Gower Bibliography

Confronting Venus: Classical Pagans and Their Christian Readers in John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Shutters, Lynn. "Confronting Venus: Classical Pagans and Their Christian Readers in John Gower's Confessio Amantis." Chaucer Review 48 (2013), pp. 38-65. ISSN 0009-2002

Review

The entire CA, Shutters argues, offers "a complex set of meditations on how medieval Christian authors and readers might interpret the classical pagan past," for "Gower does not merely make use of classical source materials in the 'Confessio' but also ponders the limits of their usability" (39). "Whether or not the classical past is ethically usable to a Christian reader," she goes on to say, "requires historical reflection, as the reader must contemplate in what ways pagan antiquity is continuous with or discontinuous with late medieval cultural values" (42). Gower first raises the issue in his two different readings of Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the CA Prologue, but he leaves open the question of whether the reader ought to embrace the classical past or reject it. He makes the choice that the reader must make more explicit by offering "two discrete versions of the classical past" (48) in the stories he draws from the history of Rome and the history of Troy. Echoing Wetherbee, Shutters notes that for Gower, "Rome embodies concepts of social and political cohesion, and Roman leaders sacrifice personal interests for the common good," while Troy (quoting Wetherbee now) is "a world of individuals unified only by the preoccupations and besetting whims of knighthood" (48). Rome offers models of virtuous conduct, in love and elsewhere, or of the rejection of vice, while the Trojan figures in the poem are motivated only by their own erotic desires. "Rome and Troy are [also] markers of different relationships between the classical past and Gower's medieval present. Just as Rome represents cultural cohesion, it also represents historical cohesion. That is, Rome represents a version of the past that can be situated within its historical setting and then made continuous with the present. Troy, through its focus on individual, erotic pursuits, represents a decontextualized mode of relating to the past. The many Troy stories centering on erotic love in the 'Confessio' can achieve their attractiveness only when decontextualized from the larger history of the destruction of Troy. Once placed in their proper historical settings, these stories lead to Troy's downfall . . . . Thus, while Gower's Rome is located within history, his Troy is ahistorical in the sense that it its cut off from future events" (48-49). The most important of the "Trojan" figures in the poem is Venus (who is described in Book 5 as the object of worship of the Greeks but not of the Romans), "since erotic love is frequently the motivation for the chivalric adventures that Gower contrasts against the social institutions of Rome" (51), particularly, of course, in the tale of Paris and Helen. "Taken together, Venus and Troy operate as synecdoches for a classical past associated with erotic, individualistic pursuits that, when appropriately contextualized in their own time, result in tragedy and, when situated in Christian historiography, amount to a benighted, superseded era. Thus the 'Confessio' suggests that to avoid this seductive but ultimately sinful and destructive version of classical antiquity, the good reader must avoid extracting only those moments he or she likes from the wide tapestry of pagan legend and instead locate those moments within the 'longue durée' of both ecclesiastical and secular histories" (52). Yet Gower himself has failed to view the 'longue durée,' as he must have been aware, for instance in his refusal to acknowledge the direct historical link between Troy and Rome. "By using Rome and Troy to contain different versions of the classical past, Gower presents himself as a highly sophisticated reader and arranger of classical antiquity who nonetheless runs up against limits to the control he can impose on classical materials on account of the 'prior meanings' that they convey. . . . Thus Gower writes himself into something of a quandary, which results from his own interpretive practices" (53). He creates two different ways to extract himself from this quandary in the poem's two conclusions. In the first, Venus rejects the narrator Gower, the opposite of what one might expect if the focus were on ethical behavior alone. In contrast to earlier readings, Shutters argues that "the Venus who appears at the end of the 'Confessio' is not successfully incorporated by Christian interpretive strategies, but rather appears as a pagan love-goddess who evades and forecloses such strategies" (55). She is a constitutent of "a fantasy of a pagan past not under the Christian author's control and, as a result, it is a fantasy that complicates the relationship between ethics and history in the poem" (56). Her prompting of the narrator to reveal his actual name, "John Gower," "reverses the pattern established throughout the poem whereby the pleasures of Venus are associated with historical shortsightedness. In Book 8, Venus contextualizes 'Gower' within his own life history and reveals the folly of his pursuit of love." Though this encounter, "Gower draws attention to the relationship between Christian author and classical source materials, and by giving Venus the upper hand, Gower signals a shift in the dynamics that have governed this relationship throughout much of the poem. Venus's contextualizing of Amans as the aged 'Gower' applies not just to the author, however, but to the poem's audience as well. Due to the deep-seated homology between individual, human age and historical time, 'Gower' the old man is also 'Gower' the representative of the Christian era, that is, representative of the final era through which historical time would pass" (56). This "Gower" betrays a reluctance to leave Venus behind, and it is Venus herself who must instruct him "because he is advanced in age, in more than one sense of the term, residing in a pagan love court would be, for him, inappropriate" (58). Here "virtuous behavior is transformed from an ideology to an identity, and . . . this identity becomes a Christian identity cut off from the pagan past" (58). Venus's rejection of the narrator offers one "solution to the obstacles to ethical reading that the classical past raises in the Confessio" and can be seen as a "critique of [Gower's] own method" (61), but it is not the final word, since Gower himself, in offering the poem to his readers, does not leave the world of pagan antiquity behind. In the second conclusion, constituted by the closing lines, "Gower abandons identity-based difference, in which different perspectives and locations in history justify different codes of ethics between pagans and Christians, in favor of ideological difference: Christian love is right, erotic love is wrong, and one must choose between them" (62). "Throughout the Confessio," Shutters writes in conclusion, "Gower rehearses fantasies of continuity and inclusion that link Christians and pagans, but he also rehearses fantasies of leave-taking and rupture, as we see at the end of the poem. Venus's expulsion of Gower rehearses the fantasy that a classical source might inform the Christian author when he needs to extract himself from pagan antiquity, while Gower's choice to leave love behind rehearses the fantasy that the author can cut himself off from non-Christian pursuits. Disengaging from the classical past might seem like an easy solution to the problems that pagan antiquity posed to medieval authors, yet the ending of the Confessio suggests that figuring out how and why medieval Christians did not relate to pagan antiquity was as complex as figuring out how and why they did. In both endeavors, questions regarding ethics and history were at stake" (64-65). [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 32.2]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

Gower Bibliography Editors Only: edit metadata