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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

§ 6. The English Confessio Amantis

As regards the motives which determined Gower to the composition of a book in English, we have his own statement in the first edition of the book itself, that, on a certain occasion, when he was in a boat upon the Thames near London, he met the royal barge, and was invited by the king to enter it; that, in the conversation which ensued, it was suggested to him that he should write some new book, to be presented to the king; and that he thereupon adopted the resolution of composing a poem in English, which should combine pleasure and instruction, upon the subject of love.

It is not necessary, however, to assume that this incident, which was put forward by the author as a reason for the presentation of his book to Richard, was actually the determining factor of his decision to write in English. The years which followed the composition of Vox Clamantis, assuming it to have been produced about 1382, were a period of hitherto unexampled productiveness in English poetry. Chaucer, at this time, had attained almost to the full measure of his powers, and the successive production of Troilus and Criseyde, partly addressed to Gower himself, about 1383, and of The Legend of Good Women, about 1386, must have supplied a stimulus of the very strongest kind, not only by way of recommending the use of the English language, but also in suggesting some modification of the strictly didactic tone which Gower and hitherto taken in his larger works. The statement that to Gower’s Confessio Amantis Chaucer owed the idea of a connected series of tales is quite without foundation. The Legend of Good Women certainly preceded Confessio Amantis, which bears distinct marks of its influence, and in The Legend of Good Women we have already a series of tales set in a certain framework, though the framework is slight, and no conversation connects the tales. Even if we suppose Chaucer to have been unacquainted with Boccaccio’s prose, a supposition for which there is certainly some ground, he was fully capable of evolving the scheme of The Canterbury Tales without the assistance of Gower. On the other hand the influence of Chaucer must certainly have been very strong in regard to Gower’s English work, which was probably composed in the years between 1386 and 1390, the latter year being the date of the completion of the first edition of the poem.

The most noteworthy point of Confessio Amantis, as compared with Gower’s former works, is the partial renunciation by the author of his didactic purpose. He does, indeed, indulge himself in a prologue, in which he reviews the condition of the human race; but at the beginning of the first book, he announces the discovery that his powers are not equal to the task of setting the world to rights:

  • It stant noght in my suffiance
  • So grete thinges to compasse,
  • Bot I mot lete it overpasse
  • And treten upon other thinges.
  • He avows, therefore, that, from this day forth, he intends to change the style of his writings, and to deal with a subject which is of universal interest, namely love. At the same time, he will not wholly renounce his function of teaching, for love is a matter in which men need very much guidance, but, at least, he will treat of the subject in such a way as to entertain as well as instruct: the book is to be
  • betwen the tweie,
  • Somwhat of lust, somwhat of lore.
  • Hence, though the form may suggest instruction, yet the mode of treatment is to be popular, that is to say, the work is to consist largely of stories. Accordingly, we have in Confessio Amantis more than a hundred stories of varying length and of every kind of origin, told in a simple and pleasing style by one who clearly had a gift for story-telling, though without the dramatic humour which makes Chaucer’s stories unique in the literature of his time. The framework, too, in which these stories are set, is pleasing.

    The Lover, that is to say the author himself, is one who has been long in the service of love, but without reward, and is now of years which almost unfit him for such service. Wandering forth into a wood in the month of May he feels despair and wishes for death. The god and the goddess of love appear to him; but the god passes him by with an angry look, casting, at the same time, a fiery lance which pierces his heart. The goddess remains, and to her he makes his complaint that he has served long and received no wages. She frowns upon him, and desires to know what service it is that he has done, and what malady oppresses him. He professes readiness to reply, but she enjoins upon him first a confession to be made to her priest Genius, who, if he is satisfied, will give him absolution, and she will then consider his case. Accordingly, Genius is summoned and Venus disappears. The Lover, after some preliminary conversation, is examined with regard to his sins against love, the examination being arranged under the usual heading of the seven deadly sins and their subordinate vices. The subdivision which we find in the earlier books of Confessio Amantis is the same as that which we have already encountered in Gower’s Mirour: each sin is regarded as having five principal offshoots; but, in the latter half of the work, this regularity of subdivision is, to a great extent, abandoned. In the case of each of the subordinate vices the confessor sets forth the nature of the fault, and, at the request of the Lover, illustrates his meaning by a story or by a series of stories. In each case, after explanation of the nature of the vice, a special application is made to the case of love, and the stories illustrate either the general definition or this special application, or both, no very clear line being drawn in many cases between the two. The Lover, meanwhile, when he has at last been made to understand the nature of the fault generally and also its particular application to love, makes his confession or denial as regards his love, and is further instructed or rebuked by the confessor. By the general plan, one book should have been devoted to each of the seven principal sins, Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lechery; but an additional book is interpolated between the last two, dealing with quite irrelevant matters, and, in general, there is much irregularity of plan in the last four books, by which the unity of construction is seriously marred. The ordinary conduct of the work may be illustrated by a short summary of the second book, the subject of which is Envy.

    The first of the brood of Envy is Sorrow for another’s joy. The Lover confesses that he is often guilty of this in regard to his rivals, and he is reproves by the tale of Acis and alatea. He accepts the rebuke and promises to offend no more. The second vice under this head is Joy for another’s grief. To this, too, the Lover pleads guilty, and the odious character of the vice is illustrated by the story of the traveller and the angel, in which one man preferred to lose an eye in order that his fellow might lose both. The third is detraction, and here, too, the Lover admits that he has been in some measure guilty. When he sees lovers come about his mistress with false tales, he is sometimes moved to tell her the worst that he knows of them. The confessor reproves him. By the Lover’s own account, his lady is wise and wary, and there is no need to tell her these tales: moreover, she will like him the less for being envious. The vice of Detraction is then illustrated by the tale of constance, who long suffered from envious backbiting, but whose love at length prevailed. Then, again, there is the story of Demetrius and Perseus, in which Perseus brought his brother to death by false accusations, but suffered punishment himself at last. The confessor passes then to the fourth vice, named False Semblart. When Envy desires to deceive, she employs False Semblant as her messenger. The Lover admits here, too, that he is guilty, but only in matters which concerns his mistress. He thinks himself justified in gaining the confidence of her other lovers by an appearance of friendship, and using the knowledge which he thus obtains to hinder their designs. The confessor reproves him, and cites the case of the Lombards in the city, who feign that which is not, and take from Englishmen the profit of their own land. He then relates the tale of Hercules and Deianira, and how Nessus deceived her and destroyed him at last by False Semblant. Yet there is a fifth vice born of Envy, and that is Supplantation. The Lover declares that here he is guiltless in act, though guilty in his thought and desire. If he had the power, he would supplant others in the love of his lady. The confessor warns him that thought as well as act is sin, and convinces him of the heinousness of this particular crime by a series of short examples, Agamemnon and Achilles, Diomede and Troilus, Amphitryon and Geta, and also by the longer tale of the False Bachelor. This evil is worst when Pride and Envy are joined together, as when pope Celestine was supplanted by Boniface; and this tale also is told at length. The Lover, convinced of the evil of Envy, desires a remedy, and the confessor reminds him that vices are destroyed by their contraries, and the contrary to Envy is Charity. To illustrate this virtue the take is told of Constantine, who, by showing mercy, obtained mercy. The Lover vows to eschew Envy, and asks that penance may be inflicted for that which he has done amiss.

    In the other books, the scheme is somewhat similar, and, at length, in the eighth the confession is brought to a close, and the Lover demands his absolution. The confessor advises to abandon love and to set himself under the rule of reason. He, strongly protesting, presents a petition to Venus, who, in answer, consents to relieve him, though perhaps not in the way that he desires. She speaks of his age and counsels him to make a beau retret, and he grows cold for sorrow of heart and lies swooning on the ground. The he sees the god of love, and, with him, a great company of former lovers arrayed in sundry bands under the guidance of Youth and Eld. Youth takes no head of him; but those who follow Eld entreat for him with Venus, and all the lovers press round to see. At length Cupid comes towards him and draws forth the fiery lance with which he had formerly pierced the Lover’s heart; and Venus anoints the wound with a cooling ointment and gives him a mirror in which his features are reflected. Reason returns to him, and he becomes sober and sound. Venus, laughing, asks him what love is, and he replies with confusion that he knows not, and prays to be excused from attendance upon her. He obtains his absolution, and Venus bids him stay no more in her court, but go “wher moral vertu dwelleth,” where the books are which men say that he has written; and so she bids him adieu and departs. He stands for a while amazed, and then takes his way softly homewards.

    The plan of the work is not ill conceived; but, unfortunately, it is carried out without a due regard to proportion in its parts, and its unity is very seriously impaired by digressions which have nothing to do with the subject of the book. After the prologue, the first four books are conducted in a comparatively orderly manner, though the discussion on the lawfulness of war in the third can hardly be regarded as necessary, and the account of the discovery of useful arts in the fourth is too slightly connected with the subject. In the fifth book, however, a casual reference to Greek mythology is made the peg on which to hang a dissertation of twelve hundred lines on the religious of the world, while, in the sixth book, the discussion of Sorcery, with the stories first of Ulysses and Teleggonus and then of Nectanabus, can hardly be regarded as a justifiable extension of the subject of Gluttony. Worse than this, the tale of Nectanabus is used as a pretext for bringing in as a diversion a summary of all earthly learning, the supposed instructions of Aristotle to Alexander, which fills up the whole of the seventh book. The most important part of this is the treatise on Politics, under five heads, illustrated by many interesting stories, which occupies nearly four thousand lines. To this part of his work, which is absolutely irrelevant to the main subject, the author evidently attached great importance; and it is, in fact, another lecture aimed at the king, at whose suggestion the book was written, the author being unable to keep himself from improving the occasion. This proceeding, together with the great extension which has been given to Avarice in the fifth book, has the effect of almost entirely anticipating the proper contents of the eighth book. Nothing remains to be spoken of there except Incest, with reference to which the tale of Apolonius of Tyre is told, and this, after all, has no sufficient bearing upon the subject to justify its inordinate length. It may justly be remarked, also, that the representation of the priest of Venus is full of absurd incongruities, which reach their climax, perhaps, when he is made to denounce Venus herself as a false goddess. In general, the characters of the moralist and of the high-priest of love are very awkwardly combined in his person, and of this fact the author shows himself conscious in several passages, as 1, 237 ff. and VI, 1421 ff. The quasi-religious treatment of the subject was, no doubt, in accordance with the taste of the age, and there is a certain charm of quaintness both in this and in the gravity with which morality is applied to the case of love, though this application is often very forced. It must be admitted, also, that the general plan of the poem shows distinct originality, and, apart from the digressions and irrelevancies which have been noted, it is carried through with some success. The idea of combining a variety of stories in a single framework, with the object of illustrating moral truths, had become familiar in the literature of western Europe chiefly through a series of books which were all more or less of Oriental origin. Of these, the most important were the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, the romance of the Seven Sages in its various forms and Disciplina Clericalis. With these, Gower, as we know, was acquainted, and also, doubtless, with various examples of the attempt to utilise such stories for definitely religious purposes in such edifying compositions as those of William of Wadington and Robert of Brunne. Moreover, Chaucer, in his Legend od Good Women, had already produced a series of stories in an allegorical framework, though the setting was rather slight and the work was left unfinished. The influence of Chaucer’s work is apparent in the opening and concluding scenes of Confessio Amantis, and some suggestions were also derived from the Roman de la Rose, in which Genius is the priest of Nature, who makes her confession to him. But no previous writer, either in English or in any other modern language, had versified so large and various a collection of stories, or had devised to ingenious and elaborate a scheme of combinations.

    As regards the stories themselves, there is, of course, no pretence of originality in substance. They are taken from very various places, from Ovid (much the most frequent source), from the Bible, from Valerius Maximus, Statius, Beniîit de Sainte More, Guido delle Colonne, Godfrey of Viterbo, Brunetto Latini, Nicholas Trivet, the Roman des Sept sages, Vita Barlaam et Josaphat, Historia Alexandri and so on. Gower’s style of narration is simple and clear; in telling a story he is neither tedious nor apt to digress. To find fault with him because he is lacking in humorous appreciation of character is to judge him by altogether too high a standard. He is not on a level with Chaucer, but he is distinctly above the level of most of the other story-tellers of his time, and it may even be said that he is sometimes superior to Chaucer himself in the arrangement of his incidents and in the steadiness with which he pursues the plot of his story. Gower is by no means a slavish follower of his authorities, the proportions and arrangement of his stories are usually his own, and they often show good judgment. Moreover, he not seldom gives a fresh turn to a well-known story, as in the Bible instances of Jephthah and Saul, or makes a pretty addition to it, as in the case of the tales from Ovid of Narcissus or of Acis and Galatea. His gift of clear and interesting narrative was, undoubtedly, the merit which most appealed to the popular taste of the day, and the plainness of the style was rather an advantage than a drawback.

    The stories, however, have also poetical qualities. Force and picturesquences cannot be denied to the story of Medea, with its description of the summer sun blazing down upon the glistening sea and upon the returning hero, and flashing from the golden fleece at his side a signal of success to Medea in her watch-tower, as she prays for her chosen knight. Still less can we refuse to recognise the poetical power of the later phases of the same story—first, the midnight rovings of Medea in search of enchantments (V, 3962 ff.), and again later, when the charms are set in action (4059 ff.), a passage of extraordinary picturesqueness. The tales of Mundus and Paulina and of Alboin and Rosemund, in the first book, are excellently told; and, in the second, the story of the False Bachelor and the legend of Constantine, in the latter of which the author has greatly improved upon his materials; while, in the third book, the tale of Canace is most pathetically rendered, far better than by Ovid. The fourth, which is altogether of special excellence, gives us Rosiphelee, Phyllis and the very poetically told tale of Ceix and Alceone; the fifth has Jason and Medea, a most admirable example of sustained narrative, the oriental story of Adrian and Bardus and the well-told romance of Tereus and Philomela. In the seventh, we find the Biblical story of Gideon well rendered, the rape of Lucrece and the tale of Virginia. The long story of Apollonius, in the eighth book, is not one of Gower’s happiest efforts, though it is often taken as a sample of his style owing to the connection with Shakespeare’s Pericles. His natural taste for simplicity sometimes stands him in good stead, as in the description of the tears of Lucrece for her husband, and the reviving beauty of her face when he appears (VII, 4830 ff.), a passage in which he may safely challenge comparison with Chaucer. The ease of his more colloquial utterances, and the finished style of some of the more formal passages, are equally remarkable. As examples of the second quality we may cite the reflections of the emperor Constantine (II, 3243 ff.), the letters of Canace (III, 279 ff.) and of Penelope (IV, 157 ff.), the prayer of Cephalus (IV, 3197 ff.) and the epitaphs of Iphis (IV, 3674) and of Thaise (VIII, 1533 ff.).

    In addition to the merits of the stories we must acknowledge a certain attractiveness in the setting of them. The conversation which connects the stories is distinguished by colloquial ease, and is frequently of an interesting kind. The Lover often engages the sympathy of the reader, and there is another character always in the background in whom we may reasonably be interested, that of the lady whom he serves. Gower, who was quite capable of appreciating the delicacy and refinement which ideal love requires, has here set before us a figure which is both attractive and human, a charming embodiment of womanly grace and refinement.

    Passing from the substance of the poem to the language and versification, we remark, first, that the language used is, practically, the same as that of Chaucer, and that there is every reason to attribute this identity to the development, apart from the individual influence of either poet, of a cultured form of English speech which, in the higher ranks of society, took the place of the French that had so long been used as the language of literature and of polite society. This is not the place to discuss the development of modern English literary speech; what we have to say in relation to Gower is that, by the purity and simplicity of his style, he earned the right to stand beside Chaucer as a standard authority for this language. Sui temporis lucerna habebatur ad docte scribendum in lingua vulgari, as Bale remarks; and it is worth noting that, in the syntax of Ben Jonson’s English Grammar, Gower is cited as an authority more often than any other writer. It may be observed that, by Morsbach’s test of a comparison with contemporary London documents, both Chaucer and Gower are shown to be more conservative of the full forms of inflection than the popular speech, and Gower is, in this respect, apparently less modern than Chaucer. He adopted a system of spelling which is more careful and consistent than that of most other Middle English authors, and, in general, he seems to have been something of a purist in matters of language.

    With regard to versification, the most marked feature of Gower’s verse is its great regularity and the extent to which inflectional endings are utilised for metrical purposes. We have here what we might have expected from the author’s French verse, very great syllabic accuracy and a very regular beat, an almost complete combination of the accentual with the syllabic principle. As an indication of the extent of this regularity, it may be mentioned that in the whole of Confessio Amantis, which contains more than thirty-three thousand four-accent lines, there are no examples of the omission, so frequent in Chaucer, of the first unaccented syllable. Displacement of the natural accent of words and the slurring over of light syllables are far less frequent with Gower than with Chaucer, and in purity of rime, also, he is somewhat more strict. The result of Gower’s syllabic accuracy is, no doubt, a certain monotony of rhythm in his verse; but, on the other hand, the author is careful so to distribute his pauses as not to emphasise the rime unduly. He runs on freely from one couplet to another, breaking the couplet more often than not in places where a distinct pause occurs, and especially at the end of a paragraph, so that the couplet arrangement is subordinated distinctly, as it is also by Chaucer, to the continuity of the narrative. The five-accent line is written by Gower in stanzas only, as in the Supplication of the eighth book and in the English poem addressed to Henry IV. In these it is a marked success, showing the same technical skill that we note elsewhere, with more variety of rhythm and a certain stately dignity which can hardly appear in the short couplet.