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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

§ 4. The French Speculum Meditantis (Mirour de l’Omme)

Speculum Meditantis has come down to us in a single copy, under the French title Mirour de l’Omme. For several centuries it disappeared from view and was supposed to have perished. “Of the Speculum Meditantis… no trace remains,” wrote Courthope in the year 1895. But in that very year a copy, slightly imperfect, was discovered in the Cambridge University Library, to which it had lately come by the sale of a private library; and, though it bears no author’s name, it has been identified with certainty by its correspondence with the author’s description of his work, and by comparison of the style and substance with those of Gower’s other works.

In this, the first of the three principal works, we have in its most systematic, and, consequently, its least attractive, form, the material which forms the groundwork also of the others. It is, in fact, a combination in one scheme of all the principal kinds of moral composition which were current in that age, the Somme des Vices et des Vertus, the États des hommes, and the metrical summary of Scripture history and legend. The scheme is of a very ambitious character. It is intended to cover the whole field of man’s religious and moral nature, to set forth the purposes of Providence in dealing with him, to describe the various degrees of society and the faults specially chargeable to each class of men, and finally, to explain the method which should be followed by man in order to reconcile himself to the God whom he has offended by his sin. The author shows a certain amount of ingenuity in combining all this in a single scheme: he does not merely reproduce the current form of treatment, but aspires to a certain degree of literary unity, which distinguishes his work from that of writers like the author of the Manuel des Pechiez. Such works as this last were intended for practical purposes: Gower’s poem aspires to be a work of literary art, however little we may be disposed to allow it that title. The following is the account which William of Wadington gives of his design at the beginning of the Manuel des Pechiez (the original of Robert of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne), which, it must be remembered, has the form of a poem.

  • May the power of the Holy Spirit aid us to set forth the matters with regard to which a man should make his confession, and also in what manner it should be made.… First we will tell of the true faith, which is the foundation of our law.… Then we will set down the commandments which all ought to keep; then the seven mortal sins, whence so many evils arise.… Then you will find, if you please, the seven sacraments of holy Church.… Then you will find a sermon on fear and how you ought to feel fear and love. You will then find a book on Confession which will be proper for everyone.
  • All this is strictly practical, and there is no attempt at artistic structure. Gower’s work more nearly resembles such compositions as those of the Reclus de Moiliens, written at the end of the twelfth century in the same twelve-line stanza as he uses; but the Mirour de l’Omme is far more comprehensive, as well as more systematic, than the Charité or the Miserere of the Reclus. In his review of the estates of men, however, and especially in his manner of addressing the representatives of the various classes, when accusing them of their faults, Gower’s work often strikingly resembles, these well-known French compositions, with which, as well as with the Vers de la Mort of Hélinand de Froidmont, written in the same metre, he must, of course, have been acquainted. We may reasonably assume that the Miserere of the Reclus de Moiliens was one of Gower’s principal models both of style and versification.

    The general scheme of the Mirour de l’Omme is as follows. Sin, the cause of all evils, is a daughter of the Devil, who, upon her, has engendered Death. Death and sin, then inter-marrying, have produced the seven deadly Vices; and the Devil sends Sin and her seven daughters into the world to defeat the designs of Providence for the salvation of Man. Temptation is sent as a messenger to Man, who is invited to meet the Devil and his council. He comes; and the Devil, Sin and the World successively address him with promises. The Flesh of Man consents to be ruled by them, but the Soul expostulates with the Flesh, who is thus resolved upon a course which will ruin them both. The Flesh wavers, but is unable to give up the promised delights, until the Soul informs her of Death, who has been concealed from her view, and calls in Reason and Fear to convince her. The Flesh is terrified and brought back to Reason by Conscience, and thus the design of the Devil and Sin is, for the time, frustrated (1–750). Sin, thereupon, makes marriages between all her daughters and the World, so that offspring may be produced by means of which Man may be overcome. They all go in procession to the wedding. Each in turn is taken in marriage by the World, and by each he has five daughters, all of whom are described at length. The daughters of Pride, for example, are Hypocrisy, Vain Glory, Arrogance, Avantance, Disobedience, and so with the rest (751–9720). They all make a violent attack upon Man, and he surrenders himself to them (9721–10,032). Reason and Conscience pray to God for assistance, and seven Virtues, the contraries of the Vices, are given in marriage to Reason, each of whom has five daughters, described, of course, in detail, as in the case of the Vices and their progeny (10,033,–18,372).

    A strife ensues for the conquest of man. To decide who has gained the victory up to the present time, the author undertakes to examine the whole of human society from the court of Rome downwards; but he declares his opinion in advance that Sin has almost wholly prevailed (18,373–18,420).

    Every estate of Man is passed in review and condemned; all have been corrupted and all throw the blame on the world (or the age) (18,421–26,604). The poet addresses the world, and asks whence comes this evil. Is it from earth, water, air or fire? From none of these, for all these in themselves are good. it is from Man that all the evils of the age arise. Man is a microcosm, an abridgment of the world, and, when he transgresses, all the elements are disturbed. On the other hand the good and just man can command the powers of the material world, as the saints have always done by miracles. Every man, therefore, ought to desire to repent of his sin and turn to God, so that the world may be amended. The author confesses himself as great a sinner as any man, but he trusts in the mercy of Jesus Christ. But how can he escape from his sins, how can he dare to come before God? Only by the help of Mary, Maid and Mother, who will intercede for him if he can obtain her favour (26,605–27,468). Therefore, before finishing his task, he will tell of her birth, her life and her death; and, upon this, he relates the whole story of the Virgin, including the Gospel narrative generally, and ending with her assumption, and concludes, as we have the book, with praises addressed to her under the various names by which she is called (27,469–29,945).

    This, it will be seen, is a literary work with a due connection of parts, and not a mere string of sermons. At the same time it must be said that the descriptions of vices and virtues are of such inordinate length that the effect of unity is almost completely lost, and the book becomes tiresome to read. We are wearied also by the accumulation of texts and authorities and by the unqualified character of the moral judgments. The author of the book shows little sense of proportion and little or no dramatic power.

    In the invention of his allegory and in the method by which the various parts of his work are combined, Gower displays some originality. The style is uniformly respectable, though very monotonous. There are a few stories, but they are not told in much detail and are much inferior in interest to those of Confessio Amantis. Yet the work is not without some poetical merit. Every now and then we have a touch of description or a graceful image, which proves that the writer is not merely a moralist, but also, to some extent, a poet. The priest who neglects his early morning service is reminded of the example of the lark, who, rising early, mounts circling upward and pours forth from his little throat a service of praise to God. Again, Praise is like the bee that flies over the meadows in the sunshine, gathering that which is sweet and fragrant, but avoiding all evil odours. The robe of Conscience is like a cloud with ever-changing hues. Devotion is like the sea-shell, which opens to the dew of heaven, and thus conceives the fair, white pearl—an idea neither true to nature nor original, but gracefully expressed. Other descriptions also have merit, as, for example, that of the procession of the Vices to their wedding.

    The most remarkable feature of the style, however, is the mastery which the writer displays over the language and the verse. The rhythm is not exactly that which properly belongs to French verse: it betrays its English origin by the fact that, though strictly syllabic, and, in that respect, far more correct than most of the French verse written in England, it is, nevertheless, also to some extent an accent verse, wanting in that comparative evenness of stress on accented and unaccented syllables alike which characterises French verse.

    The author of the Mirour usually proceeds on the English principle of alternate strong and weak stress corresponding mainly to the accentual value of the syllables. Thus, when Gower quotes from Hélinand’s Vers de la Mort, the original French lines,

  • Tex me couve dessous ses dras,
  • Qui quide estre tous fors et sains,
  • become, in Gower’s Anglo-French,
  • Car tiel me couve soubz ses dras,
  • Q’assetz quide estre fortz et seins;
  • and the difference here is characteristic generally of the difference between French and English verse rhythm.

    This is a matter of some importance in connection with the development of the highly artificial English metre employed by Chaucer, and also by Gower and Occleve, which depended precisely upon this kind of combination of the French syllabic principle with the English accent principle—a combination which, though occasionally effected earlier, was so alien to English traditions that it could not survive the changes caused in the literary language by the loss of weak inflectional syllables; and, therefore, in the fifteenth century, English metre, for a time, practically collapsed. In Chaucer’s metre we see only the final results of the French influence; in the case of Gower the process by which the transition took place from the couplets of Handlyng Synne to those of Confessio Amantisis clearly exhibited.

    As regards matter, the most valuable part of the Mirour de l’Omme is that which contains the review of the various classes of society, whence interesting information may often be drawn to illustrate the social condition of the people. This is especially the case as regards city life in London, with which the author is evidently familiar; and he describes for us meetings of city dames at the wine-shops, the various devices of shopkeepers to attract custom and to cheat their customers, and the scandalous adulteration of food and drink. The extravagance of merchants, the discontent and luxury of labourers, and the corruption of the law-courts are all vigorously denounced; and the church, in the opinion of our author, is in need of reform from the top to the bottom. Gower’s picture is not relieved by any such pleasing exception as the parish priest of the Canterbury Tales.