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date: 17 February 2020

John Gower’s Allegories

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the poetry of John Gower, with particular emphasis on his use of mechanical allegory. It considers what drew Gower to the mechanical side of things and argues that mechanical allegory is central to several of his most interesting solutions to problems of poetic representation. To support its argument, the chapter analyzes three of Gower’s works: Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis. It suggests that the Mirour exemplifies the significance of naming in the poetic project, along with its so-called voicing, whereas the Vox depicts a contrasting, sudden eruption of the deictic moment. Moreover, Gower seems to have been skeptical about the use of the dream vision as a framing device in Vox. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Confessio’s central allegorical mechanism, focusing on its use of statues to represent an object world caught between the quick and the dead.

Keywords: poetry, John Gower, mechanical allegory, dream vision, Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, Confessio Amantis, naming, voicing, statues

In his lifetime, John Gower (c. 1335–1408) was a poet of eminence, with a reputation perhaps second only to that of his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer. Unique among his peers, he wrote major poetic compositions in all three of the languages of English court culture: English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman.1 The manuscripts of his major Latin and English works, the Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis circulated widely, surviving even now in the impressive numbers of 11 and 48 copies, respectively.2 Chaucer himself went out of his way to acknowledge Gower‘s significance, famously submitting his own most ambitious work, Troilus and Criseyde, to the correction of “moral Gower.” And such acknowledgments continued on through the immediately subsequent centuries. In the fifteenth century, the poet and bureaucrat Thomas Hoccleve named Gower along with Chaucer as his two poetic models, giving Chaucer the majority of his praise, but naming Gower as well as his “maister.”3 In the sixteenth century, the canny John Skelton, one of the first self-consciously to map out a continual tradition of courtly poetry that he could claim to represent in his own generation, used his “Garland of Laurel” to summon up Gower, along with the Chaucer and Lydgate, as the triumvirate of English poets who welcome him to his laureation. Moreover, having summoned these poets up bodily to engage in dialogue, Skelton begins by speaking with Gower first, offering him, with the aid of his fellows, a task very much like that which Chaucer himself had earlier assigned to Gower—the duty of moral correction. “Arrectinge unto your wyse examinacion, / How all that I do is under reformation, / For only the substance of that I entend, / Is glad to please, and loath to offend.” 4 (ll. 410–414)

Nevertheless, despite this early fame, by the early twentieth century Gower had all but disappeared from the canon of English literature, read only by specialists in the period and even then grudgingly, with much less critical attention afforded to his works than to those of his less-celebrated contemporaries, such as William Langland or the so-called Pearl Poet (whose works survive in a single, rather small, manuscript, suggesting the vast difference between their dissemination and the elaborate and expensive celebration that surrounded Gower). How could this have come to be? As with most such cases of radical shifts in literary evaluation, the answer lies in the changing canons of aesthetic and political judgment that condition our sense of literary merit. In Gower‘s case, the crucial element in the plummeting sense of his literary value came from a particular literary judgment, one deriving from the deeply influential Romantic devaluation of the mode of poetry that Coleridge famously labeled the allegorical. Following Schelling, Coleridge had insisted on a key division between a poetics founded on the symbol and one founded on allegory. Whereas the symbol, the founding gesture of the type of poetry he was to champion, was based on a “translucent” relationship between the eternal and the temporal, the allegorical was castigated as “but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses.”5 In essence, his claim was that the concrete and particular objects of symbolic poetic representation could signify general and universal truths in a natural and instantaneous way, whereas the allegorical was always an essentially arbitrary linkage of the abstract and the concrete, a failure of imaginary mediation in that the level of concrete images was never truly significant, but simply a pretense for the projection of abstraction upon abstraction.6 To use another of Coleridge‘s influential oppositions, poetry based on the symbol could be characterized as “organic” whereas the allegorical was “a counterfeit product of the mechanical understanding”—that is, the product of rational thought without inspiration, leading to a poetry of barren conceits and arbitrary schemes of signification.7

Coleridge‘s distinction was a powerful one in sorting out, or at least retroactively justifying, the formation of a certain poetic canon, one that privileged the work of the English Romantics themselves, of course, but also worked to the detriment of many poets who seemed overly schematic, even bookish in their compositional practices. And if we turn to the literary histories composed in this period, we can find precisely this sort of language being used to characterize Gower‘s work. For example, the first volume of Thomas Campbell‘s influential Specimens of the British Poets, published in 1819 (thus three years after Coleridge‘s Statesman‘s Manual), offers a general survey of the course of British poetic history, one in which the chief weakness of much medieval literature was its tendency toward precisely such sterile and mechanical allegory.8 Chaucer was, unsurprisingly, the notable exception, but even Chaucer’s poetry was vulnerable to the contagion of the allegorical mode. Typical of Campbell’s judgment is his characterization of the pernicious influence of Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose on Chaucer: “This, we may say, was a gymnasium of rather too light and playful exercise for so strong a genius; and it must be owned, that his allegorical poetry is often puerile and prolix.”9 As we might expect, when Campbell turns to Gower, the situation becomes even more dire. Gower’s major work is dismissed as narrative reduced to mere “illustration.” “The design of his Confessio Amantis is peculiarly ill contrived … A pretext is afforded by the ceremony of confession, for the priest not only to initiate his pupil in the duties of a lover, but in a wide range of ethical and physical knowledge; and at the mention of every virtue and vice, a tale is introduced by way of illustration” (74–75). Moreover, Campbell traces this weakness in structure to a more general failing in poetic representation: “But in allegory Gower is cold and uninventive, and enumerates qualities, when he should conjure up visible objects. On the whole, though copiously stored with facts and fables, he is unable either to make truth appear poetical, or to render fiction the graceful vehicle of truth” (75–76).10

There are, essentially, two diagnostic points being made about Gower here, points that continue to shade much of the subsequent critical tradition.11 First, the structure of his work seems contrived and inorganic because the dramatic framing of the work does not seem sufficient to motivate the presentation of his narrative exempla. Second, this failing is linked to a sense of “coldness,” a sense that, in the dialectical relation between idea and object, the sensual world is not given its due weight. What we have, in short, is the sense that Campbell saw in Gower just the weakness that Coleridge was criticizing when he disparaged allegory as being “mechanical.” And Campbell’s sense of Gower’s unfortunate resort to mechanical allegory has continued to color his reputation, particularly in the powerful received division between Chaucer and Gower, which celebrates Chaucer’s interest in mimetic narrative and psychological realism, while reading Gower as a poet motivated by sheer pedantry, his stories delivered not to reflect on the psychologies of the narrators but rather deployed arbitrarily and schematically for their exemplary function.12

Far from trying to refute such characterizations, I am here going to embrace them and try to show both how Gower’s tendency toward mechanical allegory runs through his major work and how it is, in fact, central to several of his most interesting solutions to problems of poetic representation. Indeed, perhaps it is time for a rethinking of the Romantic sense of the mechanical as an inferior partner to the organicism of the symbolic register. Our own cultural moment has certainly seen a turn toward the valorization, if not the overt celebration, of a certain mechanical paradigm in both technological application and cultural production. (One might think here of both recent pedagogical emphases on technology as a good in itself and also the longer turn toward the aesthetic model of machinery, stretching at least from the Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists through to the computer-generated forms so dominant in the world of contemporary architecture.) Moreover, it would be wrong to think of such interest in the machine form as a purely modern phenomenon. The Middle Ages, too, had many sources of such positive associations with the mechanical per se, running from the Pythagorean celebrations of mathematical ratios to the fascination with mechanical automata recently chronicled by E. A. Truitt.13 Our question here, then, will be a simple one. What drew Gower to the mechanical side of things, and what does this attraction tell us about his particular representational strategies?

Mirour de l’Omme and Voice

The Mirour de l’Omme was Gower’s first substantial narrative work, composed in Anglo-Norman and written probably between 1376 and 1379.14 In its genre, the poem is a strange hybrid in three parts. It begins with a long (15,000-line) genealogical allegory of the birth of the vices and virtues and the battle between them, turning then to the more worldly frame of an estates satire and concluding with a meditation on the life of Christ and Mary, meant to serve as a devotional response to the evils chronicled in the satire. The first half of the Mirour tells the story of the creation of all worldly vices as a genealogical parable of incest and incestuous generation. Lucifer, out of his malice (“De sa malice,” l. 207) conceives a daughter, Sin.15 Lucifer is so pleased with Sin that these two then have a son, Death. Death and Sin are similarly enamored with each other, so they marry and have seven daughters, the deadly sins. Lucifer, Sin, and their daughters then attack Man, hiding death out of sight (as his appearance would be so frightening that mankind would resist them). They are initially unsuccessful because Fear appears and reveals Death to Man, leading him back to Reason. Sin then consults with the World (Siècle) who proposes marriage between himself and the daughters of sin, each of whom subsequently gives birth to five children. Reinforced by these new progeny, the vices overcome Man, until Reason and Conscience persuade God to marry his daughters, the Virtues, to Reason. The subsequent battle between the Vices and Virtues is never resolved in the poem, as Gower turns instead to examine this battle as it appears in the here and now within each social estate.

Even this brief summary should give a sense of the extent to which Gower’s poem has roots in the long tradition of personification allegory deriving from the example of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. As is so often the point in this tradition, the allegorical structure is devoted to representing the ethical world as a struggle, a metaphorical battleground.16 But, strangely, this battle never actually occurs in Gower’s poem. Instead the poem veers abruptly at line 18,421 into the aforementioned estates satire, moving from clergy to aristocracy and then, finally, to representatives of the law and merchants.17 The lack of narrative action is even more pronounced in that, as Gower offers a summing up of what has come before (“la Recapitulacioun de toute la matiere precedent” l. 18,372) he specifically claims to have “told you the story in order, from point to point” (“la romance / Vous ai du point en point conté” ll. 18,374–18,375). The generic category of the “romance” is certainly a loose and baggy one, but it is hard to imagine a definition of this term that would not include some narrative component, one more elaborate than the brief exempla that flesh out the taxonomic abstractions that have made up the preceding material. How, then, are we to construe “romance” here? What is the story that has been “du point en point conté”?

The first clue, I would suggest, comes from Gower’s use of a striking rhetorical device at an earlier moment of transition in the poem. At the very moment that Gower had concluded his first taxonomic series, the genealogy of the vices, he turned to address Sin (Pecché), asking himself how Sin is to be described in its essence. At the very beginning of the work, following the example of Gregory the Great, Gower had defined sin as simply nothing (“nient” l. 34), suggesting that it would be the burden of his work to explain how so much of the world, so many vices, might be born out of this nothingness. But, having presented his elaborate taxonomic genealogy, this earlier definition now seems insufficient, as the rubric preceding the description declares: “Now will be told the properties of Sin in particular” (“Ore dirra de la propreté du Pecché par especial” Rubric preceding l. 9,889). He thus proceeds to offer a new description, first depicting Sin as the beast of the Apocalypse, rendering in great detail its nature as part bear, part lion, and part serpent, and giving an allegorical account of each of its elements. But even this elaboration seems insufficient, and Gower instead turns to a series of similes, introducing each with the expression “je te resemble.” In a long anaphoric sequence, he uses this device to name Sin over and over. “Je te resemble a les Sereines … Je te resemble au poire douche … Je te resemble au buiste close” (“I liken you to the Sirens … I liken you to a sweet pear … I liken you to a closed box”: ll. 9,949; 9,961; 9,973).

Rhetorically, this moment is clearly meant to be a climactic one, summing up the general nature of all the vices that have come before and emphasizing the importance of this defining moment through anaphoric repetition and descriptive dilation. But, unlike many such allegorical climaxes, the moment is entirely devoid of narrative content. And I take this absence to be not incidental but key to Gower’s representational strategy in the work. Rather than tell a story of action, the battle between vice and virtue, Gower has given us what we might call a drama of naming. In Coleridge’s terms, such a drama is entirely “mechanical” because it foregrounds the lack of organic connection between abstraction and image and instead revels in the drama of the poet’s act of naming. And both the trope of the simile and the anaphoric form are meant to heighten the tension of this event. The cumulative sense of repetition and the simile’s very admission that the thing cannot be named in itself both testify to Gower’s sense of the difficulty and potential insufficiency of such acts of naming. It is an Adamic act, but post-lapsarian in tone, an act that arises out of the struggle of the poet to bring ethical abstraction into concrete presence simply by giving it a name—allegory at its purest and most unrepentantly mechanical.18

And this drama is certainly not limited to just this climactic moment. We can trace it out further in Gower’s frequent invocation of a narratorial “je.” The poem begins with an elaborate rationale for why this “je” should speak and why we should listen; the “je” then reappears both at the end of the account of the sins (as we have seen) and also at the end of the account of the virtues, to insist, on both occasions, that the story has been told fully and properly. And the “je” reappears with great frequency throughout the first section, to remind the reader of the speaking subject who is naming each of these figures. Moreover, although I referred to it as a “narratorial je,” we might note that, in actuality, it is more precisely a non-narratorial je, a prime example of what A. C. Spearing has described as “autography,” poetry in which the framing invocation of an “I/je” is not meant to imply a speaking subject, much less a narratorial persona but, rather, serves as a rhetorical device for bundling together the rather miscellaneous catalogue form of the dits.19 The importance of this “je” is even underlined by the rubrication of the manuscript, editorial markings that punctuate and clarify the narrative, in which the emphatically impersonal voicing repeated by the rubrics’ frequent use of the formula “ore dirra” (“now will be told”) serves as a counterpoint to the first-person pronoun, heightening the sense of the personalized speech acts that constitute the text proper.

As a last piece of evidence for the importance of this drama of naming, we might note that, along with the distinction in content among the three sections of the work, there is also a difference to be noted in what we might call the “voicing” of the poem. There have been many attempts to justify the structure of this work, to explain the reasoning behind its tripartite structure—taxonomy of vices and virtues, estates satire, Marian prayer—stretching back at least to Kittredge’s characterization of the three parts as the “cause, condition, and remedy” of man’s situation on earth.20 But just as striking as the difference in content is a shift in the way the poet chooses to speak to us. As the first section, the depiction of vices and virtues, is marked by an everpresent “je,” so the second section begins by disavowing just this “je.” Much of it will still be constructed syntactically in the first person, but the section begins with Gower insisting that what he has to say about the estates is nothing that comes from him himself, but rather is an echo of the vox populi. “Ce que je pense escrire yci / N’est pas par moy, anz est ensi / Du toute cristiene gent / Murmur, compleinte, vois et cry” (What I intend to write here is not from myself only, but is rather the murmur, complaint, voice, and cry of all Christian folk, ll. 18,445–18,448).

If the emphatic “je” of the first section is meant to stage a drama of naming, what is the purpose of the layering over of this “je” with the vox populi in the second section of the work? There are, I think, at least two points at stake in this opposition. As a first point, the invocation of the vox populi clearly serves to support the satirical function of the estates material. It does this in several ways. At its simplest level, it is clearly meant to assert the contention that the criticism of each class is not made just because of Gower’s personal disfavor: it is an expression of universal condemnation. Moreover, the broad knowledge of their misdeeds suggests both their frequency and the shamelessness with which they are perpetrated. These are not secret failings but brazen acts, broadly known. Last, as befits the legalism that so suffuses Gower’s work, the invocation of a known public outcry would have legal ramifications because such an outcry would itself constitute potential evidence of guilt in a court of law.21 Thus, the turn to a public voice in this section of the poem seems a rhetorically appropriate one because it engages with the legal and ethical framework of the satire.

We can see, then, why Gower would move away from the singular “je” of the opening section of the poem as he moves into the treatment of the estates. But why not invoke the vox populi in the initial section, and, further, why stage the tension between the two voices in the second section? It is this question that leads to my second point about the way in which the shift in voicing matches up with the shift in content, one having less to do with rhetorical strategy than with ontological poetics (i.e., the structure of Gower’s imagined world). The public voice is invoked in the second section simply because it describes things (classes of people and actions) located in the physical world and thus accessible to, as Gower says, “all Christian men.” Its reality can be attested by these men, and the poet can then transform that testimony into the work, his Mirour. But this is not true of the material of the first section. In the initial section of the work, Gower is responding to a particular representational challenge faced by a poet who would craft allegory out of hamartiology (the formal study of the relationship between individual categories of sin). Since the poetic objects are those of pure abstraction (Gluttony, Avarice), the voice of the vox populi offers no testimony. Instead, it is the job of the bookish poet to draw the ontological abstraction into the taxonomical world of poetic objects. Put simply, this is to say, again, that it is the poet’s job to name, to turn the nient of sin into a thing that can be pointed to and warned against. And we might conclude this section by noting that, as Saussure and others have pointed out, the arbitrary nature of language is nowhere made clearer than in the act of naming. A nomenclature is created as phoneme and mental image are yoked together in the moment of signification. Thus, Gower’s poetics of naming must necessarily flout Coleridge’s preferences. Such a poetics must be one that highlights the arbitrary—and even mechanical—nature of its representational strategies.

Vox Clamantis: The Dreamscape

Whereas the sense of the “mechanical” nature of Gower’s Mirour depended on the substitution of naming for narrative, in his Vox this element is perhaps best reflected in the generic terrain chosen for the work. Like the Mirour, this work is a generic hybrid. It begins with an allegorical retelling of the Rising of 1381, entitled by its most recent editors the Visio Anglie, which famously depicts the rebels who entered and occupied the city of London as a horde of animals, rebelling against their masters and destroying the goods of the city.22 The second section is then very similar in both genre and content to the middle section of the Mirour, offering an extended estates satire and even repeating much of the same content, although presenting it now in Latin with an aim, no doubt, toward a different audience. Last, present in some but not all of the surviving manuscripts, comes the Cronica tripertita, an allegorical account of the major political events leading up to the deposition of Richard II, again picturing the major participants through the lens of a beast allegory, although, in this case, depicting those who opposed and then destroyed Richard in a positive light.

Unlike the Mirour, which exists only in a single, fragmentary manuscript, the Vox exists in sufficient copies for us to be able to reconstruct its rather complicated history of composition (with the aid also of significant internal evidence).23 The estates satire was most likely completed by 1378, because it mentions no historical event later than the Church schism that began in that year. The first section, the Visio, was clearly a later addition, added to the poem after the events of the Rising. The Cronica tripertita, the final section, was clearly written much later because its historical narrative extends through to Richard’s death in 1400. Despite the wide range of these dates of composition, it seems clear that Gower designed the poem, or reframed it through a process of accretion, in order to be read as a single work. There is, admittedly, one manuscript of the Cronica surviving to testify to some degree of separate circulation, but, as David Carlson has suggested, it contains the Cronica in what is most likely an early and sometimes defective state.24 For the Visio we find no surviving manuscripts of it without the other contents of the Vox Clamantis. This manuscript evidence, taken along with the fact that Gower composed links between the sections to unify the material, strongly suggests that Gower meant the whole to be taken together as a single work—just as it is represented in one of the three codices upon which his head rests on his elaborate tomb in Southwark Cathedral.

But, despite this unity, the poem is puzzling in its mixture of genres. As Andrew Galloway has pointed out, almost alone among his contemporaries, Gower seems to have been skeptical about the use of the dream vision as a framing device, identifying it with an implicit irrational and mystical sensibility.25 And the opening section of the Vox Clamantis is, indeed, the only moment within his works at which he uses this form. He is quite explicit about the chosen form, even beginning the poem with very typical invocations of Daniel and Joseph as figures who demonstrate that dreams are trustworthy in their signification.26 Why would Gower so revise his usual preferences in this one instance?

As with the questions of voicing in the Mirour, we might first note a certain logic in the content of the material, in the function of the initial Visio as an introduction to the estates satire that is to follow. I have been characterizing large portions of both the Mirour and the Vox as “estates satire,” but, at this stage of the argument, it is necessary to be a bit more precise about Gower’s particular use of this form, a specificity that might be drawn out of a brief comparison of his work in this mode with that of Chaucer’s. Both poets organized major works around the generic structure that Jill Mann long ago anatomized as estate satire, but they do so in very different ways.27 Where Chaucer takes the course of generating a satire with unprecedentedly individualized portraits, Gower moves in nearly the opposite direction, speaking never of a merchant when he can instead evoke the general category of Merchants.28 Even when his discourse uses the convention of a proper name, these names are always mere elaborations of vocational categories. To a certain extent, this is unsurprising in an author so clearly content to remain at a rather elevated level of abstraction. But, at the same time, Gower’s sandwiching of the estates satire material in the Vox between two explicitly historical narratives must suggest an intent here to tie the satire very closely to actual historical reality, an aim very different from that of the Mirour.

And this, indeed, is the first function of yoking the satire to the introductory Visio. As David Carlson has pointed out, Gower demonstrates throughout his work a fondness for the trope of anaphora (as we have already seen in evidence in his Mirour).29 Of the many phrases that Gower returns to over the course of the Visio, one stands out for its massive reiteration: “Hec erat illa dies” (“This was the day”). Indeed, Gower uses the line no fewer than 17 times, all bunched between lines 635 and 670, at the moment at which the diverse species of beasts invading the city are united into a single host to be addressed by the talking Jay (“edoctus in arte loquendi” / “well versed in rhetoric”) who is meant to represent Wat Tyler.30 “This was the day.” Gower’s anaphoric repetition serves here to provide a strong deictic function. Where the estates satire presents us with the abstractions of purely ethical discourse and the beast allegory offers scathing but general condemnation, the allegory at this moment zooms in to a particular day and to a particular speaker.

Using the Visio as a prologue to the satire, then, produces an effect very like that which I had been calling “naming” in the Mirrour, the yoking together of abstraction (the estates material) and concrete particularity (Wat Tyler’s speech). But it also has a function very different from that of naming in the previous work. Although the titles might lead one to expect that the Mirour would be the poem developed through imagistic or ekphrastic devices and that, in turn, the Vox would be developed through the representation of the spoken word, as we have seen. the reality is precisely the reverse. While the drama of naming in the Mirour makes it very much a poem about the poetic speech act, the initial focus on the Visio in the Vox makes it, again unusually for Gower, a highly ekphrastic work. Gower’s poetry tends not to linger over the depiction of visual images. Even in more narrative work, such as the Confessio Amantis, we are rarely made aware of what a character’s face looks like or how a landscape is shaped. But, here again, the Visio anglie stands out from much of the rest of Gower’s work. It is, throughout, profoundly visual and ekphrastic.

In a way, this should not be surprising. Going back to Campbell’s original charge, it is, in many ways, the task of the poet to unite word and object. Thus, faced with a mirror, Gower’s charge to himself is one of vocalization, of naming the objects that can be glimpsed within. Conversely, the task of the voice crying out is to bring into existence the envisioned reality of the object world. But I think the visual mode is emphasized here primarily for the same reason that Gower makes the unusual choice of the dream vision. Both the logic of the dreamworld and the choice of visual perception turn the poet into a much more passive figure than he had been in the Mirour. In the Mirour, the poet speaks, acts, and adjudicates. Here, at the opening of the Vox Clamantis, the poet is rendered entirely passive. He witnesses, in horror, events over which he has no control. And, in the visual mode, even the act of representation is construed as one of essentially passive reportage. This is even, I suspect, the reason for this work’s constant citation of Ovid. As Robert Yeager, David Carlson, and others have shown, the text echoes Ovid, particularly his Tristia, with such frequency as to make it, at moments, just a tissue of quotations.31 Taken together with Gower’s unusual reliance on the visionary mode, we can see that Gower has created a very different sense of the task of representation than that which we saw in the Mirour. Here, the poet is responsible for neither the acts that he chronicles nor even, at many points, for the words themselves. The acts are those of the rebel beasts, and the words of those of Ovid—and an Ovid whose exile prefigures Gower’s own ejection from agential power.

Last, we might note that the shift between the vocal and the visual is also hinted at in the very allegorical transformation of the rebelling peasants into beasts. Turning these people into beasts is, of course, to implicitly strip them of reason, to insist that their actions are irrational, the pure products of rage. But it also serves to strip them of speech (with a very few exceptions, such as the Jay.) As the Aristotelian formula defining the human as the zoon logon implies, humans are the animals with reason, but, just as fundamentally, they are the animals with speech. And if Gower was not familiar with this philosophical definition, he could not have missed its frequent enactment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the transformation from human to animal so often takes its pathos from the human’s loss of speech. (The story of Io would be one of the most prominent examples, though there are many others.) Thus, in transforming the rebels into animals, Gower satirizes their unreason, but he also creates a world essentially without speech, a pure vision of movement and destruction.

We can see, then, why both the fictive framework of the dream and the representational mode of the vision would have served Gower in the larger project of the Vox. And this generic choice leads us again back to the purpose of the “mechanical” in Gower. Here, is it not a matter of displaying the arbitrary nature of language in the act of naming but, rather, of ostentatiously weighting the scales on the side of the visual, or of warm sensuality, to go back to Campbell’s terms. In surrendering the control asserted by the “je” of the Mirour, the Visio presents us with a world in which those “visual objects” that Campbell had taken as the very essence of the “poetical” have, in fact, rendered the agency of the poet null. And, in the sharp disjunction among the three sections of the Vox, we should feel something like a shifting of the gears of representational strategy, abrupt reversals of the prioritization of idea and object. In other words, the “mechanical” nature of the allegory seems essential to Gower’s project in this work, which is precisely to attack a historical event of agency without language or reason in the interests of reestablishing the primacy of the voice of ethical satire at the center of the work.

Confessio Amantis: The Quick and the Dead

The Confessio Amantis is Gower’s most widely read and familiar work, telling the story of the confession of the lover, Amans, by Genius, the priest of Venus. After a Prologue, setting the scene of composition and offering the work as a cure for the ills of disorder affecting the contemporary world, its subsequent books depict Genius questioning Amans about his innocence or guilt of sins as he pursues his love and offering multiple elaborated exempla to illustrate the nature of these sins. Because its structure has been analyzed on many occasions, my approach to this work will not be as structural as in the previous two sections, although here, too, I will be focusing on what I take to be a central representational dilemma.32 If the Mirour testifies to the centrality of naming in the poetic project, and the Vox depicts a contrasting, sudden eruption of the deictic moment, what is the central allegorical mechanism of the Confessio? This is a large question, one to which I will only be able to offer a partial answer here, but I would suggest that the grafting of the theological discourse of sin/ethics onto fin amor (or courtly love) is also organized around a central representational difficulty: here, the question of how to represent the “impairing of the world” that is crucial to the historical dimension of Gower‘s diagnostic scheme in the Prologue. In particular, I am going to suggest here that this problem is most clearly visible in one particularly representational challenge, that of depicting the true nature of the cultic image, or sculpture.

The category of the “image” was, of course, a deeply contested one for poets of the Ricardian period. As Margaret Aston established some time ago, one of the key elements in the rise of the Lollard heresy in England was a strong iconoclastic tendency, aimed particularly at the painting and sculptures that the Lollards referred to almost universally as “images.”33 In the quite typical language of the so-called “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards”: “The eighth conclusion necessary to tell the beguiled people is that the pilgrimages, prayers and offerings made to blind roods and to deaf images of wood and stone are near of kind to idolatry and far from good alms.”34 As the Lollards never tired of arguing, religious images were made of dead “stockes and stones” (sticks and stones), and, despite the theological distinction between dulia and latria (general veneration vs. the reverence due only to God), the common practice of veneration shifted with frightening ease into the worship of dead objects in place of the living God. Quite rightly, orthodox theologians took this argument as a serious threat to contemporary devotional practice, a rejuvenation of the iconoclastic controversies of the past, and they fired back with a vigorous defense of images, one that left its traces also in the poetic discussions of images and ekphrastic devices.

We find this polemically charged fascination with the image present in the poetry of both Gower and Chaucer, but in significantly different fashions. Chaucer‘s poetry is rich in the ekphrastic depiction of artistic representations. Even a selective list would include the paintings that decorate the garden of Déduit in his translation of the Romance of the Rose, the stained glass depicting the tale of Troy in the Book of the Duchess, the brass tablets telling the story of Aeneas in the House of Fame, and the lengthy blazons providing a tryptich of the three major characters in Troilus and Crisyede, as a prelude to the tragic conclusion of that work.35 This list, I would suggest, is significant for a reason that may be elusive when we refer to these representations as images in the modern sense: namely, that these images are all two-dimensional aesthetic forms—paintings, stained glass, tablets, and the like. But the fact is that Chaucer‘s usage here is somewhat unusual in that the Middle English term “ymage” is not limited to two-dimensional forms but occurs slightly more frequently in relation to three-dimensional objects. Our modern sense of the term “image” probably derives from the dominance of first painting and then photography and digital reproduction in the modern system of Art and Art History. But as Hans Belting has powerfully reminded us, categories and terminologies that can seem so universal within the discourse of Art and aesthetic philosophy often map very poorly onto the premodern production and use of images.36 This is powerfully attested by the conceptual distance between the modern “image” and the Middle English “ymage,” whose broader range of meanings left it available for a much wider range of usages. Chaucer avails himself of much of this range, using “ymage” in an almost modern sense of the painted surface, along with an occasional use implying three-dimensional forms. This usage, however, lies in stark opposition to that of Gower, who uses the term frequently and almost universally in the sense of a three-dimensional image, more particularly, in the sense of a sculpture.

What would explain such a different sense of the image in these two contemporaries, contemporaries so alike in many other ways? I would suggest that the difference lies in the fact that the shared term is pulled in different directions in these two authors by two different semantic fields. Where Chaucer is speaking something like a proto-aesthetic language of form, in which images are defined by their possession or lack of beauty and value, Gower is implicitly asserting a very different sense of the object. For Gower, the relevant semantic field is, much more powerfully, the theological disputes of the latter fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, in which the term “ymage” functions as nearly a synonym for the icon in its premodern theological sense, in which the ymage is less often a two-dimensional form and more often the three-dimensional form of the statues of saints and other figures of veneration, honored in orthodox practice and attacked by the Lollards as dead fabrications of sticks and stones.

Gower’s work is littered with statues, but I will offer here only three brief examples of Gower‘s fascinating use of these figures in his Confessio: (1) his history of religious idols in Book 5 of the Confessio; 2) his surprising roster of sculptors; and, 3) the famous account of the monstrous statue that appeared to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream interpreted by the prophet Daniel. Gower begins Book 5 of his Confessio with a history of religious practices. Significantly, in the context of the current discussion, his account constructs a history of false belief understood as a succession of improper object choices: the Chaldeans worship planets and elements; the Egyptians proceed to animals; and the Greeks worship humanity itself, and thus vice embodied. It is only with the appearance of Jewish monotheism and then Christianity that the interpretive object is correctly chosen. Embedded within this general discussion is also Gower’s more specific account of idol worship. He begins this account with a general attack on those who worship such idols, using terms that are surprisingly similar to Lollard polemics, criticizing those who, even in his own day, turn to worship a “ragged tree” or a “stock” (stick) as though it had the power to help or injure a supplicant. He then establishes a genealogy of idols (or “ymages” as he calls them) to match the stages of false belief already established, beginning with the story of Syrophanes of Egypt (a tale also told in Fulgentius‘ Mythologies). The story is a moving one. Syrophanes has an only son, who dies, and in his grief he “let do make in remembrance/ A faire ymage of his semblance/ and set it in the market place.” But the statue does not have the effect Syrophanes expected. Instead of curing his grief, the image becomes for him, a constant reminder of loss. Moreover, his servants respond to the image by initiating just the practice of adoration that Gower so loathes, leaving offerings for it, in the hope of placating and pleasing their master. As Fulgentius glosses the story, in a spirit with which I think Gower would agree, the significance of the story is telling: “It was fear that first gave birth to the gods.”37 The “ymage,” or the statue, is created in the hope of exorcising private grief, but it is seized on by others who have no understanding of its purpose, and, instead, use it as an icon through into which they transfer their own fear. Thus, instead of the exercise of pious devotion, the creation of the statue creates a series set of errors and indirections: it first displays a damaging ability to inhibit the release of the psychic energy invested in it by its creator, and it then also demonstrates a capacity to serve as a pure fetish, an object onto which the servants can project their fear of their master and give it all the more substance through its association with the cultic image.

Both of these attributes of the “ymage” are reinforced by Gower‘s implicit discussions of the role of sculptors proper. As should not be surprising for a poet so steeped in Ovid, Gower‘s discussions of productive labor return again and again to specifically aesthetic modes of production, among them the activities of the sculptor. Some of his examples are unsurprising, such as his account of Pygmalion or the history of idolators in Book 5. But along with these comes one to give us pause—the Sorcerer Nectanabus. Nectanabus is one of Gower‘s most remarkable creations. Deriving from a number of Hellenistic and Medieval Alexander narratives, Nectanabus was imagined to be both the last Egyptian king and also a great sorcerer. In Gower‘s version of the story he is also the true father of Alexander the Great (not Philip of Macedon, as we always thought), having seduced Alexander’s mother by changing shape and pretending to be the god Amos in the form of a dragon. Crucially, this transformation is effected by the sculpting of a wax image, a statue, upon which he writes the Queen‘s name, Olimpias, and which he anoints with herbs of various sorts. This story shares the sense of the strange totemic power of Syrophanes‘ creation, but it goes further in asserting an implicit, and very Ovidian, link between Nectanabus‘ shapeshifting power and the fashioning of the image. The sculpture is fashioned, after all, in wax, rather than marble, and the impermanence of the material evokes something very like the all too easy collapse of the city walls in both the Vox and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. In essence, what we see in Nectanabus is the figure of an anti-Pygmalion, one who sculpts not to create something of surprising vitality but rather something that is made in order to melt away, a figure showing the essential impermanence of all that seems solid. And here I think we can begin to see why Gower was more attracted to the statue as his archetypal “ymage” than was Chaucer with his brass plaques and stained glass. As a plastic form, and one often destined for exterior display, the statue is an object in which we frequently encounter the visible signs of the corroding forces of time. Weathered and beaten down, the statue must face the forces of the entropic dynamics so important to both Ovidian poetics and Ricardian politics in a way that Chaucer’s elegant images, in contrast, seemed built to elude.

This sense of the specificity of sculpture comes into play with great power in the most famous of Gower‘s sculptures, the monstrous image that appears to Nebuchadnezzar in his dream. Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statue of a human form, its body made of various substances, ranging from gold to steel to earthen feet. In his dream the statue is destroyed as a boulder smashes the clay feet. Daniel glosses this dream as an allegory of earthy empires, one yielding to another, producing a downward trajectory of gathering entropy. As he sums up this history to the sovereign:

  • The world empeireth every day.
  • Whereof the sothe schewe may,
  • At Rome ferst if we beginne.
  • The wall and al the city withinne
  • Stant in ruine and in decay,
  • The feld is where the paleis was,
  • The toun is wast … (ll. 833–839)

Like New Troy in the Visio anglie, Rome has endured its own Ovidian change, palaces turning to fields and wasteland. And it is with this rather dark equation we return to the problem of the mechanical in Gower’s poetry. What Daniel tells the king is, quite simply, that the ruined statue of his vision signifies the ruined city and the historical rupture that is the inheritance of empire. The secret of the dream, Daniel’s prophetic revelation, thus lies in the monitory lesson for monarchs (beware the fragmentation of empire), but also, more fundamentally, in the sheer identity between the two ruins, in the fact that the ruined statue, which is of course also the ruined body, is itself the product of that same imperial trajectory. This is not, of course, the only vision Gower offers of the body, or of the polity, but in these moments Gower imagines these objects through a strange projected temporality in which they are imagined as already ruined. Gower used these statues in the Confessio to represent an object world caught between the quick and the dead.38 It is the admonition of a moralist, but also a remarkable insistence, unlike say Chaucer, that the entropic drift of history can never be eluded, but will leave its inevitable trace on statues and all that they seek to represent.


(1) Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(2) Derek Pearsall, “The Manuscripts and Illustrations of Gower’s Works,” in A Companion to Gower, ed. Sian Echard (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. 2004), 73–79.

(3) Charles Blythe, “Thomas Hoccleve’s Other Master,” Mediaevalia 16 (1993): 349–359; and Dianne Watt, “John Gower,” in Larry Scanlon, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature: 1100-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 153–164.

(4) John Scattergood, ed. The Complete English Poems of John Skelton, 2d rev. ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 283.

(5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Stateman’s Manual, 30. Quoted here from R. J. White, ed. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 6: Lay Sermons (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1973).

(6) For a contrasting view, one holding that “the formation of the Romantic concept of the symbol was not crucially dependent on a corresponding denigration of allegory,” see Nicholas Halmi, The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 13.

(7) Coleridge, Statesman’s Manual, 30.

(8) Thomas Campbell, Specimens of the British Poets; with Biographical and Critical Notices, and an Essay on English Poetry (London: John Murray, 1819).

(9) Campbell, Specimens, vol. 1, 71; or, as Campbell comments in an earlier passage: “Chaucer himself, when he strikes into the new, or allegorical, school of romance, has many passages more tedious, and less affecting, than the better parts of those simple old fablers.” Campbell, Specimens, vol. 1, 69.

(10) Campbell, Specimens, vol. 1, 75–76. I might add that Campbell’s analytic critique of Gower in the first volume of the Specimens is born out in the second volume, the collection of poetic texts, which includes only two brief excerpts from Gower, for a total of eight pages.

(11) As a slightly later example, Wharton’s History of English Poetry (1870) is often quite positive about Gower, but his critical comments are drawn from the same aesthetic critique as those of Campbell. Speaking of the treatment of allegorical figures in the Confessio, Wharton comments, “[i]nstead of boldly clothing these qualities with corporeal attributes, aptly and poetically imagined, he coldly yet sensibly describes their operations, and enumerates their properties.” Note, in particular, the repetition of the adverb “coldly.” Thomas Wharton, The History of English Poetry (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1870), 313.

(12) On the exemplary function, see Larry Scanlon, Narrative, Authority and Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 245–297.

(13) E. A. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 116–140.

(14) The date of composition was determined by G. C. Macaulay. Macaulay, ed. The Complete Works of John Gower, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1899).

(15) Citations from the Mirour will be drawn from Macaulay’s edition and identified by line number within the text.

(16) Morton Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State College Press, 1952), 65.

(17) A point made by both Bloomfield, Deadly Sins, 195 and R. F. Yeager, John Gower’s Poetic: The Search for a New Arion (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990), 77.

(18) Gower tells the story of Adam and Even near the beginning of the Mirour.

(19) A. C. Spearing Medieval Autographies: The “I” of the Text (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).

(20) George Lyman Kittredge, “Gower” in The Nation 71 (1900), 254.

(21) On Gower’s use of legal terminology, see Conrad van Dijk John Gower and the Limits of the Law (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013); on the use of public notoriety as evidence, see Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

(22) John Gower, Poems on Contemporary Events, ed. David R. Carlson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2011).

(23) On dating see Carlson’s introduction to Gower, Poems on Contemporary Events, 5–17.

(25) Andrew Galloway, “Reassessing Gower’s Dream-Visions,” in John Gower, Trilingual Poet: Language, Translation, and Tradition, ed. Elisabeth Dutton with John Hines and R. F. Yeager (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010), 288–303.

(26) Visio anglie, ll. 1–19, in Gower, Poems on Contemporary Events. All further quotations from the Visio will be drawn from this edition and cited by line number within the text.

(27) Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

(28) Among the many commentaries on the relative individuality of Chaucer’s portraits, see especially Mann, Chaucer and Estates Satire and Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).

(29) David R. Carlson, “A Fourteenth-Century Anglo-Latin Ovidian: The Liber Exulis in John Gower’s 1381 Visio anglie (Vox clamantis I. 1359-1592),” in Classica et Medieavalia 61 (2010): 293–335.

(31) Carlson, “A Fourteenth-Century Ovidian”; and R. F. Yeager, “Did Gower Write Cento?” in Recent Readings: Papers Presented at the Meetings of the John Gower Society of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, 1983-88, ed. R. F. Yeager (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1989), 113–132.

(32) On the larger structure of the Confessio, see, among others, John Burrow, “Sinning Against Love in the Confessio Amantis,” in John Gower: Trilingual Poet, 217–229.

(33) Margaret Aston, England’s Iconoclasts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

(34) Anne Hudson, ed. Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 27.

(35) On ekphrasis, see Andrew James Johnston, Ethan Knapp and Margitta Rouse, eds. The Art of Vision: Ekphrasis in Medieval Literature and Culture (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015).

(36) Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, transl. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(37) Leslie George Whitehead, transl. Fulgentius the Mythographer (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), 48. See also Statius, Thebaid 3:661 “primus in orbe deos fecit timor!” ed. D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

(38) On the widespread anxiety in this period over whether such idols were living or dead, see also James Simpson’s rich exploration in his Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), perhaps especially his treatment of Lydgate, 49–60.