Gower Bibliography

John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer

Fisher , John H. "John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer." New York: New York University Press, 1964

Review

Fisher's influential study reviews Gower's critical reputation (chapter 1), the Life Records (chapter 2), the chronology and historical context of his poetic works (chapter 3), his major themes (chapter 4), and his relationship with Chaucer (chapter 5). While Gower wrote complaint literature rather than satire (Chaucer's preferred mode), and has thus gone out of fashion, what we can appreciate in Gower is "his absolute integrity, his coherent grasp of the values and ideals of his day, and his fearless expression of the moral judgments growing out of these ideals" (v). Chapter 1 reviews the state of criticism, from the initial positive reception of Gower's work to the later accusation that Gower was a political opportunist. The shift began at the end of the 17th century, and since then literary taste has also preferred satire to the "generalized moralistic mode of medieval complaint" (3). Before then Gower was often seen as an older mentor figure for Chaucer, especially since Venus's words to Chaucer at the end of the CA were for a long time misread as Gower's own words. Fisher also reviews the manuscript tradition as well as important early editions (e.g., Caxton, Berthelette). For Fisher, more recent criticism is starting to correct many earlier mistakes (e.g., the association of Gower the poet with the Stittenham Gowers, or the belief that the collar on Gower's tomb showed that Thomas of Woodstock was Gower's patron). Gower did not suddenly change his allegiance, his social criticism is coherent, the idea of a quarrel with Chaucer is overblown, and Gower's influence on Chaucer is significant (35-36). Chapter 2 adds to what is known about Gower's life. Harris Nicolas had shown that Gower was related to Sir Robert Gower of Kent, rather than to the Stittenham Gowers, but Fisher believes that there may still be a different Yorkshire connection. Sir Robert Gower was in the service of David de Strabolgi, Earl of Athol. In the 1320's and early 1330's Sir Robert would have fought in Scotland. Robert Gower's wife was Margaret, daughter of Sir Philip de Moubray, and the Moubrays provide the most direct link between Robert Gower and the Langbargh Gowers of Yorkshire, who had a similar coat of arms. After David de Strabolgi died, his wife Katherine moved south to Kent to the Brabourn manor. Robert Gower must have moved too as part of her entourage. Gower the poet may have been "a precocious (or orphaned, or favorite) nephew (or cousin, or conceivably even much younger brother)" [who came along for] the advantage of a genteel education" (46). Fisher shows that Gower the poet's property transactions tie him closely to the Kent Gowers (especially Robert Gower's daughter Joan). Fisher also mentions that Gower's reputation may suffer from his participation in the "Septvauns affair," but Fisher exonerates Gower on the basis that "the other individuals involved in the sequence of events were eminently respectable" (54). Other evidence suggests that Gower was a civil servant, possibly a lawyer, before retiring to St. Mary Overeys. Gower's relationships (e.g., with Strode, Usk, Chaucer, Hoccleve) "cluster about the Inns of Court, Chancery, and Guildhall, reaching out into the Staple and the Custom House" (63). Chapter 3, on Gower's literary career, suggests that Gower started out writing amorous verses (the CB). Fisher speculates that Gower was a member of a literary organization called a "Pui" (78). With the MO, Gower moved on from youthful idealism. The MO seems to have been composed for personal edification, and it is only at the end (when Gower foresees the Peasants' Revolt) that Gower starts to see himself as a social reformer. Fisher believes that Gower had access to a scriptorium at St. Mary's, and so was able to focus on producing presentation MSS for important figures. Fisher discerns three versions of the VC, and agrees with Macaulay that when the CT was later added the two texts became "a unified commentary on the tragic course of Richard's rule from 1381 to 1400, with a prologue (the Visio), a midpoint (the Epistle), and an epilogue (the Cronica)" (114). The CA manuscripts are the hardest to categorize, and Fisher struggles to explain why so many first recension MSS were copied after Richard's deposition (116). Fisher also suggests that in the second recension Gower excised the praise of Richard at the end of the poem because Gower was unhappy about Richard's conflict with the city of London in 1392. Since Chaucer was still in the king's employ at that time Gower also removed the allusion to Chaucer to protect him. However, Fisher admits that this theory is speculative since the second recension is dated to 1391 at the latest. The chapter ends with a discussion of the minor Latin poems as well as In Praise of Peace. Chapter 4 covers Gower's major themes, and Fisher notes that the "most striking characteristic of Gower's literary production is its single-mindedness" (135). Gower often picks up where he left off, as when the VC ends with the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and the CA starts with the same image. The three major subjects that Gower invariably returns to are individual virtue, legal justice, and the administrative responsibility of the king. This threefold argument is indebted to four different areas of influence: the penitential tradition, the popular sermon, belletristic poetry, and the political doctrine of medieval civil and canon law. The last of these shows Gower's legal interests, and while Gower tends to deal in legal commonplaces, Fisher nevertheless believes that Gower had personal knowledge of the law (157). In fact, the three types of law (natural law, the law of nations, and civil law) greatly influence Gower's stories, as does the frequent narrative pattern "sin-law-love" (163). This leads Fisher to a discussion of how Gower treats the fall into sin in the MO (the allegory of Satan, Sin, and Death) and the VC (the Peasants' Revolt). The solution for sin is the common good, which must be promoted by the king, and Fisher ends the chapter by arguing (against C. S. Lewis) that the CA is primarily political in stressing these aims. Chapter 5 takes up about a third of the book, and details the possible influence Gower exerted on Chaucer. In general, "Gower was a sort of conscience to his brilliant but volatile friend, encouraging him by both precept and example to turn from visions of courtly love to social criticism" (207). For instance, in the House of Fame, the eagle is Gower, rescuing Chaucer from the sterile wasteland of courtly love. The Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde are indebted to Gower's moral philosophy: Troilus and Criseyde deals with "the eventual insufficiency of temporal human love" whereas the Knight's Tale treats "the relationship between natural passion, human law, and the ruler" (220). Fisher also argues that the CA and the Legend of Good Women "stem from the same royal command" (256). In the CA, Gower was influenced by Chaucer in realizing that he might restate his moral philosophy "in terms of Empedoclean love" (250). However, when Chaucer moved away from Gower's influence (he left for Kent from 1386-89) he started experimenting increasingly with immoral stories (the fabliaux). Gower may have been scandalized, and Chaucer then wrote the Man of Law's Tale to show that he could be more didactic than Gower himself. Nevertheless, Chaucer did give up on writing fabliaux and managed to bring together the comedy of the fabliaux with the more philosophical theme of "gentilesse" in the marriage tales. It was the marriage group that became Chaucer's true "testament of love" (301) that Gower's Venus had asked him to write. [CvD]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Biography of Gower
Influence and Later Allusion
Manuscripts and Textual Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Style, Rhetoric, and Versification
Confessio Amantis
Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum Meditantis)
Vox Clamantis
Cinkante Balades
Cronica Tripertita
In Praise of Peace
Traité pour Essampler les Amants Marietz
Minor Latin Poetry

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