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  • A Rhyme Distribution Chronology of John Gower’s Latin Poetry
  • David R. Carlson

EARLY style, late style: in broad contour, this change in the Latin verse of the “English” poet John Gower (ca. 1330–14081) is clear. The chief thing is Gower’s deployment of rhyme, though there are other differences: the late Cronica tripertita (1399–1402)—Gower’s last grand work, in any language—has it, whereas the early Vox clamantis (1377–81) generally does not. Gower’s earliest surviving Latin verse is in elegiac distichs, relatively more informal and conversational, while the Cronica tripertita is in hexameters; also, the late verse is remarkably more spondaic than the earlier.2 The datable evidence of Gower’s Latin poetry other than these major writings may make it possible to specify more narrowly when Gower began to work thoroughly in his late style—though there may have been earlier trials, it will appear to have occurred during 1396–97, some time before he could have begun the Cronica tripertita—as well as the nature of the stylistic change involved: different kinds and combinations of rhymes, and more plastic, irregular treatments of metrical length of line. The datable evidence may in turn enable some chronological sorting on a basis of stylistic criteria of various otherwise undated pieces in Gower’s Latin oeuvre, and the proposed stylistic chronology may also help clarify some problems of Gower’s peculiar revisionary procedures. Finally, the pattern of the evidence of chronology will suggest an inertial impulse about Gower’s stylistic evolutions: once he conceived an ambition to elevate the tenor of seriousness about his work by writing Latin verse, rather than only vernacular [End Page 15] (howbeit his vernacular productions were relatively serious already3), the same ambition made it inevitable that eventually he would want to try writing Latin verse in the most elevated style then available, which was still the ornate scholastic style, featuring extensive, elaborate rhyming and rhyme schemes. That Latin was in process of losing its pride of place in England as the linguistic instrument most appropriate for serious, elevated literary undertakings4 seems not to have altered the case that, for Gower, Latin was still worth trying. England’s three (main) languages were not indifferent. Moreover, that rhymed dactylic verse in Latin was fairly soon afterwards, already early in the fifteenth century, to begin to fall from favor amongst those in a position to decide what was stylistically most estimable does not alter the case either that, at the century’s turn, rhymed Latin, by contrast with something plainer, evidently still had an unavoidable prestige for Gower.


It can be difficult to tell whether Gower was rhyming or not, though dubiety most likely suggests the negative. The Cronica tripertita is unambiguous: all of its lines rhyme, and all their rhymes are disyllabic. Couplet rhymes, involving concatenations of pairs or triplets or strings of lines by shared rhymes, remain rare, in a sampled passage of about five hundred lines involving about five percent of the lines.5 As it happens, these are predominantly unisonant couplets in the Cronica tripertita, the lines having the same rhyme sound in both pairs of caesural and line-final positions, and such couplet rhyming can appear to lend emphasis, as for example in these concluding lines of the whole poem, made more arresting still by the fact that they are also the only elegiac distich in Gower’s otherwise wholly hexametral third book:

Post sua deme rita periit sua pompa so pita ; Qualis erat vita , cronica stabit ita .6 [End Page 16]

The intention to make rhyme seems clear here, as persistently throughout the Cronica tripertita.

Gower’s “unrhymed” Latin verse also has rhyme, however, though predominantly of less persistent sorts, so it is less clearly intentional. In the “Visio Anglie” section of the Vox clamantis, for example—evidently written in late 1381—nearly twenty percent of the verses are Leonine, having internal rhyme of some sort. The rate is much the same in the contemporary “unrhymed” poem of Richard Maidstone, Concordia facta inter regem et cives Londonie (1392), where the rhymes that do occur are also similar to...


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