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  • Chaucer Answers Gower: Constance and the Trouble with Reading
  • Elizabeth Allen

O moral Gower, this book I directe To the and to the, philosophical Strode, To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to correcte, Of youre benignities and zeles goode. 1

In the famous dedication of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer figures moral Gower and philosophical Strode as gracious men of good convictions, makers and keepers of law, men who uphold standards: they can vouch for the moral value of his poetic effort. Paul Strohm describes Gower and Strode as “a special ‘interpretative community,’” the educated and sophisticated subset of his audience “most likely to understand his words as he wants them understood.” 2 As established moral and intellectual authorities, Gower and Strode validate the newer and less established poetry of their younger contemporary. Chaucer represents himself here as what Anne Middleton has described as a “new man,” whose literary conduct includes “an earnest and insistent honoring of old ways and the received high culture, for it is these to which he wishes to show himself accustomed and entitled.” 3 In this construction, Gower and Strode need not prove themselves entitled to literary morals; their social and intellectual status is a precondition for Chaucer’s submitting his poem to their correction.

But Gower’s morality cannot be taken at face value. In poetry and criticism from the fifteenth century onwards, the epithet “moral Gower” has been picked up and repeated with notorious consistency, and Gower himself has been constructed as a rigid moralist, a convenient foil for Chaucer’s poetic. 4 Much recent criticism has argued for Gower’s moral complexity and poetic skill; nevertheless, his “moral” purpose is still often read either as ultimately religious or transcendent, on the one hand, or as imposing an ethical or political order upon wayward human nature on the other. 5 As R. F. Yeager has argued, Gower’s poetic efforts make him a figure who “might anchor a subtle, ‘slydyng’ Troilus and Criseyde for an English audience.” 6 I believe that Gower’s moral poetry [End Page 627] does not simply strive to legislate or “correcte” human behavior, but seeks to engage his readers in the experience of conscious and deliberate moral choice. 7 In this paper, I consider Chaucer’s two references to the poetry of his contemporary (in the Troilus dedication and the Man of Law’s Prologue) as historical evidence for a reading of Gower. The Troilus dedication, I argue, leaves considerable room for Gower’s decidedly unstable moral poetry. The Man of Law’s objection to incest tales suggests viewing Gower’s tale of Constance itself as an incest plot and, more broadly, constructs the Confessio Amantis as a challenge to contemporary readership.

Chaucer’s dedication of the Troilus reveals two levels of anxiety: that readers will think the poem immoral, and that they will fail to see what the poem’s morality requires of them. Chaucer’s poem notoriously complicates Criseyde’s exemplary function. In Book 2, moments of insight into the process by which she falls in love work against any simple impulse to condemn her betrayal of Troilus. The sympathy such moments evoke creates a problem of interpretation for readers who expect Criseyde to remain exemplary, static, determined, and ultimately condemned. Such absolute exemplarity requires that we view her only from the outside, and that we do not imagine how she internalizes the conventions of love. Later, when she has disappeared into the arms of Diomedes, the narrator tries his best to defend her. In response to the impossibility of locating Criseyde’s will, the narrator asks instead for our “compassioun,” a demand that re-focuses the story’s moral message away from Criseyde herself and toward the vagaries of reader response. 8

The dedication of such an insistently ambiguous poem to “moral Gower and philosophical Strode” pulls the story back from the brink of indeterminacy. Chaucer’s invocation of a morally and intellectually reliable audience situates the poem’s moral meaning in readers rather than in the text itself: the dedication suggests that the process of reader response, like any form of conduct, requires moral choice. In anticipation of an audience who may have expected unambiguous...