In This Article John Gower

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Essays
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Life Records
  • Editions and Translations
  • Language
  • Poetics
  • French Works
  • Latin Works
  • Portuguese and Spanish Versions
  • Reception and Reputation

British and Irish Literature John Gower
by
Siân Echard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0070

Introduction

John Gower (d. 1408) cared deeply about his legacy. Nearly thirty of the surviving manuscripts of his works include the Latin colophon Quia vnusquisque, in which he catalogues his three chief poems in three languages. The head of Gower’s effigy in Southwark Cathedral rests on these books: the French Mirour de l’omme; the Latin Vox Clamantis; and the English Confessio Amantis. Gower clearly had a hand in the design of his tomb, and while modern scholars have modified older notions of the degree of control exercised by the poet over the production of his works, it remains clear that he maintained a lifelong habit of revising and (re)arranging his oeuvre. Certainly any one of the books on the tomb speaks to a considerable achievement. The Mirour is a work of almost thirty thousand intricately rhymed octosyllabic lines. It begins with the fall of Lucifer, stages an allegorical combat between vices and virtues, moves on to satire of the estates, and begins to end (it is incomplete in the only surviving manuscript) in an appeal to the Virgin Mary. The Vox Clamantis shares elements of complaint and satire with the Mirour in its six final books, but it is particularly remarkable for its first book, often called the Visio Anglie, which offers a nightmare vision of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Vox consists of more than ten thousand lines in unrhymed elegiac couplets, and the transmutation of the peasants into cacophonous beasts in the Visio offers a tour de force of poetic pyrotechnics. The Confessio Amantis, more than thirty thousand lines in octosyllabic couplets, frames its many exemplary narratives in the conceit of a conversation between Amans and Genius. The prologue’s emphasis on division links this work to the same political and social concerns expressed in Gower’s other long works. In addition to these works, Gower also wrote shorter poems in all three languages, moving through the genres of lyric, complaint, chronicle, satire, and encomium. Yet despite this prodigious and accomplished output and its shoring up by both colophon and tomb and despite a 15th-century reception that linked Gower with Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate into a triumvirate of foundational English poets, Gower’s reputation rapidly faded after the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s epithet for his contemporary, “moral Gower,” became something of a curse in the post-Romantic era, and the undeniably medieval cast of Gower’s didactic poems further marginalized him. For a time scholarship on Gower marched in lockstep with scholarship on Chaucer and almost always to the former poet’s detriment. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, contemporary critical interests, including historicist, materialist, and feminist scholarship along with a renewed focus on multilingualism and on formalism, have moved Gower back into the spotlight, and a spate of translations is making the whole of the poet’s work available to a 21st-first century audience.

General Overviews

These are studies that consider Gower’s work as a whole or that seek to place Gower in a larger context. Both Burrow 1971 and Green 1980 represent early attempts to frame the work of major 14th-century English poets, including Gower, in terms of the court culture and political movements of the Ricardian and Henrician moments, while Kendall 2008 situates Gower firmly in the world of noble affinities. Fisher 1964 considers all aspects of the life and work and remains useful, though the newer individual essays in Echard 2004, a handbook companion to Gower’s life and works, modify and correct some of the conclusions in Fisher 1964. Wetherbee 1999 and Yeager 1990 are both overviews of the poet and his contributions; the former is a short essay and the latter is a full-length treatment. Readers should also consult the section Collections of Essays.

  • Burrow, John A. Ricardian Poetry: Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the “Gawain”Poet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

    E-mail Citation »

    Outlines common characteristics of the work of four 14th-century poets, borrowing the historians’ term “Ricardian” (of the reign of Richard II) as a name for this literary school. Locates Ricardian style in the relationship between poets and poetry; underlines the importance of narrative in the poetry of the period.

  • Echard, Siân, ed. A Companion to Gower. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive handbook. Essays on reputation and reception (Echard, Helen Cooper), life records and London (John Hines, Nathalie Cohen, Simon Roffey, Robert Epstein), languages (Jeremy J. Smith, Robert F. Yeager), manuscripts and print (Derek Pearsall, Siân Echard), Latin works (A. G. Rigg, Edward S. Moore), and style (John Burrow). Essays focused on Confessio Amantis consider French tradition (Ardis Butterfield), classical tradition (Winthrop Wetherbee), gender and sexuality (Diane Watt), and governance (Russell Peck). Includes chronological bibliography to 2003.

  • Fisher, John H. John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

    E-mail Citation »

    Still highly useful study of life records, manuscripts, and works; appendixes include list of manuscripts and edition of colophon Quia vnusquisque. Considerable focus on the relationship between Geoffrey Chaucer and Gower. Some conclusions, particularly regarding Gower’s involvement in manuscript production, have been modified by later work.

  • Green, Richard Firth. Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Description of the English court in the 14th and 15th centuries focused on literary production and patronage. Sees court culture (rather than bourgeois taste) as the chief driver of literary fashion and sets Gower in the context of courtly affinities (affiliations with great lords and households).

  • Kendall, Elliot Richard. Lordship and Literature: John Gower and the Politics of the Great Household. Oxford: Clarendon, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Places Gower in the world of political affinities (politics of great households) and approaches Confessio Amantis as a window into the “habitus” of late-14th-century lordship. Traces themes of rule, reciprocity, and exchange in the poem.

  • Wetherbee, Winthrop. “John Gower.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace, 589–609. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521444200E-mail Citation »

    Overview essay that considers English, French, and Latin works along with literary and philosophical backgrounds. Emphasis on dialogic tradition. Many references to Gower are also found elsewhere in the book.

  • Yeager, Robert F. John Gower’s Poetic: The Search for a New Arion. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive discussion of all of Gower’s works with notable focus on stylistics. Argues that Gower was deliberately crafting a poetic, using practices of source texts and his own linguistic facility; his oeuvre is a coherent whole emphasizing social and political harmony and the poet’s role.

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