- Approaches to Teaching the Poetry of John Gower by R. F. Yeager and Brian W. Gastle, eds
This book, which offers strategies, hints, and methods for teaching the Latin, French, and English poetry of the late medieval poet John Gower, will be of most interest and value to lecturers teaching medieval literature at the undergraduate level.
The text is not intended to offer any new or sustained scholarly analysis of Gower’s writings; rather it is a series of (mostly) very short essays explaining how lecturers have introduced undergraduate students to Gower’s poetry. It is also almost exclusively written by North American scholars, and the teaching contexts they describe – mostly smaller, well-endowed liberal colleges in the USA – may well leave Australian academics significantly envious of the [End Page 296] opportunities recounted for teaching medieval literature, compared to the parlous situation that now defines its teaching in many Australian universities.
Although the text offers nothing especially original about Gower himself (as noted, the focus is on teaching already-thought-through ideas, not offering fresh insights) the Introduction does offer some useful comments on Gower’s reputation to later generations. It also gets to grips with perhaps the two most salient characteristics of his modern reputation: one is that he plays second fiddle to Chaucer in poetic ability; the other is that he is ‘moral Gower’, implying that both a degree of pessimism and tedious moralizing suffuses his work. The Introduction pushes against these ideas, outlining in particular the high regard in which Gower was held by a number of premodern writers and poets including Ben Jonson and Samuel Johnson, as well as Shakespeare, who included Gower as a type of chorus in Pericles. In terms of his reputation for moralizing, the editors point to lesser-known works (especially those in Anglo-French and Latin) that are less concerned with didacticism.
The essays suggest ways for teaching Gower in terms of his contemporary reputation, his debt to and use of classical writings (such as Ovid’s), and through comparison with close contemporary works, especially Chaucer’s.
After the Introduction the text is bifurcated. The first section is ‘Materials’, and has essays by Peck, Nicholson, and Gastle offering advice on teaching Gower. Discussion of how critics have read his work follows and then there is a very useful chapter on online resources. This section of the book is especially valuable. As Gastle makes clear, Gower’s reputation as Chaucer’s inferior and as a dour moralizer has partly been set by the limited access to many of his works in clear and accessible printed editions. Both students and lecturers will therefore appreciate the currency of the list of available electronic resources that Gastle provides for accessing most of Gower’s corpus, including the little seen French and Latin works.
The second section is the ‘Approaches’, and comprises twenty-two essays. The way these essays have been divided provides insight to the types of issues raised: Historical Approaches and Context; Language, Literature, and Rhetoric; 3 Theoretical Approaches; Comparative Approaches; and Specific Class-Room Contexts. Essays within this section offer a highly diverse range of strategies for teaching Gower to undergraduate students, in terms of both methodology and focus. Most of the papers examine Gower through the prism of his own time period, focusing in particular on the poems that offered a fairly gloomy moral comment on the reign of King Richard II. Others, however, use formalist literary criticism to look more closely at the poems themselves rather than their historical context. The essays are mostly quite original and imaginative approaches to how Gower may be taught, taking in not only his [End Page 297] poetry but also other cultural artefacts relating to him. One, for example, suggests examination of his tomb monument in Southwark Cathedral as a means to drawing out ideas on his reputation and his preoccupations.
The collected essays also approach Gower from a range of theoretical perspectives, including considerations applying...