John Gower (1325?-1403)

John Gower was Chaucer's friend and fellow poet. He wrote his early works in Latin (Vox Clamantis) and French (Mirour de l'omme, Cinquante balades) and turned to English, he says (in the Prologue to the Confessio Amantis), at the command of Richard II, who was worried that there were so few books in that language.

Like Chaucer, Gower gained an international reputation; in the early fifteenth century, his Confessio Amantis was translated into Portuguese prose (by an Englishman, Robert Payn) and then into Spanish by Juan de Cuenca. The Spanish has long been known, but the Portuguese version was discovered fairly recently, in the 1990s, in the Biblioteca Real de Palacio. Gower's reputation remained high in the following centuries; Shakespeare drew on his works, and Gower himself appears in the role of Chorus in Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (Gower's version, Apollonius of Tyre, is in Confessio Amantis, Book VIII, 271-2008).

Gower's Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Confession) is cast in the form of a dream vision, with Gower himself in the role of the Lover. Venus assigns him a confessor, her priest Genius, who is to question him on the sins against love and to instruct him in their remedies.

Genius illustrates his instructions with exemplary tales, some of which draw on the same stories as Chaucer tells, and a comparison of the two versions can often be revealing -- providing clues to the two writers' often divergent purposes and to their ideas of narrative and style, at a time when English writers were just beginning to consider such matters.

Insofar as it is a collection of stories, the Confessio Amantis is comparable to the Canterbury Tales. But Gower was a more explicitly moral and politically concerned writer than Chaucer; the delight in his work was to serve, more explicitly than Chaucer's works, the higher goal of instruction. Genius instructs the Lover in science and philosophy as well as love (see the sections on Astronomy and the Four Humors below), and the proper governance of the realm is explicitly the concern of the later books, as befits a book addressed to King Richard (and rededicated to Henry IV after Richard's deposition). Even in what are the ostensibly lighter earlier books Gower's explicit purpose is to write a work

Which may be wisdom to the wise
And pley to hem that lust to pleye.
(Confessio Amantis, Prologue, *85-86)

He thought Chaucer should do the same; in the conclusion of the Confessio, Venus tells the lover to greet well her servant, Geoffrey Chaucer:

For thi now in hise daies olde
Thou schalt him telle this message,
That he upon his latere age,
To sette an ende of alle his werk,
As he which is myn owne clerk,
Do make his testament of love,
As thou hast do thi schrifte above
So that mi Court it mai recorde.
(Confessio Amantis, VIII.*2950-57)

This was written not long before Chaucer began work on the Canterbury Tales; whether Chaucer followed this advice, the reader must judge.

For selections, see:

The Prologue to the Confessio Amantis

Gower in Love (Book I, 93-202)

The Tale of Constance (Book II, 587-612) (cf. Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale)

The Tale of Florent (Book II, 1407-1882) (cf. Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale)

The Tale of Canace and Machaire (Book III, 143-359)

The Tale of Phoebus and the Crow (Book III, 783-817) (cf. Chaucer's Manciple's Tale)

John Gower on Alchemy (Book IV, 451-632)

The Four Humors (or Complexions) (Book VII, 380-520)

Gower's Discussion of Astronomy (Book VII, 625-1506)

The Tale of Appius and Virginia (Book VII, 5131-5306) (cf. Chaucer Physician's Tale)

Venus' Farewell and Messsage to Chaucer (Book VIII, 2814-2970)

These selections have marginal glosses for unusual words; for words not glossed, use the glossary to The Riverside ChaucerGower's spelling is unusually regular, though it differs in some ways from Chaucer's. The selections have been adapted from the standard edition, The English Works of John Gower, ed. G.C. Macaulay, EETS e.s. 81-82. London. 1900-01 [Widener 11473.8, Widener 12432.12.10, Hilles 820 2.51]. For a translation, see: John Gower, Confessio Amantis, trans. Terence Tiller. London. 1963 [PR1884.C6 1963]. For an electronic full text, see the version prepared at the University of Virginia Library.

For the most recent edition (best for students), see John Gower: Confessio Amantis, ed Russell A. Peck, with Latin translations by Andrew Galloway, 3 vols. Kalamazoo, MI. 2004.

For an index to the tales and subjects in Gower's Confessio Amantis, click here.

Suggested Readings

Ferster, Judith. Fictions of advice: the literature and politics of counsel in late medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996 [PR 275.D53 F47 1996].

Fisher, John H. John Gower, moral philosopher and friend of Chaucer. New York: New York University Press, 1964 [PR 1986.F5].

Gallacher, Patrick J. Love, the word, and Mercury: a reading of John Gower's Confessio amantis. 1st edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975 [Widener: 12432.17.15].

Nicholson, Peter. An annotated index to the commentary on Gower's Confessio amantis. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 62. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1989 [PR1984.C63 N53 1989].

Pearsall, Derek Albert. Gower and Lydgate. Writers and Their Work 211. Harlow: Longmans, Green & Co. for the British Council and the National Book League, 1969. [Widener 12432.28].

Yeager, Robert F. John Gower's poetic: the search for a new Arion. Publications of the John Gower Society 2. Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1990 [PR 1987.Y43 1990].

Yeager, Robert F. John Gower materials: a bibliography through 1979. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 266. New York: Garland Publications, 1981 [PR 1986.Z99 Y42 x].

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on Gower through 2000, click here.

See also the website maintained by the International John Gower Society, which contains many valuable resources, including The Gower Newsletter, which each year publishes an annotated bibliography of books and articles concerning Gower.

Gower's French and Latin Works

John Gower, The Latin verses in the Confessio Amantis: an Annotated translation, tr. Sian Echard and Claire Fanger with a preface by A.G. Rigg. East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1991 [PR 1984.C6 E35 1991x].

John Gower, The major Latin works of John Gower: The voice of one crying, and the Tripartite chronicle, ed. Eric W. Stockton. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1962 [PA 8520.G74 P633].

John Gower, Miroir de l'omme = The mirror of mankind, by John Gower, tr. William Burton Wilson, rev. Nancy Wilson Van Baak, with a foreword by R.F. Yeager. East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1992 [PQ 1463.G97 M4713 1992].