Gower and romance

Authored by: Corinne Saunders

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


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In his Mirour de l’Omme and Vox Clamantis Gower experimented with the genres of moral treatise and social satire, and with the French and Latin languages, respectively. Both poems are in their way visionary: the Mirour presents a religious allegory recounting the battle between vices and virtues; Vox Clamantis opens with an apocalyptic vision of the Peasants’ Revolt, and explores the vices of the Three Estates. In the Confessio Amantis, Gower writes a very different kind of visionary text, turning to English and to the secular genre of romance – a genre the innate fluidity of which offered him considerable creative potential. 1 Its fluidity results in part from the origin of the term in the twelfth century with French romanz, literature written in the vernacular. Texts now classified as “romances” were not necessarily identified as such when written, but came to be seen retrospectively as exemplifying a set of genre characteristics that existed before and extended beyond the Middle Ages. 2 Medieval romances treat a remarkable range of subjects – classical, French and English historical, Arthurian – in remarkably diverse ways. 3 Yet despite striking differences of length, mode, and tone, conventions and motifs echo through the genre, adapted and made new by successive generations of writers. The motifs of exile and return, quest and adventure, suffering and redemption, family, name, and identity recur, forming the backbone of romance. Love and the set of conventions attendant on it is the special subject of romance, its pursuit often interwoven with that of chivalry. Romances, as Northrop Frye argued long ago, treat not gods but figures superior in degree to others, whether in virtue or in villainy. Frye’s notion of a romance “mythos” or generic narrative form remains powerful: romance, he argues, moves “to conventionalize content in an idealised direction”; and it is patterned by the movement from darkness to light, winter to summer, disorder to order. 4 Related to this is the quality signaled by William Robins, of contingency as shaping experience, “this outer limit of giving shape to the experience of a chance-given world.” 5 Recent critics have attended most to the mimetic elements of romance, yet it was the deep structures of the kind identified by Frye to which medieval writers including Gower returned again and again. 6 Romances, as Helen Cooper has so definitively shown, remake a distinctive set of “memes” according to their social and cultural moment. 7 In exploring how Gower employs romance, we must ask how he uses the subjects and stories that romance repeatedly takes up, the structures and motifs that recur across the genre, its literary conventions, and most of all, the shaping power of their affects. Confessio Amantis is not “a romance” but is deeply engaged with and indebted to the romance genre.

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