Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Articulating the Author: Gower and the French Vernacular Codex

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Articulating the Author: Gower and the French Vernacular Codex

Article excerpt


Perceptions of authorship in the late medieval period are in a state of transition. This essay assesses ways in which ideas of authorship in French books provide a context for interpreting authorship in Gower's Confessio amantis. I consider author portraits, rubrication, and the use of the prologue in Le Roman de la Rose, Le Roman de Fauvel, and collections of works by Machaut and Froissart. Gower's use of Latin, far from being a sign of conservatism in any simple sense, emerges as a strikingly distinctive means of investigating the complex guises under which authorship was emerging in the books of vernacular writers.

As everyone knows, there are four John Gowers in Confessio amantis. As well as John Gower the historical author of the work, there is the Gower who is named as such in the Latin glosses: there is also the celebrated identification of Amans as Gower towards the end of the work. The fourth Gower--Gower as narrator--is harder to isolate, since in a sense he emerges only through that double shock that Amans is at once the author, and old. Through this disorienting revelation, the distinction between author and persona that had seemed so clear earlier in the work appears to fail. Confessio amantis causes the collapse of its distinction between auctor and amans to upset that between auctor and narrator. This is a powerfully unsettling manoeuvre, especially since it is performed both within and without the narrative frame of the work. It heavily qualifies our ability to regard author, narrator, and lover as either stable or distinct categories. (1)

Perceptions of authorship in the late medieval period are in a state of transition. We find considerable evidence of this both in Latin and in several European vernaculars. (2) Yet despite, or perhaps because of the dominance of Chaucer, the evidence for such perceptions in English writing remains to be fully explored. Here, as in the broader Latin and European context, it is not just a matter of considering an author's self-fashioning, but also the ways in which authorship is shaped by external factors located in the physical form of the book. Gower's Confessio amantis is a conspicuous instance of a work in which a debate about the author occurs on both fronts. I investigate this debate in Gower by means of the layout of copies of the Confessio, and that of books in a related, and highly influential vernacular. In both types of material, the relationship between authorship and the anthology is central: these are books in which authorial control is visible through decisions about how one kind of material connects with another. They are examples of compilations created by authors of their own work.

The naming of Amans, in what I have referred to as the inner frame of the Confessio, that is, where the device of the lover's confession is introduced, displayed, and concluded, marks the moment when the first-person narrator has ceased to be a lover. Teasingly, 'as it were halvinge a game', Venus asks for his name: ' "Ma dame," I seide, "John Gower" ' (viii, 2319--21). (3) This utterance closes the device. He is now 'John Gower' because his confession is over. To seal the process, Venus hands him a mirror. Through that marvellously macabre vision of his abruptly ageing face, the narrator can stop pretending to be a lover and reveal himself to be the author. Yet as John Burrow has subtly expounded, auctor and amans turn out to be not so much sharply distinguished as ironically united. What seems to be a transparent 'reidentification of narrator with author' through a rejection of the device of a persona becomes instead a recognition that the author and the persona are after all uncomfortably intertwined. The pose of lover is not so easily cast o. either by an author or a narrator of love poetry. (4)

The outer frame also has a profound role to play in our apprehension of Gower. By outer frame I mean two things: the Latin material (both the verse and the glosses) that physically as well as structurally frames the English text, and the various devices of mise en page--rubrics, headings, running titles, and various forms of paragraphing sign, and the pictures, initials, and other types of decoration--that further contribute to the articulation of the work. …

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