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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

§ 1. His Life

IN spite of the progress which had been made in English literature by the middle of the fourteenth century, it still remained uncertain how far the cultured classes were prepared to accept English as an instrument of expression for the higher kinds of literature. With this uncertainty was bound up the question whether, out of all the provincial varieties which had existed during the Middle English period, a generally accepted literary form of English could arise—something which would stand towards the English dialects generally in the same relation that Dante’s volgare illustre, cardinale e cortigiano held towards the dialects of Italy. Writers such as Robert of Gloucester and Robert of Brunne had addressed themselves distinctly to those who were unable to read French easily, and to whom even the new English of the day was difficult, because so much interlarded with French. They made occasional protests against the abnormal condition of things under which English, instead of being the speech of the whole nation, was degraded to the position of a language for the unlearned, but they hardly seem to have conceived that their labours should aim at removing this anomaly. It is true that a considerable amount of English verse had been produced which aimed at representing in the Vulgar tongue the contents of the continental romances, and, consequently, may be supposed to have made an appeal to a more or less aristocratic audience. But we find little that suggests court influence in those English translations of French romances which abound in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Their tendency is towards a popular rather than a genuinely artistic verse form; and, when finally a school arose which worked to some extent on artistic principles, it was characterised more or less by a reversion to the old rule of alliteration. This carried with it a good deal of archaism of language; so that, notwithstanding the high poetical merit of such works as Pearl and Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, it was not possible that they should form the basis of a poetical development which should reconcile English and French tastes in literature. To accomplish this reconciliation was pre-eminently the task of Chaucer, who, however, in genius and in culture was so far in advance of his generation that he can hardly be regarded as, in any sense, typical. The mere fact that he alone of the poets of his time was capable of being vitally influenced by Italian literature, by Dante and Boccaccio, is enough to remove him from the common level. If we desire to set before ourselves a picture of what we may, perhaps, call the normal development of English literature in its progress towards general acceptance, we ought rather, perhaps, to direct our attention to the work of one who, in a certain sense, stands by the side of Chaucer, though he is a man of talent only, not of genius—the author of Confessio Amantis.

John Gower was a man of considerable literary accomplishments, and, though not very deeply read, he was possessed of most of the information which passed current as learning. He was master of three languages for the purpose of literary expression, and he continued to use French and Latin side by side with English even in the last years of the century. As a man of culture, his attitude towards English was at first one of suspicion, and, indeed, of rejection. There is no evidence that he wrote his French ballades in the earlier period of his career; but, unquestionably, his first work of considerable extent was in French, the recently recovered Speculum Meditantis or Mirour de l’Omme. His next venture was in Latin elegiacs; and it was not till nearly the last decade of the century that, encouraged, perhaps, by the example of Chaucer, he adopted English as his vehicle of literary expression. To the end, he was probably doubtful whether a poet ought to trust to his English works for a permanent reputation.

Gower was undoubtedly of a Kentish family: the arms on his tomb are the same as those of Sir Robert Gower of Brabourne. Some documents which have been cited to prove that John Gower was a landowner in Kent probably refer to another person; but one instrument, which undoubtedly has reference to the poet, describes him as “Esquier de Kent,” and it may be affirmed with certainty that he was a layman. There is no evidence to prove that he led the life of a country gentleman, but he was certainly a man of some wealth, and he was the owner of at least two manors, one in Norfolk and the other in Suffolk, which, however, he leased to others. It seems probable that, for the most part, he resided in London, and he was personally known both to Richard II and to the family of John of Gaunt. For some years in the latter part of his life he resided in lodgings assigned to him within the Priory of St. Mary Overes, Southwark, of which house he was a liberal benefactor. He died at an advanced age in the year 1408, having lost his eyesight some years before this, and was buried in a magnificent tomb with a recumbent effigy, in the church of the Priory, now St. Saviour’, Southwark, where the tomb is still to be seen, though not in its original state nor quite in its original position. He had been married in 1398, while living in the Priory, to one Agnes Groundolf, who survived him, but there are some indications in his early French work that the author had had a wife before this. That he was acquainted with Chaucer we know on good evidence. In May 1378, Chaucer, on leaving England for Italy, appointed Gower and another to act for him under a general power of attorney during his absence. A few years later, Chaucer addressed his Troilus and Criseyde to Gower and Strode, to be criticised and corrected where need was,

  • O moral Gower, this book I directe
  • To thee, and to thee, philosophical Strode,
  • To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to correcte,
  • Of your benignetes and zeles gode.
  • Finally, Gower, in Confessio Amantis, pays a tribute to Chaucer as a poet of love in the lines which he puts into the mouth of Venus,
  • And gret wel Chaucer, when ye mete,
  • As mi disciple and mi poete:
  • For in the floures of his youthe
  • In sondri wise, as he wel couthe,
  • Of ditees and of songes glade,
  • The whiche he for mi sake made,
  • The lond fulfild is overal:
  • Whereof to him in special
  • Above alle othre I am most holde, etc.
  • Conf. Am., VIII, 2941* ff.
  • These lines were omitted in the later forms of the text, and upon this fact, combined with a supposed reference to Gower in the Canterbury Tales, as the author of immoral stories, has been founded the notion of a bitter quarrel between the two poets. But of this there is no sufficient evidence. The omission of the greeting to Chaucer may be plausibly explained on grounds connected with the mechanical circumstances of the revision of Confessio Amantis; and Chaucer’s reference is, apparently, of a humorous character, the author of the not very decent tales of the miller, the reeve and the merchant taking advantage of his opportunity to reprove the “moral Gower” for selecting improper subjects.