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