Gower Bibliography

'The science of himself is trewe': Alchemy in John Gower's 'Confessio Amantis'

Fletcher, Clare. "'The science of himself is trewe': Alchemy in John Gower's 'Confessio Amantis'." South Atlantic Review 79.3-4 (2015), pp. 118-131. ISSN 0277-335X


Countering past analyses that read the depiction of alchemy in Book IV of the CA as banal, Fletcher argues for that passage's centrality to the Confessio. Physically at the middle of the poem, Gower's discussion of alchemy is also in her view thematically essential, as it develops the role of human labor as a driving metaphor within the world of the poem. She sees the passage's treatment of the movement "from base to perfection, from ignoble to noble" (119) in metals as symbolic of the larger moral movement of the poem itself. Seeing vice or sin as parallel to the impurities to be purged from base metals, alchemy then becomes a model for Gower's conceptualization of the individual's moral development. Fletcher then goes on to outline critical reaction to Gower's approach to alchemy, noting the parallels to Chaucer's "Canon's Yeoman's Tale," and the apparent error of identifying Jupiter with brass, rather than with tin as in Chaucer. Gower's choice of words, using the term "vice" among other moral terms for the imperfections to be purged, then cements the idea that the passage is at least as philosophical and moralizing as it is alchemical. The term "clergie" to represent the learning required (120) further reinforces her vision of the scene's centrality to Gower's moral approach. Gower's explanation that certain purifications are no longer possible in a less-than-perfect world such as Gower's own, expresses in Fletcher's view the "senectus mundi" theory that James Dean has identified in late medieval culture. She is able to relate this sense of universal decay to Gower's analysis of human moral decay both in the Prologue to the CA and also in a passage in the MO that depicts a similar deterioration in the world. Returning to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in the Prologue, Fletcher then uses the "error" of brass in the alchemy passage to link that passage to the body metaphor of the "ages of man" in the dream, which she sees as "alchemy in reverse" (125). The brass in the alchemy passage then becomes not an error, but a reference back to the dream image of the Prologue. This linkage of alchemy and a larger view of the world then leads to a more linguistic analysis, as Fletcher moves from the alchemy passage's observation that old alchemical texts are no longer legible to a sense that signification itself is decayed, as are the materials of alchemy and the world itself. The purging of vice in alchemy, even if imperfect, then becomes Gower's solution to this problem of moral decay, when Genius' analysis of sloth overlaps the alchemy passage's use of terms "vice" and "vertu." Ultimately for Fletcher, it is this link between alchemy and moral development that underlines Gower's sense of "the powerful elemental intertwining of mankind, earth, and the heavens" (129). [RAL. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.1.]

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

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