« PreviousContinue »
any English poet treated the passion of love with equal delicacy of sentiment, and elegance of composition."* Four of these French sonnets are given by Warton, and more correctly, with the addition of a fifth, by Todd ; and the entire contents of the volume were edited for the Roxburgh Club, in 1818, by the present Duke of Sutherland (then Earl Gower) under the title of 'Balades and other Poems, by John Gower, printed from the original MS., Latin and French;' Black Letter, 4to. London. Gower was probably one of the last Englishmen who attempted the composition of poetry in French; and at the end of one of the pieces in this volume he asks forgiveness of his reader for any inaccuracies he may have committed in the foreign idiom, on the ground of his English birth and his therefore not being master of the French eloquence :
Et si ieo nai de François la faconde,
The Confessio Amantis,' Gower's principal English work, cannot be better or more shortly described than in the words of Mr. Ellis ::
"This poem is a long dialogue between a lover and his Confessor, who is a priest of Venus, and is called Genius. As every vice is in its nature unamiable, it ought to follow that immorality is unavoidably punished by the indignation of the fair sex ; and that every fortunate lover must, of necessity, be a good man and a good Christian; and upon this presumption, which, perhaps, is not strictly warranted by experience, the confessor passes in review all the defects
* Hist. Eng. Poet. p. 338.
of the human character, and carefully scrutinizes the heart of his penitent with respect to each, before he will consent to give him absolution. Because example is
more impressive than precept, he illustrates his injunctions by a series of apposite tales, with the morality of which our lover professes to be highly edified; and, being of a more inquisitive turn than lovers usually are, or perhaps hoping to subdue his mistress by directing against her the whole artillery of science, he gives his confessor an opportunity of incidentally instructing him in chemistry and in the Aristotelian philosophy. At length, all the interest that he has endeavoured to excite, by the long and minute details of his sufferings, and by manifold proofs of his patience, is rather abruptly and unexpectedly extinguished; for he tells us, not that his mistress is inflexible or faithless, but that he is arrived at such a good old age that the submission of his fair enemy would not have been sufficient for ensuring his triumph.”* Such a scheme as this, pursued through more than thirty thousand verses, promises perhaps more edification than entertainment; but the amount of either, we fear, that is to be got out of the 'Confessio Amantis' is not considerable. Ellis, after charitably allowing that so long as Moral Gower keeps to his morality he is "wise, impressive, and sometimes almost sublime," is compelled to add, "But his narrative it often quite petrifying; and, when we read in his work the tales with which we had been familiarized in the poems of Ovid, we feel a mixture of surprise and despair at the perverse industry employed in removing every detail on which the imagination had been accustomed to fasten
* Specimens of the Early English Poets, i. 177.
The author of the Metamorphoses was a poet, and at least sufficiently fond of ornament; Gower considers him as a mere annalist; scrupulously preserves his facts; relates them with great perspicuity; and is fully satisfied when he has extracted from them as much morality ""* In as they can be reasonably expected to furnish." many cases this must be little enough.
We shall confine our specimens of Gower's poetry to two short passages from the Confessio Amantis.' The first is the tale of the coffers or caskets, in the Fifth Book, which has been given by Todd after a collation of the printed editions with the best manuscripts:† this is the story, whether found by him in Gower or elsewhere, from which Shakspeare is supposed to have taken the hint of the incident of the caskets in his Merchant of Venice :-
In a cronique thus I read:
Some of long time him hadden served,
There olde men upon this thing,
*Specimens, i. 179.
+ Illustrations, pp. 145-150; Notes, pp. 154-158.
b Gower, like Chaucer and Langland, writes hem for what we now call them; but we have taken the liberty throughout of discarding that peculiarity.
That it ne cometh out at last :
So that erlich upon a day
k Gower also, like the other writers of his time, has whan
and than, where we now say when and then.
1 Saw. The old spelling is slih and sih.
He knew the names well of tho
And saide to them in this wise:
There shall no man his hap despise:
Or elles if it belong on yow,
Ye shall be riche men for ever:
Now chese and take which you is lever
That no defaulte shall be min.
They kneelen all, and with one voice
• Those who against him grudged (or grumbled) so.
Know, understand ye.
* Begun, used in a general sense, nearly with the effect of made.
z The one.
Is more agreeable to you. Promise, engage, assure you.
c In the end.