Friday, November 28, 2014

Persevering with Gower

Four years ago I posted a piece on perseverance in reading. I thought about that essay a lot during my first three days with John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The theme wasn’t grabbing me, and Gower’s Middle English seemed surprisingly opaque, even though I don’t have trouble understanding Chaucer or Malory. In spite of these roadblocks, I reminded myself of all the reasons to keep making my way through a book that I wasn’t enjoying. I remembered my pact with myself and fought the temptation to give up. I thought about the calendar and reminded myself that if I read only 5% of the book every day (just about right for one good, hefty walk), I’d be done in just twenty days. I asked myself several times why I had put Gower on my list in the first place (maybe a mention by C. S. Lewis? Maybe Gower’s appearance as a character in Shakespeare’s Pericles?) I kept up the task partly by dint of will and partly because once I was out on a fifty-minute walk with nothing else to read, I figured I might as well. And then something funny happened on the fourth day: I started enjoying it.

The Confession of a Lover is an long poem in a prologue and eight books relating a conversation between a young man in love and a priest of Venus. The priest tells the lover he must confess his sin and leads him through a systematic examination of the Seven Big Ones: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. He illustrates each sin with stories from the Bible and from pagan mythology and then asks his protégé to confess his misdeeds. It might surprise many of my contemporaries to find a medieval author using a priest of Venus and stories of Greek gods to teach Christian virtue, but this is the medieval way. As Lewis explains in The Discarded Image, the medieval mind saw all the universe of material objects, spiritual substances, ethics, literature, science, mathematics, history, and religion as a unified system. The priest of the pagan goddess of love teaching Christianity? Why not? An outline of Christian ethics that includes a description of alchemy? Of course! A systematic exploration of sin that takes a long diversion to recount the teachings of Aristotle? For a medieval writer, how could it be any other way? Once Gower got started on an epic poem, he couldn’t stop until he had found a place for everything in the universe. Lewis again: “There was nothing medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.”

So now the theme makes sense to me: that structure on which Gower builds his particular encyclopedia  of stories, descriptions of the planets, correspondences between elements and temperaments, the history of the Catiline conspiracy, and all the other parts of a complete medieval education. And the language has become almost crystal clear. (Milky quartz is a crystal, right?) Here’s a sample:
For whan the welle of pité is
Thurgh coveitise of worldes good
Defouled with schedinge of blod,
The remenant of folk aboute
Unethe stonden eny doute
To werre ech other and to slee.
So is it al noght worth a stree,
The charité wherof we prechen,
For we do nothing as we techen.
And thus the blinde conscience
Of pes hath lost thilke evidence
Which Crist upon this erthe tawhte.
Once reimmersed in the cadences of Middle English, I remember again the patterns of changes – the changes of vocabulary (unethe = scarcely or hardly), changes of spelling (tawhte = taught), changes of pronunciation (stree = straw) and changes of grammar (werre ech other = war upon each other). Now I’m almost through, and I’ll be glad I stuck with it. The next time I read some casual remark by Lewis about Gower, I’ll think, “Oh, yeah. I’ve read him.” The next time I read Pericles, I’ll recognize that the tetrameter of Gower’s lines comes right from his most respected work. And the next time I read The Lord of the Rings, I’ll remember that Tolkien drew the name of Middle Earth right from the pages of Confessio Amantis.

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