19.08.09 Peck and Yeager, John Gower: Others and the Self

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Kara L. McShane

The Medieval Review 19.08.09

Peck, Russell A. and R.F. Yeager, eds. John Gower: Others and the Self. Publications of the John Gower Society. Cambridge UK: D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. viii, 381. ISBN: 978-1-84383-474-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kara L. McShane
Ursinus College

The contributions to this volume developed from the Third Congress of the International John Gower Society, held at the University of Rochester in 2014. The volume's new readings orient Gower's work in philosophical, theological, and scientific contexts in particular; the primary focus of these pieces is Gower's English and Latin writings, with a few important exceptions. Though wide-ranging in its interests, the collection is held together by several threads moving through its contributors' work: unsurprisingly for a volume with Gower's poetry as its focus, there is a strong focus on ethical considerations, particularly as they intersect with legal and governmental issues. Moreover, each contributor seriously considers Gower as poetic maker, placing emphasis on his care in craft and his own explorations of writing and the obligations of the poet.

Russell Peck's piece, which opens the volume, reads four of Gower's tales in the Confessio Amantis--the Tale of Nectanabus, the Tale of Canace and Machaire, the Tale of Apollonius, and the Tale of the Three Questions--within the framework of how late medieval philosophers and authors understood the workings of the brain. Thus the piece opens by articulating the three-chamber brain model that originated with Galen and the implications of this view of cognition for Gower's work. In his wide-ranging approach, Peck demonstrates the far reach of this cognitive framework to Gower's tales and their drama.

Stephanie Batkie provides an insightful and detailed analysis of aural puns in the Voxthat brings fresh light and nuance to Gower's Latin. She connects the act of listening to the poet's view of faith: "Gower's insistence on listening and sound in the Vox poses a significant question about belief: how much are we willing to believe what we hear, and why?" (34). Thus, she asserts that uncertainty is a mark of possibility and opportunity for Gower.

Matthew W. Irvin's contribution moves the volume into a consideration of specific virtues. In his contribution, he positions pity as a form of "power over life," one that is linked to the power over death that is part of sovereign power; moreover, this form of pity is thus linked to chastity, the masculine control over sexuality. Reading Gower's account of Lucrece through Agamben, Foucault, Seneca, and Augustine, Irvin links chastity to economic power over life. Though theoretically framed, Irvin's argument is grounded in careful attention to the text as he explores Gower's understanding of chastity as a male power across the Confessio, the Vox Clamantis, and the Mirour de l'Omme.

Karla Taylor explores the tension between deliberate deception in the Confessio and Gower's own position as an advocate for plainness and transparency, focused on examples such as the Tale of Mundus and Paulina. She identifies a conflict between effectiveness and ethical transparency for rulers, one that Gower's educational advice is designed to resolve, but a conflict that goes unresolved in the context of flatterers at the court of Richard II. She thus reads Chaucer's Clerk's Tale as a response--and a warning--to this Gowerian quandary.

Helen Cooper explores the role of storytelling in helping individuals understand the world in the last chapter of the volume's first section. She relates storytelling to concepts of mortality, seeing them as closely linked, a connection made explicit at the end of the Confessio when Amans proves to be the aged John Gower. Her contribution offers an extended meditation on frame tales, sweeping from Gilgamesh to One Thousand and One Nights to the works of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Gower; she suggests that this genre, with its focus on narration and renarration, is particularly concerned with issues of mortality.

The chapter that begins part two, by Maura Nolan, moves the volume from form to language through a consideration of Gower's "plain style." She focuses on Gower's economy of sound, hearkening back to Batkie's focus on Gower's poetry as an aural experience. Nolan argues that Gower's concision is in fact his most powerful aesthetic tool, allowing him to focus the reader's attentions on particular details and sensations. For Nolan, low style is indeed "uniquely suited to represent and indeed to recreate sensory experience, precisely because it lacks the adornments and embellishments of the high style" (113). She argues that Gower's style particularly fits the penitential mode of the Confessio's frame. Her contribution is marked by nuanced, intricate readings and careful attention to Gower's language.

The next three chapters of the section consider some of Gower's more uncomfortable narratives in the Confessio.Kim Zarins focuses on Gower's retelling of the Ovidian tales of Acis and Galatea and Tereus, Procne, and Philomela. Her work highlights the contradictory nature of Gower's use of these tales; since readers would be familiar with them, she reminds us, they would see Gower's divergence from his sources. She argues that Gower's versions, which lack the foreshadowing of Ovid's accounts, present their villainous characters in more complexity; thus, she sees Gower as invested in the question of what makes a person turn evil, a question he addresses via this transformational tactic that distances the reader from their known, accepted views of these figures. Larry Scanlon's contribution, "Gower, Lydgate, and Incest," builds on Zarins's focus on Gower's uncomfortable narratives. Scanlon reexamines Gower's interest in incest particularly through tales of Apollonius and Canace and Machaire, pairing with Lydgate's incest narratives in Fall of Princes. For Gower, he argues, incest narratives provide a space to examine power dynamics in gender relations; these narratives are public and political. In reading Gower alongside Chaucer and Lydgate's approach to incest, Scanlon suggests that "Gower's exploration of incest posed a problem that Chaucer felt impelled to address, and that Lydgate, following Chaucer's lead, felt impelled to try to solve. The fact is that the problem still has not been solved, either in relation to its social and political effectivity, or in relation to the particularities of its poetic representation" (182). From gendered violence, R. F. Yeager moves to religious difference with his piece "Gower's Jews." Yeager focuses primarily on the Tale of the Jew and the Pagan, one of few narratives where Gower speaks explicitly about Jews. He notes a distinction between Jews living pre-Christ and those living after; for Gower, Judaism is about a choice--the wrong one--yet he does not present the sort of graphic descriptions of Jews we see in, for example, Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. Yeager does not deny that Gower is indeed antisemitic, but suggests that he nonetheless resists the most graphic, monstrous, or embodied antisemitic tropes present in much of the work of his contemporaries; Yeager sees this trend as in keeping with Gower's deep investment in rational decision-making throughout his works, as well as suggesting Gower espoused Augustinian approach to Jews. Further, Yeager notes that the Tale only appears in second-recension versions of the Confessioand was thus likely added to link concepts of mercy and lordship with Henry IV in mind.

Yoshiko Kobayashi extends this concern for Gower's advice to Henry IV. She puts Gower in dialogue with his French contemporaries, seeing him as part of "a cross-Channel literary movement committed to the promotion of peace in Europe" (205). This argument details the thematic and structural parallels between Gower's In Praise of Peace and Philippe de Mézières' Epistre au roi Richartand Songe du vieil pelerin; each takes the position of an old man thus well-positioned to offer advice, and both authors discuss war through metaphors of wound and illness.

Kobayashi's piece begins the transition to a focus on governance that is central to the first two chapters in part 3 of the volume, entitled "Social Ethics, Ethical Poetics." This section begins with a chapter by Matthew Giancarlo that puts the exempla in Book VII of the Confessio in dialogue with Gower's Latin praise poetry. He is interested in Gower's use of De regimine and the Secretum secretorum, seeing this use of sources as key to understanding Gower's contributions to constitutionalist thinking. In reading the exempla and encomia together, Giancarlo finds similar regimental concerns in both as they navigate the relationship between king and people. Thus, while he asserts that Gower remains royalist, he notes that Gower's writing nonetheless explores--and complicates--issues of what constitutes legitimate power. Meindl extends this concern for governance from king to the judicial system through an examination of the understudied Book VI of Gower's Vox Clamantis. He argues that the judiciary is more central to Gower's critique than has been understood, reflected through use of same rhetorical device later used for the letter to the king.

From the role of authorities, the volume then considers the role of the poet. Brian W. Gastle reconsiders the two recensions of the prologue to the Confessio, arguing that the changes between versions are as much about poetry as about politics. The patronage exchange of the Ricardian prologue authenticates Gower's position as a professional writer, and Gastle reads this focus on the language of business across both recensions. Thus, he extends critical consideration of the prologue beyond consideration of autobiographical accuracy, demonstrating that in the frame, Gower "appears to be grappling with what kind of business is acceptable, moral, and truthful and how he can ply his own work without giving in to shady business practices" (293). While Gabrielle Parkin's focus is much different, she similarly engages with the issue of poetry as craft. In her reading of form and matter in the Confessio, focused on the skull cup in the Tale of Albinus and Rosemund, she demonstrates the discomfort with manufactured goods found throughout the poem. She reads this problem of sensory perception through Aquinas and Ockham's conflicting views of the material world, linking this contradiction to Gower's poetic project and his concern about responsible making.

Peter Nicholson examines this issue of poetic craft in Gower's French lyrics, exploring his relationship to the courtly lyric tradition of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Nicholson provides an incredibly detailed analysis of Gower's Balades in relation to this tradition, identifying trends across the tradition and innovations in Gower's use of form, especially the use of the envoy. Further, over thirty of the balades reference writing, either through mentioning letters, the poem's travel to the addressee, or other means. This, he argues, demonstrates how Gower is altering the role of the poet in the balade form, reflecting a consistency with Gower's writerly modes in the Trentham manuscript in particular. Nicholson illustrates the extent to which the balades are themselves about language, bringing matters of style and craft in Gower's French writing into the volume.

In the culminating piece in the volume, Ana Saez-Hidalgo considers Gower's ethics through the reception of the Confessio in Iberian contexts. Meticulously tracking the movement of the Castilian and Portuguese translations of Gower's poem, Saez-Hidalgo connects both manuscripts to a large and growing humanistic community. Thus, she suggests, the poem was valued in both contexts as a source of moral advice. As the title of her piece suggests, the article provides a key missing piece of Gower's early reception history.

One strength of the volume is the consistent, critical attention to the intricacies of Gower's language, for which contributors and the volume's editors should be commended. These are well-grounded readings with Gower's writing at their center. The one critique I would offer is that, partly due to its impressive range, the volume doesn't cohere as well as it might. Though groupings within sections productively put pieces in dialogue with each other (such as Giancarlo and Meindl or Gastle and Parkin), some sections tend to be more coherent than others. At the same time, threads and links across sections (such as Parkin's reference to Peck, or Nolan's links to Batkie) reflect the broader concerns of the field. The volume is thus a solid contribution to Gower studies, of considerable value to Gowerians, representing a key contribution to the study of his works.

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