Gower Bibliography

Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500. 2d ed

Burrow, J. A. "Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500. 2d ed." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

Review

John Burrow published the first edition of this little (currently 156 pp.) volume in 1982, noting in the Preface: "The present book is designed as a introduction. At the risk of giving an exaggerated impression of the strangeness of Middle English writings, I have concentrated on some of the chief differences which confront a reader of modern literature when he or she first approaches them: the differences in the notion of literature itself (Chapter 1), in the circumstances under which writings were produced and received (Chapter 2), in the types of writing produced (Chapter 3), and in the kinds of meaning to be found in them (Chapter 4). Chapters 1 and 5 also attempt to characterize the Middle English period in relation to earlier and later periods of English literature." In addition to providing a clear view of its purpose—"an introduction," and aimed not specifically at undergraduate students as most of such books are, but rather at any "reader of modern literature" upon first encounter with medieval writing--the preface thus succinctly outlines the book's contents. Commentary on Gower thus predictably runs throughout, tailored to suit the larger context of each chapter. Although this second edition is more than a quarter century more recent than the first, it remains in most ways a very similar presence. The bibliography, for example, has been "updated" by only nine citations post-2000. Yet Burrow himself remains one of the most sensitive and perceptive of readers, and his views of Gower here are profoundly worth knowing. His insight into "the contradiction . . . in which Chaucer, Gower and their immediate successors found themselves," is a case in point. "These writers . . . found themselves partially alienated from their native literary heritage (e.g., "adapted . . . to the practice or oral delivery"), in so far as that heritage represented conditions that were recessive in their day" (56). The different ways Chaucer and Gower found to respond to what Burrow calls "minstrel features" (57) stand for him as representative of major writers of the period: in the CantT Chaucer "came to terms" with that heritage by incorporating "addresses to the audience, oaths, asseverations, redundant phrases," to "speak 'ful brode' when he wants to" (57), while Gower looked to French and Latin literatures for better models than "minstrelisms," ultimately achieving a verse "purged (though at the cost of a certain debility) of minstrel features" (57). Burrow sees the "apogee" of "English narrative verse" in the work of Gower, Chaucer, and the Gawain-poet (71). And consider Burrow on the "complications of interpretation" that arise with some of the tales in the CA: "Sometimes it seems that [Gower] has simply failed to find a suitable story to illustrate this vice or that virtue, as required by his scheme; but on other occasions we can recognize a deliberate finesse in the relation between tale and context . . . . When the scale of the narrative is increased, complications . . . may arise . . . . [Yet] in literature as in life, events often appear less simple the more you know about them. Most stories, if they are told with any richness of human detail, tend to forfeit their straightforward relationship to exemplified truth. In the light of such a story, the 'truth' may come to seem complicated, or doubtful, or simply irrelevant." (118, 119) Few more sensible words have been written, perhaps, to answer complaints about Gower's narrative "failures." For many now, in the new age of Brexit, the most interesting chapter may be the last in which Burrow ponders the future of writers like Chaucer and Gower, when "poetry of that kind, in that kind of English and that kind of metre, and printed in that kind of book--will face increasingly strong challenges from rivals who do not recognize the language of the Authorized Version as their English. The tradition of Chaucer, Milton, and Tennyson can hardly fail to suffer such challenges in an age where English is a world language and England no longer a world power" (138). Reading that--written in 2007--one can dodge its eerie clairvoyance in the new reality of Brexit. Burrow's is still a book from which to learn much--and ought, perhaps, to be on every Introduction to the Middle Ages reading list. [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Confessio Amantis

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