Gower Bibliography

A Companion to Gower

Echard, Siân, ed. "A Companion to Gower." Cambridge: Brewer, 2004 ISBN 9781843840008

Review

This is a magnificent volume. The seventeen contributors, most of whom are already very well known to Gowerians, provide an extremely useful guide to the current state of our knowledge of Gower and his work. Anyone with any serious interest in Gower will want to own this book. In her introduction, on "Gower's Reputation" (1-22), Echard identifies five recurring themes in the critical response to the poet: his identity as "moral Gower," his political views, his choice of language, his relation to his sources, and both his personal and his literary relation to Chaucer. She traces these in large part to the poet's own deliberate self-fashioning, to "the qualities that he made central to his own poetic ethos" (17), and she points out how Gower's reputation has shifted over the centuries as each of these has provided either a stick with which to beat the poet (primarily during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) or as an opening to a greater understanding of his work (more recently), as, for instance, critics have taken a broader interest in the implications of "moral," in the complex issues of a poet's self-presentation, and in the political and ideological implications of the choice between Latin and the vernacular. That broadening of understanding is admirably illustrated by the writers that follow, and Echard's essay serves both to situate their contributions and to tie together the diverse approaches of this volume. Whether by accident or design, all but the last of the chapters that follow fall into pairs. The first two are concerned with Gower's biography. John Hines, Nathalie Cohen, and Simon Roffey ("Iohannes Gower, Armiger, Poeta: Records and Memorials of his Life and Death," 23-41) survey what can be inferred from the scant life records (mostly on property dealings) and the references in Gower's own poetry, and then give their greatest attention to the geography of Southwark during Gower's time (they provide some helpful maps), to the layout of the priory church of St. Mary Overie, and to the construction of Gower's tomb, as it appears today and as it was described by 16th century observers. The tomb, they note, "represents a range of facets of a contemporary perception of Gower; several, perhaps all of them, his own model of how he saw himself, or wished to be portrayed" (40). Robert Epstein ("London, Southwark, Westminster: Gower's Urban Contexts," 43-60) discusses the social geography of the three adjacent communities with which Gower had connections. He explores the difficulties of reconstructing Gower's audience, particularly of associating him directly with those who are though to have made up the "Chaucer circle." He also notes some paradoxes in the relation between Gower's writing and his life: that the man who spent nearly his entire life in Southwark should have so little to say about the city, its government, or the majority of its citizens; and that a poet with so little personal or professional ties to the monarchy should be been so preoccupied with the nature and responsibilities of kingship. "Gower's uniquely urban condition," he concludes, "as a non-bureaucratic, non-aristocratic, privately employed professional, allowed him to develop a sense of the poet that was elevated in its autonomy, in its self-regard and in its ambition – but that required a strong and attentive monarch to legitimize his voice and to realize his social visions" (60). Jeremy J. Smith ("John Gower and London English," 61-72) provides a brief but comprehensible account of what we know of Gower's language – a mixture of Kentish and Suffolk forms (consistent with Gower's family background) that would have been "fairly easily accommodated" (69) within the great variety of London speech at the time but that might have struck some as a bit old-fashioned – and equally helpfully, of how we know it. Smith also points to the remarkably conservative character of scribes' spelling habits in the later MSS of CA as an example of the perpetuation of one of several competing "standard" forms of the language, this one serving the very specific purpose of disseminating Gower's text. Derek Pearsall ("The Manuscripts and Illustrations of Gower's Works," 73-97) provides an even more remarkable gathering in one place of what can be said about the appearance, format, arrangement, contents, illustration and decoration, production, ownership, and readership of the MS copies of Gower's works. Pearsall writes not only from long and intimate acquaintance with the books that he describes but also with characteristic sympathy for the scribes (also evident in his essay on the Latin apparatus in the MSS, in the Takamiya festschrift, below). The handlist of Gower MSS on pp. 74-79 will now be our basic point of reference until the appearance of the much awaited Descriptive Catalogue, forthcoming under Pearsall's editorship. The next two chapters treat Gower's reception. Helen Cooper ("'This worthy olde writer': Pericles and other Gowers, 1592-1640," 99-113) discusses the appearance of Gower the poet in Robert Greene's Greenes Vision of 1594 and in Shakespeare's Pericles (1611), and the borrowings from CA in Shakespeare's earlier Comedy of Errors and in a 1640 pamphlet entitled A Certain Relation of the Hog-faced Gentlewoman, called Tannekin Skinker (in which the example of Florent is narrated in order to suggest the possibility of an equally happy metamorphosis for the unfortunate young woman of the title). In Greene's work, Chaucer and Gower are each called upon to tell stories in which the issue of the moral value of literature becomes entangled with the issue of the moral dangers posed by the beauty of the women in their tales. The author awards the prize – for the uprightness of both tale and character – to Gower. Cooper has much of interest to say about how each of these works perpetuated Gower's reputation both as moralist and as storyteller. Siân Echard's chapter on "Gower in Print" (115-35) looks at Gower's reception through his publication history, from Caxton, through Berthelette, Todd, Morley, Pauli, and Macaulay, down to Peck, with a glance at the Roxburghe Club editions and at the editions of selected tales intended for use in the classroom. (Missing, however, both here and in the bibliography on p. 272, is any reference to Macaulay's 1903 edition of selections for "young students," who Macaulay evidently felt wouldn't be too put out either by the Latin glosses and epigrams or by thorn and yogh.) Echard skillfully traces the impact on Gower's reputation not only of the critical commentary included in each edition but also of such matters as typography, layout, and apparatus. She notes that on the whole, Gower has been hurt more than helped by those who have brought his works to print, and while not suggesting that there can be any perfect edition, she has high praise for Peck's. Two chapters focus on Gower's non-English works. R.F. Yeager ("John Gower's French," 132-51), surveys Gower's surviving works in his other vernacular. After giving careful attention to their survival in MS, he has much to say about the quality of both Gower's verse and prose, about the uniqueness of conception of his works, particularly MO and CB, and about the significance of the fact that these works are in French. MO, he notes, has a breadth and ambition unprecedented in any of the works that have been identified as its possible sources, but it is unified, first of all by its "envelope of amorous address " (143), the invocation of "chascun amant" at the beginning and the lyrical prayer to the virgin at the end, and second, by its examination, through is description of the vices and virtues, of good and bad desire. CB has a narrative structure centered on the poet-narrator's decision to absent himself for the sake of his lady's reputation, which leads to a more complete union based on trust and actual devotion rather than mere desire. In both these works, Gower "use[s] the culture of French courtly writing against itself" (144): he transcends the "essential immorality" (147) of courtly literature and reclaims it for legitimate love. A.G. Rigg and Edward S. Moore ("The Latin Works: Politics, Lament and Praise," 165-80) more briefly situate Gower's Latin writing within the trilingual culture of late 14th-century England and within the traditions of Anglo-Latin writing. They point out that Gower's choice of unrhymed elegiac couplets for VC represented a return to a somewhat old-fashioned practice. VC's focus on politics and history is typical of Anglo-Latin writing of the time, and the "public" quality of the work distinguishes it from the more personal CA and MO. Most of VC attempts rather typically to summon historical evidence in support of the author's moral and political views; the Visio and TC, however, offer a more exceptional re-creation of historical events. The Visio, the authors note, also has important debts to vernacular literature. Ardis Butterfield and Winthrop Wetherbee, in the next two chapters, take up CA's relation to its antecedents. Butterfield ("Confessio Amantis and the French Tradition," 165-80) discusses Gower's relation to Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, and their successors Machaut and Froissart. All these poets, she writes, "are preoccupied by a desire to investigate the relationship between writing and the self, the kind of access a writer has to truth, and how the art of fiction both enables and inhibits this access. In all these writers, the figure of the lover acts as one of the main ways for them to represent the art of writing: the lover generates the poetry, and indeed is often represented as a poet" (165). So too Gower creates a "precarious distinction" (180) between poet and lover before collapsing the two roles at the poem's end, and he also includes Genius as a way of doubling his presence: "Genius is the interlocutor of the author and at the same time an internalized projection of him" (177). The confession frame is also enlisted in the exploration of the topic of identity. "Working within the central tradition of French writers," Butterfield concludes, love "becomes for him, as for them, a way of examining the art of fiction, and hence the multiple art of confessing the self" (180). According to Wetherbee ("Chaucer and Boethian Tradition in the Confessio Amantis," 181-96), the essential ambiguity of naturatus amor in the opening Latin epigram of Book 1 of CA reflects "fundamental questions about the authoritative role of the Latin tradition in forming [Gower's] literary culture" as well as "larger questions about the relation of human life and history to the natural order" (181-82). The uncertainties about man's relation to nature – whether as a "paradigm of order" or as "a kind of cosmic determinism" (184) – can be traced to DCP. Boethius' successors – Bernardus Silvestris, Alain de Lille, and Jean de Meun – depict the contradictions that result in different ways. For Jean de Meun they are manifested in an unresolved dialectic between the Latin Boethian tradition and the love-cult of vernacular poetry. The same confrontation is made visible in the framing of Gower's English poem with its Latin apparatus, which fails to either contain or control the English text. It is also embodied in Genius, who partakes both of the Latin and the vernacular. "He is less a spokesman than a mediator – a mediator, moreover, whose own perception of the standards of ‘kinde' and ‘resoun' which he holds up to Amans preserves unresolved the ambiguous perspective of the Boethian tradition. . . . Genius participates in both worlds, but he can provide no authoritative bases for reconciling the conflicting claims of Nature and courtly idealism" (190). "Skeptical of its own authority," Wetherbee concludes, "the Latin tradition is thus normative for Gower, a stable framework for his questioning of the values of his own world" (196) rather than authoritatively re-affirming them. Diane Watt and Russell Peck examine CA in rather more traditional terms. Watt ("Gender and Sexuality in Confessio Amantis," 197-213) discusses Gower's treatment of his female characters. She focuses on three tales, "Canace and Machaire," in which, Watt argues, contrary to most published commentary, the children are held responsible for their incestuous relationship and, at least at the beginning, the blame is equally shared between them; "Iphis and Iante," in which the two girls suffer no blame for their desire for one another or for Iphis' cross-dressing before Iphis is transformed into a man; and "Calistona," in which Gower's alterations subtly transform the rape into a seduction for which the woman herself can be held at least in part responsible. Watt reaches two important conclusions: one, "going against the tide of recent gender criticism," as she herself proclaims, that Gower's main concern is ethical, and that "when a writer like Gower writes about women or men, about homosexual or heterosexual desires, or about transvestism or transsexuality, he (or she) is not necessarily discussing something else" (211). And second (echoing an argument also recently made by Ellen Shaw Bakalian; see JGN 23, no. 2), that "the central ethical message of the Confessio Amantis as a whole is that the responsibility for sin or error falls firmly on the individual who commits it, male or female" (213). Peck ("The Politics and Psychology of Governance in Gower: Ideas of Kingship and Real Kings," 215-38) summarizes the argument on the relation between personal and political governance in all of Gower's work, particularly in CA, that he first put forth in his Kingship and Common Profit in 1978. "Gower conceives of the hypostasis between the personal and social through images of kingship, domain, and right rule. Each—the social and the personal—is contingent upon the other and operates through metaphoric interdependence. The king of England is akin to the king of the soul; the state of England is linked to one's sense of personal domain; and right rule is mirrored simultaneously through both sides of the equation" (216). In the longer, second part of his essay, Peck traces Gower's commentary on the effects of royal misrule through VC, MO, TC, and "IPP," and he offers a new attempt to read the dedication of CA to "Henry of Lancaster" as a rejection of King Richard II motivated by Richard's dispute with the city of London in 1392 (cf. Fisher, 116-22). (The reasons for the second dedication are an issue on which Gower scholars are not yet of a single mind. For an assortment of views, see in the same volume pp. 26, 57, 61, 94 n. 45, and 159.) John Burrow, finally ("Gower's Poetic Styles," 239-50) considers the implications of Gower's "correctness," his "purity of diction" and his "plain style," the three terms that occur most commonly in the descriptions and assessments of Gower's style. The first is at least to some extent anachronistic, since there were no fixed standards of correctness in such matters as spelling, one of the features of language in which Gower's MSS are most consistent, in Gower's time. It does apply, however, Burrow observes, to the poet's handling of both meter and rhyme – both for their regularity and for the way in which they conform to spoken language – and to grammar and syntax, where Gower displays an impressive command of periodic syntax, perhaps because of his experience of writing in Latin. Gower's diction is notable for its virtual exclusion of "commonplace English poeticisms" (244) from contemporary popular poetry or from the alliterative tradition, both found in far greater numbers in Chaucer. The "plain style," finally, is best understood with reference to Gower's own comments on "plainness": it is a style unadorned by rhetorical display consisting of "simple words used in straightforward literal senses" (246). The resulting tendency towards the typical and the general is appropriate to a poem of exemplary wisdom. CA is not noted for its "richly poetic strokes" (248), Burrow concludes, which is one reason why it may fail to appeal. "In its limitations as well as its strengths, Gower's is essentially a long-poem style" (249), and while long poems themselves have gone out of style, the result can nonetheless be considered true poetry. T

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies

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