Reference > Cambridge History > The End of the Middle Ages > John Gower > His Political Opinions
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VI. John Gower.

§ 2. His Political Opinions.


The development of Gower’s political opinions may be traced in his writings, and especially in the successive alterations which he made in the text of Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis, as years went on and the situation changed. When Vox Clamantis was first written, no blame whatever was attached to the youthful king, who, at the time of the Peasants’s rising, was only in his fifteenth year. In the earlier version of the poem, as now recovered from the Dublin and Hatfield MSS., we have, “The boy himself is blameless, but his councillors are not without fault…. If the king were of mature age, he would redress the balance of justice” (VI555* ff.), and again, “I pray God to preserve my young king, and let him live long and see good days…. O king, mayset thou ever hold thy sceptre with honour and triumph, as Augustus did at Rome…. O flower of boyhood, according to thy worthiness I wish thee prosperity” (VI, 1167* ff.). In the later version of the first passage we have, written over erasure in the author’s own copies, “The king, an undisciplined youth, neglects the moral acts, by which he might grow from a boy to a man…. What he desires is desired also by his youthful companions; he enters upon the road, and they follow him…. Older men too give way to him for gain, and pervert the justice of the king’s court” (VI, 555 ff.). And the second passage runs as follows (in effect): “The king is honoured above all, so long as his acts are good, but if the king is avaricious and proud, the people is grieved. Not all that a king desires is expedient for him: he has a charge laid upon him, and must maintain law and do justice. O king, do away with the evils of thy reign, restore the laws and banish crime: let thy people be subject to thee for love and not for fear” (VI, 1159 ff.). These alterations were evidently made while the king was still young, but at a time when he was regarded as fully responsible for the government. In 1390, when Confessio Amantis was first completed, and when the author’s summary of his three principal works, which was appended to it, may be supposed to have been first written, the innocence of the king as regards the events of the year 1381 is still carefully asserted, and, from the manner in which the king is spoken of in the first edition of Confessio Amantis itself, both at the beginning and at the end of the poem, we know that the author had not yet abandoned his hope that the king, who even then was hardly more than three and twenty, might prove to be endowed with those qualities of justice and mercy which were necessary for a successful reign (VIII, 2970* ff.). Very soon, however, he saw reason to abandon these hopes; within a year, he composed an alternative version of his epilogue, in which his prayers for the king were changed into prayers for the good government of the land; and, finally, in 1392 or 1393, instead of the lines in the prologue in which reference was made to the king’s suggestion of the work, he inserted others in which the book was said to have been written for England’s sake, and was presented not to the king, but to his cousin Henry of Lancaster, to whose person the author had already transferred some of the hopes and aspirations which had previously centred in the king. It is probable that these changes were made in a few copies only, which either remained in the hands of the author, like the Fairfax MS., in which we can trace the actual process of the change, made by erasure and substitution of leaves, or were written for presentation to Henry himself, as is probably the case with the Stafford MS. By far the larger number of existing copies are of the earlier form. Gradually, Gower’s spirit became more and more embittered, as the king’s self-indulgence and arbitrary rule more and more belied his hopes of reformation; and in the final edition of his note upon his works, written after the fall of Richard, he omits all mention of the early events of the reign and of the king’s youth and innocence, and represents Vox Clamantis as dealing generally with the evils of the time, for which the king is held primarily responsible by reason of his injustice and cruelty. Finally, in Cronica Tripertita the misfortunes which have overtaken Richard II are shown to be the natural consequences of a course of evil government and treachery, and in the English stanzas addressed to Henry IV the author’s ideal of a king, as one who above all things should promote peace at home and abroad, is set forth with the enthusiasm of one who, after long waiting, at length sees his hopes for his country fulfilled.   4

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