Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Rich Man and Lazarus in John Gower's Confessio Amantis

John Gower, Confessio Amantis

This post follows the previous one about John Gower's Confessio Amanits and its use of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

The attachment to excessively fine or exotic food is not possible for those in poverty (6.619), which makes it easier to condemn than drunkenness. Such fine foods also are not good for one’s health: “comun mete” (common meat) is better for one’s “sustenance” and “governance” (6.649-652). Likewise, delicacy in love can also damage one’s health (6.665-66). To make sure that Amans understands what delicacy is, the Confessor illustrates delicacy with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, since it is not a “fable” and is a “tale accordant unto this”:

Crist seith: "Ther was a riche man,
 A mihti lord of gret astat,
 And he was ek so delicat
 Of his clothing, that everyday
 Of pourpre and bisse he made him gay,
 And eet and drank therto his fille
 After the lustes of his wille,
 As he which al stod in delice
 And tok non hiede of thilke vice.
 And as it scholde so betyde,
 A povere lazre upon a tyde
 Cam to the gate and axed mete:
 Bot there mihte he nothing gete
 His dedly hunger forto stanche;
 For he, which hadde his fulle panche
 Of alle lustes ate bord,
 Ne deigneth noght to speke a word,
 Onliche a Crumme forto yive,
 Wherof the povere myhte live
 Upon the yifte of his almesse (6.986-1005).

Terrence Tiller translates the above into modern English:

A mighty lord of great estate
There was, who was so delicate
In clothing, that he made him gay
In lawn [linen] and purple every day;
And he would eat and drink his fill
After the pleasures of his will –
Like one who, wrapped in luxury,
Gives not a fig for gluttony.
It happened that a leper stood,
One day, before his gate; and food
Was all the unhappy wretch’s prayer.
He did not get a morsel there,
To keep his dreadful hunger still;
That other, who had gorged his fill
On all the pleasures of the board,
Deigned not to answer, nor afford
Even a single crumb whereby
The wretched leper might not die
But live upon his charity.

The most significant development so far in Gower’s retelling of the parable is that the rich man—who had a “full paunch” due to his excess—refused a specific request from Lazarus for a morsel of food (he “axed mete” = asked for food). His lack of charity toward the poor is made even more explicit. 

The Confessor continues in greater detail than in the Lukan parable of the extent of impoverished Lazarus’s distress; not only was he starving but he was freezing as well, so sick that he could no longer move from where he lay (6.1006-1009). At that low point:

The houndes comen fro the halle,
 Wher that this sike man was falle,
 And as he lay ther forto die,
 The woundes of his maladie
 Thei licken forto don him ese.

The Confessor states that the dogs licked Lazarus’s sores because they pitied him and were trying to help, but Lazarus was so “full of such desese [disease]” that even this gesture of help was not enough to save him. So his soul “passeth” from his body, and God, the one “whom nothing overpasseth” (6.1020), took Lazarus to heaven to Abraham’s “barm” [bosom], where he had everything that his heart desired (6.1025).

The next part then focuses on the fate of the rich man who died and went straight to hell, which happened, Gower reports, “as it should.”

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