Confronting Venus: Classical Pagans and Their Christian Readers in John Gower's "Confessio Amantis."

Shutters, Lynn.

Confronting Venus: Classical Pagans and Their Christian Readers in John Gower's "Confessio Amantis."

Shutters, Lynn. "Confronting Venus: Classical Pagans and Their Christian Readers in John Gower's Confessio Amantis." Chaucer Review 48 (2013): 38-65.

Shutters seeks to explain why "Amans/Gower" seems reluctant to abandon his pursuit of love at the conclusion of the "Confessio," treating "his conversion to a Christian life . . . [as] less a free choice than a forced exile." Gower appears to "risk undermining his poem's ethical program when it would seem far simpler to make the authorial persona reject Venus" (38). Her argument is a complex one, and difficult to summarize briefly. In essence, she follows Winthrop Wetherbee's model of contrasted "worlds" of Rome and Troy (JGN 27.1), the former of which for Gower (quoting Shutters) "embodies concepts of social and political cohesion, and . . . sacrifice [of] personal interests for the common good" which "represents cultural cohesion . . . [and] . . . historical cohesion" while the latter, "through its focus on individual, erotic pursuits represents a decontextualized mode of relating to the classical past" (48). Shutters argues that "the discontinuity between the two cities is in fact necessary for a continuous history between virtuous pagans and Christians to emerge" (48). "Gower establishes continuity between Roman and fourteenth-century British values by associating Rome with secular political virtue and Christianity" as can be seen in Gower's treatment of "Julius Caesar, the Emperors Maximin and Constantine, and the consuls Gaius Fabricius and Carmidotirus" and also "the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad, who demonstrates the continuity of Roman virtue between the pagan and Christian eras" (49). Counter-examples Arrons, Claudius, and Mundus are punished, which "illustrates the degree to which Rome is disassociated from it" (i.e., "destructive, individual erotic desire") (49-50). While Gower's Rome is set in historical relation to England, Troy isn't: rather, "historical discontinuity and decontextualization characterize Troy." When, infrequently, Gower "does locate Trojan lovers within a longer historical trajectory, that trajectory is tragic" (50). Gower's model is Guido delle Colonne's "Historia destructionis Troiae," "in which . . . secular history does not proceed toward imperial glory (the Virgilian tradition)"--nor toward England, either (50). Shutters applies the Roman/Trojan contrast to "characters and stories not specifically connected to these cities": thus "non-Romans, such as Alexander the Great and Aristotle in Book 7 can adhere to Roman values and find a place in a continuous model of history connecting pagans and Christians" while others who "embody the historically decontextualized, individual eroticism" of Troy--of which her primary example is Venus--are only "contextualized into a larger history demonstrating the transitoriness and deleterious effects . . . [of] the attractions of Venus" (51). In Book 5's "Religions of the World" section, Gower presents the Greeks as responsible for the elevation of human beings to gods (the Romans merely followed along), and through Genius' denigration of Venus as one such (particularly louche) elevated human "Gower clears the way for a different concept of pagan antiquity, one that is associated with virtuous male pagans who represent positive understanding of nature, such as reason and charity" (51). He thus employs "gender, politics, ethics and religion to sort the pagan past." (51) Yet in his bifurcation of religious and secular histories, Shutters asserts, Gower "is not fully successful"--as he himself seems to have known. (52) Classical materials come with "prior meanings" that can escape even Gower's authorial control. He thus "writes himself into something of a quandary" which he seeks to evade by having Venus reject him in Book VIII, rather than the other way around, as one would expect of a devout Christian (53). There Venus does not behave as expected: she "historically contextualizes" him by showing him his aged state, and thus his unsuitability for love, demonstrating "her own agency by defying Amans' and Genius' previous depictions" of her. (53-6). While a "fantasy," this Venus nonetheless "complicates the relationship between ethics and history in the poem" because "due to a deep-seated homology between individual, human age and historical time, ‘Gower' the old man is also ‘Gower' the representative of the Christian era." (56) His reluctance to leave Venus' service implicates Gower's awareness of a similar reluctance on the part of Christian intellectuals, and conflicts with reader expectations of a Christian repudiation--one that Shutters, relying on Walter Benn Michaels, deems an "ideological choice"--by Amans/Gower of his misguided affections. Instead, Shutters argues, Venus' handling of the Gower persona renders his exit from the court of love a matter of "identity": as an old man (and not incidentally, an old man who represents Christianity) "he simply doesn't belong" there (56-60). As Shutters has it, the ethical choice is denied the Gower persona, in a sense, by his contextualization in his own history. It is only when, in the poem's closing, Gower the poet reasserts himself, and plumps for ideology, that he affirms the expected: "Christian love is right, erotic love is wrong, and one must choose between them" (62). "The final lines of the poem . . . emphasize the superiority of Christian love" (64). But, Shutters concludes, arriving at this goal has been difficult: "Disengaging from the classical past might seem like an easy solution to the problems that pagan antiquity posed to medieval authors, yet the ending of the 'Confessio' suggests that figuring out how and why medieval Christians did not relate to pagan antiquity was as complex as figuring out how and why they did" (65). ]RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 38.2.]


Gower Subjects
Confessio Amantis
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations