Gower Bibliography

"Personas and Performance in Gower's Confessio Amantis."

Barrington, Candace. ""Personas and Performance in Gower's Confessio Amantis."." Chaucer Review 48 (2014), pp. 414-33. ISSN 0009-2002

Review

Challenging the received view both of the genesis of Gower's poem and of the poet's relationship with King Richard, Barrington proposes that from the very first, the CA was designed as moral criticism rather than entertainment, adopting a wholly different strategy but continuing the same critique of the king that Gower had expressed in his earlier works, notably the VC. His strategy in the "first recension" of the poem, she argues, consists of three successive transformations of his authorial self: first, from the moral preacher to the courtier poet in the scene that Gower creates in which Richard commissions the poem; then from courtier poet to courtier "tout court," as Gower adopts the role of lover at the beginning of Book I; then from courtier to the aged Gower himself in the conclusion. In each of these transformations Barrington detects implicit or direct allusions to the criticisms that were most often leveled at the king. In the river scene, Gower transforms himself "from a moralizing didactic poet who dourly sings his lines to a courtly versifier who cheerily accepts the king's bidding" (420), but he depicts the king as exercising his power despotically and arbitrarily. The alert reader will recognize the guise and will perceive Gower's own continued presence in the Latin glosses and in the enigmatic epigrams. In 'infiltrating" Richard's court in this way, moreover, Gower distinguishes himself from the king's more flattering courtiers by offering "wisdom" as well as "pleye": "His verse will bear as its outward demeanor the court's sensibilities, but it will be shaped underneath by Gower's call to reform" (422). At the beginning of Book I he adopts the role of Amans, making a transition from "courtly versifier" to "courtly attendant" (423), but only in order to "produce a text that appears courtly while criticizing courtly behavior" (424). In his initial encounter with Venus, Amans' behavior reflects that of the courtiers surrounding Richard who are not worthy, either by birth or upbringing, for the role. His confessions contain repeated allusions to the "delinquencies of Richard's court as Gower's contemporaries perceived them" (426), and Genius reinforces the criticism by allegorizing the different vices of love as courtiers. As others have observed, moreover, many of the exempla are more concerned with governance than with love, and in perhaps its most pointed criticism of the court, Amans fails to realize their application or to profit from them. "In short, Amans's allegorical confession reveals not his own guilt, but rather that of the court" (431). Finally, as Venus unmasks him in the conclusion, "his fictional roles exposed, Gower abandons the role of courtly lover and reclaims his true name and age" (431), and he turns to deliver a prayer that enacts "the fantasy in which Richard is at once and already the ideal king, while at the same time acknowledging the poet's inability to influence the king without divine intervention" (432). "The 'Confessio' is, first and foremost, a didactic poem; it only masquerades as a courtly poem" (431), and that it was directly aimed at the well-known failings of Richard and his court helps explain why it continued to be copied after Henry became king. Barrington's essay offers a new way of viewing the link between love and politics in the poem, and it reads like the brief for a book-length study which we should encourage her to produce. The strength of her argument lies in its coherency, but it does depend upon assumptions about Gower's attitude to the king as much as it does upon her close reading of the poem. As Wayne Booth pointed out long ago, the detection of irony often depends upon knowledge that we bring from outside the text. Barrington draws numerous connections between passages in the CA and complaints of contemporary chroniclers, but in quoting from the VC (e.g. on page 418), she cites passages from the final version of the poem that may not have been composed until after Richard's deposition. This is nonetheless a very important article, and it offers challenges that well deserve our attention. [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 33.2.]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis
Vox Clamantis

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