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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

§ 3. His Literary Work

The literary work of Gower is represented chiefly by those three books upon which the head of his effigy rests in St. Saviour’s Church, the French Speculum Meditantis (or Speculum Hominis, as it was originally called), the Latin Vox Clamantis, and the English Confessio Amantis. Let us first observe what he tells us himself of those works, in the Latin note already referred to, which is found, with variations, in most of the manuscripts:

  • Since every man is bound to impart to others in proportion as he has himself received from God, John Gower, desiring in some measure to lighten the account of his stewardship, while yet there was time, with regard to those mental gifts which God had given him, amid his labours and in his leisure composed three books for the information and instruction of others, in the form which follows.
  • The first book, written in the French language, is divided into ten parts, and, treating of vices and of virtues, as also of the various conditions of men in the world, endeavours rightly to teach the way by which the sinner who has trespassed ought to return to the knowledge of his Creator. A the title of this book is Speculum Meditantis.
  • The second book, metrically composed in the Latin language, treats of the various misfortunes which happened in England in the time of king Richard II, whence not only the nobles and commons of the realm suffered great evils, but the cruel king himself, falling from on high by his own evil doings, was at length hurled into the pit which he dug himself. And the name of this volume is Vox Clamantis.
  • The third book, which was written in the English language in honour of his most valorous lord Henry of Lancaster, then earl of Derby, marks out the times from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar until now, in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel on the changes of the kingdoms of this world. It treats, also, in accordance with Aristotle, of the matters in which king Alexander was instructed by his discipline, both for the governance of himself and for other ends. But the chief matter of the book is founded upon love, and the infatuated passions of lovers. And the name appropriated to this work is Confessio Amantis.
  • The author conceives, then, of his literary work as essentially didactic in character, and of himself as fulfilling a mission in making use, for the benefit of his own generation, of the gifts which he has received. This, of course, was a quite usual standpoint. It was a didactic age, and Gower was fully in sympathy with the prevailing tendency to edification; but his books, on the whole, have a somewhat higher literary quality than might be supposed from his description of them.

    The French work is placed first of these three books by the author, and, no doubt, it came first in the order of time. It contains evidence, however, that this was not his first literary essay, for he speaks in it of earlier poems of a light and amorous kind, the composition of which he now regrets. It is not necessary to suppose that these fols ditz d’amours are identical with the Cinkante Balades which, near the close of his life, he dedicated to Henry IV. The passage referred to seems to speak of something lighter and in a more lyrical vein.