John Gower and the Quest for Courtly Love

Happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all ~ Ovid

If Gower wasn’t the greatest champion of courtly love who ever lived, he at least was the most single-minded, being fiercely dedicated to his work (Fisher 135). And he may be pleased to know, while frolicking around the clouds of heaven with the winged cherubs he wrote so much about, that his work has received no small share of snide and disingenuous criticism from the very prudish ingrates he presumed to infuriate by a display of education in the erotic arts (Fisher 8. Also – see footnote 1).

But a criticism that might succeed in rattling the great poet, should he have chance to speak of it to the living, would be the almost malicious disregard with which he is all too often set firmly into the shadow of his friend and confidant, the great Geoffrey Chaucer. Gower is so often criticized in light of Chaucer’s work, that it becomes difficult to speak of him as a poet in his own right, and only recently has the importance of doing so been tried (Fisher 204).

And it is true that Gower has a spring-like merit. I mean to say: he deserves to be distinguished, as the large body of recent criticism, sprouting up around him like new-spring growth, arguably warrants. (See footnote 2).

But who is this man who has so infuriated the prudes, and so fascinated the romantics? What are his intentions, and what might we say about the affect of his work? With these questions, it’s best to start with the first and follow up in the order I’ve asked them:

While there may be little agreement among Gower’s critics, one thing they all agree on is how little biographical information is available to us (Greenblatt 346). Curious scholars are forced into the role of detectives, and must start with his grave at Southwark Cathedral, and work backwards as best they may (Fisher 37).

Perhaps the most interesting thing to remark about it, is the way the stone likeness marking the spot, shows a Gower at rest, with three books where a pillow should be – these three, being Gower’s famous (or infamous) trilogy…the culmination of his thought and life’s work (Fisher 38). This stone likeness shows the importance Gower placed on his own material, and will be discussed further below.

Working back from his grave, by manner of tracing church records and investigating circumstantial evidence preserved in memoirs and accounts from the time, scholars surmise Gower was a lawyer of some sort, who had frequent chance to mix with the courtiers of King Richard the II (Fisher 62). Subsequently, after a mysterious meeting with the King, which happened, by chance encounter on a barge in the middle of the Thames, he gained a commission for his poetry, which ever had been the work of a Tory, for Gower was no Republican, choosing to respect the traditions inherent in the monarchy. (See footnote 3).

I say “mysterious” because it’s well known that during the time, the young King Richard, a teenager of about thirteen years old, was engaged in countering the destructive “Peasants Rebellion,” an affair which obligated his majesty to circumvent the violence in London by barge. What Gower’s role in this adventure could have been, is unknown, but provides much entertainment for scholars (who haven’t gotten out of their role as detectives at this juncture).

As for Gower’s work, it has been much maligned, as was mentioned earlier. Still, given the breadth of his intended influence, it’s no surprise he raised the hackles of so many. He intended to do no less than what his French counter-parts were attempting on the continent – that is, to harmonize the principles of courtly love with the religious and social context of his day (Lewis 341). Only, in addition to all this, he did it, at least in the case of his most famous work, the Confessio Amantis, while simultaneously proving that Middle English was a language, capable of artistic expression – something heretofore un-thought of (Lewis 342. Also – see footnote 4).

But how did he achieve this harmony of interests? C.S. Lewis attributes it to his use of allegory. Says Lewis:

“The key to Gower’s solution of the problem is to be found in Andreas [a Greek poet who set the groundwork for Gower – S.T.] It will be remembered that Andreas had extended the erotic code so that it almost coincided with the real ethical code. Except on certain obviously untractable points; the virtues of a good lover were virtually indistinguishable from those of a good man; the commandments of the god of Love were, for the most part were mere repetitions of the commands of the church.”

Lewis, at this point, gives an example. “Sloth” according to Andreas’ goddess of Love, is a virtue because (presumably) the lover is too lazy to act on his passions and chase his beloved. But “sloth” is also a sin for the church – so the two ideas (the poetic religion of love, and Christian ethics) are harmonized. Lewis continues: “Thus Gower can bring in his stories, and another problem is solved” (Lewis 344).

And so he did – by using allegory and acting on what he’d learned from Andreas, Gower was able to write poems that would, at once, simultaneously satisfy the romantics, interested in love literature, as well as the Christian moralists, and also the politicians (who were always on the lookout for those who might betray their interests by verse). On those last – the “allegory” theme is particularly useful, as it adds a level of plausible deniability to the poet, who, in response to any perceived slight, might well respond that it was all fiction, and to be taken in good fun.

It was this theme of harmonization that Gower is most renowned for among those of his critics who appreciate him most (Yeager 230).

And so we reach the last of my questions: what sort of lasting affect has Gower had on the community? While the poet himself often goes unremembered, his literary influence is, arguably, grand – having sparked a movement of romantic love that has lasted, even into our own times, where it’s not at all uncommon to see popular films or novels devoted singularly to “love” as a theme. It’s even more common to find romantic love as major theme in non-romantic genres, such as the so-called “action-comedy” or in certain horrors, whose featured heroes often mix their adventures with the supernatural with pursuits of love.

With such a popular legacy, we all might do well to stop and remember Chaucer’s friend the good “Moral” Gower (as he affectionately called him), especially before engaging in any of our own amatory pursuits.

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Footnote 1: The phrase “erotic arts” has a slightly different meaning when used in literature concerning courtly love.  From Lewis to Fisher, the phrase is frequently used with a more innocent bent than our modern understanding gives it – which isn’t at all wholesome and speaks more of seedy red-light districts and adult video stores than the noble art of courting Gower envisioned.  

Footnote 2: Fisher spends a great deal of time working through all the recent and relevant Gower scholarship, including criticism, both the valuable and the less so.  See Fisher, chapter 1.

Footnote 3: Fisher expounds on this argument by alluding to the “popish” nature of Gower’s work.  Much of his grave site has been damaged, likely, argues Fisher, due to the anti-Catholic sentiment so strong in England during the sixteen hundreds.  See his chapter on Gower’s “Life Records”.

Footnote 4: There is much debate in the scholarly literature as to how much influence Gower had on the development of middle-English as opposed to how much influence is to be attributed to Chaucer.  It’s generally conceded by all that, while Gower was more famous in his time than Chaucer, Chaucer has won out in history. (Fisher 6).

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Works Cited

Fisher, John. John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. 1st ed. New York: New York University Press, 1964. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton &

Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. Print.

Yeager, R.F. John Gower’s Poetic: The Search for a New Arion. 1st. ed. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990. Print.

 

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