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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Portrait of Gower. Glasgow University Library, Special Collections.
John Gower, Vox Clamantis. With the kind permission of
Glasgow University Library, Dept. of Special Collections.

John Gower  (ca.1330-1408)

        John Gower, poet and friend of Chaucer, was born around 1330, into a prominent Yorkshire family which held properties in Kent, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Gower's coat of arms is identical to those of Sir Robert Gower of Brabourne. Nothing is known of his education, though it has been speculated that he was trained in law. Gower himself held properties in Suffolk and Kent, where he seems to have resided until taking up residence in the priory of St. Mary Overies in Southwark, London, around 1377.
        Gower's first work was Mirour de l'Omme (i.e. Mirror of Man) (wr. 1376-79), an allegorical poem in French meditating on the fall of man and the effect of sin on the world. Gower later latinized the title to Speculum Hominis, and later changed it to Speculum Meditantis to fit with the titles of his later works. Around 1377, Gower began work on Vox Clamantis (i.e. The Clamoring Voice), an essay in Latin elegiac verse. Like the Speculum Meditantis, it too treats of sinfulness, and criticizes the corruption of the society. It also provides a contemporary view of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Gower's moral and philosophical writings were highly praised by his peers. In 1385, Gower's good friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, dedicated the Troilus and Criseyde to him, giving him the epithet "moral Gower."
  Lover's Confession from Gower's Confessio Amantis
Lover's Confession.
British Library, Egerton MS. 1991.

        In 1386, Gower began work on his most acclaimed work, Confessio Amantis (i.e. Lover's Confession). Unlike his previous works, Gower wrote the Confessio in English at the request of Richard II who was concerned that so little was being written in English. It is a collection of tales and exempla treating of courtly love. The framework is that of a lover complaining first to Venus, and later in the work, confessing to her priest, Genius. Completed around 1390, Confessio Amantis made an important contribution to courtly love literature in English. Some of the stories have their counterparts in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and one of the stories later served as the source for Shakespeare's Pericles, in which Shakespeare had Gower appear in the Chorus. Gower revised Confessio Amantis in 1393, replacing the praise of King Richard II with a dedication to Henry of Lancaster. In return, Henry presented Gower with an ornamented collar.
        Next, Gower composed a series of Latin poems, as well as Traitié, a sequence of French ballads in rhyme royal. In 1397, Gower married Agnes Groundolf, probably his second wife. By this time Gower was nearly blind, so the marriage may have been one of convenience. King Richard II was finally deposed by parliament in 1399, replaced by Henry Lancaster as Henry IV. Soon afterwards, Gower composed a sequel to Vox Clamantis, the Cronica tripertita (i.e. Tripartite Chronicle), in which he condemned the vices of King Richard II and his court. At this time, Gower also wrote Latin verses in praise of the new King, as well as his last English work, "To King Henry, in Praise of Peace".
        In 1400, Gower dedicated and presented his French work Cinkante Balades (Fifty Ballads), which some attribute to his younger days, to King Henry. Old and blind, John Gower died in 1408, leaving a considerable estate. He was buried in St. Mary Overies (later St. Saviour's), now Southwark Cathedral, where his tomb can still be seen today.

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To cite this article:

Jokinen, Anniina. "Life of John Gower". Luminarium.
13 Feb 2010. [Date you accessed this article].

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