John Gower

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For American politician, see John Gower (politician).
John Gower shooting the world, a sphere of earth, air, and water (from a manuscript of his works ca. 1400)

John Gower (/ˈɡər/; c. 1330 – October 1408) was an English poet, a contemporary of William Langland and the Pearl Poet, and a personal friend of Geoffrey Chaucer. He is remembered primarily for three major works, the Mirour de l'Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis, three long poems written in French, Latin, and English respectively, which are united by common moral and political themes.[1]


Few details are known of Gower's early life. He was probably born into a family which held properties in Kent and Suffolk.[1]:299 Stanley and Smith use a linguistic argument to conclude that "Gower’s formative years were spent partly in Kent and partly in Suffolk".[2] Southern and Nicolas conclude that the Gower family of Kent and Suffolk cannot be related to the Yorkshire Gowers because their coats of arms are drastically different.[3]:111 Macaulay[4]:xxx-xxxiii and other critics have observed that he must have spent considerable time reading the Bible, Ovid, Secretum Secretorum, Petrus Riga, Speculum Speculationum, Valerius Maximus, John of Salisbury, and others.[5]

He once met Richard II. In the prologue of the first recension of the Confessio Amantis, he tells how the king, chancing to meet him on the Thames (probably circa 1385), invited him aboard the royal barge, and that their conversation then resulted in a commission for the work that would become the Confessio Amantis.[6] Later in life his allegiance switched to the future Henry IV, to whom later editions of the Confessio Amantis were dedicated.[7] Much of this is based on circumstantial rather than documentary evidence, and the history of revisions of the Confessio Amantis, including the different dedications, is yet to be fully understood.

The source of Gower’s income remains a mystery.[8]:198 He may have practised law in or around London.[9] Macaulay lists several real estate transactions to which Gower was a party.[4]:xi From 1365 he received ten pounds rent for the manor of Wygebergh in Essex.[10]:xi From 1382 until death he received forty pounds per annum from selling Felwell in Norfolk and Multon in Suffolk.[3]:117 In 1399 Henry IV granted him a pension, in the form of an annual allowance of two pipes (= 1 tun = 240 gallons) of Gascony wine. Carlson estimates the value of the two pipes as 3 to 4 pounds wholesale or 8 pounds retail.[8]:199

The tomb of John Gower in Southwark Cathedral. For more information click on the picture

Gower's friendship with Chaucer is also well documented. When Chaucer was sent as a diplomat to Italy in 1378, Gower was one of the men to whom he gave power of attorney over his affairs in England.[4]:xv The two poets also paid one another compliments in their verse: Chaucer dedicated his Troilus and Criseyde in part to "moral Gower", and Gower reciprocated by placing a speech in praise of Chaucer in the mouth of Venus at the end of the Confessio Amantis (first recension VIII.2950-70).[11] The Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale (lines 77–89) contains an apparent reference to Gower’s tales of Canacee and Tyro Appolonius. Tyrwhitt (1822) believed that this offended Gower and led to the removal of Venus’ praise of Chaucer.[12] Twentieth century sources have more innocent reason for the deletion.[13]:xxvi-xxviii[14]

At some point during the early 1370s, he took up residence in rooms provided by the Priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral). In 1398, while living here, he married,[4]:xvii[15] probably for the second time: his wife, Agnes Groundolf, who survived him. In his last years, and possibly as early as 1400, he became blind.[1]:300

After his death in 1408, Gower was interred in an ostentatious tomb in the Priory church (now Southwark Cathedral), which remains today.

Macaulay provides much information and speculation about Gower. Some of his conclusions are inferences drawn from the trilingual writings of Gower. Where possible he draws upon legal records and other biographers.[4]


Gower's verse is by turns religious, political, historical, and moral—though he has been narrowly defined as "moral Gower" ever since Chaucer graced him with the epithet.[16]:line 1856 His primary mode is allegory, although he shies away from sustained abstractions in favour of the plain style of the raconteur.

His earliest works were probably ballades in Anglo-Norman French, some of which may have later been included in his work the Cinkante Ballades. The first work which has survived is in the same language, however: it is the Speculum Meditantis, also known by the French title Mirour de l'Omme, a poem of just under 30,000 lines, containing a dense exposition of religion and morality. According to Yeager "Gower's first intent to write a poem for the instructional betterment of king and court, at a moment when he had reason to believe advice about social reform might influence changes predictably to take place in an expanded jurisdiction, when the French and English peoples were consolidated under a single crown."[17]

Gower's second major work, the Vox Clamantis, was written in Latin. The first book has an allegorical account of the Peasants' Revolt which begins as an allegory, becomes quite specific and ends with an allusion to William Walworth’s suppression of the rebels.[4]:xxxiv-xl Gower takes the side of the aristocracy but the actions of Richard II are described by "the captain in vain endeavoured to direct the ship’s course".[4]:xxxixSubsequent books decry the sins of various classes of the social order: priests, friars, knights, peasants, merchants, lawyers. The last two books give advice to King Richard II and express the poet’s love for England.[4]:xxx-lvii As Gower admits,[18] much of Vox Clamantis was borrowed from other authors. Macaulay refers to this as "schoolboy plagiarism"[4]:xxxii Peter classifies Mirour and Vox as "complaint literature" in the vein of Langland.[19]

His third work is the Confessio Amantis, a 30,000-line poem in octosyllabic English couplets, which makes use of the structure of a Christian confession (presented allegorically as a confession of sins against Love) as a narrative frame within which a multitude of individual tales are told.:I.203–288 Like his previous works, the theme is very much morality, even where the stories themselves have a tendency to describe rather immoral behaviour. One scholar asserts that Confessio Amantis "almost exclusively" made Gower's "poetic reputation."[20]

Fisher views the three major works as "one continuous work" with In Praise of Peace as a capstone. There is "movement from the courtly tone of the Cinkante Balades to the moral and philosophical tone of the Traitie." Leland [21] (ca 1540) [22]: Fisher translation 136 states "that the three works were intended to present a systematic discourse upon the nature of man and society."

They provide as organized and unified a view as we have of the social ideals on England upon the eve of the Renaissance. This view may be subsumed under the three broad headings: individual VIRTUE, legal JUSTICE, and the administrative responsibility of the KING. The works progress from the description of the origins of sin and the nature of the vices and virtues at the beginning of the Mirour de l'omme, through consideration of social law and order in the discussion of the three estates in the Mirour and Vox Clamatis, to a final synthesis of royal responsibiity of Empedoclean love in the Confessio Amantis.[22]: 136

In later years Gower published a number of minor works in all three languages:

  • the Cinkante Ballades, a series of French ballades on romantic subjects. Yeager (2011) argues that these sonnets were composed throughout Gower’s lifetime.[23]
  • the English poem In Praise of Peace "is a political poem in which Gower, as a loyal subject of Henry IV, approves his coronation, admires him as the saviour of England, dilates on the evil of war and the blessing of peace, and finally begs him to display clemency and seek domestic peace"[24]:106 Fisher argued that it was "Gower's last important poem. It sums up the final twenty years of both his literary career and his literary achievement."[22]:133
  • short Latin works on various subjects with several poems addressed to the new Henry IV. According to Yeager (2005) "his final metered thoughts were in Latin, the language that Gower, like most of his contemporaries, associated with timeless authority."[25]

Critics have speculated on which late work triggered the royal wine allowance mentioned in the Life section. Candidates are Cronica tripertita,[8][26]:26 In Praise of Peace,[27]:85 O Recolende[28] or an illustrated presentation copy of Confessio with dedication to Henry IV.[29] According to Meyer-Lee "no known evidence relates the collar or grant [of wine] to his literary activity."[30]

Gower's poetry has had a mixed critical reception. In the 16th century, he was generally regarded alongside Chaucer as the father of English poetry.[31]:ix In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, his reputation declined, largely on account of a perceived didacticism and dullness; e.g. the American poet and critic James Russell Lowell claimed Gower "positively raised tediousness to the precision of science".[32]:329 After publication of Macaulay's edition (1901) of the complete works,[31] he has received more recognition, notably by C. S. Lewis (1936),[33] Fisher (1964),[22] Yeager (1990) [34] and Peck (2006). [35] However, he has not obtained the same following or critical acceptance as Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer influence[edit]

Chaucer used octosyllabic lines in House of Fame but eschewed iambic rhythm. He "left it to Gower to invent the iambic tetrameter, and to later centuries of poets to solve the problems of its potential monotony; he himself merely polished the traditional Middle English short line."[36]:85

Fisher [22]:207 concludes that they were living near each other in the period 1376 to 1386. They influenced each other in several ways:

  1. They imported Italian models and learned "to count beats in such a way as to produce a regular number of syllables."[36]: 92 This led via Mirour to the iambic tetrameter of Confessio and Chaucer's pentameter.
  2. After 1376 both poets turned from love poetry to more serious topics. For Gower this was the "moralistic social complaint in the Mirour d l'omme and Vox Clamatis, while Chaucer wrestled more painfully in the House of Fame and Parliament of Fowls with the relation between the style and substance of courtly poetry and social satire."[22]:208
  3. Gower "took the risk of composing in English only after Chaucer had achieved success and fame with Troilus and Criseyde."[36]: 92
  4. The most of the individuals in the General Prologue are members of classes criticized in Mirour and Vox Clamatis. Chaucer has omitted the higher ranks of the secular and clerical hierarchies. The language and the introduction of satire are the invention of Chaucer.[22]: 251ff


Sebastian Sobecki's discovery of the early provenance of the trilingual Trentham manuscript reveals Gower as a poet who was not afraid to give Henry IV stern political advice.[37] Sobecki has also claimed to have identified Gower's autograph hand in two manuscripts.[38]

List of works[edit]

  • Mirour de l'Omme, or Speculum Hominis, or Speculum Meditantis (French, c.1376–1379)
  • Vox Clamantis (Latin, c.1377–1381)
  • Confessio Amantis (English, c.1386–1393)
  • Traité pour essampler les amants marietz (French, 1397)
  • Cinkante Balades (French, 1399–1400)
  • Cronica Tripertita (Latin, c.1400)
  • In praise of peace (English, c.1400)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c  "Gower, John". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  2. ^ Samuels, Michael; J.J.Smith (1988). "The Language of Gower". The English of Chaucer and his contemporaries. Aberdeen University Press. ISBN 0080364039. 
  3. ^ a b Henry Southern, Esq M.A.; Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Esq, eds. (1828). The Retrospective Review, and Historical and Antiquarian Magazine, Volumes 1–2. Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i G.C. Macaulay (ed.). "Introduction, Life of Gower". The Complete Works of John Gower, Vol 4 The Latin Works (PDF). p. vii–xxx. 
  5. ^ * George L. Hamilton. "Some Sources of the Seventh Book of Gower's "Confessio Amantis"". Modern Philology. University of Chicago Press (Vol. 9, No. 3 (January 1912),): 323–346. JSTOR 432439. 
  6. ^ Peck (ed.). "Confessio Amantis".  left note line 22
  7. ^ Grétar Rúnar Skúlason (2012). "John Gower, Richard II and Henry IV: A Poet and his Kings" (PDF). 
  8. ^ a b c David Richard Carlson. John Gower, Poetry and Propaganda in Fourteenth-century England. pp. 198–199. 
  9. ^ Conrad van Dijk (2013). John Gower and the Limits of the Law (Publications of the John Gower Society). D.S.Brewer. ISBN 978-1843843504. 
  10. ^ Reinhold Pauli, ed. (1857). "Life of John Gower". Confessio Amantis of John Gower, Vol 1. Bell and Daldy. 
  11. ^ Thomas Usk; John Leyerle; Gary Wayne Shawver (2002). Testament of Love. University of Toronto Press. p. 3. 
  12. ^ Thomas Tyrwhitt, ed. (1822). "Introductory Discourse to the Canterbury Tales". The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. W. Pickering and R. and S. Prowett. p. 126 note 15. ISBN 978-0848226244. 
  13. ^ Macaulay, G.C. (1900). "Introduction". The English Works of John Gower Vol I (PDF). Early English Text Society. 
  14. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer. Larry Dean Benson, ed. The Riverside Chaucer. p. 856. 
  15. ^ Register of William of Wykman ii. f.299b. not verified
  16. ^ Geoffrey Chauucer (1380). Troilus and Criseyde. 
  17. ^ Robert F. Yeager (2006). "Gower's French Audience: The Mirour de l'Omme". The Chaucer Review (Volume 41, Number 2). 
  18. ^ Vox Clamatis Prologos Libri Secunti
  19. ^ Sears Jayne (1958). "Reviewed Work: Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature by John Peter". Modern Philology. University of Chicago Press (Vol. 55,): 200–202. JSTOR 434965. 
  20. ^ Grey, Douglas. "John Gower." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004.
  21. ^ John Leland (1540). Commentarii de Scriptoribus Brittannicis (in Latin). 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g John H. Fisher (1964). John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814701492. 
  23. ^ R. F. Yeager (Editor) (2011). "Cinkante Balades: Introduction". The French Balades. Medieval Institute Publications. 
  24. ^ Masayoshi Itô (1976). John Gower, the medieval poet. Shinozaki Shorin. 
  25. ^ John Gower (2005). "Introduction". In R. F. Yeager; Michael Livingston. The Minor Latin Works with In Praise of Peace. Medieval Institute Publications. 
  26. ^ John Hines; Nathalie Cohen; Simon Roffey (2004). "Iohannes Gower, armiger, poeta: records and memorials of his life and death". In Siân Echard. A companion to Gower. ISBN 978-1843842446. 
  27. ^ John H. Fisher (1998). "A Language Policy for Lancastrian England". In Daniel Pinti. Writing After Chaucer: Essential Readings in Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century. ISBN 978-0815326519. 
  28. ^ Henry was crowned 13 October 1399. His grant to Gower was doubtless in recognition of the political support reflected in the Chronica Tripertita and other Latin poems. The Epistola brevi (aka O Recolende) (Macaulay, 4:345) would appear to contain an acknowledgement of the grant (lines 19–21).
    John H Fisher (1959). "Calendar of Documents relating to the life of John Gower the Poet". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology (58#1): 1–23. 
  29. ^ Clayton J. Drees (2001). The Late Medieval Age of Crisis and Renewal, 1300–1500. p. 198. ISBN 978-0313305887. 
  30. ^ Robert J. Meyer-Lee (2007). Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521863551. 
  31. ^ a b Macaulay, G.C. (1900). "Introduction". The English Works of John Gower Vol I (PDF). Early English Text Society. 
  32. ^ James Russell Lowell (1890). The Writings of James Russell Lowell: Literary essays. p. 329. ISBN 978-1248665008. 
  33. ^ C.S. Lewis (1936). The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. ISBN 978-1107659438. 
  34. ^ Robert F. Yeager (1990). John Gower's Poetic: The Search for a New Arion. Boydell & Brewer. 
  35. ^ Russell A. Peck (2006). "Confessio Amantis, Volume 1: Introduction". Robbins Library Digital Projects. 
  36. ^ a b c Martin J. Duffel (2011). A New History of English Metre. Legenda. ISBN 978-1907975134. 
  37. ^ Sobecki Sebastian (2015). "Ecce patet tensus: The Trentham Manuscript, In Praise of Peace, and John Gower's Autograph Hand". Speculum. 90 (4): 925–59. doi:10.1017/S0038713415002316. 
  38. ^ Sobecki. "Ecce patet tensus: The Trentham Manuscript, In Praise of Peace, and John Gower's Autograph Hand."


Arner, Lynn (2013) "Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising: Poetry and the Problem of the Populace after 1381". Penn State UP.
Fisher, John H. (1964) John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814701492
Macaulay, G. C. (1908) "John Gower," in Ward, A. W., and Waller, A. R., eds. The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. II. The End of the Middle Ages, chapter VI. Cambridge University Press
Echard, Siân (ed.) (2004) A Companion to Gower. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer ISBN 978-1843842446
Sobecki, Sebastian (2015). "Ecce patet tensus: The Trentham Manuscript, In Praise of Peace, and John Gower's Autograph Hand.". Speculum. 90 (4): 925–959. doi:10.1017/S0038713415002316. 
Urban, M. (ed.) (2009) John Gower, Manuscripts, Readers, Contexts, Turnhout: Brepols ISBN 978-2-503-52470-2
Watt, Diane (2003) Amoral Gower. University of Minnesota Press
Yeager, R. F. (ed.) (2007) On John Gower: Essays at the Millennium. (Studies in Medieval Culture, XLVI) Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, pp. x, 241

External links[edit]