Gower, John (DNB00)
GOWER, JOHN (1325?–1408), poet, is loosely described by Caxton, who first printed his ‘Confessio Amantis’ in 1483, as ‘a squyer borne in Walys in the tyme of kyng Richard the second.’ The poet was certainly not a Welshman by birth, and, since in 1400 he described himself as ‘senex,’ it is probable he was born in the second or third decade of the fourteenth century. All the early writers insist on his good birth. Leland, in his ‘Commentarii’ (p. 414), connected him with the Gowers of Stittenham, Yorkshire, ancestors of the Leveson-Gowers, and he has been followed by Bale, Pits, Holinshed, and Todd. But the poet's coat of arms and crest emblazoned on his tomb in Southwark differ altogether from the armorial bearings of the Gowers of Stittenham, and render the relationship impossible. The poet, moreover, rhymed his name with ‘power,’ while the Stittenham family have always pronounced their name as though it rhymed with ‘po-er’ or ‘pore.’ Weever's assumption that the poet was closely connected with the family of Sir Robert Gower, a large landowner both in Suffolk and Kent, has been powerfully supported by Sir Harris Nicolas's researches, and is probably correct. Sir Robert died in or before 1349, and was buried in the church of Brabourne, near Ashford, Kent, where there was at one time a brass to his memory, bearing the poet's coat of arms. In 1333 Sir Robert had received from David, earl of Athol, the manor of Kentwell, Suffolk, with its appurtenances. This manor became the joint property of his two daughters after his death. The elder daughter, Katherine, died in 1366. The younger, Joan, was in 1368 married to a second husband, Thomas Syward, pewterer and citizen of London, and husband and wife were then joint owners of the Kentwell manor. On 28 June 1368 they granted it to John Gower, a near kinsman, who has been, with every probability, identified with the poet. By a deed executed at Otford, Kent, on Thursday, 30 Sept. 1373, John Gower made Kentwell over to Sir John Cobham, William Weston, Roger Ashburnham, Thomas Brokhill, and Thomas Preston, rector of Tunstall. The crest engraved on the seal attached to this deed is identical with that on the poet's tomb. Henceforth the poet seems to have been closely associated with Kent. He wrote of the Kentish insurrection of 1381, with every sign of personal knowledge. On 1 Aug. 1382, in a charter which confirmed to him the manors of Feltwell, Norfolk, and Moulton, Suffolk (Rot. Claus. 6 Richard II, p. 1, No. 27 dorso), he is designated ‘esquier de Kent.’ On 6 Aug. following he parted with Feltwell and Moulton to Thomas Blakelake, parson of the church of St. Nicholas at Feltwell, on condition that 40l. was paid him annually in the conventual church of Westminster. Confirmation of this arrangement was made on 24 Oct. 1382 and 29 Feb. 1384. Documents dated 3 Feb. 1381 and 10 June 1385 assigned to Gower and one John Bowland, clerk, the rights of Isabella, daughter of Walter de Huntingfield, to certain lands and tenements at Throwley and Stalesfield, Kent. In 1365 a John Gower rented the manors of Wygeburgh (i.e. Wigborough), Essex, and Aldington, Kent. It is possible that this tenant was the poet. But it is extremely doubtful whether the John Gower, ‘clerk,’ who held the rectory of Great Braxted, Essex, from February 1390 to March 1397, is identical with the writer. Professor Morley accepts the identification without hesitation. But there is no other evidence to show that Gower, whose customary title was ‘esquier,’ was in holy orders. The probability is all the other way.
The legends that represent Gower as educated at Oxford, and as entering the Inner Temple, have no historical basis. His works prove him to have been a man of wide reading, who probably travelled in France in early life, and in his later years he settled down as a well-to-do country gentleman, watching with some alarm the political and social movements of his time. He was known at court, but not apparently till well advanced in years. His chief poem, ‘Confessio Amantis,’ was written (according to his own account) at the request of Richard II, to whom it was first dedicated. But he transferred his dedication and his allegiance to the king's rival, Henry of Lancaster, afterwards Henry IV, about 1393–4, when ‘un esquier, John Gower,’ is mentioned among Henry's retainers. In the opening years of Henry's reign he proved himself an untiring panegyrist of his new sovereign. It is thus that he has gained for himself the reputation of a timid time-server, but the change of allegiance may well have been the result of conviction. On his tomb the poet's effigy wears a collar of SS, to which is appended a swan, Henry's badge (assumed after the death of Thomas of Gloucester in 1397). In his old age the poet married. At the time he was residing in the priory of St. Mary Overies, Southwark, to which he had proved a great benefactor. His apartments seem to have been in what was afterwards known as Montague Close, between the church of St. Mary Overies and the river (Rendle, Old Southwark, p. 317). According to the register of William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, the name of Gower's wife was Agnes Groundolf, and the marriage took place in his own private chapel, situated in the priory of St. Mary Overies, by license, dated 25 Jan. 1397, the celebrant being the chaplain of the parish church of St. Mary Magdalene, Southwark. In 1400, after suffering much ill-health, he became blind. He was still residing in the priory of St. Mary Overies, Southwark, on 15 Aug. 1408, when he made his will, preserved at Lambeth. He bequeaths many legacies to the prior, sub-prior, canons, and servants of St. Mary Overies, and to the churches and hospitals of Southwark and the neighbourhood, including a leper hospital. He desires to be buried in the chapel of St. John the Baptist, in St. Mary Overies priory, and leaves to that chapel two silk dresses for the priests, a new missal, and a new chalice. A book entitled ‘Martilogium’ (i.e. ‘Martyrologium’), which was recently copied at his expense, is left to the prior and convent. His wife Agnes receives 100l., much household furniture, and for her life the rents of the manors of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, and Moulton, Suffolk. His wife, Sir Arnold Savage, an esquire named Robert, William Denne, canon of the king's chapel, and John Burton are his executors. The will was proved at Lambeth by Agnes Gower on 24 Oct., and administration of other property not specified in the will was granted on 7 Nov. Between 15 Aug. 1408 and 24 Oct., the dates respectively of the drawing and the proving of the will, Gower was buried in the chapel of St. John the Baptist, in the north aisle of the nave of St. Mary Overies, commonly called St. Saviour's, Southwark. A stone tomb is still extant there. Beneath a three-arched canopy lies an effigy of the poet. The head rests on three volumes, inscribed respectively with the names of his works, ‘Speculum Meditantis,’ ‘Vox Clamantis,’ and ‘Confessio Amantis.’ The hair falls in large curls on his shoulders, and is crowned with four roses, with which ivy was originally intertwined (Leland). A long, closely buttoned robe covers the whole body, including the feet, which rest upon a lion. A collar of SS, with Henry IV's badge of the swan, is round the neck. Berthelet, in his edition of the ‘Confessio Amantis’ (1532), gives a description of three pictures (now obliterated) of Charity, Mercy, and Pity, painted against the wall, within the three upper arches. A shield on a side panel of the canopy gives the poet's arms: ‘Argent on a chevron, azure, three leopards' heads, or; crest, on a cap of maintenance, a talbot passant.’ The inscription preserved by Leland and Berthelet, ‘Hic jacet J. Gower, arm. Angl. poeta celeberrimus ac huic sacro edificio benefac. insignis. Vixit temporibus Ed. III et Ric. II’ has disappeared, together with a tablet granting 1,500 days' pardon, ‘ab ecclesia rite concessos’ to all who prayed devoutly for the poet's soul. The monument was repaired in 1615, 1764, and 1830.
Prefixed to Caxton's edition of the ‘Confessio Amantis’ (1483), and in many of the extant manuscripts of that and other of Gower's writings, is a Latin preface describing Gower's three chief works. This preface, of which the text is extant in two forms, has been attributed to Gower's own pen. The works described are (1) the ‘Speculum Meditantis,’ (2) the ‘Vox Clamantis,’ and (3) the ‘Confessio Amantis.’ The first, the ‘Speculum Meditantis,’ assumed from its position to have been written earliest, was long thought to be lost. The manuscript was discovered in the Cambridge University Library by Mr. G. C. Macaulay and first printed in his edition of Gower's works (1899). It is a French poem, treating of vices and virtues, and teaching by a right path the way whereby a transgressor should return to a knowledge of his Creator. Many short French poems by Gower are extant, and Warton wrongly imagined that the ‘Speculum Meditantis’ was identical with one of those.
The second work, the ‘Vox Clamantis,’ is a Latin elegiac poem in seven books. It was begun in June 1381, but not completed till near the end of Richard II's reign. The first book—a fourth of the whole—treats, in an allegory which (Gower pretends) was revealed to him in a dream, of the insurrection of the serfs which broke out in Gower's neighbourhood in Kent in May 1381. The poet describes the rebels under the names of animals, but the identification of the leaders is obvious, and in some places their names are given. He brings events down to the death of Wat Tyler. Fuller, in his ‘Church History’ (ii. 353–4), quotes in an English verse translation the description of the Kentish ‘rabble’ given by Gower, ‘prince of poets in his time.’ Although Gower has little sympathy with popular grievances, he ascribes the disturbances to the deterioration of contemporary society. In the second book he insists on the need of pure religious faith. In the third and fourth books he denounces the sins of the clergy of all ranks, and pleads for a reformation, although he disclaims in his ‘Confessio’ and elsewhere all sympathy with the Lollards. In the fifth book he shows the value of a virtuous and well-disciplined army, and deprecates the ignorant sensuality of the serf and the avarice of the merchant. The sixth book deals with the vices of the lawyers, and appeals directly to Richard II to select wise and honest councillors, and to avoid war, heavy taxation, and sensual indulgences. The seventh book recapitulates the poet's dissatisfaction with the existing government and with the king, and entreats his countrymen to turn from wickedness.
The poem is dedicated to Archbishop Arundel, and Gower describes himself in the dedication as ‘senex et cæcus.’ The finest manuscript of the poem is in the library of All Souls' College, Oxford, and from this manuscript the poem was printed for the first time by the Roxburghe Club, under the direction of H. O. Coxe, in 1850. Coxe collated the All Souls' MS. with another in the Cottonian Collection, Tib. A. iv., and a third among the Digby MSS. at the Bodleian Library. Attached to all three, in continuation of the poem, is Gower's ‘Chronica Tripartita,’ in three books of rhyming Latin hexameters, giving a hostile account of Richard II's conduct of affairs from the appointment of the commissioners of regency, 19 Nov. 1386, till the king's death, and the accession of Henry IV. Much eulogy is bestowed on the Swan (Thomas, duke of Gloucester), the Horse (Richard, earl of Arundel), and the Bear (Thomas, earl of Warwick). The second book describes the coup d'état of 1397, and the third book tells of Richard II's abdication. Coxe printed the ‘Chronica Tripartita’ with the ‘Vox Clamantis.’ It is also printed in Wright's ‘Political Poems,’ i. 417–54. The All Souls' MS. and the Cottonian MS. conclude with ten short pieces, chiefly in Latin, bitterly inveighing against Richard II, or in praise of Henry IV. Two only of these pieces are printed by Coxe—one (in elegiacs) beginning ‘Quicquid homo scribat finem natura ministrat’ and a commendatory ‘carmen’ by one ‘Philippus.’ Four others, including a ‘Carmen super multiplici vitiorum pestilentia unde tempore Ricardi II partes nostræ specialius inficiebantur’ (dated 1396–7), in which Lollardism is denounced, appear in Wright's ‘Political Poems,’ i. 346 et seq.
Gower's ‘Confessio Amantis,’ his only English poem, is in about 30,000 eight-syllabled rhymed lines. It is extant in two versions, mainly differing at the beginning and end. In the earlier version the poem opens with a dedication to Richard II, and Chaucer is complimented in the closing lines. In the later version Henry of Lancaster takes Richard's place, and Chaucer is not mentioned at all. In the dedication of the first version to Richard II, the poet relates that while rowing on the Thames he met the king's barge, that the king invited him to an audience and bade him write ‘some newe thing,’ a direction of which the ‘Confessio’ was the result. The hopefulness with which Gower refers to Richard in these lines has suggested that they must have been composed before 1386, when Richard's worthless character had become generally known, and Professor Hales has pointed out some apparent allusions in them to events happening between 1381 and 1383 (Athenæum, 24 Dec. 1881). In the revised version, from which Gower omits all mention of Richard II, he says that he wrote the poem ‘the yere sixtenthe of Kyng Richard’ (i.e. 1393), and dedicates it to ‘min owne lorde, which of Lancastre is Henry named.’ Thus the date of the earlier version may be conjecturally placed in 1383, that of the second in 1393.
The poem consists of a prologue and eight books. The prologue deals largely with the degradation of the clergy and of the people, which Gower reminds his readers it is in their own power to check. He concludes with a moralised interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, which had already found a place at the close of the ‘Vox Clamantis.’ In book i. Gower represents a lover as appealing to Cupid and Venus to cure him of his sickness. Venus sends a confessor, Genius, to shrive him. The confessor arrives, and the dialogue between him and the lover occupies the rest of the poem. The confessor first asks the lover how he has used his five senses, and, in a number of stories chiefly derived from classical authors, warns him of the vices which the senses are prone to encourage. In the later books the confessor describes in turn the seven deadly sins, pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust, with their different ministers, and illustrates their ravages by a series of stories loosely strung together after the manner of Boccaccio's ‘Decameron.’ The last and eighth book concludes with the confessor's absolution of the lover. There are occasional digressions, as in the account of the rise of the mechanical arts in book iv., or of the religions of the ancient world in book v. In book vii. the general plan is interrupted by a summary of philosophical knowledge—of ‘theorique,’ ‘rhetorique,’ and ‘poetique’—derived from the popular ‘Secretum Secretorum’ falsely attributed to Aristotle, and assumed to embody the instruction given by Aristotle to Alexander. Gower adds to this interpolation many stories illustrating the duties of kingship, with unfriendly allusions (in the later version) to Richard II.
Gower contrives to tell in all 112 different stories, and shows himself acquainted with much classical and mediæval literature. The sources of nearly all his stories have been traced. About twenty come from Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ three from Ovid's ‘Heroides.’ Others are extracted from the Bible, the ‘Gesta Romanorum,’ Josephus, Valerius Maximus, Trogus Pompeius or Justin. The chronicles of Cassiodorus and Isidorus, Godfrey of Viterbo's ‘Pantheon,’ Vincent de Beauvais' ‘Speculum Historiale,’ the ‘Geste de Troy’ (in the prose of Dares Phrygius or the verse of Guido di Colonna), the romances of Alexander the Great and Sir Lancelot were also among his works of reference. Statius's ‘Thebais’ supplied the story of the knight Capaneus (bk. ii.) Gower mentions Dante, and was clearly familiar with Boccaccio and Ovid's ‘Ars Amandi.’ Scattered through the work are Latin rubrics and elegiacs. The latter, written in imitation of Boethius, are often notable for their bad prosody and loose grammar.
A very large number of manuscripts of the ‘Confessio’ are known. I. Of the earlier version, there are at Oxford three in the Bodleian Library (Laud. MS. 609; Bodl. 693; Selden, B. 11), and one in the library of Corpus Christi College (67). Three are in the British Museum (Harl. MS. 3490, Royal MS. 18, c. xxii. and Eg. MS. 1991, imperfect but very interesting). One is in the library of the Society of Antiquaries (MS. 134). II. Of the second version two manuscripts are in the Bodleian Library (Fairfax MS. 3 and Hatton, 51); a third at Wadham College, Oxford (13); a fourth at New College, Oxford (266), and a fifth and sixth at the British Museum (Harl. MSS. 7184, finely illuminated but mutilated, and 3869). There are many other manuscripts of the poem in private hands (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. xii, 207, 424, 4th Rep. 595). A manuscript belonging to the Duke of Sutherland—known as the Stafford MS.—adheres to the Lancastrian version, but with many additions, alterations, and omissions. Two hybrid manuscripts are known. A copy in the Bodleian Library (Bodl. MS. 294) has the dedication to Richard, but omits the verses to Chaucer. Another manuscript at New College (234) has the dedication to Henry, but includes the verses to Chaucer. A fine volume ‘Johannis Gower Poemata Anglica, Gallica, et Latina,’ in Trinity College, Cambridge, contains the ‘Confessio,’ but begins with the middle of book ii. (MS. R. 3, 2).
The first printed edition was issued by Caxton in 1483. It follows the second version. The colophon states that Caxton finished it ‘the 2 day of Septembre the fyrst yere of the regne of kyng Richard the thyrd the yere of our lord a thousand cccclxxxxiii’ (a misprint for 1483). Three copies are in the British Museum. A perfect exemplar sold at the sale of Lord Selsey's library in 1872 for 670l. The next edition issued in 1532 from the press of ‘Thomas Berthelette, printer to the kinges grace.’ This is dedicated to Henry VIII, and follows Caxton's text of the later version, while modernising the spelling. But in a preface addressed to the ‘reder’ Berthelette prints from a manuscript the earlier dedication to Richard II, and gives an account of Gower's tomb and of his intimacy with Chaucer. A reprint of 1544 is mentioned by Chalmers and Blore. No such edition is known. Another edition by Berthelette appeared in 1554 with further modernisations of spelling. On 15 Jan. 1581–2 Sampson Awdeley's interest in the copyright of the ‘Confessio’ was transferred, with that of many other books, to John Charlwood, but no edition of the period has been met with (Reg. of Stationers' Company, 1570–86, Shakesp. Soc., 155). Chalmers printed the ‘Confessio’ in his ‘English Poets.’ In 1857 Professor Reinhold Pauli produced an edition in three admirably printed volumes. Berthelette's edition of 1532 formed the basis of Pauli's text, but it was collated throughout with Harleian MSS. 7184, 3869, and 3490, and with the Stafford MS. Professor Morley in 1888 reprinted, with a few obvious corrections, Pauli's text in his Carisbrooke Library, omitting the story of Canace as unfit for popular reading. A thoroughly trustworthy text is still required.
An extract from the digression in book iv. on the mechanical arts dealing with the philosopher's stone appears in Ashmole's ‘Theatrum Chemicum,’ 1651, pp. 368–73. Ellis in his ‘Specimens of English Poetry,’ Todd in his ‘Illustrations of Chaucer and Gower,’ and A. J. Ellis in his ‘Early English Pronunciation,’ 1869, pt. ii. (Chaucer Soc.), have printed a few excerpts, with notes. Mr. Ellis has availed himself of the Society of Antiquaries MS. 134, which has not been consulted by other writers.
A very interesting manuscript volume, containing other poems by Gower, belongs to the Earl of Ellesmere. It was presented to Henry IV by the poet, and came into the possession of Lord Fairfax, who presented it to Sir Thomas Gower, an ancestor of its present owner, in 1666. It opens with an English poem, with Latin prologue and epilogue, entitled ‘Carmen de pacis commendatione in laudem Henrici quarti,’ which was printed in Urry's edition of Chaucer (1721), pp. 540–3, and in Wright's ‘Political Poems,’ ii. 4–15. Eleven short pieces in French or Latin verse also in praise of Henry IV follow, and are succeeded by ‘Cinkante Balades,’ the most interesting section of the manuscript. They deal with love in all its phases, and are the most poetical of all Gower's productions. They are believed to be Gower's earliest work. The volume concludes with a long French poem on the dignity of marriage, illustrated with stories after the fashion of the ‘Confessio.’ This was the poem which Warton mistook for the lost ‘Speculum Meditantis.’ Finally Gower, in an address ‘al universite de tout le monde,’ apologises as an Englishman for his French. The whole of this volume, from which extracts had been printed by Todd and Warton, was first printed, while it belonged to the Marquis of Stafford (excluding the opening poem), for the Roxburghe Club in 1818. A few of the pieces, notably the long poem on marriage, appear at the close of a few manuscripts of the ‘Confessio’ (cf. Bodl. MS. Fairfax, iii.; Harl. MS. 3869; MS. Trin. Coll. R. 3, 2). Herr Stengel reprinted (after collating various manuscripts) ‘John Gowers Minnesang und Ehezuchtbüchlein LXXII Anglo-Normannische Balladen,’ Marburg, 1886.
Chaucer first gave Gower the appropriate epithet of ‘moral.’ The two poets were personal friends. On 21 May 1378, when Chaucer went abroad on diplomatic service, he nominated John Gower and Richard Forrester his attorneys in his absence. At the end of his ‘Troylus and Cryseyde’ (written between 1372 and 1386) Chaucer writes: <poe,> O moral Gower, this boke I directe To the, and to the philosophical Strode, To vouchensauf ther nede is to correcte, Of youre benignites and zeles goode. </poem> In book ii. of the ‘Confessio’ Gower seems to borrow from the same poem of Chaucer his story of Diomede's supplanting Troilus with Cressida. In very few other instances do the poets cover the same ground. The story of Constance—Chaucer's ‘Man of Lawes Tale’—is also told by Gower in his ‘Confessio’ (bk. ii.); but the story appeared previously in Vincent de Beauvais' ‘Speculum,’ Trivet's ‘Annales,’ and elsewhere, and both poets probably obtained it independently from Trivet (cf. Trivet, ‘Life of Constance,’ ed. Brock, in Originals and Analogues, Chaucer Soc., parts i. and iii.) Tyrwhitt's and Warton's theory that Chaucer borrowed this story of Constance from Gower is disproved by later Chaucerian criticism, which assigns the ‘Man of Lawes Tale’ to a date anterior to the ‘Confessio.’ Similarly Chaucer's ‘Manciple's Tale’ of the tell-tale bird is told in the ‘Confessio,’ bk. iii., but both poets undoubtedly derived that story from Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ bk. ii. Gower's ‘Tale of Florent’ in ‘Confessio,’ bk. i., is identical at most points with Chaucer's ‘Wife of Bath's Tale.’ The story is a common one in all European languages, and was probably derived from a French romance independently accessible to either writer (cf. Originals and Analogues, Chaucer Soc., v. 437–525). Furthermore the tale of Phyllis and Demophon, which appears in the ‘Confessio’ as well as in Chaucer's ‘Legend of Good Women,’ was probably derived by both writers from Ovid's ‘Heroides,’ ep. ii. In a literary sense, the two poets were under little, if any, obligations to each other. In the earlier version of the ‘Confessio’ (dedicated to Richard II) Gower, at the close of his poem, makes Venus address Chaucer in highly complimentary verse. Venus calls Chaucer her disciple and poet, who filled the land in his youth with ditties and glad songs, and bids him in his old age write a ‘Testament of Love.’ The omission of these lines in the later or Lancastrian version of the ‘Confessio’ has been ascribed to Gower's implied suggestion that Chaucer was too old to write of love—a criticism which the subsequent publication (about 1390) of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ deprived of point. There is, however, good reason for supposing that Chaucer and Gower quarrelled late in life, and that the suppression of the panegyric was due to a personal disagreement. In the prologue to the ‘Man of Lawes Tale’ Chaucer compliments himself on forbearing to write
Of thilke wicke ensample of Canace
That loued hir owne brother synfully
(Of all suche curséd stories I say fy),
Or elles of Tyro Apolloneus.
The stories of Canace and Apollonius—‘unkinde abhominations’ Chaucer calls them in a later line—both figure in Gower's ‘Confessio’ (bk. ii. and bk. viii.), and it is reasonable to infer that Chaucer's censure was aimed at Gower. It is unsatisfactory to assume with Professor Skeat that Chaucer's attack is directed against Ovid (Chaucer, Prioresses Tale, &c., ed. Skeat, p. 137). Ovid certainly told the story of Canace in his ‘Metamorphoses,’ but had, of course, no hand in the tale of Apollonius. In the dedication of the second version of his ‘Confessio’ Gower writes that his wits are too small ‘To tellen every man his tale,’ which has been interpreted as a reference to the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ and to be the first reference extant. But the words are too colourless to admit of any inference as to the relations between the poets when they were written.
Gower's profound inferiority to Chaucer in literary merit did not prevent their names being linked together for centuries as the two earliest poets of eminence in England. Thomas Hoccleve (1370–1454?) introduces into his ‘De Regimine Principum’ a lament for Gower and Chaucer, and calls Gower his master. Dunbar, in his ‘Lament for the Makaris,’ associates Chaucer, Gower, and the Monk of Bury [see Bury, Richard de] in the same verse. Skelton, in his ‘Boke of Philip Sparrow’ and his ‘Crowne of Laurell,’ writes that Gower's ‘matter is worth gold,’ and that he ‘first garnished our English rude.’ Hawes, in his ‘Pastyme of Pleasure,’ writes of moral Gower, whose ‘sentencious dewe Adowne reflareth with fayre golden beames.’ William Bullein [q. v.], in his ‘Dialogue … against the Fever Pestilence,’ 1573, describes Gower and Chaucer sitting under Parnassus near the classical poets, and writes of ‘old morall Goore with pleasaunt penne in hande, commandyng honeste loue without luste, and pleasure without pride, holinesse in the cleargie without hypocrisie, no tyrannie in rulers, no falshoode in lawiers, no usurie in marchauntes, no rebellion in the commons and vnitie among kyngdoms.’ Foxe, in his ‘Actes and Monuments,’ gives Gower and Chaucer jointly much commendation, and contrasts their learning with the ignorance of the clergy of their day. Puttenham and Sir Philip Sidney treat Gower as Chaucer's equal. ‘Greene's Vision’ (c 1599), attributed to Robert Greene, mainly consists of a pretended disputation between Gower and Chaucer as to the moral value of Greene's purely literary work. Chaucer praises it, and advises Greene to persevere. Gower urges him to renounce it for avowedly moral treatises, and Greene finally promises to follow Gower's counsel. A fanciful account of Gower's personal appearance is given in verse, and a long prose ‘Tale against Jelousie’ is put into his mouth (Greene, Works, ed. Grosart, xii. 209 sq.). Drayton, in his epistle of ‘Poets and Poesie,’ wisely notes ‘honest’ Gower's inferiority to Chaucer, and Peacham mildly censures him as ‘poore and plaine.’ The play of ‘Pericles’ (1608?), in which Shakespeare had an uncertain share, is based on the story of ‘Apollonius the Prince of Tyr,’ which figures in the eighth book of Gower's ‘Confessio,’ and which Gower avowedly derived from Godfrey of Viterbo's ‘Pantheon.’ Although the same story was ‘gathered into English by Laurence Twine,’ for the most part independently of Gower, in 1576, the authors of ‘Pericles’ were well acquainted with Gower's version. The prologue before each act of ‘Pericles’ is spoken by Gower, who opens the play with
To sing a song of old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come.
Modern criticism has been unfavourable to Gower. ‘Gower has positively raised tediousness,’ writes Mr. J. R. Lowell with some asperity, ‘to the precision of a science. He is the undertaker of the fair mediæval legend. … Love, beauty, passion, nature, art, life, the natural and the theological virtues—there is nothing beyond his power to disenchant’ (My Study Windows, art. ‘Chaucer’). Hallam denies that Gower is ‘prosaic in the worst sense of the word.’ He undoubtedly lacks the poet's inspiration, but he claims to be nothing more than a moralist, an enthusiastic student of classical and mediæval literature, keenly alive to the failings of his own age. His varied erudition, his employment in his writings of the English language, in spite of his facility in both French and Latin, his simplicity and directness as a story-teller who is no servile imitator of his authorities, give his ‘Confessio’ an historical interest which the ‘frozen levels’ of its verse with ‘the clocklike tick of its rhymes’ cannot destroy. In his French ‘balades’ Gower reached a higher poetic standard. He shows much metrical skill, and portrays love's various phases with the poet's tenderness and sympathy. The literary quality of ‘Vox Clamantis’ is not great. It is marred by false quantities and awkward constructions; but its high moral tone, and its notices of contemporary society, give it an important place in historical literature.
A beautiful miniature of Gower is in British Museum Egerton MS. 1991, f. 7 b. A poor imitation is in Royal MS. 18, c. xxii. f. 1.[Warton's Hist. Engl. Poetry; Professor H. Morley's Engl. Writers, 1888, vol. iv.; Sir N. H. Nicolas's notes in Retrospective Review, new ser. vol. ii.; A. J. Ellis's Early English Pronunciation … including a re-arrangement of Prof. F. J. Child's Memoirs on the Language of Chaucer and Gower, 1871, pt. iii. 726–39; Ellis's Specimens of Early English Poets, i. 169–99; Originals and Analogues, Chaucer Soc. i. iii. and v.; Taylor's St. Mary Overy, Southwark; Todd's Illustrations of Gower and Chaucer; and the editions of Gower's works mentioned above. The notices in Leland, Bale, Pits and Tanner are worth little.]