Sunday, November 9, 2014

John Gower's Confessio Amantis and the Rich Man and Lazarus (conclusion)

John Gower, Confessio Amantis

The Confessio Amantis then turns to the rich man's fate, and Gower will work toward the moral of the story being that the rich man is condemned not simply because he was wealthy but because he did not help the poor, in this case, Lazarus.

It happened, “as it should,” the rich man suddenly died and went straight to hell. The “fiend” (i.e., Satan) dragged him into the fire, and as he suffered immensely from the intense pain of the flames, he looked up to heaven and saw Lazarus enthroned with Abraham. In response, he “preide” (prayed) to Abraham:

Send Lazar doun fro thilke Sete,
 And do that he his finger wete
 In water, so that he mai droppe
 Upon my tunge, forto stoppe
 The grete hete in which I brenne (6.1041-5).

Although Abraham responds first by calling the rich man, “Mi Sone” (my son), he is adamant that this great reversal had occurred because Lazarus in his lifetime had done “gret penance” and the rich man was being deservedly punished for his sin:

 Mi Sone, thou thee miht avise
 And take into thi remembrance,
 Hou Lazar hadde gret penance,
 Whyl he was in that other lif,
 Bot thou in al thi lust jolif
 The bodily delices soghtest:
 Forthi, so as thou thanne wroghtest,
 Nou schalt thou take thi reward
 Of dedly peine hierafterward
 In helle, which schal evere laste;
 And this Lazar nou ate laste
 The worldes peine is overronne,
 In hevene and hath his lif begonne
 Of joie, which is endeles (6.1048-1061).

The rich man was being punished for his delicacy/gluttony, and he would never escape the fires of hell. Lazarus, on the other hand, was just beginning his eternal life of joy, after his painful life on earth. Abraham also refuses to send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s father—unmentioned in the Lukan parable—and five brothers, who all dwell in the same house, to warn them so they can avoid the eternal punishment the rich man is suffering.

The Confessor then delivers the moral of the story: The sin of delicacy/gluttony occurs when those who have do not share with those who have not, just like the rich man, who had grown rich from the labor of others, would not even share a crumb of bread with poor, starving Lazarus:

This tale, as Crist himself it tolde,
Thou schalt have cause to beholde,
To se so gret an evidence,
Wherof the sothe experience
Hath schewed openliche at ije,
That bodili delicacie
Of him which yeveth non almesse
Schal after falle in gret destresse.
And that was sene upon the riche:
For he ne wolde unto his liche
A Crumme yiven of his bred,
Thanne afterward, whan he was ded,
A drope of water him was werned.
Thus mai a mannes wit be lerned
Of hem that so delices taken;
Whan thei with deth ben overtaken,
That erst was swete is thanne sour.
Bot he that is a governour
Of worldes good, if he be wys,
Withinne his herte he set no pris
Of al the world, and yit he useth
The good, that he nothing refuseth,
As he which lord is of the thinges.
The Nouches and the riche ringes,
The cloth of gold and the Perrie
He takth, and yit delicacie
He leveth, thogh he were al this.
The beste mete that ther is
He ett, and drinkth the beste drinke;
Bot hou that evere he ete or drinke,
Delicacie he put aweie,
As he which goth the rihte weie
Noght only forto fiede and clothe
His bodi, bot his soule bothe.
Bot thei that taken otherwise
Here lustes, ben none of the wise;
And that whilom was schewed eke,
If thou these olde bokes seke,
Als wel be reson as be kinde,
Of olde ensample as men mai finde 6.1111-1150).  

Jesus told this parable, which heightens the importance of its moral message. The sin of gluttony/delicacy involves the lack of sharing one’s possessions with the poor, but the critical issue is not to “prize” (6.1130) those earthly possessions—to stand “above” them (be lord over them)—and to use them to help others in need. People should not only feed and clothe their bodies but also feed and clothe their souls.

As Peter Nicholson notes, Gower does not condemn wealth. Instead, he condemns the misuse of and lust for wealth. If the rich man had helped Lazarus and others in need, he would not have been condemned. Gower’s interpretation indicates that renunciation of wealth is not necessary; neither is the complete avoidance of worldly pleasures (“bodily delices”). Wealth should be used wisely, however, with a concern not only for the needs of the body but also for the needs of the soul (Nicholson 2005: 323).

I think the next person in this series on interpreters of the parables who have not received enough attention will be Hildegard of Bingen.

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