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The Poetic Voices of John Gower: Politics and Personae in the Confessio Amantis.

The Poetic Voices of John Gower: Politics and Personae in the Confessio Amantis by Matthew W. Irvin. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014. xi + 315 pages.

Near the end of this wide-ranging study, Matthew Irvin notes that Genius in John Gower's Confessio Amantis, despite his many tales and analogies, never actually offers a "unified, coherent account of love" (227). Genius's failures have of course been noted before, but this book offers a new way to think through those failures, as the author explores how the personae in the Confessio work in the world of the poem, and on the various audiences for the poem. The argument is often complex and difficult, but a persistent reader will glean much from this thoroughly researched study.

While the Confessio is the main focus of Irvin's analysis, the book ranges through the whole of Gower's oeuvre, both in an introduction and first chapter that set up the legal-philosophical framing for Gower's understanding of persona, and in the frequent reference to the French and Latin works offered to support readings of the Confessio. Irvin argues that Aristotle's moral philosophy, which came to Gower through Brunetto Latini, was a major influence on Gower's understanding of what it means to make and to do. The relationship between wisdom, prudence, and art is a central concern in all of Gower's works, Irvin writes, and Gower's personae, positioned both within his texts as Active moral agents and outside the texts as their producer, are always implicated in both factio (the production characteristic of art) and actio (action in the world).

At the outset, Irvin lays out two related frameworks for the readings to follow. First, he argues that Latini, adapting the Nichomachean Ethics for a royal audience, shifts from Aristotle's philosophical explanation of the nature of virtue to a pragmatic, educative application of Aristotle's principles to the needs of a ruler. He goes on to argue that Gower then performs a further shift, moving from Latini's prose to verse, because poetry is affective and Gower is interested in imitating emotion. The fictional experiences Gower provides through his poetry allow his readers to gain a mediated experience (of love, in the case of the Confessio), and thus to move towards self-knowledge and self-governance.

There are, of course, readers and readers. While Irvin opens his study by stating that young men are the audience for love poetry, it is clear that he is also thinking about noble readers and about clerical readers as well. This is very much as it should be, given Gowers lifelong interest in how poetry works in a range of public and private spaces. Thus I found it a strength of the book that the author would periodically stop to consider, say, the different experiences of vernacular and Latinate readers. Nevertheless, the readers of Irvins own book might find the through-line from young men to kings or even a particular king (to take the "readers" referred to in the opening and closing pages) potentially disorienting. This is not to say Irvin is wrong about the multiple audiences, however; it is simply to note that even early in this study, the threads that frame the analysis multiply and a reader must remain alert.

Next, a section on personae in the legal sense outlines Gowers deployment of personae for the purposes of exploring rights and duties; so, for example, the personae in the Mirour de L'Omme allow readers to experience the pleasures of justice and the pain of injustice. Gower's idea of the persona is rooted in his legal experience: he is focused, Irvin argues, on understanding right relations and persons in the proper place. At this point the argument begins to become more complex, in part I think because Irvin is so scrupulous about acknowledging and engaging the work of other scholars who have thought about Gowers use of personae and/or his legal background. Still, once one reaches the core of the book--the six chapters that focus on the Confessio Amantis--it becomes somewhat easier to see the payoff in the complex framing. There are many interesting readings. Chapter 3, "Amorous Persons," for example, argues that the personae of Genius and Amans show Gower attempting to integrate the literature of clerics and the literature of lords. The Tale of Florent is explored as a riddle that requires the resources of both noble and clerical readers to solve. Chapter 4 displays Irvins ease with the implications of Gowers trilingualism, as he unfolds a bravura discussion of the meaning of pite in the tales of Constance and Canacee. This chapter concludes with the argument that Gower is seeking to orient rulers away from the passive pity characteristic of Amans and towards a "mediating, rational, pious pity" (156).

Chapter 5 sees a shift in the argument, paralleling a shift in the poem. Thus far, Irvin writes, the poem has shown us an Amans who is passive, lacking in self-knowledge, and alienated in a fictional world "full of artfully composed affect rather than action" (157). In Book IV, however, when Genius moves to unfold the meaning of Sloth (which is of course a lack of action), he is forced to confront erotic discourse's confusion of art and moral action. The next chapter develops the theme, pursuing the failures in Genius's rationalizing discourse. Irvin uses the section on alchemy in Book V to show Gower's interest in debating the values of poetry and action, and in the problem of artful/artificial language. In an interesting aside, he points out that alchemy was of particular interest to the noble audience Gower imagined for his poetry, and he could thus use its language to explore various kinds of transformations. In fact, by this point Irvin is noting that many lessons taught through Genius's stories are lost on Amans, but properly aimed at rulers. A long reading of the Jason and Medea story, for example, shows that the problem with purely personal desire is the extent to which it makes a man unable to maintain his propria persona. When that man is a king, the personal is also inevitably political, as chapter 7, "The Love of Kings," shows. In the Tale of Apollonius, Gower shows how Apollonius's right relationships to women lead to his return to his kingly self, and as the result of a proper king acting properly is peace, that return has implications for the kingdom as well as for the king.

But Amans will never be a king, even of himself. The conclusion to this study argues that the final reveal of the Confessio, in which Amans is shown to be John Gower, removes a tempting figure from erotic discourse, and replaces it with a pitiable old man. Readers, Irvin argues, experience the temptations of love through Amans, and the most important reader is the king who must learn the relationship to pleasure and to prudence proper to his persona. The Poetic Voices of John Gower is not an easy read, but it is most certainly a profitable one.

Sian Echard

University of British Columbia
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Author:Echard, Sian
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Words:1171
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