English poet; b. probably in Kent, c. 1330; d. 1408. It is untenable that he was a member of the clergy, a lawyer, or a physician; records would indicate, rather, that he must be identified with the merchant class. He was a friend of Chaucer, and was known to Richard II and Henry IV. He became blind seven years before his death, and was buried in the chapel of St. John the Baptist in St. Savior's Church (Southwark Cathedral), originally the church of the Priory of St. Mary Overey, of which he had been a substantial benefactor. The effigy on his tomb represents him resting his head on three large volumes entitled Vox Clamatis, Speculum Meditantis, and Confessio Amantis. Each is a major work in a different language, and in each he is a moralist concerned with the ills of contemporary society, particularly in England, brought on by man's departure from virtue, reason, and good order.
Speculum Meditantis or Mirour de l'Omme, the earliest work, consists of about 30,000 octosyllabic lines of French verse. Through allegory it treats the vices and virtues, reviews the state of society since the time of Rome, and finds all classes corrupt because of man himself; it urges repentance and amendment through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and concludes with a life of her and a series of praises to her under various titles.
Vox Clamantis, in Latin elegiacs, consists of more than 10,000 lines. Introducing his subject with a dream allegory picturing the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, Gower pointedly exposes corruption on the various levels of society, and laments the loss of ideals and the evils of the country.
Confessio Amantis, written in English and comprising more than 34,000 lines in short couplets, also advocates a moral order preserved by wisdom and virtue, but the book is intended for pleasure as well as instruction. The poet, or lover, is told by Venus to confess to Genius, her priest, who instructs him concerning the Deadly Sins as applied to love. There is a profusion of illustrative stories drawn from classical and medieval sources. Gower was a poet, not of revolt, but of reform within the existing framework of society. His talent was notable, but he lacked genius; he did not transcend his own time and his reputation has waned.
Bibliography: Complete Works, ed. g. c. macaulay, 4 v. (London 1899–1902); The Major Latin Works of John Gower, tr. e. w. stockton (Seattle 1962). g. r. coffmann, "John Gower in His Most Significant Role," University of Colorado Studies Series B 2.4 (1945) 52–61.
[p. e. beichner]
The English author John Gower (ca. 1330-1408) was one of the major court poets of the 14th century. His poems are not so vigorous as Chaucer's, but his criticism of his contemporaries is more direct.
Very little is known about John Gower's early life. He probably held a legal office of some kind, perhaps in Westminster. His first major work, probably begun about 1376, was in French. It is called Miroir de l'Omme, or Speculum meditantis. In it Gower describes the development of sin, the vices and virtues, and the remedy available to man, with a special appeal to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Some time about 1377 Gower retired to the priory of St. Mary Overy in Southwark. He soon began work on his long Latin poem Vox clamantis. Book I, written after 1381, contains a vivid description of the Peasants' Revolt, used to set the theme for a moral analysis of social decay in England. At this time Gower was acquainted with Geoffrey Chaucer, who gave him power of attorney while Chaucer was away on the Continent in 1378. Chaucer later dedicated Troilus and Criseyde to Gower and to Ralph Strode.
In 1390 Gower completed the first version of his most famous poem, written in English but given the Latin title Confessio amantis. He says that he wrote it at the request of King Richard II, who had asked him for "som newe thing" to read. The first version of the poem was dedicated to Richard. In a later version Gower dedicated his poem to Henry of Derby, the son of John of Gaunt and the future King Henry IV.
Confessio amantis means "the lover's confession," but it is not an autobiography of the poet and it does not concern itself with Gower's amorous adventures. After a prologue in which Gower points out that division in the soul introduced by sin creates division and strife in the world, he introduces the lover, a man overcome by lust and the desire for selfish pleasure. In the remainder of the poem, which occupies 8 books and some 34,000 lines, the lover confesses to Genius, the priest of Venus, gradually recovering his reason and overcoming the division within himself. The poem ends with a prayer for good government and the rule of reason in the commonwealth. Gower's masterpiece contains an enormous amount of standard medieval moral philosophy and is illustrated by a great variety of exemplary tales. Some of the tales are very well told.
Between 1394 and the end of his life Gower wrote some Latin poems and, probably, some of his French ballades. He married late in life in 1398.
For a careful account of Gower's life and works see John H. Fisher, John Gower (1964). □
J. A. Cannon