Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 22): John Gower (part 2)

Confessio Amantis

For some reason I often type "Gowler" instead of "Gower" in this section. 

The sixth book of Gower’s Confessio Amantis 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 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:

Thenk wel, hou so it the befalle,
And kep thi wittes that thou hast,
And let hem noght be drunke in wast 6.314-16). 

The Confessor then notes that the god 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 mistaken 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 son of Jupiter and the god of wine) 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” (gluttonus) in love also is not faithful to his wife; no matter her excellent qualities, he is never satisfied; 6.677-686).

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.

This mighty lord with a great estate ate and drank his fill. Then a deadly-hungry Lazarus appeared at the rich man’s gate and asked for food (“axed mete”), a direct request for help not mentioned in the Lukan parable:

 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;

The rich man, who had a full paunch from all the food and drink that he had lusted after, would not deign to speak a word to Lazarus and offered him not even a crumb. The man’s lack of charity toward the poor is thus made even more explicit, because Lazarus could not survive without alms from the rich man:

 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 quote 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.

There are a number of developments so far in Gower’s retelling of the parable, but most of them are insignificant (e.g., Lazarus is definitively a leper, not just “covered with sores”). The major development 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), so his lack of charity toward the poor is made even more explicit. 

The next post will continue the examination of how the “Confessor” elaborates the parable.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...