Gower, John

, one of the few poets who flourished in the first periods of our poetical history, is supposed to have been born before Chaucer, but of what family, or in what part of the kingdom is uncertain. Leland was informed that he was of the ancient family of the Gowers of Stitenham, in Yorkshire, and succeeding biographers appear to have taken for granted what that eminent antiquary gives only as a report. Other particulars from Leland are yet more doubtful, as that he was a knight and some time chief justice of the common pleas; but no information respecting any judge of that name can be collected either in the reign of Edward II. during which he is said to have been on the bench, or afterwards. Weever asserts that he was of a Kentish family and, in Caxton’s edition of the “Confessio Amantis,” he is said to have been a native of Wales.

He appears, however, to have studied law, and was a member of the society of the Middle Temple, where it is supposed he met with, and acquired the friendship of Chaucer. The similarity of their studies, and their taste for poetry, were not the only bonds of union. Their political bias was nearly the same. Chaucer attached himself to John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and Gower to Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, both uncles to king Richard II. The tendency of the “Confessio Amantis,” in censuring the vices of the clergy, coincides with Chaucer’s sentiments, and although we have no direct proof of those mutual arguings and disputes between them, which Leland speaks of, there can be no doubt that their friendship was at one time interrupted. Chaucer concludes his Troilus and Cressida with recommending it to the corrections of moral Gower,“and” philosophical Strode;“and | Gower, in the Confessio Amantis, introduces Venus praising Chaucer” as her disciple and poete.“Such was their mutual respect; its decline is less intelligible. Mr. Tyrwhit says,” If the reflection (in the prologue to the Man of Lawes Tale, ver. 4497) upon those who relate such stones as that of Canace, or of Apollonius Tyrius, was levelled at Gower, as I very much suspect, it will be difficult to reconcile such an attack to our notions of the strict friendship which is generally supposed to have subsisted between the two bards. The attack too at this time must appear the more extraordinary on the part of our bard, as he is just going to put into the mouth of his Man of Lawe a tale, of which almost every circumstance is borrowed from Gower. The fact is, that the story of Canace is related by Gower in his Confessio A mantis, B. III. and the story of Apollonius (or Apollynus, as he is there called) in the Vlllth book of the same work: so that, if Chaucer really did not mean to reflect upon his old friend, his choice of these two instances was rather unlucky."

There is another circumstance,” says the same critic, “which rather inclines me to believe that their friendship suffered some interruption in the latter part of their lives. In the new edition of the ‘ Confessio Amantis,’ which Gower published after the accession of Henry IV. the verses in praise of Chaucer (fol. 190, b. col. 1, ed. 1532) are omitted. See ms. Harl 3869. Though perhaps the death of Chaucer at that time had rendered the compliment contained in those verses less proper than it was at first, that alone does not seem to have been a sufficient reason for omitting them, especially as the original date of the work, in the 16th of Richard II., is preserved. Indeed the only other alterations which I have been able to discover, are towards the beginning and end, where every thing which had been said in praise of Richard in the first edition, is either left out or converted to the use of his successor.

As this is the only evidence of a difference between Chaucer and Gower, we may be allowed to hope that no violent loss of friendship ensued. As to their poetical studies, it is evident that there was a remarkable difference of opinion and pursuit. Chaucer had the courage to emancipate his muse from the trammels of French, in which it was the fashion to write, and the genius to lay the foundation of English poetry, taste, and imagination. Gower, | probably from his closer intimacy with the French and Latin poets, found it more easy to follow the beaten track. Accordingly the first of his works was written in French measure. It is entitled “Speculum Meditantis. Un Traittee, selonc les aucteurs, pour ensampler les amants marietz, au fins qils la foy de lour seints espousailles, pourront per fine loyalte guarder, et al honeur de Dieu salvement trener.” Of this, which is written in ten books, there are two copies in the Bodleian library. It is a compilation of precepts and examples from a variety of authors, in favour of the chastity of the marriage bed.

His next work is in Latin, entitled “Vox Clamantis.” Of this there are many copies extant; that in the Cottonian library is more fully entitled “Joannis Gower Chrom’ca, quse Vox Clamantis dicitur, sive Poema de Insurrexione Rusticorum contra ingenuos et nobiles, tempore regis Richardi II. et de Causis ex quibus talia contingunt Enormia; libris septem.” Some lesser pieces are annexed to this copy, historical and moral. That in the library of All Souls college, Oxford, appears to have been written, or rather dictated, when he was old and blind. It has an epistle in Latin verse prefixed, and addressed in these words: Hanc epistolam subscriptam corde devoto, misit senex et caecus Johannes Gower, reverendissimo in Christo patri ac domino suo principi D. Thomae Arundel Cantuar. Archiepiscopo, c. Pr. Successor Thomse, Thomas humilem tibi do me." This, therefore, is supposed to have been the last transcript he made of this work, probably near the close of his life. Mr. Warton is of opinion that it was first written in 1397.

The “Confessio Amantis,” which entitles him to a place among English poets, was finished probably in 1393, after Chaucer bad written most of his poems, but before he composed the Canterbury Tales. It is said to have been begun at the suggestion of king Richard II. who meeting him accidentally on the Thames, called him into the royal barge, and enjoined him “to booke some new thing.” It was first printed by Caxton in 1493. In 1516, Barclay, the author of the Ship of Fools, was requested by sir Giles Alyngton to abridge or modernize the Confessio Amantis. Barclay was then old and infirm, and declined it, as Mr. Warton thinks, very prudently, as he was little qualified to correct Gower. This anecdote, however, shews that Gower had already become obsolete. Skelton, in the | Boke of Philip Sparrow,” says, “Gower’s Englishe is old.” Dean Colet studied Gower; as well as Chaucer and Lydgate, in order to improve his style. In Puttenhani’s age, about the end of the sixteenth century, their language was out of use. In the mean time a second edition, of the Confessio Amantis was printed by Barthelet in. 1532, a third in 1544, and a fourth in 1554. At the distance of twocenturies and a half, a fifth was published in the late edition of the English Poets. The only stain on his character, which Mr. llitson has urged with asperity, but which is obscurely discernible, is the alteration he made in this work on the accession of Henry IV. and his consequent disrespect for the memory of Richard, to whom he formerly looked up as to a patron.

The only other circumstances of his history are, that he was esteemed a man of great learning, and lived and died in affluence. That he possessed a munificent spirit, we have a most decisive proof in his contributing largely, if not entirely, to the rebuilding of the conventual church of St. Mary Overy, or, as it is now called, St. Saviour’s church, Southwark, and he afterwards founded a chauntry in the chapel of St. John, now used as a vestry. He appears to have lost his sight in the first year of Henry IV. and did not long survive this misfortune, dying at an advanced age in 1402. He was interred in St. Saviour’s church, and a monument was afterwards erected to his memory, which, although it has suffered by dilapidations and injudicious repairs, still retains a considerable portion of antique magnificence. It is of the gothic style, covered with three arches, the roof within springing into many angles, under which lies the statue of the deceased, in a long purple gown on his head a coronet of roses, resting on three volumes entitled Vox Clamantis, Speculum Meditantis, and Confessio Amantis. His dress has given rise to some of those conjectures respecting his history which cannot now be determined, as his being a knight, a judge, &c.

Besides these larger works, some small poems are preserved in a ms. of Trinity college, Cambridge; but, possessing little or no merit, are likely to remain in obscurity. Mr. Warton speaks more highly of a collection contained in a volume in the library of the marquis of Stafford, of which he has given a long account, with specimens. They are sonnets in French, and certainly are more tender, pathetic, and poetical than his larger poems. As an Ecglish | poet, however, his reputation must still rest on the “Confessio Amantis;” but, although he contributed in some degree to bring about a beneficial revolution in our language, it appears to be the universal opinion of the critics that he has very few pretensions to be ranked among inventors. It seems to have been his ambition to crowd all his erudition into his “Confessio,” and therefore the most interesting parts are his stories brought as moral examples from various authors. 1


Biog. Brit. Warton’s Hist. of Poetry-Johnson and Chalmers’s English Podfi, isio.