A brief overview and summary of Confessio Amantis, John Gower’s medieval poem
The most famous English poem of the entire fourteenth century is Geoffrey Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales, a vast collection of stories borrowed from European medieval and classical sources. But there is another English poem from the fourteenth century, which is also a collection of stories told in verse, which is not as well known as Chaucer’s great work. It was written by Chaucer’s friend and rival poet, John Gower (c. 1330-1408), and its title is Confessio Amantis.
A long poem comprising a number of smaller stories, Confessio Amantis (written in the early 1390s) takes as its theme the idea of courtly love – the poem’s title means ‘the lover’s confession’. But the ‘confession’ part of the title also points up its other theme or interest: Christianity and moral virtue. How can a courtly lover also be a good Christian? The poem explores the themes of morality and love through a host of stories, many of them cribbed from Ovid’s great works of Latin poetry, the Metamorphoses and Amores.
The lover implied by the title is Amans (playing on amour, though perhaps also on ‘a man’, i.e. an early Everyman), who is confessing his ‘sins’ to Genius, the priest of Nature. The poem’s metrical form is unusual in being in octosyllabic couplets, rather than the iambic pentameter (that is, ten-syllable lines rather than eight) which Chaucer often employed, and which would become a fixture of English poetry in the sixteenth century, thanks to the likes of Wyatt, Surrey, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Gower’s style is plain and unadorned – some would say bland. But few can deny that he helped, with Confessio Amantis – his one major poem written in English – to pave the way for an English literature written in the vernacular. He was born into an England where the king used French as the language of his court; he died when a new king, Henry IV, was beginning to use English at his.
Chaucer was no stranger to borrowing stories from other writers – it was common practice at the time – and some of the stories which Gower adapts in Confessio Amantis are the same as those Chaucer tells, such as the idea of the Knight Florent, variants of which appear in both Gower’s poem and in Chaucer’s (in the Wife of Bath’s Tale). Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, too – about the faithful wife, Constance – also finds an equivalent in the second book of Gower’s poem. Like the Parson’s Tale in Chaucer’s magnum opus, Gower’s Confessio Amantis is a great meditation on the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Gower’s poem has had far less influence on English poetry – of the two, it is Chaucer who went on to influence Spenser and later poets, and Chaucer’s version of the iambic pentameter line that endured and was developed – Shakespeare borrowed from Gower’s Confessio Amantis for the story of Pericles, one of his last plays. This was based loosely on the Tale of Apollonius of Tyre, from the eighth book of Confessio Amantis. (Gower even comes on and introduces Shakespeare’s Pericles, in the guise of the Chorus.)
Why is the work not as widely read or studied as Chaucer’s? At the time of writing, there is no decent scholarly edition by any of the main publishers in print in the UK. (An out-of-print Penguin edition from the 1960s is available second-hand from various online retailers for under £10, but this is a modern translation of the original Middle English and contains only around a third of the entire poem.) The answer is probably simply that Gower cannot compete with Chaucer when it comes to writing great poetry: although parts of Confessio Amantis possess real power, he is viewed as a lesser talent than Chaucer, bordering on the mediocre – and this from people who are fans of his work. (To read Gower at his best, scholars have pointed to the moment when Alceone rushes into the sea to take her drowned husband in her arms, a genuinely moving moment; Christopher Ricks likes the moment in Gower’s poem when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar realises how beastly he has become.)
The prologue to Confessio Amantis reports – or claims, at any rate – that the poem was the idea of Richard II, the king who was also a patron of Chaucer. According to Gower’s prologue, he met Richard on the royal barge on the Thames, and the king requested that Gower ‘boke som newe thing’. Gower obliged with Confessio Amantis. It is more than just an English retelling of classical myths and legends. It is, in its own right and on its own merits, a fine piece of storytelling and a philosophical work to boot. Love, that universal theme of poetry, is inflected through a myriad different perspectives, like any-angled light (to borrow from Philip Larkin) shining through different pieces of a stained-glass window. If you’re a fan of medieval poetry and looking for your next book, scour your local second-hand bookshops (or online stores) and see if you can pick up a copy.