Approaches to Teaching the Poetry of John Gower is a welcome addition to the MLA's long-running series on teaching mostly canonical authors. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that Gower, well known for his didacticism, receives his due after his contemporary Chaucer, who famously gave Gower the epithet "moral." Chaucer's skeptical and noncommittal attitude has paradoxically become exemplary. If, from a pedagogical perspective, literary texts are often valued for their complexity and ambiguity, then where does Gower fit in?
This collection of essays, edited by R. F. Yeager and Brian W. Gastle, answers that question remarkably well. Gower, it turns out, both represents medieval typologies (e.g., chapters by Scott Lightsey on the three states and James Palmer on penitential and medical texts) and critiques them. Gower teaches his lessons with sympathy and understanding (e.g., Derek Pearsall's chapter) and with an occasional hint of irony. Gower reads his sources imaginatively, displays a kind of early humanism (e.g., Russell Peck's chapter), and anticipates modern theoretical problems exceptionally well. As J. Allan [End Page 383] Mitchell writes, "On the one hand, Gower's text seems deliberately narrowing, taxonomical, regulatory, and teleological. . . . On the other, the Confessio Amantis seems pluralizing, proliferative, interrogative, and contingent" (114). Since Gower also has the medieval tendency to treat all aspects of life encyclopedically, and since he wrote proficiently in three languages (see Siân Echard's chapter on Gower's command of Middle English, Latin, and French), his works offer numerous possibilities for teaching.
It is this encyclopedic tendency that is mirrored in Yeager and Gastle's Approaches. The book is subdivided into the following sections (containing between three and six chapters each): an overview of study materials and resources, a section on historical topics such as the three estates and law, a somewhat eclectic mixture of chapters titled "Language, Literature, and Rhetoric," a trio of chapters on Gower and literary theory, and a final section on incorporating Gower into different classroom environments. While there are some choices with which one could quibble (do we need two chapters on the Tale of Constance and none on the much longer Tale of Apollonius?), to do so would be to miss the point that the contributions provide a rich and varied panorama of the current state of Gower criticism.
Of the first three articles on materials and resources, I was particularly fascinated by Peck's explanation of why the three-volume Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages (TEAMS) edition of Gower's Confessio Amantis prints books 1 and 8 of the Confessio in volume 1 and the other intermediate books in volumes 2 and 3. I had thought this would have been a temporary measure (to publish the frame of the story), and indeed, the TEAMS website keeps the normal order. Yet having taught volume 1 myself, I agree with Peck that this odd sequence does actually work. It provides the instructor with a great opportunity to introduce students to Gower's politics (especially in the prologue), to the confessional dialogue between Amans (the lover) and Genius (his confessor), and to the story's narrative arc.
The next section opens with Pearsall's succinct overview of Gower's reception. Pearsall upholds the consensus view of critics who "have always spoken for the integrity of the Confessio and the function of both the stories and the frame in the creation of a wise and generous 'morality of love' " (34; Peter Nicholson's chapter, in the previous section, includes some more discordant voices). Nevertheless, Pearsall emphasizes the way Gower's exempla are often "painfully unresolved" (34) and are embedded in a historical and political context that continues to need more study.
The subsequent chapters by Lightsey and Peck reveal some critical ambivalence about whether Gower is representative of this larger context or [End Page 384] should be seen as an outlier. Lightsey claims that "Gower's consistent and measured...