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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

§ 5. The Latin Vox Clamantis

The material which we find in the Mirour de l’Omme is, to a great extent, utilised again, and, in particular, the account given of the various classes of society is substantially repeated, in Gower’s next work, the Latin Vox Clamantis. Here, however, a great social and political event is made the text for his criticism of society. The Peasants’s rising of 1381 was, to some extent, a fulfilment of the prophecies contained in the Mirour, and it naturally made a strong impression upon Gower, whose native county was deeply affected, and who must have been a witness of some of its scenes. The poem is in Latin elegiac couplets, and extends to about ten thousand lines. The first book, about one-fifth of the whole, contains a graphic account of the insurrection, under a more or less allegorical form, which conveys a strong impression of the horror and alarm of the well-to-do classes. There is an artistic contrast between the beautiful and peaceful scene which is described at the opening of the work, and the vague horrors by which the landscape is afterwards darkened. The description of these events, especially so far as it deals with what took place in London, is the most interesting portion of the work; but it is quite possible, nevertheless, that this may have been an afterthought. The remainder is independent of it, and the second book begins in a style which suggests that, originally, it stood nearere to the beginning of the work. Moreover, in one manuscript the whole of the first book is actually omitted, and no mention at all of the Peasants’s rising occurs. In any case, the main substance of Vox Clamantis is an indictment of human society, the corruptions of which are said to be the cause of all the evils of the world. The picture which appears in several manuscripts of the author aiming his arrows at the world fairly represents its scope. The doctrine of the Mirour that Man is microcosm, the evil and disorder of which effects the whole constitution of the elements, while the goodness of Man enables him to subdue the material world, is found again here; and the orders of men are examined and condemned much in the same way, except that the political portion is more fully and earnestly dwelt upon. Of the gradual development of Gower’s political feelings we have already said something.

There is no need to dwell much upon the poetical style of Gower’s Latin poems. Judged by the medieval standard, Vox Clamantis is fairly good in language and in metre, but the fact has recently been pointed out that a very large number both of couplets and longer passages are borrowed by the author without acknowledgment from other writers, and that lines for which Gower has obtained credit are, in many cases, taken either from Ovid or from some medieval writer of Latin verse, as Alexandre Neckam, Peter de Riga, Godfrey of Viterbo, or the author of Speculum Stultorum, passages of six or eight lines being often appropriated in this manner with little or no change. It is certain that Gower could write very fair Latin verse, due allowance being made for medieval licences, but we must be cautious in giving him credit for any particular passage. In the mean time we may observe that his contemporary account of the Peasants’s rising has some historical importance; that the development of his political opinions, as seen in the successive revisions of Vox Clamantis, is of interest in connection with the general circumstances of the reign of Richard II; and that the description of social customs, and particularly, of matters connected with the city of London, confirms the account given in the Mirrour.