John Gower 14th Century Poet

John Gower was Poet Laureate to King Richard II and King Henry IV

This fascinating man has a wonderful memorial in Southwark Cathedral. Who was he? Little is known of his early life except that he was a  man born about 1330 into a family who had lands in the southern counties. He probably grew up in Kent, where he studied and worked within one of his father’s estates. The roll within the estate may have led to him studying law in London.

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He began to write at the same time as he took up residence in the Priory at St. Mary Overies in Southwark, London in around 1377. His life before he began writing, is vague. It is presumed he knew many noble people, might one also presume that they knew him through his writing, before his first published work, the Mirror of Man, ( Mirour de l’Omme), which was written between 1374 and 1379. It is an allegorical poem of some 30,000 lines, written in French about the virtues and the vices before meditating on the fall of man, his contemporaries and the effect of sin on the world.

By 1381 he had moved on and wrote about the evil that besets the state, writing a latin poem, ‘The Voice of the Complainant’ (vox clamantis). His writing is a search for the good in mankind, which he feels men destroy, in their seek for self gratification and for profit.

Throughout this time, John Gower was a very close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer

The relationship between the two men is intriguing. Where did they meet and who influenced who? Chaucer’s life is well recorded, he was in many respects, a civil servant and as such many documents survive of his life and times. Chaucer if you like illuminates the life of Gower for us. They must have been extremely close friends, family friends. Chaucer is younger by maybe fifteen years or so but their friendship appears to have been built upon one of literary respect. They paid the ultimate respect by complimenting each other in their work. Chaucer obviously regarded Gower’s work as very moralistic, which it was and one can almost taste the tease when he dedicates Trolius and Criseyde, in part to the ‘moral Gower’. And the chuckle can almost be heard when Gower reciprocated by placing a speech in the mouth of Venus in praise of Chaucer, in his work, ‘A lovers Confession’ (Confessio Amantis) written in 1385 c.

Wouldn’t it have been marvelous to have listened to them discussing their works?

How did John Gower become poet laureate?

Gower moved in noble circles and he tells us in the prologue of the first edition of ‘A Lovers Confession’ how in about 1385, he met the king, upon the River Thames, who invited him aboard the royal barge. As a result of this chance meeting, the King addressed his concerns that not enough literature was being written in English. Much was still in Anglo Norman or in Latin. Thus it was that ‘A Lovers Confession’  was written in English at the King’s command. If that was the case, then this is the point at which he probably became Poet Laureate, a position granted by the monarch and expected to write for important national occasions.

John Gower though, could not be bought, even by a King

Later in life his allegiance switched to the future Henry IV and it is interesting to note that later editions of ‘A Lovers Confession’ were dedicated to him. Was he coerced to such an action, what exactly caused the switch of allegiance? There are so many unanswered questions regarding Gower. He was once revered as the most exceptional 14th century poet but over time his work began to be considered to be dull and a little too moralistic but fashions change and there is yet so much to learn about this man who was honoured in his day.

Unravel the works of John Gower

The University of Rochester is an excellent resource to learn about and understand the works of John Gower. John Gower died in 1408, eight years after the death of his friend Chaucer and he is buried in the Priory he made his home, now Southwark Cathedral and above him, fittingly, is a stained glass window remembering his friend Geoffrey Chaucer.

John Gower
Chaucer window Southwark Cathedral