Gower Bibliography

John Gower: Poetry and Propaganda in Fourteenth-Century England.

Carlson, David R. "John Gower: Poetry and Propaganda in Fourteenth-Century England." Cambridge: Brewer, 2012 ISBN 9781843843153

Review

Carlson presents his argument succinctly in the Introduction: "… to establish that poetry was written in fourteenth-century England by sponsorship of the monarchic state, in prosecution of state-official purposes, and that the … official verse-production culminated in the late writings of … John Gower" (1). The book is divided into two main sections: "Fourteenth-Century Panegyric Verse and Official Writing" and "Gower's State-Official Late Poetry." The term "propaganda" used in the title is not to be understood in its modern sense of a presentation designed to foster a state-proposed view of events or persons, likely a misrepresentation, but simply as a propagation of an official view which may or may not support it, more in the sense of classical panegyric. The reader is cautioned not to conclude that the fourteenth-century English state had anything like the unity of organization and purpose that would allow it to function in concerted support of the stated goals of monarchs and ministers in the manner we would today take for granted, even though it had centralized institutions and leaders at various levels who could enforce their conclusions. Chapter One, "Official Verse: The Sources and Problems of Evidence," begins and ends with poets associated with the defeat of Edward II's forces by the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. Edward, expecting to win a great victory, took with him the poet Robert Baston to record and extol his accomplishments. Awkwardly, Baston was taken prisoner in the rout and required to win his release by celebrating the Scottish victory. Scots poets also celebrate the victory and at least one English author, Laurence Minot, records a generation later the avenging of the defeat. The case of Baston is intended to establish a "baseline of belief current amongst the English from early in the fourteenth century: this is what poets were, or were for, in some measure or other … promiscuous tools … to be used for propaganda production on behalf of commissioning agencies within the secular state" (6). No direct evidence of such commissioning survives prior to the mid-fifteenth century but Carlson discusses possible indirect indicators in a selection of poems, poets, and patrons, concluding that the indirect evidence is inconclusive. Chapter Two, "The State Propaganda," discusses pamphlets, newsletters (i.e. letters containing contemporary news) and official documents produced and circulated to propagate the state's achievements and "used by poets as matter for transmutation into metrical propaganda" (26). Rarely do such sources survive and they typically must be inferred from their traces, in which evidence of dependence is ephemeral. Where, however, such dependence can be established, we must conclude that the product, typically official Latin verse, can be characterized as state-sponsored. Carlson illustrates how the "only contemporary example of the pamphlet literature to survive directly in evidence, more or less complete, as it originally was, and unaltered" (32), an instance by one Thomas Favent supporting the Appellants in the coup of 1387, made use of state-documents and official records. He shows as well the presence of official documents and newsletters in Robert Avesbury's "Mirabilia gesta" and official documents and pamphlets in Henry Knighton's "Chronicle." All three authors had access to and employed state-sponsored versions of events whatever use they ultimately made of their sources and whether or not they were sponsored in their writings. Chapter Three concerns itself with "Occasions of State and Propagandistic Verse in Mid-Century," investigating such poetry written upon occasions of special significance in the reign of Edward III as epitaphs upon his claim to the French throne, heroic celebrations of his naval victory at Sluys, lamentations upon the death of his eldest son, and eulogies composed at his own passing. In all instances, "one suspects but may not confirm" (67) some sort of linkage between state and poet. Two poems which do evidence poets' "dependence on official sources, and so possibly of commissioning" (68) come in for special treatment in subsequent chapters. Walter Peterborough's "Victoria belli in Hispania," about the battle of Nájera in 1367, is the subject of Carlson's Chapter Four, and Richard Maidstone's "Concordia," written in 1392 to celebrate the reconciliation of Richard II with the city of London, is discussed in Chapter Five. These two poems "set precedent for what Gower was to take on in 1400 [in the CT], making what he was to do not surprising or innovative, but perhaps only better and more effective, with the way having been prepared in advance by these near-contemporary local poets" (68). The evidence for the use of state-documents and the expectation of sponsorship is complex and resists easy summation. The reader will simply have to work through it in detail. Chapter Six, "Official Writing at the Lancastrian Advent," details official Henrician maneuverings and propaganda upon the occasion of the new king's usurpation of his cousin's throne in 1399, most especially the records of the Westminster Committee of Advisors that recommended various strategies to Bolingbroke as he schemed to attain the throne, and the so-called "Record and Process," a document purporting to be the official account of the parliamentary proceedings connected with Richard's deposition and Henry's installation that became a widely-circulated justification of events and a source book for subsequent apologists for the new king. Chapter Seven presents "English Poetry in Late Summer 1399," and suggests that there exists "some evidence to the effect that poets may have been … employed" as spokespersons "in propagating state-views of the Lancastrian advent," specifically five "contemporary local poems [one of them the CT], all sharing the same curious array of properties" (121), specifically a "shared disposition of the same deliberately veiled manner of speaking, in riddling and opaque allegories of a specialized type" (135) and "their coincident concentration on the same group of minor Ricardian place-holders" [Scrope, Bussy, Green, and Bagot] (136) whose dispositions are presented as just accession to the "clamor populi" even if the people, in Carlson's view, are but the five poets themselves. "Rather than popular effusions … the contemporary English poems on the events of July and August [1399] are, on balance, more likely to be evidence again of the Lancastrian regime's labour of public self-fashioning and disposition to manipulate the verbal record" (152). Chapter Eight, "The 'Cronica Tripertita' and its Official Source," is the keystone in Carlson's argument for the presence of Lancastrian propaganda in late fourteenth-century Anglo-Latin poetry, concluding upon a study of correspondences in overall structure as well as "particular structures of selection, arrangement, emphasis, and interpretation" between the "Record and Process" and the Cronica Tripertita that "whenever possible, as much as possible, Gower used the 1399 parliamentary record" (169), although eventually forced to other sources simply because the "Record and Process" "gives out" on him. Finally, Carlson judges, the poem "is a technically complex reassembly, built out of a difficult, disorderly prose source, supplemented from disparate other materials. For the substance of events that the poem treats, Gower can be shown to have drawn from time to time on half a dozen sources and kinds of sources: on other parts of the public records, of the parliaments of October 1399 … and of 1388 … on talk in circulation … on his own personal connections among the grand … and, finally, on his own (considerable, professional) capacity to invent, especially when bound to tell of events he could know little about, remote from his base in London …" (196). Mostly, however, employing a copy of the "Records and Process," Gower, "like Walter Peterborough or Richard Maidstone … rendered the state verse service" (196). Chapter Nine, "Gower after the Revolution," presents the evidence in state papers and his own words of Gower's acknowledgement of his status as a client of Henry, although "nothing is directly in the evidence to the effect that Gower took the payment to write just what poetry he did deliver up, or that the payment from Henry was conditioned with an express understanding to the same effect on the royal part." In brief, "Henry took the throne, Gower entered the new king's pay, and his poetic apology for his usurpation appeared, along with some other, briefer poems" (203). Moreover, "Gower's poems written after the revolution—the epigrammata as well as ‘In Praise of Peace'—served Henry, 'ad laudem serenissimi'" (209). Yet no sooner had the Lancastrian taken the throne than disturbing indicators of his own high-handed ruling style began to appear and it is probable that, "in the end, the same Gower who had made himself an official Lancastrian client-mouthpiece, Henry's poet like no other, when faced afterwards with an again altering social-political circumstance, remained still capable of speaking against the same authority's improprieties, with the 'vox clamantis in deserto'" (226). Carlson's book is an important contribution to the study of Anglo-Latin verse and Lancastrian historiography. His sensitive analysis of records and verse shows how, although we are inevitably dependent in various ways upon what they say, the records and documents are difficult to interpret because we know so little about them and their authors, who are typically in service to authority in some way albeit indistinctly and/or covertly. Gower offers the clearest instance of the relationship between poets and patrons in the fourteenth century, especially because his views of the two monarchs who occupied him most continually evolved. He moved from one extreme to another about Richard and proved critical of Henry even after going on the record in his support. Yet there is no reason to conclude that he adopted his positions for the sake of the support he received or hoped to receive. As far as anybody can tell, his positions are the result of his convictions even though at life's end he was in a favored status and receiving state subsidies. Both Richard and Henry were issue of an arrogant and willful ruling caste devoted to its own interests and authors of many questionable acts and decisions. As a devout and learned man committed to an ongoing analysis of English society, yet closely associated with and at various times both sympathetic to and critical of the two rulers about whom he writes, Gower might likely, as Carlson recognizes, have drawn the same conclusions about the pair whether his interpretations were solicited and supported or not. [Robert J. Mendl. Copyright JGN 31.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Biography of Gower
Cronica Tripertita
In Praise of Peace

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