Fun facts about the life and work of an overlooked medieval English poet
1. John Gower appears as the Chorus to Shakespeare’s Pericles. In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, written by William Shakespeare and (probably) George Wilkins, ‘Gower’ appears at the start of the play to introduce the scene. When Shakespeare (and his collaborator) wrote Pericles, John Gower (c. 1330-1408) was slightly better known: throughout the fifteenth century and arguably later, he was seen as one of the twin pillars of great English poetry, along with Chaucer – an important founding figure of poetry written in English. But where Chaucer’s reputation has lasted, Gower has suffered relative neglect.
2. The King of England gave him an annual pension – of wine. In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke deposed King Richard II and took the throne, becoming Henry IV. He granted Gower an annual allowance of two ‘pipes’ (240 gallons) of Gascony wine. That’s a fair bit of wine to get through! Chaucer had been rewarded with a similar wine-based pension by the previous king, Richard II, in 1377.
3. Indeed, Gower and Chaucer knew each other, and appear to have been friends. They devoted their poems to each other, with Chaucer dedicating Troilus and Criseyde to ‘moral Gower’ and Gower returning the favour by praising Chaucer at the close of Confessio Amantis (or to be more accurate, having the character of Venus praise Chaucer).
4. He wrote three major poems – in three different languages. Gower, like many educated men of his day (it has been speculated that he worked as a lawyer), was fluent in English, French (until 1399 the language of the English royal court), and Latin. Unlike Chaucer, who wrote almost all of his poetry in the English of the day (known as Middle English, after the Middle Ages), Gower tried his hand at poems in all three of these major languages, producing Mirour de l’Omme in French, Vox Clamantis in Latin, and (most famously) Confessio Amantis in English. The Vox Clamantis comments on recent events, namely the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The bits that weren’t so contemporary were largely ‘borrowed’ from other sources – indeed, one critic branded Gower’s poem ‘schoolboy plagiarism’. Gower’s short poem ‘In Praise of Peace’ includes the earliest mention in English of the game of tennis, in around 1400: ‘Of the tenetz to winne or lese a chace / Mai no lif wite er that the bal be ronne’.
5. But his most significant work is Confessio Amantis. This isn’t much read these days, outside of universities. When people want to read medieval English poetry of the period they tend to go to Chaucer, but Gower offers an alternative – just as Ben Jonson offers an alternative to Shakespeare, and Thackeray offers an alternative to Dickens. Gower may not be as popular as Chaucer – and he certainly wasn’t as interested in reflecting the whole panoply of medieval society from millers to merchants, kings to cooks, as Chaucer was – but Confessio Amantis is still worth reading. Although he has always been the lesser poet of the two, beside Chaucer, Gower attracted champions in the twentieth century, most notably the writer and critic of medieval literature, C. S. Lewis. His Confessio is an important work, an early example of ‘modern’ English poetry written in the vernacular, and one which helped to create the first ‘canon’ of English literature.
If you enjoyed these facts, check out our short introduction to Gower’s Confessio Amantis.
Image: John Gower in a portrait from a book with his Vox Clamantis and Chronica Tripertita, Wikimedia Commons.