John Gower Biography | Poet
GOWER, JOHN (d. 1408), English poet, died at an advanced age in 1408, so that he may be presumed to have been born about 1330. He belonged to a good Kentish family, but the suggestion of Sir Harris Nicolas that the poet is to be identified with a John Gower who was at one time possessed of the manor of Kentwell is open to serious objections. There is no evidence that he ever lived as a country gentleman, but he was undoubtedly possessed of some wealth, and we know that he was the owner of the manors of Feltwell in Suffolk and Moulton in Norfolk. In a document of 1382 he is called an “Esquier de Kent,” and he was certainly not in holy orders. That he was acquainted with Chaucer we know, first because Chaucer in leaving England for Italy in 1378 appointed Gower and another to represent him in his absence, secondly because Chaucer addressed his Troilus and Criseide to Gower and Strode (whom he addresses as “moral Gower” and “philosophical Strode”) for criticism and correction, and thirdly because of the lines in the first edition of Gower’s Confessio amantis, “And gret wel Chaucer whan ye mete,” &c. There is no sufficient ground for the suggestion, based partly on the subsequent omission of these lines and partly on the humorous reference of Chaucer to Gower’s Confessio amantis in the introduction to the Man of Law’s Tale, that the friendship was broken by a quarrel. From his Latin poem 299Vox clamantis we know that he was deeply and painfully interested in the peasants’ rising of 1381; and by the alterations which the author made in successive revisions of this work we can trace a gradually increasing sense of disappointment in the youthful king, whom he at first acquits of all responsibility for the state of the kingdom on account of his tender age. That he became personally known to the king we learn from his own statement in the first edition of the Confessio amantis, where he says that he met the king upon the river, was invited to enter the royal barge, and in the conversation which followed received the suggestion which led him to write his principal English poem. At the same time we know, especially from the later revisions of the Confessio amantis, that he was a great admirer of the king’s brilliant cousin, Henry of Lancaster, afterwards Henry IV., whom he came eventually to regard as a possible saviour of society from the misgovernment of Richard II. We have a record that in 1393 he received a collar from his favourite political hero, and it is to be observed that the effigy upon Gower’s tomb is wearing a collar of SS. with the swan badge which was used by Henry.
The first edition of the Confessio amantis is dated 1390, and this contains, at least in some copies, a secondary dedication to the then earl of Derby. The later form, in which Henry became the sole object of the dedication, is of the year 1393. Gower’s political opinions are still more strongly expressed in the Cronica tripartita.
In 1398 he was married to Agnes Groundolf, and from the special licence granted by the bishop of Winchester for the celebration of this marriage in John Gower’s private oratory we gather that he was then living in lodgings assigned to him within the priory of St Mary Overy, and perhaps also that he was too infirm to be married in the parish church. It is probable that this was not his first marriage, for there are indications in his early French poem that he had a wife at the time when that was written. His will is dated the 15th of August 1408, and his death took place very soon after this. He had been blind for some years before his death. A magnificent tomb with a recumbent effigy was erected over his grave in the chapel of St John the Baptist within the church of the priory, now St Saviour’s, Southwark, and this is still to be seen, though not quite in its original state or place. From the inscription on the tomb, as well as from other indications, it appears that he was a considerable benefactor of the priory and contributed largely to the rebuilding of the church.
The effigy on Gower’s tomb rests its head upon a pile of three folio volumes entitled Speculum meditantis, Vox clamantis and Confessio amantis. These are his three principal works. The first of these was long supposed to have perished, but a copy of it was discovered in the year 1895 under the title Mirour de l’omme. It is a French poem of about 30,000 lines in twelve-line stanzas, and under the form of an allegory of the human soul describes the seven deadly sins and their opposing virtues, and then the various estates of man and the vices incident to each, concluding with a narrative of the life of the Virgin Mary, and with praise of her as the means of reconciliation between God and man. The work is extremely tedious for the most part, but shows considerable command over the language and a great facility in metrical expression.
Gower’s next work was the Vox clamantis in Latin elegiac verse, in which the author takes occasion from the peasants’ insurrection of 1381 to deal again with the faults of the various classes of society. In the earlier portion the insurrection itself is described in a rather vivid manner, though under the form of an allegory: the remainder contains much the same material as we have already seen in that part of the French poem where the classes of society are described. Gower’s Latin verse is very fair, as judged by the medieval standard, but in this book he has borrowed very freely from Ovid, Alexander Neckam, Peter de Riga and others.
Gower’s chief claim, however, to reputation as a poet rests upon his English work, the Confessio amantis, in which he displays in his native language a real gift as a story-teller. He is himself the lover of his poem, in spite of his advancing years, and he makes his confession to Genius, the priest of Venus, under the usual headings supplied by the seven deadly sins. These with their several branches are successively described, and the nature of them illustrated by tales, which are directed to the illustration both of the general nature of the sin, and of the particular form which it may take in a lover. Finally he receives at once his absolution, and his dismissal from the service of Venus, for which his age renders him unfit. The idea is ingenious, and there is often much quaintness of fancy in the application of moral ideas to the relations of the lover and his mistress. The tales are drawn from very various sources and are often extremely well told. The metre is the short couplet, and it is extremely smooth and regular. The great fault of the Confessio amantis is the extent of its digressions, especially in the fifth and seventh books.
Gower also wrote in 1397 a short series of French ballades on the virtue of the married state (Traitié pour essampler les amantz mariés), and after the accession of Henry IV. he produced the Cronica tripartita, a partisan account in Latin leonine hexameters of the events of the last twelve years of the reign of Richard II. About the same time he addressed an English poem in seven-line stanzas to Henry IV. (In Praise of Peace), and dedicated to the king a series of French ballades (Cinkante Balades), which deal with the conventional topics of love, but are often graceful and even poetical in expression. Several occasional Latin pieces also belong to the later years of his life.
On the whole Gower must be admitted to have had considerable literary powers; and though not a man of genius, and by no means to be compared with Chaucer, yet he did good service in helping to establish the standard literary language, which at the end of the 14th century took the place of the Middle English dialects. The Confessio amantis was long regarded as a classic of the language, and Gower and Chaucer were often mentioned side by side as the fathers of English poetry.
A complete edition of Gower’s works in four volumes, edited by G. C. Macaulay, was published in 1899-1902, the first volume containing the French works, the second and third the English, and the fourth the Latin, with a biography. Before this the Confessio amantis had been published in the following editions: Caxton (1483); Berthelette (1532 and 1554); Chalmers, British Poets (1810); Reinhold Pauli (1857); H. Morley (1889, incomplete). The two series of French ballades and the Praise of Peace were printed for the Roxburghe Club in 1818, and the Vox clamantis andCronica tripartita were edited by H. O. Coxe for the Roxburghe Club in 1850. The Cronica tripartita, the Praise of Peace and some of the minor Latin poems were printed in Wright’s Political Poems (Rolls series, 14). The Praise of Peace appeared in the early folio editions of Chaucer, and has been edited also by Dr Skeat in his Chaucerian and other Pieces. Reference may be made to Todd’s Illustrations of the Lives and Writings of Gower and Chaucer; the article (by Sir H. Nicolas) in the Retrospective Review for 1828; Observations on the Language of Chaucer and Gower, by F. J. Child; H. Morley’s English Writers, iv.; Ten Brink’s History of Early English Literature, ii.; and Courthope’s History of English Poetry, i.
(G. C. M.)
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