De confessione amantis

Chrzanowski 1554gThe challenge facing English writers in the 14th century was to transform their vernacular into a literary language. The cultured class of English society was fluent in French, the language of an abundant number of romances. It is a task that Geoffrey Chaucer took on and triumphed by virtue of his singular genius. His success was shared with John Gower—not a writer of Chaucer’s stature but talented nonetheless.

Gower belonged to a good Kentish family, and at one point later in his life was referred to in a document as an “Esquier of Kent.” A master of three languages, Gower wrote his first two important works in French and Latin. The first, Speculum Meditantis, is a long exposition of religion and morality in French verse. Written in Latin, his second major work, Vox Clamantis, dealt with the misfortunes happening in England under Richard II, including the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), which occurred as he was writing.

Gower and Chaucer were friends. Chaucer addressed Troilus and Cresseyde to “moral Gower,” and when off on a diplomatic mission in 1378, he appointed Gower and another to have power of attorney in his absence. Perhaps because of the literary success that his friend was enjoying, Gower ventured to write in English. Confessio Amantis, his final major work, is one of the literary landmarks of the Middle Ages. The 30,000-word poem is less didactic than his earlier writings, and Gower demonstrates a talent for storytelling. One of the stories in the book, that of Appollynus the Prince of Tyre, is the chief source for Shakespeare’s Pericles; Gower appears in the play as the narrator.

Confessio Amantis includes more than 100 stories drawn mainly from classical and medieval literature. They are told as the aging, stricken Lover in the book (Gower) confesses his sins against love to a priest of Venus, named Genius. At the end of the book, Genius pleads with Venus on behalf of Gower, allows Cupid to remove his dart, and mends the poet’s broken heart. Venus charges the poet to follow reason rather than love in the future. Gower seems not to have followed his own advice; he married Agnes Groundolf in 1397, when he was about 72 years old.

Confessio Amantis was first published by William Caxton in 1483, and then by Thomas Berthelet in 1532. The present copy is an example of the third edition, again printed by Berthelet. It is a paginary reprint of the 1532 edition, with some corrections and the preliminary text compressed from eight leaves to six.

Chrzanowski 1554g *

STC 12144

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675