Gower Bibliography

Love, The Word, and Mercury: A Reading of John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Gallacher, Patrick J.. "Love, The Word, and Mercury: A Reading of John Gower's Confessio Amantis." Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975


Gallacher argues that the CA provides a sustained reflection on the importance of the Word (Logos, Verbum) and that Gower's amorous and confessional themes are thus grounded in a broader philosophical and theological context. Gallacher mines the mythographical tradition for allegorical commentary on such recurring motifs as the figure of Mercury, who represents eloquence among other things. His central thesis is that the CA moves Amans from amorous persuasion and lust to a broader cosmic charity which has its fulfillment in prayer and in union with the divine Word. While Gallacher practices a kind of exegetical criticism, he does acknowledge that Gower does not ignore human love or the necessity for human action and politics. In chapter 1, "The Rhetoric of the Word," Gallacher notes that our use of language involves a paradox: "there is a natural progress towards perfection in the use of words motivated by an awareness of the inexpressible" (2). This tension is found from Boethius to Kenneth Burke. Burke, for instance, describes how words are used most thoroughly when they come to describe the transcendent concept of God. An example would be the word "grace," which means both God's forgiveness and can stand for the grace of a literary style or a hostess. This movement from the temporal to the divine goes both ways: "an awareness of the inexpressible leads inevitably to the Word and … this process is reversible and synecdochic. That is, the redemptive power of the Word traverses the way down, descending easily into such cognate spiritual actions as confession and prayer, but assuming flesh even in the amorous conversation itself" (4). The rest of the chapter shows how Andreas Capellanus reflects on the courtly love motif of speechlessness; how Gower's MO shows that confession is about finding truth through words; how prayer brings us closer to the divine Word, even though God already knows our thoughts; and how the CA's theme of "division" suggests both that our multitude of words proves our disunity and reminds us that the one Word is the solution. Chapter 2 deals with the annunciation motif present in a number of stories in the CA. Gallacher argues that medieval writers acknowledged the potentially seductive overtones of the annunciation. The annunciation was also said to teach Christians to accept the Word as Mary did. In the story of Mundus and Paulina, the Egyptian god Anubis equates to Mercury in the Latin tradition. The result is a kind of subversion of the annunciation, as Mundus plays the roles of both Gabriel and God. Book 1 ends with the story of Peronelle. She mentions the incarnation through Mary as an example of humility (1.3275ff.). Her father also trusts her council (her word) and allows her to speak for him. Finally, it is significant that Peronelle holds the king to his "word": "Peronelle's invocation of the solemnly binding and magically efficacious power of the king's word clearly evokes the connotations of the Verbum" (40). The third major annunciation story is the tale of Nectanabus at the end of Book 6. Though this is a false annunciation, the outcome (the birth of Alexander) is positive. The third chapter describes how the CA chronicles "a rejection of amorous persuasion in favor of Christian prayer, but the journey to this goal is by no means narrowly moralistic" (44). Gallacher argues that Gower praises open and honest speech. For instance, while "Cheste" (contentiousness) is a vice, it can also be "a means of overcoming ironia, an excessive self-dispraisal" (53). In particular, prayer is the kind of free speech in which you can say what is really on your mind. Something similar is true for counsel in a lord-subject relationship, as we see in Book 7, where flattery is opposed to a stinging honesty. Chapter 3 covers a range of stories (some allegorically) before focusing on tales from Book 4 that deal with the power of prayer. Some (Pygmalion, Iphis) are rather erotic and others (Cephalus) don't seem to fit Amans's predicament, but the overall point is that prayer brings us closer to the Word. In chapter 4, Gallacher uses the example of Dante's Beatrice to argue for the importance of the lady's speech: "The Speech of God on the way down to the lover manifests itself in the speech of the lady. Since the lover perceives that she is somehow ineffable, that his love is correspondingly inexpressible, and that some kind of prayer must characterize his conversation with her, the lady’s verbal responses in turn appropriately demonstrate reversibility, the descent of God’s words to the lover" (78). The song of the Sirens is an inversion of this process, whereas women like Constance, Alcestis, and even the hag in the Tale of Florent lead their lovers away from simple desire or from detraction and to a higher truth and wisdom. Chapter 5 describes how the counsel of Genius, the confessional mode, and the amorous discourse result in a double recognition scene in Book 8. First Apollonius becomes more dependent on the will of God, both through Fortune and through the effective speech of his wife and daughter. Secondly, Amans's solipsism is "transformed, through the penitent’s verbal acknowledgment guided by the confessor's counsel, into a prayer for charity which will result in spiritual, social, economic, and political justice" (143). Stories that lead up to these final recognition scenes include Perseus and Medusa, Lycurgus, Constantine and Sylvester, and the tales on flattery in Book 7. Chapter 6 has two main sections. In the first, Gallacher describes Gower’s sense of cosmic unity. For instance, in Book 7 the relationships between the elements, the stars, fortune, free will, speech, and truth remind us of the power of the word and especially of prayer. The second section examines how autobiographical or confessional writing fits within this cosmic setting. On the one hand, the speech of praise culminates in prayer, whereas the negative response is complaint. The CA, compared to Gower’s other works, shows a softening of complaint. Gower uses the discussion of Avarice in Book 5 to show that "complaint, as a form of avarice, is unnatural. Opposed to this is an attitude of gratefulness to the generosity of nature" (152). The epilogue sums up the many faces of Mercury in the poem and in the tradition. Gallacher also returns to the importance of the “word” and ends with a reflection on formalist criticism’s interpretation of poetic words. The words of a poem create internal unity in the poem. Together they form meaning. Northrop Frye refers to the poetic word as a “connector” – each word tends to link to all the other words and to a symbolic center. In the same way all works of literature refer to a kind of symbolic center. This formalist criticism is ultimately dependent on the theology of the Word that goes back to the Middle Ages and to writers like Gower. [CvD]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)

Gower Bibliography Editors Only: edit metadata