Twenty-First Century Gower: The Theology of Marriage in John Gower's "Traitiė" and the Turn toward French.

Yeager, R. F.

Twenty-First Century Gower: The Theology of Marriage in John Gower's "Traitiė" and the Turn toward French.

Yeager, R. F. "Twenty-First Century Gower: The Theology of Marriage in John Gower's 'Traitiė' and the Turn toward French." In Thelma Fenster and Carolyn P. Collette, eds. The French of Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017), pp. 257-71.

Yeager seeks to defend "the generally unrecognized complexity" of Gower's "Traitiė" by drawing attention to "the remarkable polyvalences, the aesthetic and allusive confrontations of his balades, [and] their challenges, inspirational, formal and doctrinal" (p. 259). He focuses on the second ballade in the sequence, one of the six non-narrative poems that envelop the twelve more familiar exempla of failed marriages in numbers 6-17. The first stanza invokes (in line 4) the injunction in Genesis 9:1 to "increase and multiply and fill the earth," as well as (in line 6) Genesis 3:17, "with labor and toil . . . ," but it is structured around a distinction between spirit and flesh from Romans 8:14-16. From the same passage in Paul, Gower adopts the engendering power of the Spirit in order to establish the "paradoxical equivalent inequality" between flesh and spirit, their "commonality" of both purpose and dignity (264-65). The vocabulary that Gower uses deepens the resonance: the juxtaposition of "experience" and "contemplation" (lines 2-3) invokes the Active and Contemplative lives, and thus Christ's words to Martha in Luke 10:38-42; and hanging over the entire stanza is the polyvalence of "amour" (line 1), both physical and spiritual, embodied elsewhere, as in the CA, in the dual roles of Venus. The image of the soul contemplating God in lines 1-2 has a long line of illustrious antecedents. Gower also draws upon Augustine both for the unique properties of the soul and for his insistence upon "a role and a dignity for the body" (269). The larger argument of the "Traitiė" is that marriage "conjoins body and soul. . . . It is this humane wholeness that lies at the heart of the 'Traitiė' balades, prompting a definition of marriage not as legitimate only for offspring, and only if lacking in pleasure, as some austere theologians would have it, but rather as valid and joyful" (270). The value of Yeager's essay lies in its very willingness to take Gower's aims and intentions both as moralist and as poet fully seriously. There are some odd asides--the assertion that Machaut's ballades are "structured narratively" (261), for instance, and that Gower would likely not have written ballades without an envoy after 1390 (268). (Deschamps, Granson, and Christine de Pisan, among others, all continued to write ballades without envoys after that date.) There are also some questions about exactly what some of Gower's lines mean. "Labour" (line 6) probably does not refer to childbirth (as Yeager suggests, p. 265); such a sense does not occur in French, and in Middle English only contextually, and only later, according to the MED; and "providence" (line 8) isn't used as a general synonym for divine agency until much later (p. 263). Lines 8-12 offer more than one difficulty, including the awkward anacoluthon in line 12. Where Yeager has "From the spirit which does this, Providence cannot withhold a subsequent reward. This understanding is greater in the soul. . . . Than in the body engendered in its sons," I would read instead "He who makes provision for the soul cannot fail of subsequent reward. That understanding is greater in the soul . . . Than is the body, engendering its offspring." Gower's ballades contain many similar challenges, and finding the best way of translating them must itself be part of our discussion of the "Traitiė." [PN. Copyright. John Gower Society. eJGN 37.1].


Gower Subjects
Traite pour Essampler les Amants Marietz
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Style and Versification