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John Gower, Poetry and Propaganda in Fourteenth-Century England by David R. Carlson (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 172-173 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0078

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The first sentence of David Carlson's new monograph - 'More history than John Gower, perhaps; much of state papers, little literary criticism' (p. 1) - makes for a succinct summary of the book as a whole. It undersells, however, the more compelling aspects of the discussion of the official sources of much fourteenth-century verse and prose in the thesis that follows. Far from simply expanding a study like Richard Frith Green's Poets and Princepleasers (University of Toronto Press, 1980), this book is a crucial addition to the history of ways in which literary production and politics were interconnected in fourteenth-century England.

The first five chapters - roughly half the book - contain only glancing references to Gower and, given the monograph's title, this is surprising. What this initial section does is establish a firm ground for the book's argument that literary activity throughout the fourteenth century was frequently financed by state politics. The question of evidence is foremost in this section, both in terms of existing evidence, or lack thereof, and its nature, as well as how what survives, or what does not, might be interpreted. Receipts suggesting that a poet was paid to write a particular piece do not exist in England before the fifteenth century, despite the claims made directly or obliquely by poets in the works themselves. What seems at first to be a paucity of firm evidence to prove the commissioning of particular pieces of writing is shown to be remarkably full: 'Official documents, memoranda proclamations, … newsletters … chronicle-histories', and poetry, when interpreted together, provide a compelling portrait of the ways that court poets laboured for the state.

The first chapter opens with the example of Robert Baston, a clerical poet Edward II apparently engaged to celebrate his successful campaigning over the Scots. But during the Scottish successes that ensued, Baston was captured, and put to work writing verses 'in praise of Scottish valour, making mock of the English, his way of his ransom from captivity' (p. 5). Carlson uses the event to underscore an important point, one which has the potential to impact on modern critical interpretations of entire literary careers in the later Middle Ages, that poets were 'Not free agents, muse-driven, self-activating or self-motivating, producing art ars gratia artis, or not wholly so: poets were promiscuous tools, or were also, to be used for propaganda on behalf of commissioning agencies within the secular state' (p. 6). Carlson earlier defines 'propaganda' (defending himself against possible anachronism) as 'purposeful, persuasive provision of information, of the sort the Congregatio provides on the faith even now' (pp. 2-3).

Gower's later writings move to the centre of the discussion only in the second half of the monograph. Here, the detailed focus on the period 1399- 1400, the 'Lancastrian Revolution', provides an opportunity for analysis of Gower's writing during that period against a well-documented moment of social and political upheaval. In particular, the 1399 'Record and Process', a document recording the parliamentary deposition of Richard in favour of Henry, is considered. Carlson's detailed study of the period moves from interpretation of Gower's Cronica tripertita as official panegyric, to a number of popular poems written in English in 1399, and back again to the Cronica, which he argues persuasively to have been substantially based on the 'Record and Process' and written in the service of the state. Carlson focuses his analysis of Gower's service to the Lancastrian regime primarily through the Cronica, but ends with a note of mild dissent, showing that 'Gower remained capable of disillusionment with Henry's rule' (p. 219).

There is little mention in the book of Confessio Amantis or any of Gower's better known works, and the research may be too complex in its structure and scope to make for useful reading in undergraduate courses of study, but for researchers working on fourteenth-century English literature and history, and those interested in the ways in which literature translates, reflects, enacts, or challenges contemporary politics in later periods, it should prove compelling.

Copyright © 2013 by the Author
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Stephanie Downes. "John Gower, Poetry and Propaganda in...



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