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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/John Gower

GOWER, John (1325 1-1408), one of the best of the English minor poets, was born in or about the year 1325 ; but the date is not exactly known. It has been conclu sively shown by Sir Harris Nicolas that he belonged to the county of Kent. His family was wealthy ; and he seems to have had various country houses. So far as we know he did not marry till 1397, when he was united to Agnes Groundolf. He was an intimate friend of Chaucer; but there is no evidence to prove that they were fellow- students. A few years after his marriage, Gower became blind, and had to give up writing. He spent his declining years in the priory of St Mary Overies, or, as it is now called, St Saviour s, in Southwark, where his monument is still to be seen. Near the close of the Confessio Amantis, Gower puts the following compliment to Chaucer into the mouth of Venus:- " And greet weel Chaucer when ye meet, As my disciple and my poet ; For in the floures of his youth, In sundry wise, as he well couth Of ditties and of songes glade, The which he for my sake made, The land fulfilled is over all ;" &c. In these lines he was merely requiting a compliment that had been paid him some years before by his brother-poet, who, in dedicating to him his Troihis and Cressida, addressed him as " moral Gower," an epithet which, though not remarkably happy, has stuck to him. Gower died in 1408. In his will he leaves a number of religious legacies to various ecclesiastical persons and institutions, and 100, along with the rents of his manors, to his wife Agnes. The beautiful church in which Gower lies was rebuilt in great part at his expense, and proves, among other things, that he must have been exempt from one of the usual misfortunes of poets poverty. Gower s poetical works are four in number Balades and other Poems, in French, printed in 1818 for the Iloxburghe Club ; the Speculum Meditantis, a treatise on the duties of married life, written in French verse, and divided into ten books ; Vox Clamantis, a narrative in Latin elegiacs, of the insurrection of the commons in the reign of Richard II.; and the Confessio Amantis. The second of these works is believed to have perished ; of the third there is a good edition by the Rev. H. O. Coxe, printed for the Rox- burghe Club in 1850; and the fourth was first printed by Caxtou in 1483. The Confessio Amantis, or Lover s Confession, is a huge miscellaneous collection of physical, metaphysical, and moral reflexions, and of stories culled from the common repertories of the Middle Ages. A kind of unity is given to these apparently incongruous materials by the form of the poem, which is a dialogue between a lover and his confessor, who is a priest of Venus, and is called Genius. In the moral part of his theme, Gower is confessedly wise, impressive, and sometimes almost sublime. But, as Ellis, in his Specimens of the Early English Poets, observes, " His narrative is often quite petrifying ; and when we read in his works the tales with which we have been familiarized in the poems of Ovid, we feel a mixture of surprise and despair at the perverse industry employed in removing every detail on which the imagination had been accustomed to fasten. The author of the Metamorphoses was a poet, and at least sufficiently fond of ornament. Gower considers him as a mere annalist, scrupulously preserves his facts, relates them with great perspicuity, and is fully satisfied when he has extracted from them as much morality as they can reasonably be ex pected to furnish." As Professor Lowell has well remarked, Gower " has positively raised tediousness to the precision of a science." Though his descriptions are often extremely agreeable, and his diction easy and smooth, his prolixity, and the prosaic feebleness of the conceptions, will prevent the Lover s Confession from ever rivalling the writings of Chaucer, or even approximating them in popularity.

See Todd s Illustrations of the Lives and Writings of Gower a iwl Chaucer; Ellis s Specimens of the Early English Poets; Craik s Hist. Lit.; Warton s Hist. Eng. Poetry; Godwin s Life of Chaucer; Motley s English Writers ; Sir Harris Nicolas s Life of Chaucer ; Mrs Massou s Three Centuries of English Poetry ; Retrospective lUview for 1828, where Sir Harris Nicolas throws fresh light on the subject ; Observations on the Language of Chaucer s Canter bury Tales, and Gower s Confessio Amanti*, by F. J. Child; Minto s Characteristics of English Poets ; and, above all, Dr Rein- hold Fanli s scholarly edition of the Confessio Amantis (London, 1857), which contains a notice of Gower, and an account of the MSS. and editions of the poem.