Gower and the forms of history

Authored by: Steele Nowlin

The Routledge Research Companion to John Gower

Print publication date:  April  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9781472435804
eBook ISBN: 9781315613109
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043034

10.4324/9781315613109.ch19

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Abstract

Gower’s major Latin and English works open with explicit appeals to the value of the past. “Writings of the past contain fit examples for the future,” declares Book I of the Vox Clamantis, and the Prologue to the Confessio Amantis claims that “Of hem that writen ous tofore / The bokes duelle, and we therfor / Ben tawht of that was write tho.” 1 Both openings herald the intractable importance of the past, but each conceptualizes its use somewhat differently. The Vox passage asserts the inherent value of examples found in writing produced in the past; the Confessio states rather more ambiguously that the books of ancient writers still dwell among us, teaching us whatever it is they teach us. The conceptual spectrum between these two appeals reflects the complexity of Gower’s engagements with the idea of the past and its discursive and textual forms. Arranged topically around some of the major themes that have prompted scholarly inquiry into this complexity, this chapter surveys important critical considerations of the ways in which notions of history and the past shape Gower’s works, ranging from “macrocosmic” conceptualizations of historical change to “microcosmic” case studies and specific narrative examples. This chapter does not offer a survey of source studies that chart and interpret the differences between, for example, Gower’s narratives and their sources in historiographical texts, nor does it study explicitly Gower’s apparently shifting political allegiances and his role in the consolidation of Lancastrian power – that is, construing “history” in terms of state politics contemporary with Gower. 2 Rather, this chapter surveys scholarship that examines moments in which Gower’s poetry itself seems to investigate forms of history and their uses. No explicit category of “Gower and history” can be said to organize great swathes of Gower criticism, perhaps because virtually any critical approach to Gower’s poetry finds itself implicitly taking up Gower’s variegated engagements with the past, but a diverse body of criticism works collectively to reveal how Gower writes about the past to question authoritative discourse and cultural assumptions, and to imagine how poetry might productively address the conditions of living in a world characterized by corruption and decay.

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