Gower Bibliography

The Poetic Voices of John Gower: Politics and Personae in the Confessio Amantis

Irvin, Matthew. "The Poetic Voices of John Gower: Politics and Personae in the Confessio Amantis." Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013 ISBN 9781843842507

Review

"The Poetic Voices of John Gower" is an ambitious, wide-ranging, and inclusive study of the characters and tales in CA. The book is a handsome Brewer production of 315 pages, which includes a brief introduction (Chapter 1: "Making and Doing Love"), seven chapters on various issues in the CA, a conclusion ("Identifying Amans"), full bibliography, and even fuller Index. Irvin chiefly explores the characters and stories of the CA from the standpoint of Amans, central persona of Gower the author, but it soon emerges that Amans, whose chief object is his lady, has different goals and objectives from the "Gower" who seeks to guide and educate. Irvin examines the various persons of the CA with help from a philosophical approach based on Brunetto Latini's adaptation of Aristotle's "Ethics," especially the qualities of right reason, prudence, and wisdom: qualities that emerge especially from Gower the author (so to speak). Irvin discovers that the allegedly trustworthy issues of romance literature, including his CA--the topics of "fin amour," love generally, "trouthe," "pite," reason, and others--are not stable and steadfast but contingent, requiring education, negotiation, and interpretation. As Irvin puts it with respect to love, seemingly a universal quality: "the place of love in the world depends on the relationship of prudence and art" (1). Although Irvin treats many characters and situations in the CA, his principal interest is in Amans and his identification as a persona for Gower. He argues that "Gower's poetry dramatizes the intellectual and emotional action of finding his proper place in the world, of making his own presence as writer part of the prudential, political world about which he writes" (27). Hence the personae Irvin analyzes are not just literary characters but, in Maitland's terms, "Moral Personality and Legal Personality." Explaining the relevance of this formulation to the CA, Irvin says: "Gower employs the legal discourse of the persona to bring together prudence and art, wisdom and affect, in a manner that differentiates his work formally from Latini's" (15). According to Irvin's formulations, the personal is the political. The chapters of "The Poetic Voices of John Gower" are well organized and well provided with subheadings. Chap. 2, for example, is titled "The Orientation of the Prologue to the Confessio Amantis," with subheadings "Gower's Double Readership" (clerical and non-clerical audience), "The Failure of Interpretation," and "Arion and the Possibility of Good Government." Irvin does not examine every story in the CA equally. Some merit more detailed discussions than others. Tales that evoke considerable discussion include "The Tale of Florent," in Chap. 3 ("Amorous Persons"); "The Tale of Constance" and "The Tale of Canace and Machaire," Chap. 4 ("Pity and the Feminine"); and "The Tale of Apollonius," Chap. 7 ("The love of Kings"). In his chapter dealing chiefly with "The Tale of Florent," Irvin argues that Gower challenges readers' sense of morality regarding "gentilesse," producing contradictory interpretations that readers, using prudence and wisdom, must decide for themselves. In the following chapter, on Constance and the moral qualities of "pite," the story occasions a "tension" between "duty" and "affect"--requiring that readers sort out the tangle of emotions which the "Tale of Constance" elicits. Irvin's most persistent discussions involve the personae of Gower and Amans or Gower as Amans. Things come together especially in the Conclusion, "Identifying Amans," when Irvin focuses on Book 8, the denouement. In this book, toward the close, as is conventional, Gower discloses his name to Venus in Book 8. This self-disclosure was a staple of French romance literature, of course. Jean de Meun provides his name (in a "prediction") in his continuation of "Le Roman de la rose," which Gower remembers and in some ways answers in his CA. Irvin does not read humorously Venus's explanation to Amans/Gower that he is inappropriate as a lover. Instead, he reads it as a moment of education, of wisdom and schooling, when Amans finally comes to know himself: "Through the knowledge and art of his ‘scole,' of this education, Gower's readers can truly know their own personae, and act prudently" (285). A key point about Amans and his education is that any man, any human, cannot and does not act solely on good advice, even if the advice is particularly fitting. In the CA and with the depiction of Amans, there is a concession to humanity and its propensity to sin; it is part of the human condition. As Irvin puts it, referring to the letter that Amans writes to Venus and Cupid pleading for their help: "The letter is a failure for Amans but a success for Gower" (283). That formulation epitomizes Gower's double readership of the CA and the relationship of the persona Amans to the poet John Gower. Amans is a student who must be schooled; Gower is a tutor whose goal, as auctor, is to educate and provide context. Irvin places the letter, and the conclusion of the CA generally, in a very human perspective. Irvin can interpret on several levels, and his close reading often operates on the level of the word. A good example is his discussion of word play in a passage bristling with rime riche from the Prologue. The passage concerns the "wise" and those who "pleye" in a sequence which concerns the meeting of Richard II and "Gower" rendered in a rhetoric display of antanaclasis: So as I made my byheste / To make a book after his heste, / And witte in suche a maner wise / Which may be wisdom to the wise / And pley to hem that luste to pleye (Prologue 81-85*). Irvin explains how the equivocation of the word play, expressed in "antanaclasis" helps support his reading of the CA as a poem working through contingencies--here in a passage concerning dream interpretation. Some may read the passage in the manner of the wise; some may read it in a context of "pleye." The "wisdom to the wise" would seem to be Irvin's clerical readership; the "pley to hem that luste to pleye" would seem to be those who fail to grasp the deeper meaning. The point of the Prologue, according to Irvin, is to trace the world's contingent status to human duplicity and falseness (like Chaucer in his "The Former Age"). Everything is insincere and untrustworthy, including human and political relationships. Even interpretation (hermeneutics) has been infected and compromised. "Therefore, 'wisdom' of the Prologue," argues Irvin, "is not given as doctrine, but is used to stir up emotions by pointing out humanity's own failure to be wise. Prudence has failed, and Gower's art imitates the frustration of the wise observer, the observer who hears the 'vox populi,' and who knows 'lore'" (67). The strength of Irvin's book is its presentation of Gower and his persona as Amans. He chronicles the complexities of the figure who learns about worldly contingency and finally absorbs Venus's lessons, such as they are. Gower scholars are fortunate to possess this extended meditation on Amans and personae. [James M. Dean. Copyright. JGN 33.1].

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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