Gower Bibliography

Gower's Chronicles of Invention: Historiography and Productive Poetry in Book 4 of the Confessio Amantis

Nowlin, Steele. "Gower's Chronicles of Invention: Historiography and Productive Poetry in Book 4 of the Confessio Amantis." Modern Philology 110 (2012), pp. 182-201. ISSN 0026-8232


For Nowlin, the passage in CA 4.2362-2745 that Macaulay headed "The Uses of Labour" actually consists of three separate "chronicles of invention," detailing "the greatest 'inventions' of human culture" (183), and these chronicles, he argues, "allow Gower to speak to the historical project of the "Confessio" as a whole--that is, the historical project of rewriting narratives of the past in order to help restore a fallen present" (183). Gower reveals his interest in historiography and his awareness that "'history' itself is a discursive construction" (184) throughout his works, but particularly in the "Visio" in VC Book 1 and also elsewhere in CA, where he claims "the form as well as the matter of history" (185). The chronicle form does pose a certain dilemma, however, for while offering instructive examples from the past, it also suggests inevitable decay, contrary to Gower's own purpose, as illustrated in the discussion of "gentilesse" that precedes the passage in Book 4 that Nowlin examines. "This, then, is the problem for Gower the chronicler: How can a poet activate the productive aspects of the chronicle form without reintegrating its potentially corrosive elements?" (188). The answer lies in Gower's imitation of "practices in late medieval English chronicles that embed within a historiographic expression a dramatization of the processes of invention. The productive, imaginative, and ultimately generative work of invention counteracts the corrupting effects of chronicle narratives" (188). The model is provided by Ranulf Higden's "Polychronicon" and Trevisa's translation, which offer a model of "invention" both in their principles of selection and arrangement and in the invitation to the reader to participate in the historiographic process. In Book 4, "Gower carefully works through the conflation of historiography and invention characteristic of the "Polychronicon." There, he locates and enacts a compositional process that works to restore the productive potential of the chronicle form and estrange that form from the movement toward discord demonstrated by the history of 'gentilesse'" (192). The details of Nowlin's account of that process cannot adequately be summarized here. In brief, "Gower begins in the first chronicle of invention by emphasizing the form and labor of historiographic production, then by narrating the simultaneous emergence of poetry and historiography from the chronicle of cultural development" (192). Alchemy seems to offer "an analogue for poetic invention" that might be able to "'invent' a way out of the corrosive chronicle form established in the history of 'gentilesse.' But the opposite turns out to be the case" because of the failure of modern alchemists to match their predecessors (195). "Alchemy represents at once the failure of historiographic narration and productive invention" (196). "The final chronicle in book 4 is something of a restart. It focuses specifically on 'our Marches hiere' (4.2633), that is, the Roman tradition that produced Latin grammar, rhetoric, and ultimately Ovid--and by extension, the 'Confessio Amantis'" (197). The operating principle is "congruite" (4.2646): "the Roman chronicle operates through an appositional, congruous organization that combines the tenets of poetic invention with chronicle form. Gower encodes the process of poetic composition into the structure of the Roman chronicle, replacing chronology with inventional topics. He thereby replaces the temporal discord that characterizes the progression of chronicles with a structural system that, by definition, encourages discovery, choice, and possibility" (198). "Here, then, Gower generates a new kind of English poetry, one that invests the chronicle form with a vitality that would seem to have productive consequences for the invention of both historiography and poetry" (199). In conclusion, "These chronicles reveal Gower's working through the central historical problem for the "Confessio"--the effort to salvage the form of historiography along with its matter, but in a 'newe' way. . . . Adapting a fourteenth-century chronicle practice and applying it to his long poem about love, Gower foregrounds the mechanism of poetic and historiographic composition and transforms the force of codified historical progression into productive poetic creation. His chronicles prompt reflection and investigation, but they also suggest how a massive English poem like the "Confessio" might be imagined as self-sustaining, and capable of becoming a kind of imaginative algorithm for poetic posterity. The labor of an English poet-chronicler, the Confessio itself becomes a new kind of chronicle that invents history rather than a poem that merely uses it" (201). [PN. Copyright. JGN 33.1].

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis
Vox Clamantis

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