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