John Gower, English poet and his famous works

John Gower, the date of whose birth is still not known, 1329/30 is supposed by his biographers and other literary historians to have belonged to the country of Kent. His life being enveloped almost into obscurity, only a tentative outline can be established of his life. His family had Yorkshire origins. His language bears the stamp of Kentish influence. He may have been trained in the law, but certainly from 1398 (and possibly earlier) to his death, he lived at the priory of St Mary Overie in Southwark, devoted to his writing. He was married in 1398 and was blind by about 1400. He was a personal friend of Chaucer who had high respect for him and addresses him as a ‘moral Gower’in dedicating to him his Troilus and Criseyde—an epithet linked with his name indissolubly.

Gower produced a considerable body of poetry in three languages. In French, he wrote his Cinkante Balades (written in Anglo-Norman and presented to Henry IV (c.1400) and his first large-scale work, the Mirour de l’omme, an allegory written C.1376-9 in about 32,000 lines of octosyllabics in twelve-line stanzas, concerned with fallen man, his virtues and vices.

His second major work was the Latin Vox Clamantis (completed after 1381), an apocalyptic poem of seven books in 10,265 lines of elegiac couplets, dealing with politics, kingship, and ecclesiastical abuses. Its manuscript is preserved in the Cottomion and Bodleian libraries. It dwells upon socio-political turmoils during the reign of Richard II, particularly the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Latin Cronica Tripertita (1399-1400) is a critical account of the reign of Richard II.

In English Gower wrote ‘In Praise of Peace’ in 55 stanzas of rhyme royal, as well as his principal work, the Confessio Amantis.

Confessio Amantis: This exists in three versions from the 1390s, the earliest of which is the most commonly attested amongst the 49 manuscripts. In his revision of the Confessio (in the early 1390s, while Richard II was still on the throne) he removed the praises of King Richard at its conclusion and dedicated the final version to Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV). The poem is over 33,000 lines long, containing 141 stories in octosyllabic couplets, handled with metrical sophistication and considerable skill. The framework of the poem is the confession of a lover, Amans, to Genius, a priest of Venus; the confessor helps to examine the lover’s conscience and narrates exemplary stories of behaviour and fortune in love, organized under the headings of the seven deadly sins and drawing widely on classical sources (most prominently Ovid) and medieval romance. There are eight books: one for each sin, and one which gives an encyclopedic account of philosophy and morals. The poem is as interesting for its prologue and epilogue, and for its exchanges between the priest and lover, as it is for the narratives themselves. When the lover has been entirely forgiven of his sins and his grasp of the ethics of love is complete, the confessor tells him that he is too old for love and disappears. The lover sees the reason in this and returns home, a conclusion which has been seen as a comment on the inordinate extent of his apprenticeship in the self-perfecting of courtly love. Several of the exemplary tales are paralleled by stories in The Canterbury Tales and other works of Chaucer.

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