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