'Rex Celi Deus': John Gower's Heavenly Missive

Donavin, Georgiana

'Rex Celi Deus': John Gower's Heavenly Missive

Donavin, Georgiana. "'Rex Celi Deus': John Gower's Heavenly Missive." In Public Declamations: Essays on Medieval Rhetoric, Education, and Letters in Honour of Martin Camargo. Ed. Donavin, Georgiana and Stodola, Denise. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015, pp. 103-23. ISBN 978-2503547770

In "Rex celi Deus," almost certainly written shortly after the usurpation of Henry IV in 1399, Gower--in Donavin's words--"combines structures and strategies taught in 'dictamen' (instruction on prose letters) with the singing of a popular hymn . . . 'Celi Deus Sanctissime,' one in a series of Gregorian chants about creation" (103-04). The result is "a worshipful tone that invokes the coronation liturgy" while simultaneously functioning as "a poetic missive that might be chanted in order to speak to the king directly about the historical moment, locate late fourteenth-century politics in the context of God's reign, remark upon Henry's participation in the cycles of creation, and emphasixe the coronation's liturgical nature" (104). Donavin follows Macaulay and Carlson in noting, further, that many of the later lines of "Rex celi Deus" appear in the so-called "Epistola ad regem" portion of the Vox Clamantis (VI. 581-1198)--thus indicating a typical Gowerian re-purposing of work originally composed for Richard II, as well as providing Donavin with a basis for her investigation of the poem's "rhetorical strategies for letter writing." (106) The epistolary and the hymnic combine in the poem, making it for Donavin "neither a dashed-off effort nor a sly undermining of the new King, but rather a repeated use of language that might be sung for any legitimate king, and yet verses aimed at this particular King who must honour his own position in historical and cosmic cycles." (108) Donavin speculates (necessarily inconclusively) on whether Gower learned his dictamen from Ovid or at the Inns of Court (109-111), and remarks insightfully on the epistolary quality of the "self-portrait: the poet is 'a poor man' on bended knee, offering his gift of words (lines 53-54). The belated, though appropriate, self-identifying image provides a substitute for the poet's absence: whether or not Gower was able to deliver 'Rex Celi Deus' in person, the self-portrait recreates a scene of the poet's epistolary speech wherever it is read." (112). She gives a detailed examination of the poem's rhetorical structure (113-15), and of its possible relation to the hymn "Celi Deus Sanctissime" ((115-18). She concludes, "By opening 'Rex Celi Deus' with a refashioned Gregorian chant, inviting all England to sing along, and attaching these moments of song to an epistolary structure, Gower can celebrate God's sanctioning of the new king, include the people in this blessed event, and directly address Henry. The overall effect of 'Rex Celi Deus,' then, is of language and music both representing eternal cycles and concentrating on a particular moment within them. The coronation of Henry IV to which the poem looks, like any liturgy, focuses on God's blessings from heaven, while at the same time speaks directly to the blessed." (119). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 35.2]


Gower Subjects
Minor Latin Poetry
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