Gower’s Rising Star: A Pivotal Moment?

I’d like to pick up on the keyword used by Jonathan Hsy in his retrospective blog on the Third International Congress of the John Gower Society, posted on “In the Middle” (July 9, 2014), and apply it to the experience of moving from the Gower conference in Rochester, N.Y., which ended on July 3, 2014, to the Chaucer gathering in Reykjavík, Iceland, which began on July 15. Turning from one conference to the other or “pivot(ing)” as Hsy might say, marked an important moment of transition as many of us moved from here to there, from the U.S. to Iceland, shifting gears and repositioning ourselves in time and space. The pivot, for me, was (and is) like a dance move, a pirouette, a revolving, circulating, gyrating, spinning, twirling, being caught up in a whirligig of movement, sights, and sounds. Like those scholars who felt overwhelmed by the experience of traveling from one forum to the other in such a short amount of time, I felt the pressure of performance hanging over my head, as Georgiana Donavin and I prepared our presentation on an obscure Gower manuscript in the days between events. The irony of talking about Gower at a Chaucer conference did not escape us, but rather made us much more aware of the interplay between the two poets. Like a dance, this thing we do for a living encourages synchronicity, interaction, and synergy. Collaboration, whether like ours, or among conferees gathered together in Rochester or Reykjavík, generates a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, whatever that topic may be. Kara McShane put her dual-conference experience this way: “moving right from one to the other really reinforced the ongoing and collaborative nature of scholarly work.”

Of course, Gower and Chaucer have been engaged in a dance for centuries, one leading, one following, one pivoting, the other guiding the turn. The critical reception of each poet influenced the development of a complicated literary history that began with both poets on an equal footing, until a shift in the political environment and in critical tastes in literature (a preference for satire) encouraged a turning away from Gower in favor of Chaucer.[1] By the nineteenth century Gower’s reputation had diminished while Chaucer’s grew. Their friendship and collegial relation, a perception encouraged by mutual acknowledgments—Chaucer’s naming of “moral Gower” in the palinode of Troilus and Criseyde and Gower’s citation of Chaucer as “mi disciple and poet,” in the Confessio Amantis—had devolved into a narrative of acrimonious separation.[2] When the passage citing Chaucer was erased in a later version of the Confessio Amantis, critics inferred that some serious disagreement must have taken place. Perhaps it is because these two poets were perceived to be so close and collegial that a falling out became such a compelling narrative, one that grew over time into something more akin to bitter rivalry than a quarrel between friends.[3] One might say that this hyped-up and unsubstantiated recounting stands to reason, since what’s at stake for a male poet, as Carolyn Dinshaw has persuasively argued, is “the articulation or assertion of a strong, coherent character, an identity.”[4] A presumed contentiousness between poets is provocative to be sure, but in the absence of direct testimony (a letter, a witness) the reason(s) for the split may have more to do with politics than personalities. What seems to have bothered early critics appears to have had less to do with the Gower-Chaucer friendship-quarrel than with Gower’s changing of political allegiance from Richard II to Henry IV, a switch considered to be motivated by political opportunism and to represent ingratitude.[5] Add to this early ad hominem critique of Gower’s change of heart a firmly entrenched negative response to Book 1 (the Visio) of the Vox Clamantis, and it’s fair to say that the poet’s public image has suffered over the years. Now, however, I wonder whether we’re in the midst of another pivotal moment. Is this long and complex “rivalry” beginning to change? Is the shoe now on the other foot?

As the post-Gower-conference write-up in the Rochester Review suggests, Gower’s star appears to be in the ascendant. At least that’s what the illustration accompanying the description and the comparative chart below it (in the image above) indicate. Admittedly, the rivalry between the two, whether fact or fiction, or something of both, is biased (it’s the sponsoring university’s publication, after all), but what the Rochester Review captures is the tension between poets and their respective positions in literary history. One of the most famous illustrations of Gower (found in MS Cotton Tiberius A.iv), showing the poet about to shoot an arrow at an image of the world turned upside down, is depicted here not with its original target (the world), but rather with an image of Chaucer gazing downward, pointing to himself with one hand while holding rosary beads in the other. Does “the father of English poetry” fear for his life as he faces the man known to have erased his name, rubbed him out, if only in a manuscript? If this illustration were not enough to indicate a rivalry between the two, the chart below invites further comparison, as point by point it marks each poet’s major accomplishments and landmark moments. The top-to-bottom list ends with a statement citing what Gower scholars wish to be said about their poet: that he was the “only English poet to provide a detailed personal account of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 as well as an allegory on the overthrow of Richard II. His works are a window into the trilingual culture of 14th century England.” On the opposite side of the chart is what Gower scholars wish were said about Chaucer: that he “as well as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson admired and drew on Gower’s work.” The wishful thinking being expressed here is for Gower to be recognized as having provided an eyewitness account of an unprecedented rebellion that had spread to London by June of 1381. Also being expressed here is the desire that Gower be recognized as having influenced the work of these notable men of letters. In Jonson’s English Grammar, for instance, Gower is quoted more often than Chaucer and praised for his plain speech while as the one-man chorus in Pericles he provides commentary and direction for Shakespeare’s adaptation of the Tale of Apollonius of Tyre.[6]

Rivalry generates interest, I think we can say, and perhaps that’s one of the motives driving the makers of this image. But that Gower has been welcomed into the NCS Conference puts another spin on things, replacing competition and exclusivity with inclusiveness and collaboration. Much of Gower’s oeuvre was represented in Reykjavík in a number of thematic threads—“Handling Sins,” “How to do Things with Texts,” “In Search of Things Past,” “Re-orienting Disability,” “How to Do Things with Books”—with presentations addressing Gower’s Jews (R. F. Yeager), animals (Haylie Swenson), manuscripts (Donavin and Salisbury), business transactions [with Chaucer] (Brian Gastle), and the poet’s writings in French and Latin (Stephanie L. Batkie). In an academic world that has taken a turn toward the body (both human and non-human) and all things material, Gower’s work has much to offer. His insights on (dis)abilities (especially blindness), the senses, emotions, cognition, medicine, science, language, community, and the etiology of violence contribute to what we know about the past, teaching us how we might access it usefully to understand the precariousness of our own lives.

The poet’s image as “moral Gower,” is changing, becoming more inclusive of other aspects of his life, his philosophies, and his perspective on the pivotal historical moment he shared with Chaucer. The perception even by Gower scholars that he is too critical of the rebels in the Visio of the Vox Clamantis is accruing greater nuance with the translation, re-translation, and comprehensive study of the Vox in conjunction with the other Latin and French works.[7] Will newly translated materials and a broader contextualization of the poet’s oeuvre change his public persona from moralizing social critic to auctor of extraordinary insight and courage? His inclusion in a conference dedicated to Chaucer and the willingness to engage in an open dialogue will certainly have an effect, as will works of fiction such as Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book in which Gower is depicted as a man with a family, a professional life, and a taste for behind-the-scenes intrigue. With continued revisionist readings and a novel that spins the story of Gower’s relation to Chaucer in a different way, the poet is acquiring another voice and another set of dance moves.

No doubt the old rivalry between Gower and Chaucer will continue, perpetuated by the kinds of desires identified by Dinshaw, but the relation between the two poets has taken a more positive turn, at least if these two conferences are any indication. Gatherings such as the NCS Conference in Reykjavík and the Third International Congress of the John Gower Society in Rochester suggest that there is plenty of room for partnering and crossing over, for turning together, if not in perfect synchrony, then with an eye toward expanding the circle, taking pleasure in the pivot and the collaboration it encourages.


[1] John H. Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (New York: New York UP, 1964). Fisher devotes Chapter One to a survey of Gower’s critical reputation in relation to Chaucer’s.

[2] Fisher traces a tradition “that Gower was Chaucer’s senior and mentor: their allusions to one another and the evolving pattern of parallels in their works suggest that Gower was a sort of conscience to his brilliant but volatile friend, encouraging him by both precept and example to turn from visions of courtly love to social criticism” (207). The many parallels to Gower’s poems found in the Canterbury Tales (the Man of Law’s Tale/Tale of Constance and the Wife of Bath’s Tale/Tale of Florent, for instance) are thought to have been written first by Gower.

[3] Carolyn Dinshaw, “Rivalry, Rape and Manhood: Gower and Chaucer,” in Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange, ed. R. F. Yeager, ELS Monograph Series 51 (Victoria, BC: English Literary Studies, 1991): 130-52. See also, “Quarrels, Rivals and Rape: Gower and Chaucer,” in ‘A Wyf Ther Was’: Essays in Honor of Paule Mertens-Fonck, ed. Juliette Dor (Liège: Département d’anglais, Université de Liège, 1992), 112-22.

[4] Dinshaw, 132.

[5] Fisher, 25.

[6] R. F. Yeager, “Ben Jonson’s English Grammar and John Gower’s Reception in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Endless Knot: Essays on Old and Middle English in Honor of Marie Boroff, ed. M. Teresa Tavormina and R. F. Yeager (Cambridge: Brewer, 1995), 227-39.

[7] David R. Carlson and A. G. Rigg, Poems on Contemporary Events: The Visio Anglie (1381) and Cronica tripertita (1400). (Toronto and Oxford: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies and Bodleian Library, 2011). See also the recent re-translation of Book 6 by Robert Meindl, “Semper Venalis: Gower’s Avaricious Lawyers,” Accessus: A Journal of Premodern Literature and New Media 1.2 (2013), ed. Georgiana Donavin and Eve Salisbury. http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/accessus/vol1/iss2/2 See also, R. F. Yeager, ed, and trans. John Gower: The French Balades (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011).