Monday, November 3, 2014

John Gower's Confessio Amantis and the Parables

Confessio Amantis by John Gower

Before I discuss Gower and the parables, I should introduce some of his writings:

Gower wrote a number of works, but he is best known for three extended poems, all of which explore the responsibility of human beings within society. His first major work, Mirroir de l’Omme (“Mirror of Man”) was written in French during 1376-79. This poem contains around 32,000 octosyllabic lines in twelve-line stanzas, and it is an allegory about the fallen nature of human beings. Gower changed the name of this work twice, first to Speculum Hominis and then to Speculum Meditantis, to match the Latin titles of the two major works that followed and that continued its thought. Its ten parts discuss virtues and vices in each of the three medieval “estates” (the social “classes” of clergy, nobility, and commoners) and delineates the path a sinner should take to return in repentance to God (with a significant section devoted to the Virgin Mary).

Vox Clamantis (“The Voice of One Crying Out”) was written in Latin during 1377-1381. The title stems from the description of John the Baptist as being a “voice crying” in the wilderness, and it consists of over 10,000 lines of elegiac verse in seven books. The work discusses the social and political situation in England, including the Peasants Revolt (1381). The work vehemently denounces the vices of all three estates, with significant sections devoted to denouncing corrupt clergy (Books 3 and 4) and the aristocracy. Gower takes the side of the aristocracy in the Peasants Revolt but sees the failures of the nobility and clergy as contributing to the breakdown of society. According to Gower, each class has certain responsibilities that contribute to the overall well being of society (Peck 2006: 38-41).

Gower’s Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”) exists in three recensions/versions (1390, with revisions completed in 1391 and 1393). The work contains over 33,000 lines, and it is an allegory based on the Christian sacrament of confession. After the Prologue, each of the books focuses on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, which are illustrated with a treasury of stories from different historical periods. The stories, which are supposed to illustrate moral behavior antithetical to the seven deadly sins, often describe the immoral behaviors associated with those sins. The eighth book includes a description of the duties of the king and a prayer for England.

The sixth book of Confessio Amantis treats the deadly sin of gluttony, and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the stories used to illustrate it (6.975-1150). This book is the shortest of the eight books; despite the numerous subtopics that could be covered, the text focuses on two main ones: Drunkenness and Delicacy (i.e., an immoderate attachment to sensual pleasure, especially that connected to the love of excessively fine or exotic food). 

The book begins with the “Confessor” (Genius) noting that gluttony is “Sin’s great and awful origin” (6.1) and it has so many branches that he will treat only two, although he mentions other aspects of gluttony in passing (Gower had discussed five aspects of gluttony in his Mirroir de l’Omme). Both drunkenness and delicacy are compared and contrasted with love. The drunken person and someone in love, for example, could be described as “bewhaped and assorted and having “loste his wit” (6.80-82), although drunkenness is a choice and being in love is not (6.90-92; cf. 6.117). The Confessor begins with drunkenness, which “turns a wise man to a fool” (6.18). Amans (the Lover to whom the Confessor is talking) admits that he is intoxicated, but he is drunk with love instead of alcohol (e.g., 6.112-32). The primary issue is not to allow (love) drunkenness to separate the mind and its thoughts from reality, to “kep thi wittes that thou hast, And let hem noght be drunke in wast” 6.314-16).  

The Confessor then notes that the Jupiter has two different “drinks of love”; one is sour and the other is sweet. Cupid, the god of love, is blind, however, and sometimes mistakenly serves the wrong “drink of love.” It is only through prayer that one’s thirst might be satisfied, and the Confessor cites a story about Bacchus (the god of wine and Jupiter’s son) who was dying of thirst in the desert. He prayed to Jupiter, a “wether” (ram) appeared, it caused fresh water to spring out of the ground, and Bacchus was saved (6.396-425). The moral of the story is that one should pray for God’s grace (6.440-445). The Confessor also offers stories of the negative effects of drunkenness, such as Ovid’s tale of the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia (Metamorphoses Book 12)

The second aspect of gluttony, “delicacy,” also pertains to love as well as material possessions and pleasures (e.g., the one who is “delicate” (gluttonous) in love also is not faithful to his wife; no matter her excellent qualities, he is never satisfied; 6.677-686). 

It is here that Gower begins to utilize the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which I will discuss in the next post.

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