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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

§ 7. His Latest Works

After Confessio Amantis, which seems to have assumed its final form in 1393, “the sextenthe yer of King Richard,” Gower produced some minor Latin poems treating of the political evils of the times; and then, on the eve of his own marriage, he added, as a kind of appendix to Confessio Amantis, a series of eighteen French ballades on the virtue of the married state. After the fall of Richard II he produced three more poetical works, again in three different languages. In English, he wrote the poem already referred to, In Praise of Peace (Carmen de pacis commendacione) in fifty-five seven-line stanzas. In French, we have the series of ballades commonly known as Cinkante Balades, dealing with love according to the conventions of the age, but often in a graceful and poetical fashion. These may have been written earlier, but they were put together in their present form, as the author says, to furnish entertainment to the court of king Henry IV, and were dedicated to the king in two introductory ballades. It is clear that the feelings expressed are, for the most part, impersonal; sometimes the lover speaks and sometimes the lady, and the poems are evidently adapted to a diversity of circumstances. As poetry, they are much superior to those on marriage, and if they had been written in English, they would doubtless have been recognised as an interesting and valuable addition to the literature of the time. In Latin, the author sets forth his final view of contemporary history and politics in the Cronica Tripertita, a poem in leonine hexameters, in which the events of the last twelve years of the reign of Richard II are narrated, and the causes of his deposition set forth, as seen from the point of view of an earnest supporter of the Lancastrian party. As the title implies, it is in three parts, the first dealing with the events of the year 1387, and the proceedings of the appellants, the second with the year 1397, when Richard at length took vengeance on his opponents, and the third with the deposition of Richard II and the accession of Henry IV. This work has no poetical merits, but a certain amount of historical interest attaches to it. Some minor Latin poems, including an epistle addressed to the king, also belong to this final period of Gower’s literary life. Either in the first or the second year of the reign of Henry IV he became blind and ceased to write, as he himself tells us; and in the epistle to archbishop Arundel, which is prefixed to Vox Clamantis in the All Souls MS. (Hanc epistolam subscriptam corde deuoto misit senex et cecus Iohannes Gower), he touchingly dwells upon the blessing of light.

That Gower, through the purity of his English style and the easy fluency of his expression, exercised a distinct influence upon the development of the language, is undoubted, and, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, he was, on this account, uncritically classed with Chaucer. He is placed with Chaucer as an equal by the author of The Kingis Quair, by Occleve, by Dunbar, by Skelton and even by Sidney in The Defence of Poesie. But, in fact, though he may fairly be joined with Chaucer as one of the authorities for standard English, his mind was essentially formed in a medieval mould, and, as regards subject and treatment, he looks backwards rather than forwards. The modern note which was struck by Chaucer is almost entirely absent here. This medievalism, however, in itself has a certain charm, and there are qualities of this kind in Confessio Amantis which are capable still of giving genuine pleasure to the reader, while, at the same time, we are bound to acknowledge the technical finish of the style, both in the French and in the English poems. The author had a strong feeling for correctness of language and of metre, and, at the same time, his utterance is genuinely natural and unaffected. In his way he solved the problem of combining rhetorical artifice with simplicity of expression, and, if his genius moves within somewhat narrow limits, yet, within those limits, it moves securely.