both a greater subtlety and a greater complexity to the CA than we are accustomed to as it stakes out its own "middel weie" among recent readings of Gower's moral project. It is going to help shape our discussion of the poem for many years to come. [PN. Copyright JGN 31.2]

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

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