John Gower, Medieval English Poet and Contemporary of William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer

John Gower was a medieval English poet whose work spoke of moral allegory and courtly love. He was known to be a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer and their styles were compatible. Gower was said to influence many other poets of the time. His writings in French and Latin and English are voluminous. The Confession Amantis is, for example, a lengthy series of stories told in English verse. One of the most notable of these is the Tale of Florent. The verse form is octosyllabic (eight syllables) couplet. Interest in Gower’s work died out in the 16th Century, but the mid 20th Century saw a resurgence in him. My son attended Western Carolina University, and at WCU there is International John Gower Society, devoted to his works. 

It is assumed that Gower hailed from Yorkshire and his family was wealthy. His language is of Kentish origin, however. Assumptions are also made as to his life in London as many of Gower’s works hod allusion to London life and life at court. “At one point, he professed acquaintance with Richard II, and in 1399 he was granted two pipes (casks) of wine a year for life by Henry IV as a reward for complimentary references in one of his poems. In 1397, living as a layman in the priory of St. Mary Overie, Southwark, London, Gower married Agnes Groundolf, who survived him. In 1400 Gower described himself as “senex et cecus” (“old and blind”), and on Oct. 24, 1408, his will was proved; he left bequests to the Southwark priory, where he is buried.

“Gower’s three major works are in French, English, and Latin, and he also wrote a series of French balades intended for the English court. The Speculum meditantis, or Mirour de l’omme, in French, is composed of 12-line stanzas and opens impressively with a description of the devil’s marriage to the seven daughters of sin; continuing with the marriage of reason and the seven virtues, it ends with a searing examination of the sins of English society just before the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: the denunciatory tone is relieved at the very end by a long hymn to the Virgin.

“Gower’s major Latin poem, the Vox clamantis, owes much to Ovid; it is essentially a homily, being in part a criticism of the three estates of society, in part a mirror for a prince, in elegiac form. The poet’s political doctrines are traditional, but he uses the Latin language with fluency and elegance.

Vol 1-Confessio“Gower’s English poems include In Praise of Peace, in which he pleads urgently with the king to avoid the horrors of war, but his greatest English work is the Confessio amantis, essentially a collection of exemplary tales of love, whereby Venus’ priest, Genius, instructs the poet, Amans, in the art of both courtly and Christian love. The stories are chiefly adapted from classical and medieval sources and are told with a tenderness and the restrained narrative art that constitute Gower’s main appeal today.” (Enclyclopedia Brittanica)

In The Tale of Florent, Florent is a young knight who kills Branchus in a fight. Branchus’ grandmother wants revenge. However, she offers Florent his life if he can find out what women most desire. Florent sets out to travel, in order to observe what women most wants. On his way, he meets an old hag. She offers to tell him the answer to the question if he will marry her. Florent offers her land or money, but she turns down these bargains. But Florent, being young and charming, is not anxious to die yet, so he promises to marry the hag. She then tells him that women want power over man’s love most of all. Florent returns to the court, gives this answer, and his life is spared. Then with some feelings of disgust he takes the old hag to his castle to fulfill his promise. When they are married and in bed, the story resolution is shown. The old hag turns into a most beautiful woman of eighteen. She is the daughter of the King of Sicily and had been transformed into a hag by her wicked step-mother. Florent broke the spell with his faithfulness. (History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, Boston, Massachusetts)

In The Tale of Ceyx and Alceone, Ceyx, King of Trocinio, loved his wife Alceone and his brother Dedalion. Unfortunately, Dedalion was transformed into a goshawk. Ceyx resolves to go on a holy pilgrimage in the hope of curing his brother. He sails away and is heard of no more. The frantic Alceone begs Juno for aid. Juno hearkens and sends Iris to the dark realm of Sleep. Sleep sends out Morpheus to appear to Alceone in the likeness of her drowned husband. He appears to her at night. The next morning, she goes to the shore when she dreamt she saw his body, and there she finds her drowned husband. She leaps into the water after him, and they are both transformed into birds, called “halcyons,” after Alceone. (History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, Boston, Massachusetts)

Critics of Gower say his language was simpler than most of the authors of his time, but they praise his narrative style and his innate ability to develop the exposition in exact proportions. Most say he lacks Chaucer’s sense of humor, dramatic power, and understanding of characterization. It is noted that Gower does not digress when telling his story: He is always on point. He does moralize often, but he is not “preachy” in his approach to the story. His stories move easily from plot point to plot point. Although Gower’s verse is regular and his meter smooth, his greatest fault is his simplicity sometimes led to prosaic and commonplace expression.

Wikipedia list these works for Gower: 
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 (French, 1397)
Cinkante Balades (French, 1399–1400)
Cronica Tripertita (Latin, c.1400)
In praise of peace (English, c.1400)
See also…
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a play co-written by Shakespeare, based on Gower’s work and featuring Gower as the Chorus
Henry IV Part II includes Gower as a messenger
In Henry V, Gower is the ideal English soldier


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to John Gower, Medieval English Poet and Contemporary of William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer

  1. Have you read Bruce Holsinger’s ‘Burnable Book’? It is wonderful & John Gower is the main character. I have the sequel, ‘Invention of Fire’ on my shelf to read soon.

    • I’ve not read that one, Samantha. I must add it to my TBR list. Right now, I’m indulging in some Victorian background and a bit on the Romanov sisters.

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