Black Gower

One of the most dominant images in Gower studies captures the poet in the midst of aiming an arrow at a target of the world. Wearing a long blue tunic, a brown, cone-shaped hat, with three arrows at his waist, Gower appears to be in the prime of his life: he stands ramrod straight, gazing intently at his target while holding his cocked bow with a steady hand. Taken from the Cotton Tiberius MS, this is the image that stands in stark contrast to the recumbent poet lying in effigy at Southward Cathedral, his head resting on his three books, his hands pointed upward in solemn prayer.

When Gower appears over a century later in the role of storyteller in Shakespeare’s (and Wilkins’) Pericles, Prince of Tyre, another set of images begin to emerge. Selected to guide an audience through the protagonist’s “painefull” adventures in a story adapted from Gower’s own “Apollonius of Tyre,” the poet stands “as a living agent of the play’s performance [who]exhibits a playful concern with the unstable, vulnerable, and unreservedly performative nature of authorship itself” (Jones 2009). Having been reincarnated and bequeathed a fresh voice, Gower becomes a cipher of change, a revitalized fulcrum between the past and the present, between life and death, between one culture and another. Over time and successive adaptations of the play, his image as a poet aiming at the world or interred in a cathedral down the road from the Globe is transformed by actors whose interpretations of his role as Chorus figure reach beyond static images of archer and effigy to create a more dynamic persona, one who rises from the ashes to sing his song, as the opening of Pericles proclaims: “To sing a song that old was sung,/ From ashes, ancient Gower is come,/ Assuming man’s infirmities,/ To glad your ear and please your eyes.” (lines 1-4)

That Gower has been played to audiences in venues around the globe by non-Anglo performers literally breathes life into the part. The production at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2016 featuring Raphael Nash Thompson, for instance, represents a new approach to the “ancient song” when the actor infuses the characters and the tale he tells with an exuberance that conveys both the joy of storytelling and the mood-altering effects of music. Directed by Trevor Nunn, this ensemble play captured the imagination to be sure, but it was Thompson’s execution of both the singing and the speaking parts, his expansive gestures, and authoritative presence that, by all accounts, lifted the spirits of the audience.Thompson’s interpretation of the role conveyed the musicality of the play as well as the cadences of Gower’s poetry.


Such a transformative  performance is not unprecedented in theater history, of course. In Kathryn Hunter’s 2005 production at the Globe when Gower’s role was played by Patrice Naiambana as a “chatty, ad-libbing, ululating West African storyteller,” the audience was fully engaged, especially when Naiambana hoisted a few of its members on stage to participate in the action (Bassett 2005). Critics had mixed feelings about the actor’s interpretation: those more accustomed to a staid, conservative portrayal of the poet “attacked the performer and his willingness to extemporize as a boisterous attempt to conceal apologetically what was perceived to be essentially a ‘dull’ play” (Jones 2009). Other critics praised the actor for offering an innovative interpretation of the part that, like Thompson’s years later, would prove exhilarating. Then again, perhaps it was Edric Connor, the first black actor to play the role who set the precedent for such lively, song-filled renditions. In Tony Richardson’s 1958 production the renowned Trinidadian vocalist “played Gower as a calypso singer, singing his story to a group of sailors” (Jones 2009) in a performance that transported the 1950s audience from their theater seats to a turbulent life on the sea. Not only can Connor be credited with ushering in a newly revitalized Gower, but he can also be acknowledged for introducing the traditional songs that quite likely inspired a fellow Trinidadian to follow suit. Like Connor before him, Rudolph Walker sang Gower’s poetry in Caribbean style, this time in David Thacker’s 1990 production at The Pit. Differentiating his interpretation from his predecessor’s, however, Walker emphasized the literary tradition of the story “by clutching a book” and remaining on stage “to remind the audience of his role as storyteller”(Jones 2009). According to one critic, “Walker’s easygoing, corduroy-suited Gower waved last-minute arrivals to their seats before beginning his story. . . [b]ecause of course it is Gower who makes credible that incredible story; it is his authority, confidence, and repeated assurances as to its veracity, with gestures toward the large tome he holds as he tells and shows, that makes it come true before our eyes and ears” (Whitworth 1989). Despite differences in their interpretations, Connor’s and Walker’s performances transposed a story punctuated by harp-playing and the music of the spheres into a tale revivified by calypso rhythms.

In yet another adaptation, this one entitled Children of the Sea, Rawiri Paratene, a native New Zealander, tells Pericles’ adventure from another part of the world, this time not to a group of sailors as in the Connor production, but rather to real-life Sri Lankan children orphaned by a tsunami. When Paratene’s Gower makes his first appearance in a “mist of red smoke” to “sing a song that old was sung,” and begins to point out parallels between Pericles’ challenges at sea and children who had faced similar perils suddenly correspondences between the play and the world begin to emerge (Love 2007). This production, according to one critic, “had current events in mind, Katrina and the Tsunami that hit South Asia in 2004” (Dachel 2006).

Adapting a play to speak to contemporary concerns, as theater has done since its ancient beginnings, is discernible to be sure, but made all-the-more meaningful by the performers who take on the role of Gower. When these actors reinvigorate his voice and express exuberance in the telling of his tale, their performances change perceptions of a poet frozen in the posture of an archer or lying in effigy in a premodern cathedral. When the role is played by non-Anglo actors who sing Gower’s ancient song in another style, the magic of the theater comes alive. At the same time, however, they remind their audiences of a history fraught with tension. Responding to the selection of Patrice Naiambana for the role, for instance, Joanne Tompkins observes that “[t]his was not an example of ‘colour-blind’ casting,” but “rather, this Gower actively reinforced his background and what Europe’s historical engagement with Africa has wrought”(Tompkins 2016). The same may be said for actors of color who talk back to the historical past when they reanimate the voice of a fourteenth-century Anglo poet. Through theatrical imagination and a penchant for forging allusions to present-day events these actors, in their innovations, reconfigure temporality, ethnicity, and cultural difference. The Gowers noted here—Thompson, Naiambana, Connor, Walker, and Paratene—sing a song that reminds audiences even now that imperialist regimes and unexpected natural disasters have the potential to destroy the future. At the same time, these singers of Gower’s song make the envisioning of a future possible, at least for the duration of a play.

Let me end with this: Like actors, academics have a role to play in affecting lasting change whether in our discipline or in the world, through our words, our actions, and our responses to others. As noted on the Medievalists of Color website, we not only “play key roles in the field’s past, present, and future,” but we have the means by which to transform the landscape of that field’s study. For Gower as well as those who have adapted his character and his story, music and poetry have the capacity to unify in ways that would otherwise be impossible to imagine.


Jones, Kelly. “‘The Quick and the Dead’: Performing the Poet Gower in Pericles,” in Shakespeare in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, ed. Martha Driver and Sid Ray (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), 201-14.

Bassett, Kate. Review: “Pericles, Shakespeare’s Globe, London,” 11 June 2005.

Love, Genevieve. “Tsunami in the Royal Botanic Garden: Pericles and Children of the Sea on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe,” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, 2.2 (2007): 1-11.

Dachel, Kimberly. “Review of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Children of the Sea,Theatre Journal 8.3 (2006): 495-98.

Tompkins, Jane. Theatre’s Heterotopias: Performance and the Cultural Politics of Space (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 26.

Whitworth, Charles. W. Review of Pericles,


Gower in China: Xiaoling Wu Review

Xiaoling Wu is a PhD student at the School of International Studies of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. Her major is Foreign Language and Literature, and she is currently working on her dissertation on the Confessio Amantis.



Shen, Hong. “Selected Translation of Confessio Amantis.” An Anthology of Medieval English Poetry. Taipei: Bookman Books Co. Ltd, 2009. 461-75.

Hong translates an excerpt of the Confessio Amantis, the confession on idleness and the Tale of Rosiphelee in Book 4, lines 1083-1462. As the confessional pattern goes, Gower’s Confessor first explains the new concept of idleness in love as being in love’s service while in search of love. Amans confesses that his case is quite unlike being idle. He takes the initiative to serve, or make it possible to serve his lady. The Confessor excuses him on this matter, and he creates a correlation between being idle by a refusal to love using the Tale of Rosiphelee as an exemplum.

In poetic form, Hong’s translation conforms to eight Chinese characters on each line, which is an apparent simulation of the octosyllabic line in English. Apart from that, there is little metrical parallelism since the Chinese does not retain the couplet structure throughout the Tale. Of nearly four hundred lines the eleven couplets that do appear should be ascribed to coincidence rather than intentional composition. In content, Hong sticks to a line-to-line translation on the whole. According to the well-known principles of translation proposed by Yan Fu(严复, 1854-1921), the translator should strive for a faithful, expressive, and elegant translation. Hong’s translation has lived up to the requirement for expressiveness, and the Chinese text reads coherently. Hong is skilled at selecting a culturally pertinent counterpart, instead of translating in a stiff and literal way. For example, he translates “faileth” in “He faileth ofte of that he wolde”(4.1111) as “run against the wall”[碰壁], a common metaphor for failure in Chinese parlance. To avoid repetition, Hong tries to find synonyms: “What so sche wole so wole I”(4.1171) is translated as “Her will is my intention”[她的意愿即我的初衷]. Since it is not rhymed, however, the line reads as factually prosaic rather than elegantly poetic. The four-character phrase is the most representative poetic feature of the translation. We might get a sense of this from the following translation:


English lines Chinese translations
Ne nevere schal, whil I mai go( 4.1117). 一息尚存,永远不会[One breath be, never shall so]。
Towardes love, and that was rowthe(4.1254); 懈怠爱情,终酿苦果[Having love idled, bitter fruits gained]。
Which tho was in hir lusti age(4.1267), 花信年华,正值妙龄[Year of flower, age of youth],
The madle go with the female(4.1301). 耳鬓厮磨,成双结对[Rubbing hair and ear, matching a couple];
Al lene and galled on the back,

And haltede, as he were encluyed


骨瘦如柴,满身疮痂[Skinny as firewook, scab all over],

蹄若埋钉,蹒跚而行[As if hoof nailed, staggering ahead],


Apart from the four-character phrase, there is another translation that captures the spirit and vivacity of the Middle English text. The disappearance of the woeful woman is compared to a cloud in “And with that word al sodeinly / Sche passeth, as it were a sky”(4.1435-36), which is translated as “floatingly, she gradually passes like a cloud”[她飘飘然像云彩般缓缓逝去]. The Chinese adverb “飘飘然” (floatingly) not only matches the cloud metaphor, but creates an immortal and celestial context associated with Chinese culture.

As the above example also shows, the “sudden” disappearance is translated as a “gradual” passing. Hong’s translation conveys the general idea of the didactic teaching on avoiding idleness, but it will not stand up to a line-to-line, word-for-word correspondence. Some flaws are caused by negligence. For example, the “other” in the first line “Among these othre of Slowthes kinde”(4.1083) is taken as “three” by mistake, as shown in the translation “the three kinds of Slow ghosts”[这三种懒散鬼]. Another example is that the lover “playing” with the hound and birds to avoid being sent away by his lady (4.1189) is treated as “feigning” [装扮] with the hound and birds of his lady.

There are more examples of non-correspondence in connotation caused by slight changes in tone, shifts in delivery, and variances in meaning. I shall refrain from listing these lines one by one, for as I see it, this excerpt is valuable mostly for having provided a miniature of Gower’s style and structure in the Confessio Amantis. Hong strives to elucidate some cultural meanings in the poem, as we can see when he points out in the notes the association of the mounted woman with another poem, Sir Orfeo, and the meaning of the blue and white dress of the mounted ladies. Since the non-correspondence is very confusing to me I would raise two points for further discussion.

First, Amans denies being idle as he replies to the Confessor, “Nay, fader, God I give a gifte, / That toward love, as be mi wit, / Al ydel was I nevere yit, / Ne nevere schal, whil I mai go”(4.1114-17). The “God I give a gifte” is translated as “Although I am not smart”[余虽不敏]. It seems to me that the English functions as “I swear to God,” which is far from the connotation of “gift” meaning “talent.”

Another example is the description of the burden that the poor mounted lady has been bearing: “Aboute hir middle twenty score / Of horse haltres and wel mo / Ther hyngen ate time tho”(4.1356-58) Here the translation reads “although around her waist there are more than four hundred halters, where used to hinge innumerable horses”[尽管围着她的腰间/缠有四百多个栓套,/在那儿曾拴马无数。]. I think it should not be translated with the past tense of the attributive clause. It simply says “there at that time about her waist hung more than four hundred halters.”

Overall, Hong’s version proves the general translatability of Middle English verse into Chinese verse. It is encouraging that the CA as a long poem with more than 140 tales can provide many samples for more translation practice. The concordance or the non-correspondence of the translation is worthy of additional study.


Liang, Shiqiu. “John Gower.” History of English Literature. Vol.1. Beijing: New Star Press, 2011. 93-95.

The “History of English Literature” remains a crucial means by which we might approach English literature for Chinese students and scholars. As far as I know, Liang’s History is the only version that includes an independent entry for John Gower and the Confessio Amantis. Gower is on Liang’s list of the representative poets of Chaucer’s Age (1349-1400); the friendship between Gower and Chaucer is introduced before Chaucer then becomes the center of the chapter. The introduction is quite brief, but offers information on Gower’s late marriage, blindness, and tomb as well as a synopsis of the three long poems. Liang mentions the metrics, structure, plot, and ends with commentary. While he finds the Speculum Meditantis and Vox Clamantis to be didactic and bland, he praises Chaucer’s acuteness by comparison with “moral Gower.” Liang saves the most commentary and criticism for the Confessio Amantis. He provides us with a glimpse of the poem’s favorable reception in history: The 1390 version is dedicated to King Richard II, and the 1393 version is dedicated to King Henry IV; it is said that the CA makes Gower equivalent with Chaucer as the “father of English poetry”; the number of CA manuscripts exceeds forty-three, and the CA ranks high in the list of Caxton’s 1483 publications. The CA was translated into Spanish in 1400 from a Portuguese version, which documents it as the first English literary work to be translated into a foreign language. Though Liang acknowledges the glamour of the CA, he immediately highlights the loss and lapse of its poetic honor, so that he confirms and reaffirms Gower’s inferiority to Chaucer, the time-honored poet.

Leaving aside Liang’s expression of doubt about Gower’s status as a poet, his presumption that time has excluded the poet is shaky. The resurgence of scholarship on Gower would provide evidence against his assertion.

In the synopsis, Liang introduces the affiliation of the CA to the confessional genre of religious writing. In the Prologue Gower points out from his perspective in a corrupt contemporary society that no salvation will be achieved without confession and prayer. Then suddenly Gower shifts to the topic of love and presents a confessional scene with Venus’s priest Genius on teachings and remedies for the Seven Deadly Sins with exemplary tales. At last, he is dismissed by Venus for being too old to serve at her court. As noted above, Liang’s biased opinion appears to be due to his oversimplified treatment of the CA. He seems to have been puzzled about the shift from a critical narrator in the Prologue to Amans the lover in Book I. That would be coherent, however, if the intent of “some lust and some lore” were taken into consideration, along with the social background of Gower and literary codes of courtly love. Liang also does not elaborate on the complexities of history, social conditions, politics, and science when all are of considerable significance for this work. Liang distinguishes Gower by including him in his four-volume History of English Literature, even as he seems not to have a positive opinion of Gower as a literary man. The lack of support from close textual reading, and his simplified framework of the CA makes one wonder whether he has truly read through the entire poem. Although to compose a history of English literature on one’s own and to be required to read the whole text is perhaps too harsh (and maybe it should never be one person’s burden), it would be wise not to render judgment unless one knows the poem in its entirety.


Yang, Mingcang. “Vernacular Translation in John Gower’s Prologue to Confessio Amantis.” Chung Wai Literary Quarterly 32.6 (2003): 93-110.

Yang’s paper entitled “Vernacular Translation in John Gower’s Prologue to Confessio Amantis” offers a literary review on the significance of English as the poetic language of choice in the CA. The Englishness that he covers is not limited to the Prologue. Since scattered arguments have been presented by various authors before, he justifies the critical role that English plays in the poem. First, on interpreting the decision to compose an English poem, he points out how Gower shows the historical significance of writing in English (Prol. 1-10, 23), which Wetherbee and Scanlon also note. The “New Troy” analogy (Prol. 24-92), Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and Babel are concerned with the political translatio imperii in the reign of Richard II (Prol. 24-92), as Mahoney and Copeland observe, and the New Arion represents a new authority of the poet (Yeager and Copeland). He further quotes the Tale of Florent (in Book 1) noted by Yeager to demonstrate English inheritance and alteration of the classical tradition, as Batchelor and Pearsall affirm. Second, on the mixture of Latin and English, Gower uses the authority of Latin to frame the English text, as noted by Pearsall and Machan. The Carmentis in Prol. I stands for Gower’s importing of the Latin for the control of Englishness, as Echard and Fanger assert. The Latin marginalia beside line 3106 of Book 8, the Tale of Florent in Book 1 (line 1408), the Tale of Alexander and the Pirate in Book 3 (line 2362) explain the reference of the English verses, as Minnis, Batchelor, Yeager, Pearsall, Copeland, and Wetherbee suggest. Yang’s critical review offers ample scholarship on the Englishness and ambition of Gower, though it is not quite original in terms of its arguments.

Xiaoling Wu

Zhejiang University

Gower in China!

Will Rogers’ previous post—“Where in the World is John Gower?”—seems prophetic in a way that Gower himself is likely to have applauded. Just a few weeks ago Candace Barrington, co-director of Global Chaucers, told me of a Chinese scholar who had published a book—An Anthology of Medieval English Poetry (in Chinese Translation)—that included an excerpt from Gower’s Confessio Amantis (see below).* Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued by this information and contacted the person who had done this. What I soon discovered was a scholar (Shen Hong) who had written over forty books and over 100 articles (mostly in Chinese) in addition to translating selections from the Canterbury Tales, Langland’s Piers Plowman, Lawman’s Brut, and poems such as “Pearl,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” and “Sir Orfeo.” Having studied with medieval and Renaissance scholars such as Derek Pearsall, Bruce Mitchell, Daniel Donaghue, J. A. Burrow, and Ad Putter years ago, Professor Shen returned to China to teach early English poetry in departments of English at Peking and Zhejiang universities as well as Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

The Gowerian tale that appears in Shen’s anthology is from Book 4 on Sloth, which begins with Genius’s questions to Amans about whether he is guilty of this particular sin. In a dialogue that includes Amans’ comical disclosure of what he does to express his love—escorting his lady to the chapel, playing with her puppies and pet birds, and giving her a leg up into her saddle—Genius presents the Tale of Rosiphelee as an example of why it’s not wise to wait too long to engage in Love’s activities. As many readers of the Confessio Amantis will recall, the story relates how Rosiphelee, the daughter of the King of Armenia, thwarts courtly expectations for a future marriage by being indifferent to love. Described as “lusti,” a term that suggests readiness even when there is no evidence of the lady’s desire, Rosiphelee rejects Love’s call until one spring day she has an experience that prompts a change of heart. While walking in a “park” replete with soft grass and a “gret rivere,” she decides to send her ladies away in order to be alone for awhile. This is the point at which the king’s reluctant daughter observes the mating of “the buck, the do, the hert, the hinde,” a sight that sparks doubts about her decision—“And so began ther a querele / Betwen love and hir oghne herte / From which sche couthe noght asterte (ll. 1302–04). Suddenly several ladies riding sidesaddle on resplendently appointed horses emerge from the woods. Both awestruck and fearful, Rosiphelee hides behind a bush to watch this uncanny procession, noting astutely that one of the ladies is clothed differently than the others and rides a horse “al lene and galled on the back” (ll.1343–44). Described in terms similar to those used for Rosiphelee, the lady appears in a torn dress carrying “a riche bridel” with “twenty score of horse haltres” around her waist. When Rosiphelee asks her about the circumstances of her pitiful state, the lady responds:

“Ma dame, whilom I was on / That to mi fader hadde a king; / Bot I was slow, and for nothing / Me liste noght to love obeie, / And that I now ful sore abeie. / For I whilom no love hadde, / Min hors is now so fieble and badde, / And al totore in myn arai, / And every yeer this freisshe Maii / These lusti ladis ryde aboute, / And I mot nedes suie here route / In this manere as ye now se, / And trusse here haltres forth with me, / And am bot as here horse knave.” (ll. 1386–99)

We soon learn that the lady died before experiencing love’s effects, and she is now being punished by having to carry the bridles, like a “horse knave,” for those who were more willing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is the scene that appears in MS Morgan 126, F. 74v.


When I asked Professor Shen why he had selected this particular Gowerian tale for inclusion in his anthology, he said that for him it was a carpe diem lesson that recalled another poem close to his heart—Queen Elizabeth I’s “When I was Fair and Young.” Certainly the regret expressed by Gower’s Rosiphelee is eerily similar to that pronounced by the Queen of England nearly two centuries later. But what is especially significant about Shen’s association of Gower’s Tale with Queen Elizabeth’s poem, it seems to me, is not only that both narratives acknowledge an issue of great concern to actual noblewomen, but that both speak to the debilitating effects of growing old, a theme that resonates throughout the Confessio Amantis. Clearly there is much more to be said about the provocative correspondence between John Gower and Elizabeth I, and we can thank Professor Shen for opening the door to further exploration.

*Here is the link to his translation of the Tale of Rosiphelee: translation

Eve Salisbury

Where in the World is John Gower?

What in the world does Gower have to do with the global, and what might we mean by “global Gower”?  With Gower’s intense interest in the politics of his day and the inscription of what might be local for him onto his texts, failing to see him as a global author is certainly a danger. Unlike Chaucer, Gower’s poetry perhaps isn’t global in its reach—I’m not sure when (if ever) we’ll see Confessio Amantis, Mirour de l’Omme, or Vox Clamantis translated into a range of modern languages. Indeed, as recent scholarship on Gower often demonstrates, even medievalists might not know or have read Gower beyond the English works. And yet, I think it’s hard to argue against the poet’s global nature. He seems to have considered himself an author of more than just English, a true trilingual poet, fluent in Latin and French as well as English.



(Here I am posing with Gower’s effigy in Southwark during a research trip to London in 2011)

Take, for example, the figure of Gower in what is now Southwark Cathedral. Gower—pictured on the right—rests for all eternity on his books. His reputation and fame, and the support for his head—is supported by works in the three languages he knew and used.  And, of course, all his works seem invested in not only the contemporary events of his day, but also in events of the past and future, and here, I think, is where we might look to the role that Gower might have in the globe (or Globe). For Confessio Amantis, Gower’s great English poem, confession is central to the kinds of worlds Confessio creates. Confession seems to allow a person to enter into a conversation and a relationship beyond the self, while nevertheless foregrounding that self. Thus, Amans, the penitent, can move from his own sins and life to those of the past, to exempla of a kind of shared existence. And appropriately, before I get to those worlds, I have a bit of a confession to make. Like Amans, I have tarried too long and failed to get the blog done early enough. It was meant to showcase a response to a panel organized by The Gower Project for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2016. But, like Amans, I have not waited in vain. Indeed, because the world went on spinning as I waited, events unfolded which made the papers for that session—by Shyama Rajendran, Seth Strickland, and Eve Salisbury—all the more timely, bringing Gower and what is medieval into conversation with the postmedieval.

“IF YOU BREXIT, YOU BUY IT!”—I saw this somewhere on Twitter, and seemingly everywhere on protest signs in London in early July. Brexit, the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, was both an exit and the sundering of a certain kind of global relationship. England and the UK, it appeared, wanted out of the EU, and the rewards for that break have either not materialized or have simply proven untrue: Nigel Farage claimed leaving would save immense amounts of money, a claim that he himself will not (and cannot) prove.  Across the Atlantic, over the summer, America dealt (and deals) with its own move away from the globe, and this is more than fear about the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP seems to present real challenges for specific countries, and its effect on American workers is uncertain at best. No, I’m thinking of the Wall. Donald J. Trump’s proposed wall to block Mexico (literally) from the United States has proven something of a fantasy: a certain segment of American voters seems unwilling to give up the notion of a United States, united physically by walls, set against a larger world. But Mexico refuses to pay for it, and the costs of isolationism can far outpace the initial investment.

As large portions of the West appear to turn away from the global, how might medievalists respond? David Wallace, of course, did so quite eloquently. And, without repeating what’s already been said, seeing Gower as global as Chaucer, as invested in world-making, as interested in the world behind his local environs, might give us tools to think about and respond to shortsighted attempts to divorce ourselves from the world.

Indeed, Gower can help. His texts continue to the site of innovative work, as line and verse, in all three languages in which he writes, themselves eternally generative of thought and interpretation.


(London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A. IV)

Above, Gower shoots at the globe: this very famous image might be a good place to consider the three papers for “Global Gower” and their readings of Gower and the globe, as this image shows Gower with bow ready. He hasn’t, of course, shot at his target and maybe he’s just pointing. The pose is locked forever in time as an attempt, and perhaps that’s the best kind of opening to consider these papers as each deals individually with what might be called a kind of globe-making in Gower. For Shyama Rajendran, this globe-making turns on the polyvocality of Gower’s Vox Clamantis and animacy: for Seth Strickland, it’s about the globes of Confessio and Pericles and how we might think of these two worlds being read together, and finally, for Eve Salisbury, the globe takes on a dynamic meaning—shuttling between the Globe as theatrical space and the world as space for making theatrical globes.

In “Going Feral: Uncontrollable Languages in the Vox Clamantis,” Shyama rightly fleshes out the nature of vernacular tongues, reading in the multitude of linguistic creations in the Vox and Gower’s own trilingual existence, a kind of premodern globalization, if we might use that clunky (and over-used formulation). In her own words, in tracing the animalistic speech of Vox Clamantis, one can rethink the Latinity of the poem, moving to a complicating (in good ways) view of Latin, French, and English as more equal—Latin as another vernacular, as living as English, which too often seems triumphant and dominant in histories of the fourteenth century. Shyama’s willingness to read the globe of Gower in relation to our own, to draw contrasts between the multilingual experience of Gower in his sphere, and the monolingual experience so intertwined with the American political context reinforces the power of Gower to uphold a global understanding not only of his texts but of the past’s influence on what we do in the present. What is particularly resonant is the global nature of language and speech in Shyama’s reading of Vox Clamantis, as she imagines not only the disruption of Latin and its meter by the naming of monstrous dogs with English names, but also the cacophony of nature and the earth: the poem in this reading is feral in its overabundance of sounds, voices, and languages, which, even if Gower might read darkly, modern readers are free to read more positively: perhaps these feral languages can be seen as a recuperation of a moment when different languages existed together, even if uneasily. Gower doesn’t construct walls between languages, nor does he pretend that linguistic cohabitation is easy.

Next Seth, in “Spheres of Intercourse: Incest, Revelation, and Authorial Influence in Pericles and Confessio Amantis,” explores the textual worlds of Gower: both the one he creates and the one that creates him (and tellingly, this formulation describes Confessio and Pericles respectively, and Confessio and Confessio).  Seth, I think, like Gower and Shakespeare, has breathed new life into an old subject and set before us the global nature of texts. Many medievalists have written about or thought through Gower’s agency in Pericles—I know I have—and yet, in really innovative ways Seth shows how in “ignoring the ashy medieval Ghost” of Gower, Shakespeare’s play actually deeply involves that ghost. And I’m intrigued by the formulation that the play doesn’t speak about or of Gower, but rather with Gower. Gower, I think, and I hope I’m not reading too much or too violently what Seth is arguing here, becomes part of the globe that Pericles traverses, in part because both Pericles and Marina share something with Gower: “the reversal of sexual aberrance to familial generation and resulting self knowledge.” So, for both Pericles and Gower/Amans, avoiding the wrong kind of love is facilitated by finding the right kind of self. Connecting the worlds then of Confessio Amantis and Pericles, Seth illustrates how the play both “is and is like relating a story: the reader cannot change the story while he retells an identical story, but changes in emphasis are not only impossible, but unavoidable.” Translation and retelling are complicated by Seth’s critical voicing here, but, like Shyama, he balances the costs of living in and among different worlds with the rewards, which far outweigh the former. Nigel Farage, are you listening?

It seems appropriate that Eve’s paper ended our session, following Seth’s, which itself brought Gower more forcefully into Shakespeare’s present. What I found so intriguing about Eve’s discussion of the globe and the Globe (world first, theater second) is the slipperiness of the world globe and the idea of stage—both as a stage of life and stage upon which that life is performed. Ultimately, I heard and saw Eve working through how Gower can be handled dynamically, globally, and how changes to the performances of that choral role bring the original slippage between Shakespeare’s Globe (as theater) and Gower’s globe (as world) to life. At this year’s Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I heard different speakers talk about the importance and relevancy of the Middle Ages, and here we might see how, by resurrecting Gower, Pericles reenacts in each performance, globally, what we try to do with the Middle Ages: “Over time and successive performances of Shakespeare’s Pericles in various venues around the world Gower becomes more than a dead poet interred in Southwark’s cathedral; rather, he becomes a cipher of change who can be played in ways that reach well beyond the Globe’s stage.” Like Pericles‘s Gower, who moves from the Globe’s stage to a global stage, we as medievalists refuse to bury the Middle Ages. With each performance and resurrection of the poet, Pericles then shows the dynamic nature of the literature, history, language, and culture we study. And by forcing modern readers, scholars, and students to live in worlds apart and worlds close by, medievalists can use the texts and materials we study, especially Gower, to reinforce what we know to be true. You can’t escape the world.

And what Gower knows perhaps, and what we can learn from him, is that the world cannot be made perfect. Global greatness might rely on the individual who immerses herself in the world, and this is the most honest campaign slogan we can imagine. Make Gower great again!

Will Rogers

University of Louisiana, Monroe

Gower’s Social Poetics: A Thought Experiment

Lately, I’ve been concerned wit604px-DeathWatTylerFullh the social. In fact, I think it’s a fair assessment (or just fair) to say that we’ve all been concerned with the social—whether the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Syrian refugee crisis, or the always-shifting, never-ending war on terror with its most recent manifestation in San Bernardino, CA. My moments of introspection about these matters have led me to consider how what I do as a medievalist speaks to such moments of social unrest, upheaval, etc. For example, can we compare moments of social unrest in medieval England, such as the Rebellion of 1381, to the current wave of protests in the US and abroad? Aren’t the economic situations and class stratification eerily similar?

And, inevitably, in this process I turn to John Gower.

Immediately, though, some readers will wonder why I would turn to Gower. We who work on this poet constantly must answer this question (see the titles of the previous two blog posts). However, my goal in this post is not to defend Gower. Rather, I write from the premise that it is only Gower who allows us to find something of ourselves in the tales that he spun over five hundred years ago. As Lynn Arner notes in her recent post, “The end of Confessio stages a miraculous transformation of Amans into Gower’s ideal reader: the narcissistic, apathetic lover becomes an enlightened reader who understands the need for social change and who abandons amorous pursuits to reflect on societal strife and to pursue the common good” (par. 10). Rather than consider Gower’s specific goal for change, however, I want to consider how Gower envisions the social.

As Shyama Rajendran quite astutely points out in her recent post, “we should take seriously the forcefulness of [Gower’s] critique of social systems” (par.9). But then I pause on the word “social” again.

Does Gower understand the social in the same way as we do?

I quote Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social at length here in order to query this term, social:

A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative—it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical, natural—and some positive—it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order. Once this domain had been defined, no matter how vaguely, it could then be used to shed some light on specifically social phenomena—the social could explain the social—and to provide a certain type of explanation for what the other domains could not account for—an appeal to ‘social factors’ could explain the ‘social aspects’ of non-social phenomena (3).

This definition of the social typically guides our analyses and considerations of Gower’s work in relation to the systems of late feudalism in fourteenth-century England. We, as Gower scholars, have spilled an enormous amount of ink on how Gower’s poetry addresses a number of social phenomena. In so doing, we have tacitly declared that the social is defined, understood, agreed upon, and, even in the tumultuous fourteenth century, somewhat stable.

My point here is not to claim that all of this scholarship (including my own) is wrong and/or faulty. Instead, I want us to consider how, borrowing from Latour’s title, we might reassemble our conception of “social” to bring about new insights about the social in Gower’s poetry and, in so doing, find connections to networks and systems in our society today.

Latour redefines the social in his work as “the tracing of associations,” and continues, “in this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves “social” (5). We eliminate the ambiguous framework that we refer to as social and replace it with a system of networks made up of the interactions among the individual components. In this new formulation of the social, the only way to discuss such phenomena is through observing, describing, and critiquing the exchanges between independent entities.

And isn’t this exactly what Gower does? The entire tale-telling process in Confessio Amantis is about the social. Through these tales, Gower examines interactions between individuals, entities, things, etc. We tend to assimilate these individual tales into the larger picture of the work as a whole—one that supports the traditional notion of society as always existing infrastructure—yet in their conception as tales they are aimed toward individual associations, first among the characters within the tales and then moving outward between Amans and the glosses Genius provides. The act of reading itself, too, becomes social in this understanding of the idea of social because, as Latour discusses above, it is a way of connecting—associating—ourselves with the text and its component parts. (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Of course, rereading Confessio from this perspective seems counter to the text’s own professed aim. Gower, so it goes, espouses unity and (conservative) establishment throughout Confessio. However, Gower’s understanding of how such unity may be accomplished does not always follow. For instance, in the Commons section of the Prologue, Gower writes that there is “defalte non” in God and “So moste it stonde upon ousselve” (Pr. 524-25). We must not be divided within ourselves, then, because “man is cause of that schal falle” (Pr. 528). In other words, what is yet to come will be the result of humankind’s actions. Gower is not necessarily arguing here that humans (the commoners, in any case) adhere to established order; rather, he points out that we cannot succeed in our interactions if we ourselves are internally divided.

Internal division problmatizes both agency and intention, which leads inevitably to a failure of the social in this reconsideration. The fault is not the human to accept a preexisting order—it is our inability to associate externally as a result of what we might consider internal dissociation. This theme of internal division continues throughout this section of the Prologue, and we see the clearest exposition of this situation when the narrator states: And thus stant al the worldes werk / After the disposicioun / Of man and his condicioun (Pr. 942-44).

The world’s division results from the internal division of humankind. The social has broken down because the individual components within the network of associations have broken down.

Reading Gower’s Confessio is a necessarily social act in Latour’s understanding of the social. As we examine the connections between the individual pieces—estates, humans, animals, boats, nations—we examine ourselves in connection to these same pieces and to the larger tales in which they occur. Some critics may consider this relationship to be didactic, but I would instead offer this association as simply another connection to examine as we reassemble our understandings and definitions of the social.

To return to the question I posed earlier: Does Gower understand the social in the same way that we do? I do not know for certain, but I think Confessio‘s representation of social differs markedly from traditional modern conceptions. Gower offers a social poetics that engages the reader in a co-creation of interpersonal connections and relationship. As a result, the reader, whether premodern or modern, is always a part of the social contexts of the text. The text speaks to us, and we speak to the text. This ongoing textual conversation does not just allow for coeval comparisons—it creates them. As readers bring themselves to the text, they bring their contexts, too, to bear on it, thus automatically making associations, comparisons, and networks of ongoing communication.

Gower’s social poetics, then, speak to the questions and answers provided by Arner’s and Rajendran’s previous posts. Whether we “like” Chaucer more than Gower, as Arner acknowledges, depends on our tastes for narrative. Gower makes us read and, therefore, think in a way fundamentally differently from Chaucer. Whereas Chaucer provides explicit depictions of types, Gower provides only associations. With Gower’s social poetics that often lack narrative depiction, then, we find the coeval that Rajendran suggests. We may insert ourselves—perhaps even must insert ourselves—into these associations, and in so doing, we may discover how to bring such associative relationships into our present discourses. In essence, we create opportunities for coevalisms in any reading of Gower’s Confessio because we enter as a component in an ever-expanding network. We may also, then, serve as a conduit between our present environment and Gower’s in order to increase our understanding of both in a newly formed context.

This latter point is especially disorienting to those of us who have lived under the impression that society exists independently from its various components as a historically situated context. But by reading Gower, as I hope this entry has at least begun to show, we find a way to question such monolithic structures through reasserting that they do not exist outside of the interactions of their component parts. We, like Gower, must consider how our networks of associations create, rather than are created by, the social. Following Gower’s lead in Confessio, we, too, can productively query our present assemblage of the social in order to change it. We can create coeval networks that connect the premodern past and the present in ways that alter our understanding of both.

Jeff Stoyanoff
Spring Hill College


Why Do We Read Gower?

I’d like to begin by sharing a story about my experiences teaching Gower’s Confessio Amantis in an undergrad medieval literature class in Fall 2014. After successfully teaching Book I of Gower’s Latin Vox Clamantis earlier that week in which Gower details an apocalyptic dream vision generally read to be an allegory of the Rising of 1381, I was filled with enthusiasm. For the second part of this Gower week, I had the students read part of the Prologue to the Confessio, the “Tale of Constance” (since we had read Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale) and part of Book 8. I assigned these particular readings thinking that this way students would be able to see the differences between the two recensions and would then be able to compare Gower’s Constance story with Chaucer’s version. This was going to be great! I thought.

Nope. That class was probably the most uncomfortable seventy-five minutes of my life. My students were pretty hostile—Gower, after all, isn’t interesting, they said. His characters weren’t compelling. The story was boring.

I looked back on why this experience was such a failure, and I realized that it didn’t work because I had tried to teach Gower in the way that I teach Chaucer.

I asked myself why I find Gower so compelling (my scholarship is largely about him, after all). By modern standards, Gower’s characters seem flat and his stories seem underdeveloped; narrative in itself does not appear to be his primary interest. Gower does not seem to set out to craft compelling stories driven by life-like dialogue. Such features are, of course, the reasons that people find Chaucer so much more interesting.

What Gower does care about are systems—social systems, relationships of power, and the idea that humanity’s internal state is reflected by the state of the larger world. Gower expounds upon these particular topics at length in all three of his major works. He believes in upholding the structure of the socioeconomic system that exists in his historical moment, but considers it to be fundamentally broken. People are corrupt, sin is rampant, and basically almost everything is terrible, according to Gower. He is a systems theorist, as we see through his view of a world made up of complex but interrelated and interdependent parts.

This teaching experience is why I was compelled to respond to Lynn Arner’s thought-provoking blog post, “Why Do We Care More About Chaucer Than Gower?” (see previous post.) Arner writes eloquently about the values that modern scholars ascribe to Chaucer and the way in which those values colour scholarly perceptions of Gower. (Gower, for example, is a gentry elitist whose politics potentially make modern scholars uncomfortable.) However, here are my fundamental questions about the entire conversation around comparing Gower to Chaucer: Can we avoid creating a false equivalence between these two writers? What gets lost when we continuously cast Gower as a foil to Chaucer? While the two writers had a friendship and certainly cite each other, why must Chaucer continue to be the standard for how we read Gower? Reading Gower and Chaucer in the same way, as if they have the same goals as writers, doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Arner writes that Gower’s political investments are what make scholars perceive him as “dull” and “uninteresting.” I would argue that those investments are exactly what make him incredibly compelling. This being said, those interests seem less glamorous when we attempt to interrogate Gower’s work with the premise that narrative and character development are what matter. We, as literature scholars, tend to find storytelling interesting, which predisposes us to be attracted to Chaucer.  However, starting with Chaucer colours our reading of other writers who don’t do the same kind of work. Chaucer, for a host of historical reasons, has become our access point to medieval English literature, and thus we fall into a tautological trap thanks to his labeling of Gower—Gower is “moral” because he’s not Chaucer, and he’s not Chaucer because he’s moral.

So how does the entire conversation change when Gower, rather than Chaucer, becomes our entry point into medieval English writing?

Arner writes that Chaucer also “creates the illusion of an inclusive world” and that his poetry “offers a complex multiple address capable of speaking to numerous groups.” This is absolutely true. However, I would argue that in a decade where more and more conversations have arisen about structural oppression across the board—from Occupy Wall Street, to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, to the conversation about women in STEM, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to the crisis of academic adjuncts—Gower’s interest in the urgent reform of systems and his earnest approach to ethics has never been more relevant. Arner observes that “Gower occupies a recognizable position on the socioeconomic ladder and promotes ideologies that work to preserve his privileged place in society,” but even if Gower’s political stances don’t align with the sensibilities of modern-day academics, we should take seriously the forcefulness of his critique of social systems. Moreover, we in medieval literature studies have been thinking about systems as well. There have been amazing and valuable contributions to postcolonial, queer, ecocritical, and disability studies by medieval literary scholars. However, even those of us who do read Gower have largely not attended to the ways in which the poet offers us a vocabulary to address these fields. By giving ourselves permission to read Gower as Gower, we might arrive at a critical social awareness—one that is coeval with the concerns of the present and not solely bounded as historically medieval.

Thinking beyond Chaucerian frameworks doesn’t mean that we have to stop caring about Chaucer, but it might open up a whole new world of how we read Gower as Gower.

Shyama Rajendran

The George Washington University

Why Do We Care More About Chaucer Than Gower?

In his posting in May 2014 to The New Chaucer Society’s website, Mark Miller asks “Why do we Care about Chaucer?” Miller argues, “Chaucer’s poetry, particularly the Canterbury Tales, is exceptionally well-suited to the material and ideological conditions of higher education.” “Chaucer, unlike Langland,” Miller remarks, “wrote in a way that the institutional structures of 20th-century higher education ended up finding convenient.” Miller provides good reasons for Chaucer’s appeal in higher education. I wish to add to Miller’s insights. Reasons for Chaucer’s appeal in contemporary American classrooms become more evident when his poetry is placed alongside the writings of John Gower, a poet who usually receives short shrift in literature courses.

Part of the lure of the Canterbury Tales is encapsulated by the phrase “Diverse folk diversely they seyde” (Reeve’s Prologue, l. 3857). In this era when academe promulgates a neoliberal rhetoric of inclusion, a text that appears to offer diversity is particularly compelling. In English departments, syllabi often feature writings, both literary and theoretical, by a range of authors from different ethnicities, races, socioeconomic positions, and sexualities, a range seldom matched by the demographics of bodies in university classrooms. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is populated with characters from an ostensibly wide range of occupations and socioeconomic strata, and within this motley crew, more differences abound: the pilgrimage features religious and secular figures, a seemingly protofeminist character, a differently gendered character (the Pardoner), and even a same-sex couple (the Pardoner and Summoner). Moreover, fictive Jews and Muslims appear in the “Prioress’s Tale” and the “Man of Law’s Tale.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales creates the illusion of an inclusive world, where knights, merchants, lawyers, millers, artisans, plowmen, and high- and low-ranking religious figures, male and female, can all sit at the same table and conduct a grand conversation about the world, a fiction inflecting William Caxton’s image of the pilgrims seated around a large table, an engraving in his second edition of the Canterbury Tales in 1484 (see fig. 1).Canterbury_Tales The persuasiveness of Chaucer’s execution of this illusion was encapsulated in the now discarded assumption that Alison, the weaver from Bath, somehow represents the interests of late fourteenth-century Englishwomen and offers a window into their subjectivities.

The Canterbury Tales creates this illusion of diversity in other ways as well. In addition to offering a wide range of genres and poetic forms, Chaucerian poetry, as Miller points out, is rich in signification and seems capable of perpetually generating fresh insights. This endless proliferation of meaning is valued in an educational system structured by an ideology of individualism, where readers are encouraged to invent their own innovative readings, a multiplicity that acts as proof of each student’s own unique talents and capacities. Such endless possibilities for meaning create the impression that Chaucer’s poetry offers a complex multiple address capable of speaking to numerous groups, that there is something for (almost) everyone in Chaucer’s poetry.

Just as Chaucer’s narrational layering prevents any easy stabilization of meaning, these levels of mediation thwart a stabilization of politics. Chaucer is notoriously difficult to pin down regarding any particular stance, which makes him ideal for a humanist literary practice that understands politics to be outside poetry’s domain. As Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron have argued, the study of Art in educational institutions promotes the celebration and appreciation of bourgeois aesthetics, where, by implication, discussions of Art in relation to economics and politics are dismissed as naïve, reductive, or even boorish. Chaucerian poetry disavows any relation to power struggles beyond the text, as the staging of Cupid’s complaint in the Legend of Good Women indicates. Cupid complains that Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde makes men trust women less and that Chaucer’s translation of the Roman de la Rose deters would-be suitors from joining the court of love. In short, Cupid’s lament insists that poetry shapes a reader’s consciousness and affects such behaviors. Yet the bulk of the Legend argues that whoever asks poetry to be held accountable for its politics lacks a true understanding of how to read and appreciate poetry, as the example of stupid Cupid attests. Furthermore, the Legend insists that authors who explicitly attempt to produce socially responsible poetry generate dull, sterile art. Through such logic, the Legend critiques an approach to poetry that, at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer aligns with Gower.

The near impossibility of determining Chaucer’s own stances and the unlocatability of his political interests make him an ideal figure to celebrate in humanist approaches to authorship. Chaucer seems to speak from no position in particular but seems to stand above the fray; he appears to occupy a position outside social conflict in his day, providing a neutral, enlightened vision of society. Chaucer’s poetry helped carve out this humanist position for an author at the founding moments of the transmission of a Greco-Roman literary tradition into the English vernacular in the late fourteenth century.

From among the medieval English poets, Chaucer is an obvious choice to honor in contemporary American academe because he worked for a living: as a court page, ambassador, comptroller of customs, justice of the peace, keeper of the king’s works, and poet. Current sensibilities generally find it more palatable to honor a poet who worked in secular occupations than one who lead either a life of leisure as an aristocrat or a life of devotion as a religious cleric. Socioeconomically, compared to many other medieval poets, Chaucer is thought to resemble more closely the majority of scholars in contemporary English departments, so much so that Chaucer is recurrently misidentified as middle class rather than as a member of the proto-bourgeoisie, whose family members belonged to the wealthy mercantile elite and owned substantial property in London.

Chaucer is an ideal author because his ironic tone resembles one celebrated in conventional English literary studies. As Bourdieu and Passeron explain, bourgeois students typically possess mannered elegance, ironic casualness, and grace, and are therefore seen as naturally gifted and talented. Such ironic casualness is highly prized in contemporary academe. By contrast, students whose habits reveal the work and effort that they dedicate to their studies are routinely devalued, interpreted as lacking the gift. Presenting cultural pastimes as a game, Chaucer’s tone is self-assured, demonstrating a commanding ease. Chaucer’s poetry seems effortless, a model to emulate for those who aspire to the types of bourgeois characteristics and aesthetics rewarded in our educational system.

On many of these counts Gower stands as a model not to emulate. Compared to Chaucer’s ease, the stilted learnedness of Gower’s writings bespeaks a poet who expended considerable effort and labor to create his art and hence betrays a poet who must not have been that talented. Likewise, composed in multiple languages, unlike Chaucer’s poetry, Gower’s oeuvre requires hard work and effort to master. Gower’s writings are conventionally seen as didactic and plodding. His poetry is not thickly layered with levels of narration and, although impressive, is seemingly not as productive of new meanings as the work of Chaucer. Moreover, Gower’s fictional narrators do not produce an illusion of diversity: Amans, for example, is a wealthy heterosexual man of leisure, moreover, who is elderly in the end. Gower’s Confessio and Vox Clamantis offer little pretense within the narrative frame of having truck with people from different walks of life. Moreover, unlike the Canterbury Tales, Gower’s poetic style creates no formalist illusions of diversity, since his poetic form is not highly varied. To many, Gower’s work seems dull.

Worse, Gower is rather heavy-handed and upfront about his politics in most of his writings. The stances he promotes, such as insisting that the members of the social body must bow to the ruling classes, are often considered embarrassing. A leisured member of the landed gentry (i.e., the lower levels of the aristocracy) and an investor in mercantile ventures in wool, Gower occupies a recognizable position on the socioeconomic ladder and promotes ideologies that work to preserve his privileged place in society. His aristocratic status does not generally sit well with current English scholars, as commonplace attempts to recast Gower as middle class attest. Similarly, Gower’s defense of the socioeconomic hierarchy is unsettling, as the frequent defenses by Gower scholars of his stance on class indicate: the ubiquitousness in Gower studies of the iconic image of this poet shooting his arrow at a world divided into the three estates acts as such a disavowal mechanism, implying that Gower does not defend the ruling classes but judiciously critiques the faults of the various socioeconomic groups in late fourteenth-century England (see fig. 2).John_Gower_world_Vox_Clamantis

Gower understands—and explicitly operates on the assumption—that poetry shapes consciousness and affects lives, a stance that many late medieval authors held, such as William Langland and writers of saints’ lives. However, such an understanding of poetry is not hegemonically endorsed in current medieval English literary studies, and, when it is endorsed, scholars generally prefer poetry that participates in subtle ways in shaping consciousness and the political terrain rather than poetry that is explicitly didactic, especially when a text promotes a conservative agenda.

With its more casual tone and amorous short tales, Gower’s final tome, the Confessio Amantis, seems to echo Chaucerian poetry. Seeing the audiences that his colleague garnered with his amusing tales, often of love, the senior poet attempted, in his final major work, to win the widest audience possible, as his linguistic shift from Anglo-Norman and Latin to English attests. In the Confessio, Amans stands as a specter of a type of reader that Gower attempted to recruit: a leisured person who is eager to hear and speak at length of love, a figure who demonstrates apathy toward society, a reader to whom Chaucer’s amorous poetry is addressed. The end of the Confessio stages a miraculous transformation of Amans into Gower’s ideal reader: the narcissistic, apathetic lover becomes an enlightened reader who understands the need for social change and who abandons amorous pursuits to reflect on societal strife and to pursue the common good. The Confessio enacts a fantasy of recruiting Chaucerian audiences to a more politicized version of literature with readers ultimately acting in more socially conscious ways as a result. The Confessio stages this recruitment fantasy not just about Chaucer’s readers but about Chaucer himself, a fantasy articulated rather baldly at the end of the Ricardian Confessio, where Venus requests that Chaucer write more like Gower.

In a few ways, Gower is conventionally considered as appealing, sometimes more so, than Chaucer. Like Chaucer, Gower’s transmission of Greco-Roman riches into English and his invitation to readers to enter the treasure trove of cultural riches enshrined in the Confessio attracts contemporary scholars and students alike. Similarly, a mastery of Gower’s oeuvre offers impressive cultural capital, even more than a mastery of Chaucer’s works. Like his colleague, Gower helps carve out for English literature the locus of the humanist author, the visionary who stands outside his society and who offers a disinterested view. Of course, Gower’s promotion of the illusion of the neutral observer contradicts his rather stark statements about the social order. Despite the contradiction, however, some medieval English literary scholars prefer the type of poet that Gower represents compared to Chaucer: namely, a poet who is less dissembling about his politics—regardless how problematic—over those authors who disingenuously disavow that poetry shapes readers’ understandings of themselves, others, and the world around them, even while proceeding under the knowledge that literature does exactly that.

Lynn Arner
Brock University