Reading Codicological Form in John Gower's Trentham Manuscript

Bahr, Arthur W

Reading Codicological Form in John Gower's Trentham Manuscript

Bahr, Arthur W. "Reading Codicological Form in John Gower's Trentham Manuscript." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011), pp. 219-62. ISSN 0190-2407

The Trentham MS (British Library Add. MS 59495) is well known to Gowerians. It contains our only texts of "In Praise of Peace" and the "Cinkante Balades" as well as copies of the "Traitié" and some of the minor Latin poems, and it is expressly addressed to the newly crowned Henry IV. Its contents are usually examined separately, however. Bahr studies the manuscript as a whole, but not as the simple product of Gower's attempt to honor and flatter the king. He treats the collection itself as an independent aesthetic object, and he argues that the choice and the arrangement of the texts open up interpretive possibilities that both enrich the reading of each separate work (in many cases running counter to their ostensible meaning) and that add up to a whole that is different from, and greater than, the sum of its parts. Justification for treating the book as a single object is provided by the evidence of its careful design. Though diverse in contents, it is not difficult to find continuing themes, in particular a recurring emphasis upon kingship; the texts are provided with links that help tie them into a coherent whole; and there is a striking symmetry in the arrangement of the texts, as Bahr illustrates in his outline on pp. 225-26. The "Cinkante Balades" stand at the center, and the three texts on either side answer to each other either formally or thematically or both. The most surprising correspondence is that between "In Praise of Peace" and the "Traitié," standing opposite one another in the manuscript, Gower's only two independent compositions in rime royal, and each containing precisely 385 lines. That pairing, and the differences that exist between these two works and the other pairs, draw our attention to the possibility of reading each work in light of the other rather than taking each solely on its own. In this broader reading, not everything is as it seems to be. The celebration of Henry at the beginning yields to hesitation, reservations, ambivalence at the end, suggesting a tension between initial hopes and darker possibilities. Bahr finds the same sort of ambivalence emerging from the opening texts themselves when they are viewed in relation to Gower's own earlier writings. As has been noted before, "In Praise of Peace" reverses the roles of Solomon and Alexander from their use as examples in "Confessio Amantis," suggesting an instability and a "tension between moral idealism and political reality" (231) that might apply to Henry too. The opening of "Rex Celi Deus" repeats lines used in a passage laudatory of Richard II in Book VI of "Vox Clamantis," invoking in a different way the possibility of a fall. The "Cinkante Balades" at the center of the book also constitutes a rewriting, in this case of authorial history, since Gower had twice before (in "Mirour de l'Omme" and at the end of the "Confessio Amantis") turned away from the composition of lyrics about love. Bahr's discussion of the "Cinkante Balades" emphasizes the connections it offers between the "bon amour" that it celebrates and the peace and political harmony that Gower urges in "In Praise of Peace" and the subtle ways in which ambivalences in the treatment of love itself undercut some of the ostensible celebration. In the two works that follow, "Ecce patet tensus" offers a blind and tyrannical Cupid as a mirror image to Gower's real king, and the "Traitié" continues the emphasis upon kingly conduct while also, by its juxtaposition of exempla, raising more questions about the virtuous force of love. If these latter texts have a relevance to Henry, Bahr observes, they do so only in the context of the manuscript as a whole in which they are contained. But his evidence, which we have only barely summarized here, lends strong support to his conclusion regarding the manuscript's "codicological form": "My larger argument about Trentham . . . is not that it conveys a specific 'message,' or is 'about' a specific figure. It is an artfully constructed meditation on the multiple natures and implications of kingship, and the very complexity of its construction serves to acknowledge both the visceral pleasure of using aesthetic modes to grapple with such vitally important questions and the impossibility of creating clear-cut 'propositional content' as answers to them" (261). [PN. Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 31.1]


Gower Subjects
In Praise of Peace
Minor Latin Poetry
Cinkante Balades
Traité pour Essampler les Amants Marietz
Manuscripts and Textual Studies