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24.02.03 Donavin, John Gower’s Rhetoric

24.02.03 Donavin, John Gower’s Rhetoric

This study of a range of personae, “voices,” registers, and genres that John Gower adopts--all found in the capacious category of “rhetoric”--is a magisterially conceived and literarily sensitive summa, tracking those notions through a wide span of Gower’s considerable oeuvrein his three languages (a very proper French, a generally classical Latin, and a distinctively unusual dialectically hybrid English), with particularly welcome attention to his French lyric cycles and uses of the epistolary form.

The pursuit starts by examining Gower’s unusual--indeed probably unique--claim for the fundamental importance of “rethorique,” to which he subordinates both logic and grammar; to explain this Donavin offers the bold claim that Gower knew not only Aristotle’s (rather thinly circulated)Rhetoric but also the large commentary on it by Giles of Rome, which emphasizes Aristotle’s opening claim that rhetoric is “successive” to logic and amplifies Aristotle’s focus not on tropes but on the passions that rhetoric can stir (and manipulate) in particular groups. Donavin’s larger, and I think more important, claims concern the shifting voices or modes of rhetoric Gower uses. Having adopted for his excoriating voice of social satire the “strident, male” mode (150) of John the Baptist, preacher of repentance, and John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, Gower regularly modulates throughout his oeuvre into a saintly “feminine” mode of limpidly pithy rhetoric associated with the purity yet fecundity of the Virgin: a “chaste rhetoric” that governs his French lyrics as it does the surviving (atelic) end of his French Mirour de l’Omme (c. 1378). A final chapter notes how Gower’s attention to a simple and plain rhetoric by women speakers, and his general interest in the use of repetition as a marker of the “plain” style, are both visible in the Renaissance responses of Shakespeare’s Pericles (1609) and Ben Jonson’s English Grammar (c. 1620, 1640-1641).

This is really three books in one--foundations; modes and voices; innovations and reception--and that in itself makes a point about the absence of prior comprehensive attention to Gower’s wide use of as well as his thought about rhetoric. Such scope means that, although I find a few claims unconvincing, and some elements rough-hewn, the net effect is transformative, particularly for a subfield that has had many sideline contributions but no similarly comprehensive treatment.

My substantive, and manageably specific, demurrals are all in the “foundations” part. Everyone must start by examining Gower’s unusual--indeed probably unique--claim for the fundamental importance of “rethorique” as one of the three primary “sciences” that constitute philosophy. Gower derived this view from his reading of Brunetto Latini’s Livres dou Tresor (c. 1260), but displaced Latini’s supercategory of “Logic” with “Rhetoric,” under which Gower locates grammar and logic. This is a remarkable reordering, and I think Donavin diffuses its originality with the argument that Gower knew Aristotle’s Rhetoric (or some scrap of its reception, such as a stray list she mentions that includes the passions Aristotle names, under ‘P’ [47]). I’m persuaded that Gower, like Aristotle, is attentive to the passions of different kinds of audiences, and I am at least receptive to Donavin’s view that this becomes, for Gower, a basis for him showing the wandering path of the emotionally volatile “will” (in the form of Amans, the Lover of the Confessio amantis) to align, in the end, with higher and more ethical (and ultimately more Augustinian Christian) reason, when Amans is reduced again to old John Gower, maker of moral books. I don’t, however, see the necessity of positing Aristotle’s relatively rare work or Giles’ massive thirteenth-century commentary as essential direct bases for all this, which is, after all, a general goal in “moral” poetry.

Not that Donavin is wrong to draw attention to this Aristotelean tradition. For the narrower reason I’m skeptical is what Latini provides. The great early twentieth-century editor G. C. Macaulay first identified Latini’s Trésor as Gower’s main source for his discussion of rhetoric; with characteristic authority, Macaulay added that the Trésor “is very largely based upon Aristotle, with whose works Latini was exceptionally well acquainted, and it is from this that Gower takes his classification of the sciences, though in regard to the place of Rhetoric he does not quite agree with Latini.” [1] Latini cites Aristotle at least twenty-three times, including ten times from the Rhetorica. Would Gower have needed Aristotle’s Rhetoric, much less Giles of Rome’s massive commentary, to attribute his definition of Rhetoric to “the Philosophre” who “amonges alle / Forthi commendeth this science / Which hath the reule of eloquence” (qtd. 40)--since Latini also opens by defining “rectorique” as “une science ki nous ensegne bien plainement et parfitement dire es choses communes et es privees” (‘a science which teaches us to speak very plainly and perfectly about things both public and private’), which he goes on to say is classified under “la science de cité governer” because of “ce q’Aristotles dist en son livre, ki est translaté en romans ça en ariere” (‘what Aristotle says in his book, which was translated into Latin at one time or another’)? [2]

Latini was among a small group of massively learned intelligentsia, including Roger Bacon, who were well aware of Aristotle’s Rhetoric but also felt it was often overlooked; Latini even seems aware (correctly) that there were multiple Latin translations by the late 1260s. As textbook foundations for Gower’s commitment to “tale plein,” a Leitmotif of Donavin’s study, we might look no further than Latini’s “science ki nous ensegne bien plainement et parfitement dire.”

I’m also unpersuaded--to conclude my objections--by Donavin’s early claim, proffered to establish Gower’s depth of thought about rhetoric, that Gower made a rhetorically meaningful distinction between “Tullius” and “Cicero.” In a gaffe that hardly needs much excusing, Gower, setting the stage for the famous ancient debate over the fate of Catiline, declares, “at Rome also / Was Tullius with Cithero” (IV.2633-634). The usual explanation is simple error, suggesting Gower was perhaps not so very learned in rhetorical traditions. Donavin, however, argues Gower was making a cunning distinction between, on the one hand, ornate speech, via “Tullius’” Rhetorica ad Herennium, the anonymous ancient text universally attributed to Cicero (but, we now agree, clearly by some follower or contemporary) which includes a range of tropes for embellishment, and, on the other, a more restrained, spare, “plain” speech by “Cicero,” embodied and demonstrated in Cicero’s (actual) De inventione and his speech against Catiline, first quoted and summarized by Sallust (translated and reproduced by Latini, who everyone assumes was Gower’s proximate source there).

Any prospect of situating more accurately Gower’s thought about rhetoric and rhetorical traditions merits consideration, but it is special pleading to think it “nearly impossible” for Gower not to realize that “Tullius” is the same as Cicero (64) on the grounds that it is “Cicero’s” speech about Catiline that Latini conveys (but almost always as “Tullius”). Presumably that would be nearly impossible because it would mean Gower missed something in Latini, who, Donavin claims, uses Cicero’s tria nomina “more than once to describe the orator’s participation in the Catilinarian debates” (64). In fact, Latini uses Cicero’s three names in that context exactly once (III.34.2). Of the 112 other times Latini mentions or paraphrases Cicero in the Trésor, he uses the three names only one other time, far from the final, rhetoric section, in the first book on ethics (I.36.5); all other times he uses only “Tulles,” apart from once mentioning “Cicero nostre consoles” (III.35.6)--precisely the political role that Gower asserts for his ghostly double of “Cicero.”

Donavin observes that Gower’s London associate Chaucer correctly used all three names of “Marcus Tullius Scithero” (64, 67), but we might recall that Chaucer did so in order to poke fun at a Franklin who pedantically claims his complete ignorance of textbook rhetoric while dropping classical allusions as wantonly as Petrarch--perhaps, as I have suggested elsewhere, needling the classicizing, autodidact, “freeman” Gower, whose ignorance Chaucer (a far lesser Latinist) for once had the pleasure of pointing out. [3] If we find it unbelievable that someone in England, innocent of Italy’s Cicerophilia, might commit so rank an error, we might consider the anonymous fifteenth-century translation of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon preserved in Harley MS 2261: misled by Hidgen’s interposition of “tamen” (‘nonetheless’) between “Tullio” and “Cicerone,” the translator wrote that Caesar was “expulsede from the cité by Tullius and Cithero consulles.” [4]

Philological acumen does not automatically make a great poet, and the real stakes of Gower’s rhetoric, and Gower’s Rhetoric, are elsewhere. No one has treated Gower’s Marian lyricality as well as Donavin, and not only in the chapters explicitly dedicated to that topic. Perhaps the greatest of the book’s triumphs is to show that Gower’s lifelong dedication to a “plain” style is ultimately a pursuit of a “full” (plena) style, as in gracia plena. Extraordinarily fine readings emerge of nested, “enclosed,” and implicitly Marian imagery in the love lyrics of the Cinkante Balades (e.g., 271-273). Such “chaste speech” and “pure language,” a “concept of a bare text” manifested in a “simple, abbreviated style” in which any “rhetorical flourishes” are used only insofar as they present “the whole truth” (142, 145, 143), fully emerges, Donavin fascinatingly proposes, only when Gower’s caustic biblical personae of John the Baptist and John of Patmos recede. “Marian rhetoric” offers “a simple and lovely eloquence that captures reasonable thought and avoids the faults of Gower’s strident male voices, whether they be in the Roman senate, by the Jordan, or in Patmos” (150).

Sweeping as it is, the plan of Gower’s Rhetoric engages with a very large range of critical and scholarly commentary, and there is abundant evidence of Donavin’s diligent attention to many, especially and appropriately more recent, views. One failing in formal execution--ultimately to be lodged with the publisher--is how many footnoted references are missing from the final bibliography. Neither Jonson’s collected works nor Manzalaoui’s edition of the Secretum secretorum appears, to mention just two (I stopped counting after thirty). The problem is exacerbated by the skeletal index, which omits all scholarship. Not all references are found complete anywhere (“Elizabeth J. Bellamy” [305n]); truncations or errors appear in some (“Heroines” [409]); references to secondary works intrude in the Primary Works bibliography (Matthews; Smalley [398-399]). The contributions by Robin Hass Birky, to whom Donavin offers particular gratitude for Birky’s seminal essay on “chaste rhetoric,” undeveloped because of Birky’s untimely death (143), is separated in the bibliography from works by Robin Hass. Many critics included in the bibliography have only some of their essays there that Donavin elsewhere discusses. Generous mentions of some scholars’ ideas can be repetitious (views by Thomas Bestul are repeated verbatim at 329n, 333n, and 336), and at least one of mine is incomplete. What I (perhaps intemperately) once wrote, in characterizing Gower’s paradoxical attention to a range of sometimes fungible, sometimes not fungible goods, people, and languages,

"the verbal tropes by which such economies are made to seem natural and inevitable emerge, when isolated as “rhetorik,” as themselves an unnatural force. This is so even though the [Confessio amantis] continually denies its use of rhetoric... However impossible such unchanging transmission, the pretense of commutability is pervasive, registered in its English narrator’s earnest ‘plainness’ of communicating, ... Yet despite those claims to rude words and plain, the poet admits that rhetoric is necessary and unavoidable. Its ungovernable power, in spite of the poet’s protestations, is patent throughout...” [5]

Donavin summarizes as my taking “Gower’s protests against overly embellished language to be a denial of rhetoric” (16n). That leaves half my claim, at most, rather prominently in the book’s second footnote, where so naive an assertion richly deserves the demolition that the following tome offers: “I shall argue that Gower makes distinctions concerning the kinds of rhetoric he can ethically embrace” (16n).

Beating my breast for spite, in retrospect I might add that I was pursuing the paradoxes of Gower’s definitions of “rethorique,” as, on the one hand, that which “perornat” (‘highly embellishes’) the words of “Grammatica et Logica,” as Gower’s Latin prose marginalia states, and on the other, as “the word” as such, which God “hath yove” (‘given’) to humanity alone, as the English poetry directly beside that marginalia declares (VII.1509 and marg.). I was certainly not denying Gower’s self-conscious and often elaborate uses of rhetoric, as the rest of my essay shows. And just as I pursued his contradictory rhetoric of rhetoric down to the point that the poet implausibly denies his own manifest and potent use of it, so (I might reply) Donavin dwells on Gower’s “ideal of a plain, ethical rhetoric” (161), “a concept of a bare text” (144), what might be called an impossible ideal of naked or transparent rhetoric, fraught with “the possibility of wordlessness” (161, quoting Patrick Gallacher). I now prefer her explanation, but we are looking at similar phenomena.

Gower’s Rhetoric provides crucially important attention to Gower’s commitment to a highly crafted plainness; this leads both to the voice of complaint and to the Marian mode that, Donavin shows, constituted what we might call his lyricality. That strand is visible in the discussion of the formal poetic enclosures and ideas of maternal creativity pervading Gower’s love lyrics in the Cinkante Balades as they are in her views of how his Traitie conveys the “disordered” passions, down to Donavin’s attention to how, in the incompletely preserved Mirour, Mary throws herself on the deposed body of her son, mingling her tears with his blood in an exchange of bodily fluids “as if in sex and wanting to melt into the beloved” (338).

That Gower has begun receiving significant attention only in recent decades as a major English writer of lyric--by R. F. Yeager, Ardis Butterfield, Matthew Irvine, and myself, among others--is surely due to the fact that he was not a major writer of English lyric.Donavin provides a broad and powerful new basis for reassessing this. That his works were influential in the Renaissance for their sensitivity to women’s subjectivities, their use of epistolary forms to elaborate dense and allusive figurality, and their demonstration of the “chaste” rhetoric of repetition reminds us that the Reformation’s dismissal of Mariolatry along with non-English poetry by English poets imposed a high cost on their, and ultimately our, range of poetic and rhetorical understanding and appreciation. In many ways Donavin’s study substantially redeems that loss.



1. G. C. Macaulay, ed., The English Works of John Gower, Early English Text Society e.s. 82 (London: Oxford University Press, 1901), vol. 2, p. 522.

2. Francis J. Carmody, ed., Li Livres dou Tresor de Brunetto Latini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948), III.2.2.

3. Andrew Galloway, “Gower’s Ovids,” in The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Volume I: 800-1558, ed. Rita Copeland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 437.

4. Joseph Rawson Lumby, ed., Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis, together with the English Translations of John Trevisa and of an Unknown Writer of the Fifteenth Century, Roll Series 41 (London: HMSO, 1872), vol. 4, pp. 180-81.

5. Andrew Galloway, “The Account Book and the Treasure: Gilbert Maghfeld’s Textual Economy and the Poetics of Mercantile Accounting in Ricardian Literature,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011), 109-110.