The Art of Allusion: Illuminators and the Making of English Literature, 1403-1476.

Drimmer, Sonja.

The Art of Allusion: Illuminators and the Making of English Literature, 1403-1476.

Drimmer, Sonja. The Art of Allusion: Illuminators and the Making of English Literature, 1403-1476. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). ISBN: 9780812250497; 9780812295382.

"A central premise of this book," Drimmer writes, "is that the work of illumination both responds and contributes to the entry and circulation of new ideas about English literary authorship, political history, and book production in the fifteenth century" (4). Her boundaries are 1403-76, the earlier date corresponding to the earliest record of the formation into a single company of "text writers, limners, and 'other good people' who also bind and sell books"--what eventually became the Company of Stationers--and the latter the year Caxton first set up his press in London (24-5). The problem she describes that faced illustrators during this period was how to depict an English "author" when there was no established category for such an entity yet established (chapter 2, 53-84). The problem was especially difficult with Chaucer and Gower, and to a lesser degree Lydgate--the three writers she discusses as examples--because their works were much in demand, and they utilized fictive personae as central narrative techniques. (N.B.: Drimmer limits her discussion to manuscripts of the Confessio Amantis.) The problem--"a failure of cultural precedent to provide a bibliographic context for Gower's English innovations" (91)--as it relates to Gower is the focus of her third chapter. Drimmer sees the variant images of Amans/Gower as a young or old man as the result. Were the illuminators to provide an image of the "historical Gower, the 'auctor' of the extrinsic prologue (that is, the 'Prologus'), or the 'John Gower' who identifies himself in response to Venus' questioning at the end of the poem, the fictional persona introduced by the intrinsic prologue?" (93). Drimmer detects hesitancy, even anxiety, on the part of illuminators who strove to get things right, and argues that the here-to-fore undiscussed crossed hands (borrowed, she argues, from images of the Annunciation) in the various images of the lover-as-confessant derive from attempts to encompass "the poem's conflict, pushing the protagonist-poet's confrontation with death, sex, and authorship of the self into the foreground" (109). Ultimately the illuminators of Gower's CA manuscripts were forced into "conflating the identities of creator and creature, and in mobilizing allusions to the Virgin Annunciate, the humbled retainer, the dying devout, and the officious donor, illuminators endowed the author of the "Confessio Amantis" with a body whose most consistent characteristic is its subjection, its availability to the dictates of someone else" (112). Chapter 6 (189-223) is a close study of the illumination cycle of New York, Morgan Library and Museum MS M.126, produced "over sixty years after Gower's death . . . for Edward IV and his queen consort Elizabeth Woodville" in 1471 (189). This manuscript was part of a conscious plan by Edward to bolster his claim to rule "through the patronage of manuscripts and tapestries . . . with an almost exclusive focus on historical content (189). Hence "the pictorial cycle of the Morgan "Confessio" remains committed to a view of monarchic infallibility more radical than the respect for royal authority expressed in Gower's text" (192). She concludes: "Seen, in this respect, as a coherent work, the Morgan "Confessio" takes the political mission that Gower inculcated into his poem, written in the last decade of the fourteenth century, and revises it for the pressing needs and new political realities of the late fifteenth century court for which it was made" (223). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 38.1.]


Gower Subjects
Manuscripts and Textual Studies
Confessio Amantis