The Columbia History of British Poetry

Woodring, Carl, and James Shapiro, eds.

The Columbia History of British Poetry

Woodring, Carl, and James Shapiro, eds. "The Columbia History of British Poetry." New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 ISBN 0231078382

One can sometimes get a rough idea of the evolution of an author's critical reputation from the accounts of his or her writing in general works of literary history. Sometimes, moreover, these accounts can be unexpectedly insightful and thought-provoking. Both comments apply to the paragraph on CA provided by E. Ruth Harvey in her chapter on "Middle English Poetry" in this new history of British poetry (p. 41): ". . . Gower's technical expertise in handling his smooth octosyllabic couplets is unobtrusively masterful, and his stories, taken from a wide variety of sources, are woven together with playfulness and wit. The tales are recounted in the course of a long confession made by the lover to Genius, priest of Venus; they are organized as telling examples to illustrate the seven deadly sins, at least insofar as the sins apply to the crimes and follies of lovers. The work displays an extraordinary ingenuity: a fundamentally serious religious ethic is consistently viewed aslant through the monomania of love, and encumbered with enormous and fascinating digressions that serve to delay the inevitable progression to the most interesting sin of all, lechery. Gower teases his audience with surprising turns and twists on the themes of love and virtue, before summoning Venus at the very end to dismiss the lover, disqualified from her service by his impotence and old age. But the poet frames the Confessio with a stern indictment of the contemporary world: the prologue evokes a golden age when men truly knew how to love, and contrasts it with the degeneration of corruption, violence and lust in the world of Richard II. It is hard to hold all the elements of the Confessio together: Gower offers it as a combination of profit and pleasure ("lore" and "lust"); but its analysis of human love in all its manifestations from comic to sublime, its playful wit, fierce denunciations of vice, earnest plea for peace and charity, and splendid portrayal of a mutable and treacherous world in the inevitable and irresistible decline almost pull it apart. If Chaucer offers us a world without comment, Gower offers us something more like an encyclopedia with a moral commentary; not as risqué as The Canterbury Tales, but not in need of apology or retraction either." [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 13.1]


Gower Subjects
Backgrounds and General Studies
Confessio Amantis