We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  John Gower (d. 1408), illuminated miniature [kneeling] John Gower (d. 1408), illuminated miniature [kneeling]
Gower, John (d. 1408), poet, may have been born in the 1330s or 1340s. Although the date of his death can be fixed, and his tomb still survives in Southwark Cathedral (formerly the priory of St Mary Overie), that of his birth is unknown. In a letter to Archbishop Arundel (c.1400) accompanying his Latin poem the Vox clamantis, Gower describes himself as ‘old’. How old he was is not revealed, but it has been assumed that this and similar references indicate that he was probably over sixty by the turn of the century.

Family origins

That the name Gower is a common one has made the identification of his family difficult. There is nothing to support Caxton's assertion in his edition of Gower's long English poem, the Confessio amantis (1483), that Gower was ‘a squyer borne in Walys in the tyme of kyng Richard the second’. This was perhaps suggested by the region of Gower in south Wales. A birth date as late as the reign of Richard II is impossible: perhaps Caxton meant Edward II. However Caxton was correct in calling him a squire, and not a knight as John Leland did. Leland's remark that he came from Stittenham in Yorkshire ‘so I understand’, began a long controversy over his family. Thynne in his Animadversions objected that the poet's arms on his tomb were different from those of the Stittenham Gowers. Weever in his Ancient Funeral Monuments (1631) noted the similarity with those on the tomb of Sir Robert Gower (d. 1349), a considerable landowner in Kent and Suffolk, at Brabourne in Kent, but the supposed connection with the Stittenham Gowers continued to be repeated until the nineteenth century, when Sir Harris Nicolas showed that the seal of John Gower on a deed of 1373 had the same arms as on his and Sir Robert's tombs, and that he came from the Kentish rather than the Yorkshire family. This argument, now long accepted, is supported by the documentary evidence of the poet's close connection with Kent and by the presence of some Kentish features in his English. However, it has been suggested that there was also a Yorkshire connection, but with the Gowers of Langbargh, who had arms similar to those of the Kentish Gowers, and with whom Sir Robert was related through marriage. That John Gower had some family connection with Sir Robert Gower is suggested by the fact that on 28 June 1368 he received the manor of Kentwell at Long Melford, Suffolk, from Thomas Syward and his wife, Joan, the daughter of Sir Robert.

Life to c.1400

The documentary evidence relating to Gower's life is less extensive than that available for his friend Chaucer, whose social position was similar, but who had a varied and more public administrative career. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to be sure that the John Gower of the records is in fact the poet. His appearance in one of the earliest series that seem to associate him with Kent was questioned by his modern editor, G. C. Macaulay. This concerns the manor of Aldington Septvauns in Kent (between Sittingbourne and Maidstone), which in 1365 was purchased by John Gower from the heir, William Septvauns. This proved to be a messy affair, and it seems that Gower had some premonition that it might be so, since he took care to have the writs and charters recorded in chancery. On 13 April 1366 a commission was set up to look into the question of the heir's age—whether the original testimony was incorrect and if the heir was below age and had been led and counselled to alienate his lands, what waste and destruction had been done to the lands, and what profit the king had lost. It turned out that he was under age, that there was no waste, and that his lands should be recovered, but not from those to whom he was legally obligated through debts, recognizances, and charters. In 1368 a special licence was recorded allowing Septvauns to enfeoff John Gower with a moiety of the manor of Aldington. Five years later Gower disposed of it, together with Kentwell. Macaulay found it impossible to believe that the poet could be identical with this ‘villainous misleader of youth’ (Complete Works, 4.xv). But everything seems to point towards the identification, and although the affair turned out to cause problems it does not seem to have been nefarious.

Probably Gower had some legal or civil office. A reference in his French poem, the Mirour de l'omme, seems to imply that he may have been connected with the law. Apologizing for not being a clerk, and knowing but little French or Latin, he remarks that he ‘wore the striped sleeve’ (‘ai vestu la raye mance’; Mirour, l. 21,774), apparently the distinctive dress of serjeants-at-law and certain court officials. It is notable that illustrations in fifteenth-century manuscripts show all of the court officials except judges and registrars wearing ‘rayed’ gowns. That in the Mirour (ll. 24,181 ff.) he is highly critical of contemporary lawyers and the way they feather their nests need not rule out some kind of personal connection: he shows a good knowledge of legal privileges and terminology. Probably he was, as J. A. W. Bennett wrote, ‘a Londoner versed in the law who was in touch with Kentish gentry, chose his friends chiefly from the legal and ecclesiastical professions, and had some knowledge of life at court’ (Selections, xix).

Gower was certainly living in Southwark, in the priory of St Mary Overie, from 1398 until his death, and it is quite likely that he had moved there some years before. He may have had a house in the close, perhaps because of benefactions towards the repairing of the priory. The priory probably provided him with a library and a scriptorium. It has been suggested that he lived there for much of the time from as early as about 1377—about the time that there is the first documentary evidence of his connection with Geoffrey Chaucer, then living at Aldgate—but there is no certain proof of this. What is known is that Chaucer, about to leave for Italy in May 1378, appointed as general attorneys (a precaution against losing a lawsuit by default because of absence) John Gower and Richard Forester. It seems almost certain that this John Gower (who is simply named in the document) is the poet; the appointment does not throw light on his place of residence, but presumably indicates that by then he was a trusted friend of Chaucer. Some years later, in Troilus and Criseyde (written in the 1380s), Chaucer names him, in the famous phrase ‘moral Gower’ (Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, book 5, l. 1856), and asks him to correct the work if there is need.

John Gower appears in the records of a number of transactions from 1378 onwards. He bought land in Throwley and Stalesfield in Kent (near Brabourne) from Isabel the daughter of Walter Huntingfeld. In 1382 he acquired from Guy Rouclif, clerk, two manors—Feltwell in Norfolk and Multon in Suffolk. In this transaction (1 August 1382) he is called ‘esquier de Kent’. He leased these for the duration of his life, making them over to Thomas Blakelake, parson of St Nicholas, Feltwell, and others, on condition that £40 was paid to him annually in the conventual church of Westminster (6 August 1382; confirmed on 24 October 1382 and 29 February 1384). He evidently kept some interest in it, since in 1396 one John Cook of Feltwell was pardoned for not appearing to answer to him concerning a debt. Gower is listed in 1401–2 as the owner, and the two manors are mentioned in his will. An event of a quite different kind is recorded in 1393, when Henry of Lancaster, earl of Derby, gave ‘un esquier John Gower’ a collar, which is presumably the collar with SS depicted on his tomb. Whether or not this represents an act of gratitude for some particular service (such as the giving of a presentation copy of the Confessio amantis with its altered dedication to Henry), it is certainly a sign of favour. On 21 November 1399, soon after he was crowned, Henry IV made an annual grant to Gower of two pipes of Gascon wine. Possibly he alludes to this in one of his Latin poems (urging Henry to rule wisely and justly) when he describes himself as ‘drinking your dutiful respects’ (Complete Works, 4.345).


Late in life Gower married. On 2 January 1398, the bishop of Winchester granted a licence for his marriage to Agnes Groundolf, a fellow parishioner of St Mary Magdalene, Southwark, in Gower's oratory within his lodging in the priory. Nothing more is known about the circumstances or the nature of the marriage: to describe it as a marriage of convenience between an ailing man and his nurse must remain speculation. His description of her in an epitaph he wrote for her tomb (recorded in Bale's papers) as uxor amans humilis Gower … Ioannis (‘the loving wife of humble John Gower’) may be conventional but may well suggest genuine affection. She outlived him. Of his life in the priory virtually nothing is known. A mysterious incident in which three Londoners are mainprisors for one of the canons, Thomas Caudre, that he would do or procure no harm to John Gower, remains unexplained: it may refer to a private quarrel, or to some financial dealing, or to some political disagreement.

Literary career

Gower wrote extensively, and with fluency and distinction, in three languages. His lyrical poetry is hardest to date. In the Mirour, speaking of his misspent youth, he says that, abandoned to wantonness and vain joy, he disguised himself, and made foolish love songs and danced as he sang them—apparently caroles or dance songs:
les fols ditz d'amours fesoie,
Dont en chantant je carolloie.
(Mirour, ll. 27,337 ff.)
He probably did write courtly songs in his youth, but whether any of his Cinkante balades represent these early poems is still an open question. Thomas Warton, who first drew attention to them, and praised them warmly—‘they are tender, pathetical, and poetical … Nor had yet any English poet treated the passion of love with equal delicacy of sentiment and elegance of composition’ (Warton, 333)—thought that they were probably the work of a young man. Others have echoed this opinion, though not their modern editor, Macaulay, who remarked sensibly that:
for this kind of work it is not necessary, or perhaps even desirable, to be a lover oneself; it is enough to have been a lover once: and that Gower could in his later life express the feelings of a lover with grace and truth we have ample evidence in the Confessio amantis. (Complete Works, 3.lxxii–lxxiii)
Although it may be that some come from earlier in Gower's life, there is no doubt that the manuscript in which they survive (with other, later works) was intended for Henry IV, probably soon after his accession in 1399, perhaps to entertain his court (‘por desporter vo noble court roial’; Balade 2). The Cinkante balades can hardly be described as ‘fols ditz d'amours’. The sequence is a varied one (with some poems placed in the mouth of the lady), and although Gower is indebted to the French courtly tradition (he is fond, for instance, of the phrase fin amour) he does not follow it slavishly. Love does not always run smoothly—there are many false lovers nowadays (Balade 41), more treacherous than Jason, Hercules, Aeneas, and their like (Balade 43)—but what is celebrated is a noble and idealized love, characterized by constancy and honour, something very like the ‘honeste love’ of the Confessio amantis. Like Chaucer he marvels at the paradoxes and the mysteries of love: it is a wondrous thing (‘Amour est une chose merveilouse’), a dangerous road where the near is far, and the far remains near (Balade 48), but it accords with nature and reason (Balade 50). The Balades are impressively eloquent and graceful.

The Mirour de l'omme, a long didactic poem (of nearly 30,000 lines), written c.1376–9, is Gower's first major work that can be dated. Probably begun at the very end of Edward III's reign, its reference to the evils that arise in a land when a king is ruled by a woman may well be an allusion to the influence of Alice Perrers. There is a clear allusion to the great schism of 1378 (ll. 18,817–40). The poem survives in a single incomplete copy discovered in the Cambridge University Library by Macaulay in 1895. The title, Mirour de l'omme, given in the manuscript accords with Gower's description, in a colophon found in a number of manuscripts of the Confessio amantis, of the first of his three books, that written in French, called Speculum hominis (or in a later revised version, Speculum meditantis), which treats the vices and virtues, and the classes of society, and shows how a sinner who has transgressed ought to return to the knowledge of his creator. The ten sections listed in the manuscript rubric form three larger divisions. The first, and by far the longest (ll. 1–18,420), presents the origin and nature of sin in the form of a religious cosmological allegory. The vices are the offspring of Sin, the daughter of the Devil, and Death, her son. Sin and her seven daughters, the Seven Deadly Sins, are sent to win over the World and to destroy Man's hope of salvation. Man is invited to the Devil's council, and is tempted. While the Flesh succumbs, the Soul resists. Reason, summoned by the Soul, cannot overcome Temptation, but the Flesh is moved by Fear's revelation of the terrible sight of Death, and is reconciled for a time with the Soul. The Seven Deadly Sins (riding on symbolic animals in a grotesque procession) are married in turn to World, and in turn each produce five children (thus Pride, the first, produces Hypocrisy, Vainglory, Arrogance, Boasting, and Disobedience). Man is attacked by the whole brood and forced to submit to Sin. Now Reason and Conscience pray to God for help, and are given seven corresponding Virtues, who are married to Reason and in her turn each produces five daughters. This symmetrical scheme is enlivened by vivid descriptions and by being set against the spiritual battle for Man, whose Flesh inclines to the Vices and whose Soul inclines to the Virtues.

The second part (ll. 18,421–27,360) demonstrates the power of sin throughout the world. Every estate is full of corruption: ecclesiastics and religious, lords, knights, lawyers and judges, merchants and traders, craftsmen and labourers. Much is traditional ‘estates satire’, but it is sharp and pointed—the friars ‘preach poverty to us, and always have their hands out to receive riches’—and often local, as in the address to Wool, ‘noble lady, the goddess of merchants, born in England’. Since everyone blames someone or something else, the poet asks the World where all this evil comes from. The answer is that it comes from Man, to whom God has given reason and dominion over all things on earth, but who has transgressed against God. Man is a microcosm, and when he transgresses all the elements are disturbed. However, it is possible for him to repent so that the world may be amended. In the brief third part (ll. 27,361–29,945) the sorrowful poet calls on the Virgin Mary, the Lady of Pity, to aid him. He tells the story of her life, and begins an ecstatic prayer rehearsing her names and symbols. This vast encyclopaedic poem has passages of real power, and foreshadows ideas and themes found in Gower's later works. It has been rightly called ‘the swan-song of Anglo-Norman literature’ (Legge, 220).

The Vox clamantis, a Latin satirical poem of 10,265 lines in unrhymed elegiac couplets, must have been completed some time after 1381, the year of the peasants' revolt (of which it gives a memorable description), but probably when Richard II was still a young king—it contains a section of advice to him which is couched in friendly and hopeful terms. Gower revised some of it later to make it appear more clearly a foreshadowing of Richard's later downfall. Eleven manuscript copies survive. The first book is a long introductory Visio. A bright June day in the fourth year of King Richard is followed by a night that brings a strange sense of terror. At dawn the poet falls asleep and dreams. Going out to pick flowers, he sees bands of peasants going over the fields. Suddenly they are transformed by God's curse into various animals—asses, oxen, swine, dogs, foxes and cats, domestic fowl, flies, and frogs—some of them misshapen, all of them hostile and rebellious: domestic animals are disobedient, tame animals become wild; the world is turned upside down. Urged on by the Jay (Wat Tyler) the peasants advance, armed with rustic weapons and implements, and enter New Troy (London), furiously killing and sacking. Helenus the chief priest (Archbishop Sudbury) is murdered. Death is everywhere, and in horror the poet flees. He boards a ship, but it is assailed by storms and a sea monster. The proud Jay is killed by William (William Walworth) and the storm is calmed. The ship drifts until it reaches an island. It is, he is told, the island of Brutus, inhabited by savage and lawless men. Terrified once more, the poet hears a heavenly voice which tells him to record his dreams. He awakes, amazed, not knowing whether what he had seen was outside him or within him.

The Visio is a powerful and imaginative piece of writing, which has a genuinely nightmarish quality. The complaint on the state of England that follows in books 2–7 uses satire of a more traditional kind. Men blame Fortune for the country's decline, but it is human vice that is responsible. Each man makes his fate for himself (‘sibi quisque suam sortem facit’). The similarity of outlook with the Mirour becomes more marked as Gower details the failings of the three estates and their various subcategories: the sins of the clergy (books 3–4); knights and labourers (book 5); and lawyers (book 6). Although lawyers are corrupted, law is necessary, and must be enforced by the king, who is advised to rule himself well, defend his people, rule them with wisdom and love, and destroy the evils that beset the land in this depraved time. The final book begins with the statue seen by Nebuchadnezzar in his dream (Daniel 4). Now gold has given way to the iron of avarice and the clay of lechery. Man, created for the service of God, should repent and live virtuously. ‘The spirit spoke to me in my sleep’, says the poet, ‘and I have spoken as the voice of the people’ (‘Quod scripsi plebis vox est’).

Some years after the composition of the Vox clamantis Gower wrote his major English poem, the Confessio amantis, of over 30,000 lines in octosyllabic couplets. The forty-nine surviving manuscripts seem to indicate three stages of revision. The original prologue and conclusion have a dedication to King Richard. Gower says that while rowing on the Thames he met the king's barge, and the king invited him to an audience and bade him write ‘some newe thing’. (But already some Latin lines at the end of the poem contain a kind of dedication to Henry of Lancaster, then earl of Derby.) No date is given in the text, but the date 1390 is written in the margin at line 331 of the prologue, and it is usually assumed that this is the date of the work's completion. The plan must have been conceived earlier, perhaps c.1386, about the time that Chaucer was completing The Legend of Good Women. The epilogue seems to have been revised within a few months: a section beginning with a prayer to the Creator for King Richard, who is spoken of in a laudatory vein, is changed to a prayer to set the land ‘in siker weie … uppon good governance’. The date of this revised section is given in a marginal note as the fourteenth year of King Richard (21 June 1390–21 June 1391). Finally, no later than June 1393, the prologue was revised, with the story of the meeting with the king removed, and the statement that the poet proposed to make ‘a bok for king Richardes sake’ changed to:
a bok for Engelondes sake,
The yer sextenthe of kyng Richard.
Gower now says that he will send the book:
unto myn oghne lord,
Whiche of Lancastre is Henri named.
(Complete Works, 1.2)
It is not clear that any particular event occasioned this shift. It may well reflect some loss of confidence in Richard, but it would be rash to interpret it as a defiant act of disloyalty. Double dedications were not unknown, and the first version of the poem continued to circulate—in a larger number of copies (thirty-two manuscripts) than the other versions.

The prologue announces that the book will be of love, ‘which doth many a wonder’. The world nowadays is not as it was, and love has fallen into discord. In the manner of his earlier works Gower laments the depravity of rulers, clergy and commons, again using Nebuchadnezzar's dream, but giving it a slightly different emphasis in his insistence that division is the cause of evil—in man and in society. In the first of the eight books that follow, the Lover, the Amans of the title, is pierced by a fiery dart from Cupid. Venus instructs him to make his confession to her priest, Genius, who instructs him on the proper use of the senses and on the seven deadly sins, illustrating each in its various categories by a series of short tales—over 100 in all, deriving from Ovid and other sources. The adapting of the deadly sins to the doctrine of love requires a certain ingenuity. It is done in a way that is witty and entertaining for his courtly readers and also instructive. Like his other long poems it is encyclopaedic, containing material on the religions of the ancient world, on philosophical knowledge, on the duties of kingship. It is educative, presenting a course of instruction for the Lover, for man, and for society. The stories present the extremes and the paradoxes of Love, which may ennoble its servants, or, if moderation is lacking, destroy them. An ideal of ‘honeste love’ emerges, with its proper part in nature, restoring concord and peace. The elegantly written tales (especially those that treat the pathos of love) show Gower's mastery of the art of narrative. The ending of the poem, in which Amans is healed by Venus and the fiery dart is removed is a haunting scene: he sees Cupid and his rout surrounded by companies of the famous lovers whose stories he has heard. His face is wrinkled by age, and Venus tells him to go ‘ther moral vertu duelleth’. He goes ‘homward a softe pas’ and prays for the state of England.

One of the passages removed from the ending in the revision concerns Chaucer. In the first version Venus asks the poet to:
gret wel Chaucer whan ye mete,
As mi disciple and mi poete
and makes complimentary remarks about him (Complete Works, 2.466). The reasons for the omission of this passage have been the subject of fierce, but inconclusive, argument. There has been much speculation about a quarrel between the two poets, or at least a cooling of their earlier friendship. It is possible that Gower may not have approved of the bawdy fabliaux that Chaucer was now reworking for The Canterbury Tales, and possible, though less likely, that he was offended at what may be a joking allusion in the introduction to The Man of Law's Tale to his telling of the stories of Canace and Apollonius, which involve incest. However, some ‘revised’ manuscripts still have the lines on Chaucer, and it is at least as likely that the omission is due to technical or structural considerations—it may be, for instance, that Gower perhaps thought that this slightly humorous personal digression was not appropriate at this point.

A number of shorter poems come from the last years of the century. In Latin, there is, for instance, the Carmen super multiplici viciorum pestilencia (1396–7), an attack on Lollardy and other sins; De lucis scrutinio on the shortcomings of the estates (light destroys the evils that flourish in the shadows); and several in praise of Henry IV. In French, there is a group of eighteen balades now usually called the Traitié pour essampler les amantz marietz, after its head-note which describes it as a treatise to provide examples for married lovers so that they may guard and maintain their faith through noble loyalty to the honour of God. In them Gower takes a grave and serious view of marriage and of honest amour, stressing fidelity and loyalty. It is founded on reason not sensuality or passion. A number of examples of lovers who for various reasons came to disaster are given, mostly ones which he had used in the Confessio amantis—Hercules, Jason and Medea, Philomela, and so on. Foolish Love is as unstable as Fortune. (These balades were translated into northern English by one Quixley at the beginning of the fifteenth century.) Some Latin verses (Est amor in glosa) which accompany them list the paradoxes of love, and end with a praise of married love and a couplet that seems clearly linked to Gower's own marriage:
Hinc vetus annorum Gower sub spe meritorum
Ordine sponsorum tutus adhibo thorum.
Now old in years, in hope of what I've earned
Now wed, my bed I seek, quite unconcerned.
(Rigg, 290)
Finally, there is the English poem In Praise of Peace. Addressed to King Henry, it is an eloquent statement of one of Gower's favourite themes.

Gower's last major work is the Latin Cronica tripertita, a poem of 1062 leonine hexameters, which gives an account (from a fervently Lancastrian point of view) of Richard's reign and downfall. ‘The king always had an obdurate heart’ (l. 13): the first part (using the heraldic animal imagery of political prophecy and invective) praises the nobles against whom he plotted and who opposed him—Gloucester, Warwick, Arundel—and records Richard's humiliation in 1387, when his forces were defeated by the earl of Oxford. Ten years later (part 2), in 1396–7, Richard took his revenge, treacherously attacked the three nobles, and deposed Thomas Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury. Part 3 tells how the king like a mole dug traps for his enemies, and exiled Henry of Derby, the duke of Lancaster, how he returned, and how eventually Richard was captured and deposed, and died of grief in the Tower. The poem ends by contrasting the two kings. It seems as if Gower thought of the Cronica tripertita as a summation of and an epilogue to his commentary on the tragic reign of Richard which he had begun in the Vox clamantis.

Last years, death, and reputation

The introductory verse letter to Archbishop Arundel in his presentation copy of the Vox clamantis, the Cronica tripertita, and other Latin poems describes the author as blind, and ‘sick in body, aged and totally miserable’; another reference to his blindness is found in one of his last verses, Quicquid homo scribat (Complete Works, 4.365):
A man may write, but Nature writes the end;
She, like a shadow, flees without return.
She wrote the end for me, and so I can
No longer write a thing, for I am blind.
(Rigg, 292)
Gower died in 1408. His will was proved on 24 October. He left bequests to his wife, Agnes, who was one of his executors, to the prior, sub-prior, canons, and servants of St Mary Overie, and to the churches and hospitals of Southwark and the neighbourhood. Among the gifts to the priory was a large book, a martilogium ‘newly composed at my expense’, in which a memorial for him was to be recorded every day. He was buried in the chapel of St John the Baptist. Though his tomb and effigy is still to be seen, it has been moved twice since 1800, and the chapel has now disappeared. The painting and lettering on the tomb have been restored from earlier descriptions (by Thomas Berthelette, who printed the Confessio amantis in 1532, Leland, and Stow). Under his head was the likeness of three books—the Speculum meditantis, the Vox clamantis, and the Confessio amantis. A Latin inscription identified him as an esquire (armiger), a famous poet, and a benefactor. According to Stow he was represented with long curling auburn hair and a small forked beard. This seems likely to have been an idealized recollection of the poet in more youthful days (as perhaps are the pictures of him shooting the arrows of satire against the world that appear in two manuscripts of the Vox clamantis). An explicitly identified portrait (effigies Gower esquier) appears in the duke of Bedford's psalter-hours (after 1414; BL, Add. MS 4213). It shows him as an elderly, almost bald man with white curling hair and a forked beard (Wright, 191); it may have been done from memory. It is one of a series of ten depictions of him in the initials of this Lancastrian manuscript, and some care seems to have been taken in the placing of them with psalms in a way that could recall the Vox clamantis. The figure is similar to the elderly, balding Amans sometimes depicted in manuscripts of the Confessio amantis, for instance in Bodl. Oxf., MS Bodley 902; in others, however (BL, MS Egerton 1991 provides a good example), the penitent is represented as an elegant and youthful figure. Such portraits are meant probably to be general rather than exact ‘likenesses’.

Gower's poetic reputation has rested almost exclusively on the Confessio amantis. The number of manuscripts testify to its popularity. Uniquely, it seems, for a Middle English poem it was translated into Portuguese (probably in 1433–8) by Robert Payn, an Englishman in the household of Queen Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and later a canon at Lisbon, and from that into Castilian prose (after 1428) by Juan de Cuenca. In the fifteenth century Gower's name is linked with that of Chaucer, and later Lydgate, as one of the ‘masters’ of English poetry. He continued to be praised in the sixteenth century: in Pericles ‘ancient Gower’ is brought back from his ashes to introduce a play based on his story of Apollonius. But his fame did not last, and in spite of Thomas Warton's full and generous account—‘If Chaucer had not existed, the compositions of John Gower … would alone have been sufficient to rescue the reigns of Edward III and Richard II from the imputation of barbarism’ (Warton, 311)—some nineteenth-century critics simply abused him—he ‘raised tediousness to the precision of science’, according to James Russell Lowell (My Study Windows, 1871). The Macaulay edition laid the foundation for serious study, and gradually modern criticism has done more justice to his poetic excellence. Chaucer's epithet ‘moral’ was a very exact one. Gower had a coherent and serious view of the need for love and concord and peace, but he was not always solemn: in his Confessio amantis especially he brilliantly combined entertainment with doctrine—‘somwhat of lust, somewhat of lore’.

Douglas Gray


The complete works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 4 vols. (1899–1902) · J. H. Fisher, John Gower: moral philosopher and friend of Chaucer (1964) · H. Nicholas, ‘John Gower the poet’, Retrospective Review, 2nd ser., 2 (1828), 103–17 · S. Wright, ‘The author portraits in the Bedford Psalter-Hours: Gower, Chaucer and Hoccleve’, British Library Journal, 18 (1992), 190–201 · The major Latin works of John Gower, trans. E. W. Stockton (1962) · H. N. MacCracken, Quixley's ‘Ballades royal’ [1908]; repr. in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 20 (1908–9), 33–50 · R. F. Yeager, ‘A bibliography of John Gower materials through 1975’, Medievalia, 3 (1977), 261–306 · DNB · P. E. Russell, ‘Robert Payn and Juan de Cuenca, translators of Gower's Confessio amantis’, Medium Ævum, 30 (1961), 26–32 · B. S. Moreno, ‘Some observations on the dates and circumstances of the fifteenth-century Portuguese and Castilian translations of John Gower's Confessio amantis’, SELIM. Revista de la Sociedad Española de Lengua y Literatura Inglesa Medieval, 1 (1991), 106–22 · T. Warton, The history of English poetry, 4 vols. (1774–81) · M. D. Legge, Anglo-Norman literature and its background (1963) · A. G. Rigg, A history of Anglo-Latin literature, 1066–1422 (1992) · Selections from John Gower, ed. J. A. W. Bennett (1968) · J. Stow, A survay of London (1598) · J. Stow, The annales of England … from the first inhabitation untill this present yeere 1600 (1600) · Commentarii de scriptoribus Britannicis, auctore Joanne Lelando, ed. A. Hall, 2 vols. (1709) · F. Thynne, Animadversions uppon the annotacions and corrections of some imperfections of impressiones of Chaucers workes (1598) · J. Weever, Ancient funerall monuments (1631)


Yale U., Beinecke L., MS of ‘Confessio amantis’


illuminated miniature, BL, Egerton MS 1991, fol. 7v [see illus.] · tomb effigy, Southwark Cathedral, London