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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Gower (1325?–1408)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
SINCE Caxton, the first printer of ‘Confessio Amantis’ (The Confession of a Lover), described Gower as a “squyer borne in Walys in the tyme of Kyng Richard the second,” there has been a diversity of opinion about his birthplace, and he has been classed variously with prosperous Gowers until of late, when the county assigned to him is Kent. We know nothing of his early life and education. It has been guessed that he went to Oxford, and afterwards traveled in the troubled kingdom of France. Such a course might have been followed by a man of his estate. He had means, for English property records (in this instance the rolls of Chancery, the parchment foundation of English society) still preserve deeds of his holdings in Kent and Essex and elsewhere.  1
  His life lay along with that of Chaucer’s, in the time when Edward III. and his son the Black Prince were carrying war into France, and the English Parliament were taking pay in plain speaking for what they granted in supplies, and wresting at the same time promises of reform from the royal hand. But Gower and Chaucer were not only contemporaries: they were of like pursuit, tastes, and residence; they were friends; and when Chaucer under Richard II., the grandson and successor of Edward, went to France upon the mission of which Froissart speaks, he named John Gower as one of his two attorneys while he should be away. Notice of Gower’s marriage to Agnes Groundolf late in life—in 1398—is still preserved. Three years after this he became blind,—it was the year 1400, in which Chaucer died,—and in 1408 he died.
          “The infirm poet,” says Morley, “spent the evening of his life at St. Mary Overies [St. Mary-over-the-River], in retirement from all worldly affairs except pious and liberal support of the advancing building works in the priory, and in the church now known as St. Saviour’s [Southwark], to which he bequeathed his body. His will, made not long before death, bequeathed his soul to God, his body to be buried in St. Mary Overies. The poet bequeathed also 13s. 4d. to each of the four parish churches of Southwark for ornaments and lights, besides 6s. 8d. for prayers to each of their curates. It is not less characteristic that he left also 40s. for prayers to the master of St. Thomas’s Hospital, and, still for prayers, 6s. 8d. to each of its priests, 3s. 4d. to each Sister in the hospital, twenty pence to each nurse of the infirm there, and to each of the infirm twelve pence. There were similar bequests to St. Thomas Elsing Spital, a priory and hospital that stood where now stands Sion College. St. Thomas Elsing Spital, founded in 1329 by William Elsing, was especially commended to the sympathies of the blind old poet, as it consisted of a college for a warden, four priests, and two clerks, who had care of one hundred old, blind, and poor persons of both sexes, preference being given to blind, paralytic, and disabled priests. Like legacies were bequeathed also to Bedlam-without-Bishopsgate, and to St. Mary’s Hospital, Westminster. Also there were bequests of ten shillings to each of the leper-nurses. Two robes (one of white silk, the other of blue baudekin,—a costly stuff with web of gold and woof of silk), also a new dish and chalice, and a new missal, were bequeathed to the perpetual service of the altar of the chapel of St. John the Baptist, in which his body was to be buried. To the prior and convent he left a great book, a ‘Martyrology,’ which had been composed and written for them at his expense. To his wife Agnes he left a hundred pounds, three cups, one coverlet, two salt-cellars, and a dozen silver spoons; also all his beds and chests, with the furnishings of hall, pantry, and kitchen; also a chalice and robe for the altar of the chapel of their house; and she was to have for life all rents due to him from his manors of Southwell (in Nottingham) and Moulton (in Suffolk).”
  2
  His wife was one of his executors. The will is still preserved at Lambeth Palace.  3
  Gower’s tomb and monument may also still be seen at St. Saviour’s, where the description Berthelet gave of them in 1532 is, aside from the deadening of the paintings, true:—“Somewhat after the olde ffashion he lyeth ryght sumptuously buryed, with a garland on his head, in token that he in his lyfe dayes flouryshed freshely in literature and science.” The head of his stone effigy lies upon three volumes representing Gower’s three great works; the hair falls in long curls; the robe is closely buttoned to the feet, which rest upon a lion, and the neck is encircled with a collar, from which a chain held a small swan, the badge of Henry IV. “Besyde on the wall where as he lyeth,” continues Berthelet, “there be peynted three virgins, with crownes on theyr heades; one of the which is written Charitie, and she holdeth this devise in her hande:—
  ‘En toy qui fitz de Dieu le Pere
Sauve soit que gist souz cest piere.’
(In thee, who art Son of God the Father,
Be he saved who lieth under this stone.)
  4
  “The second is wrytten Mercye, which holdeth in her hande this devise:—
  ‘O bone Jesu fait ta mercy
Al alme dont le corps gist icy.’
(O good Jesus, grant thy mercy
To the soul whose body lies here.)
  5
  “The thyrde of them is wrytten Pity, which holdeth in her hand this devise:—
  ‘Pur ta pite, Jesu regarde,
Et met cest alme en sauve garde.’”
(For thy pity, Jesus, see;
And take this soul in thy safe guard.)
  6
  The monument was repaired in 1615, 1764, and 1830.  7
  The three works which pillow the head of the effigy indicate Gower’s ‘Speculum Meditantis’ (The Looking-Glass of One Meditating), which the poet wrote in French; the ‘Vox Clamantis’ (The Voice of One Crying), in Latin; and the ‘Confessio Amantis,’ in English. In addition to these there are in French two series of Ballades, one, sometimes called the ‘Traitié,’ dealing with marriage, and the other, the ‘Cinkante Balades,’ dealing with love. There is also a Latin ‘Cronica Tripertita’ in hexameters describing the reign of Richard II., shorter Latin pieces on political themes, and a poem ‘In Praise of Peace,’ addressed to Henry IV. The ‘Speculum Meditantis’ was first discovered in 1895, the French title being ‘Mirour de l’Omme.’ About thirty thousand lines of twelve-line stanzas treat of the Seven Deadly Sins and the corresponding Virtues, the whole forming an allegory of the human soul. The poem closes with an account of the life of the Virgin, who is extolled as the true mediator between sinful man and God. The ‘Vox Clamantis’ was the voice of the poet, singing in Latin elegiacs of the terrible evils which led to the rise of the commons and their march to London under Wat Tyler and Jack Straw in 1381. It is doubtless a true picture of the excesses and miseries of the day. The remedy, the poet says, is in reform—right living and love of England. Simony in the prelates, avarice and drunkenness in the libidinous priests, wealth and luxury in the mendicant orders, miscarrying of justice in the courts, enrichment of individuals by excessive taxes,—these are the subjects of the voice crying in the wilderness.  8
  Gower’s greatest work, however, is the ‘Confessio Amantis.’ In form it is a dialogue between a lover and his confessor, who is a priest of Venus. In substance it is a setting-forth, with moralizings which are at times touching and elevated, of one hundred and twelve different stories, from sources so different as the Bible, Ovid, Josephus, the ‘Gesta Romanorum,’ Valerius Maximus, Statius, Boccaccio, etc. Thirty thousand eight-syllabled rhymed lines make up the work. There are different versions. The first was dedicated to Richard II., and the second to his successor, Henry of Lancaster. Besides these large works, a number of French ballades, and also English and Latin short poems, are preserved. “They have real and intrinsic merit,” says Todd: “they are tender, pathetic, and poetical, and place our old poet Gower in a more advantageous point of view than that in which he has heretofore been usually seen.”  9
  Estimates of Gower’s writings are various; but even his most hostile judges admit the pertinence of the epithet with which Chaucer hails him in his dedication of ‘Troilus and Creseide’:—
  “O moral Gower, this book I directe
To thee, and to the philosophical Strode,
To vouchen sauf, there nede is, to corecte,
Of your benignitees and zeles gode.”
  10
  Then Skelton the laureate, in his long song upon the death of Philip Sparrow (which recalls the exquisite gem of Catullus in a like threnody), takes occasion to say:—
  “Gower’s englysshè is olde,
And of no valúe is tolde;
His mattér is worth gold,
And worthy to be enrold.”
And again:—
  Gower that first garnishèd our English rude.”
  11
  Old Puttenham also bears this testimony:—“But of them all [the English poets] particularly this is myne opinion, that Chaucer, with Gower, Lidgate, and Harding, for their antiquitie ought to have the first place.”  12
  Taine dismisses him with little more than a fillip, and Lowell, while discoursing appreciatively on Chaucer, says:—
          “Gower has positively raised tediousness to the precision of science; he has made dullness an heirloom for the students of our literary history. As you slip to and fro on the frozen levels of his verse, which give no foothold to the mind; as your nervous ear awaits the inevitable recurrence of his rhyme, regularly pertinacious as the tick of an eight-day clock, and reminding you of Wordsworth’s
  Once more the ass did lengthen out
The hard dry seesaw of his horrible bray,’
you learn to dread, almost to respect, the powers of this indefatigable man. He is the undertaker of the fair mediæval legend, and his style has the hateful gloss, the seemingly unnatural length, of a coffin.”
  13
  Yet hear Morley:—
          “To this day we hear among our living countrymen, as was to be heard in Gower’s time and long before, the voice passing from man to man, that in spite of admixture with the thousand defects incident to human character, sustains the keynote of our literature, and speaks from the soul of our history the secret of our national success. It is the voice that expresses the persistent instinct of the English mind to find out what is unjust among us and undo it, to find out duty to be done and do it, as God’s bidding…. In his own Old English or Anglo-Saxon way he tries to put his soul into his work. Thus in the ‘Vox Clamantis’ we have heard him asking that the soul of his book, not its form, be looked to; and speaking the truest English in such sentences as that ‘the eye is blind and the ear deaf, that convey nothing down to the heart’s depth; and the heart that does not utter what it knows is as a live coal under ashes. If I know little, there may be another whom that little will help…. But to the man who believes in God, no power is unattainable if he but rightly feels his work; he ever has enough, whom God increases.’ This is the old spirit of Cædmon and of Bede; in which are laid, while the earth lasts, the strong foundations of our literature. It was the strength of such a temper in him that made Gower strong. ‘God knows,’ he says again, ‘my wish is to be useful; that is the prayer that directs my labor.’ And while he thus touches the root of his country’s philosophy, the form of his prayer—that what he has written may be what he would wish it to be—is still a thoroughly sound definition of good English writing. His prayer is that there may be no word of untruth, and that ‘each word may answer to the thing it speaks of, pleasantly and fitly; that he may flatter in it no one, and seek in it no praise above the praise of God.’”
  14
  The part of Gower’s writing here brought before the reader is the quaintly told and charming story of Petronella, from ‘Liber Primus’ of the ‘Confessio.’ It may be evidence that all the malediction upon the poet above quoted is not deserved.  15
  The standard edition of Gower’s works is that by G. C. Macaulay, in four volumes, Oxford, 1899–1902, with elaborate notes, critical apparatus, and biography. This completely supersedes the older and minor publications. For the ‘Confessio Amantis,’ see especially the volume of ‘Selections’ edited by Macaulay, with condensed introduction, glossary, and notes (Oxford, 1903). The account of Gower’s life by Sir Sidney Lee in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ may also be recommended.  16
 
 
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