Georgiana Donavin

title.none: Nicholson, Love and Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis (Georgiana Donavin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0603.006 06.03.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Georgiana Donavin, Westminster College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Nicholson, Peter. Love and Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Pp. 461. $80.00 0-472-11512-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.03.06

Nicholson, Peter. Love and Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Pp. 461. $80.00 0-472-11512-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Georgiana Donavin
Westminster College

Love and Ethics in Gower'sConfessio Amantis is the long-awaited formalist study by a most knowledgeable reader of John Gower's oeuvre, Peter Nicholson. As the bibliographer for the John Gower Newsletter for many years, Nicholson has a thorough understanding of the relevant scholarship and an intimate acquaintance with Gower's poems. Nicholson's conscientious study of Gower shows in his thoughtful readings of poetic passages, well-crafted expressions and maintenance of a single argument. His book, however, for all of this care, does not contribute an original perspective that can markedly enhance the critical conversation on Gower's major Middle English poem.

Nicholson opens his Preface with the book's statement of purpose: since the renaissance in Gower scholarship occurred after the heyday of formalist criticism, the Confessio Amantis has never enjoyed the close, comprehensive reading offered for other major fourteenth-century poems, and Nicholson aims to correct that oversight. Returning to a poem with fresh eyes for its structures can be salutary and rewarding, the reward being the discovery of new conclusions for other readers' reflections. While Nicholson certainly offers some keen insights about Gower's use of sources and contexts for the Confessio's tales, he does not, however, present an innovative argument. Instead, his careful analysis of all of the Confessio's tales serves to amplify upon J. A. W. Bennett's essay from 1966, entitled "Gower's 'Honeste Love'" (Patterns of Love and Courtesy: Essays in Memory of C. S. Lewis, ed. John Lawlor [London: Arnold Press, 1966], 107-21). The thesis in Bennett and in the following quotation by Nicholson is that the Confessio Amantis advocates "the love that joins men and women, the overwhelming force to which all human beings are subject" and which must be regulated by human reason. (5) Presenting the view that the Confessio focuses on love as a "site for a wide range of moral and ethical choices..." (6), Nicholson hopes to combat two readings of the poem that he considers faulty, one that tends too much toward political themes and another that privileges Augustinian renunciation of worldly concerns.

In order to achieve his purpose, Nicholson divides his discussion into two parts. Consisting of three chapters, Part One lays the aesthetic and moral ground for Part Two's book-by-book analysis of the Confessio Amantis. Part One, chapter one places more than usual emphasis on Gower's debt to Machaut. According to Nicholson, Machaut's presentation of love's ethical demands and of wisdom as a substitute for requited love prompts Genius's teachings. Since Machaut does not dwell on sexuality in his poetry, Gower must complicate the French poet's representations by treating the impulses of Nature and the mythologies of Venus and Cupid, the topics of Nicholson's second chapter. Part One's final chapter characterizes Amans and Genius and explains why Nicholson believes that the lesson in the Confessio's tales cannot be confined to the context of the confessional frame. Amans, he notes, represents only one sort of lover, the unrequited, while the tales take up a variety of lover's situations. Simply put, although Amans is rejected by love's court in the end of the poem, Gower is not abandoning the possibility of joyful and virtuous love.

In Part One, Nicholson exhibits both strengths and weaknesses that remain constant through the book. He illustrates a thorough knowledge of Gower's sources and poems, writes in fluid, well-structured prose and maintains the thread of his argument for "honeste love" amidst a welter of details. Starting with his treatment of "normative love" in chapter two, however, a tension exists between a frank characterization of the Confessio's narrative and the desire to melt everything down to a cohesive thesis. While Nicholson admits that Genius and Amans play different roles for different situations and that the concept of Nature is adaptable inside of the poem, he nevertheless insists that all of this variety inexorably serves a central argument on "honeste love" for more than 30,000 lines. One reason that Nicholson is able to downplay slippages in the Confessio Amantis is that he excludes major recent criticism that addresses them openly. Especially chapter two on the subject of Nature would have benefited from a reference to Mariá Bullón-Ferná ndez (Fathers and Daughters in Gower'sConfessio Amantis [Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2000]) on the subject of normativity and Diane Watt (Amoral Gower [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003]) on Gower's construction of desire.

As Part Two opens, Nicholson's command of the Confessio Amantis and all of its books is admirable. His reading takes into account every tale and offers helpful contexts for Genius and Amans's conversations. According to Nicholson, the overall structure of the Confessio Amantis goes as follows: the Prologue stands as a bookend to the poem proper; Books 1-5 outline love's regulations; Book 6 provides a transition between the laws of love and a discussion of wisdom; Book 7 connects a more explicit lecture on wisdom to God's laws, and Book 8 builds on 7's foundation by narrating exempla of divinely regulated love, chiefly "Apollonius of Tyre". Offering a chapter for each of the Confessio's books (except for Book 8, which is collapsed with and argued to be an extension of Book 7), Nicholson's sustained attention encourages another look at the poem's individual sections. His analysis of Book 4 is especially fine where he distinguishes Sloth from other kinds of sin and points out the comedic contrast between bumbling, petty Amans and idealizations of love represented in the tales. According to Nicholson, Book 4 is the strongest presentation of the ideals of "honeste love", while Book 8 supplies the most concrete representation of a happy couple who rule their feelings with reason.

While Nicholson takes great care in outlining the transitions from tale to tale, book to book, the patience of many readers will be taxed by an intensive analysis that does not lead to major new conclusions. A survey of the Works Cited shows that most of the secondary references were published in the 1980s or before, and throughout Part Two, Nicholson avoids mentioning not only Bullón-Ferná ndez and Watt, but also J. Allan Mitchell, whose recent book shares the key word "Ethics" with his own (see Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower [Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2004]). As bibliographer for the John Gower Newsletter, Nicholson is quite aware of new scholarship, so his omission, even in the notes, of books that have won the John Hurt Fisher Prize for Gower studies is disappointing. Perhaps Nicholson considers the critical methodologies of these books antithetical to his own, but engaging openly with their interpretations might have forced him to establish his own voice in the current conversation and thus yielded a new perspective, albeit through an older theory of making meaning.

Nicholson's main concern is not with innovation, but with banishing political and Augustinian readings of the Confessio Amantis in order for the poetic argument on "honeste love" to surface persuasively. In order to minimize the poem's political contents, Nicholson describes a structure that marginalizes the political books. He claims that the Prologue bewailing society's ills is not an integral part of the poem and that Book 7, whose main sources are kings' courtesy books, mainly provides a transition to Book 8. Nicholson cannot ignore the facts of Gower's opening and closing political addresses, the dedication to kings, the many fictional kings within the tales, the advice to Alexander the Great in Book 7, or Genius's pleas that Amans rule himself better, making the lover the counterpart of a king. Therefore, Nicholson's attempts at subjugating the political reading are not so compelling; it seems fairer to say that the political contents complement the poem's messages about love.

In countermanding Augustinian readings claiming that the Confessio's end projects a repudiation of worldly desire, Nicholson is much more eloquent. He concludes this rebuttal in the final chapter on "The Three Endings". Here, he explains that the poem gestures three times toward a closure: the happy ending for "honeste love" in "Apollonius of Tyre", Genius's statement about the unreasonable nature of Amans's love at 8.2058 and Amans's rejection from love's court, healing by Venus and acceptance of his status as an old man. Nicholson points out that neither Apollonius's domestic bliss nor the priest's injunction to reject desire represents possibilities to Amans and that readers should concentrate on the third ending which brings the lover's will into accord with the cycles of nature and focuses on his awareness of God as love's creator. As Nicholson remarks, "Even Amans's dismissal from love...offers a reaffirmation of the heavenly sources of human love...." (389) While this point is both well-stated and well- taken, the reader is left to wonder why Gower chose an ancient, sick and impotent character to represent a lover with a capital "A" and whether Amans's progress is not a gentle comedy foreshadowing the end of all "honeste" lovers.

As Nicholson underscores his ending point that the poem is "about those who experience love rather than stand outside of it...." (394), he notes in his final chapter (as earlier) the sense of reality conveyed by the poem. Readers, he contends, can relate to the events and emotions ascribed to lovers during the confession. While it is true that the uncovering of universal principles relating to the reader's reality is one goal of the New Criticism from which Nicholson's methods hail, it is unclear how "realism" results from a poem so steeped in mythologies and intertextuality. Since according to Nicholson's thesis, Gower's "honeste love" excludes homoerotic desire, if the Confessio's lovers are realistic, they are selectively so.

Through Love and Ethics in Gower'sConfessio Amantis, Nicholson hopes to provide a view of the poem as "Gower himself might have understood it" that will lay "a useful foundation" for further study. (vii) For beginners, Nicholson might have chosen to bring the translations from Latin and French out of the endnotes and into his text so that they might more readily stand on this new ground. For scholars of Gower, he might have engaged more fully in the recent critical conversation. While Nicholson's book masters all of the Confessio Amantis's tales and explains the numerous and fascinating ways in which the poem reflects its title, Love and Ethics stops short of offering "som newe thing".