Gower and political prophecy

[Update 2021: I was indeed able to find a previously overlooked connection between Visio Anglie and Bridlington’s Prophecy, now published in Notes and Queries.]

I’ve been reading John Gower alongside Geoffrey Chaucer this semester with my students. As I had previously only read Gower in small doses, it’s been great fun. Gower wrote thousands of lines of poetry in all three major literary languages of fourteenth-century England: English, French, and Latin. We’re sampling this gigantic output, focusing on the English Confessio Amantis, a wild tale collection with a conscience, and the Latin Visio Anglie, an even wilder dream vision composed in the wake of the 1381 uprising.

Since I read lots of political prophecy (think Merlin and dragons) for my second book, I’ve been noticing when Gower draws on that tradition. He assumes his readers know it. I hope to write an article on this eventually, but in order to do that I’ll need to read more Gower to scout out passages for comment. I believe this is an underappreciated aspect of Gower’s poetics. (A search for “prophecy” in the Gower bibliography turns up just nine results, most relating to biblical prophecy.) Three places in Gower’s Latin writings have been recognized as drawing on the insular political prophecy tradition as it developed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain onward. These are the animal symbolism in Visio Anglie (Cornelius 51n73) and Cronica tripertita (Taylor 131) and the short coronation poem “H. aquile pullus” (see the notes). As far as I can tell, not much has been written on even these three texts in relation to political prophecy.

Fonzo’s dissertation shows how seriously Gower takes the role of “public prophet” in all his major poems. However, while Fonzo focuses on political prophecy in reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, biblical prophecy takes center stage in the Gower chapter and the article derived from it. I think it would be possible to show that both kinds of prophecy are ingredients in Gower’s modus operandi.

In addition to the animal allegory in Visio Anglie, I’d point to the surreal moment later in the same poem when the Tower of London/storm-tossed ship carries the dreamer and the English nobility ashore to a foreign land that is revealed to be Britain but must be explicated as if unknown (Carlson 1955-63):

Ad portum veniens de naui concito litus
   Egressus pecii, turbaque magna michi
Plebis in occursum iam venerat, ex quibus vnum
   Pre reliquis dignum contigit esse virum,
A quo quesiui, ‘Dic, insula qualis, et vnde
   Tantus adest populus, quis <sit> et inde modus?’
Ecce senex ille, portu qui stabat in illo,
   Reddidit ista meis horrida verba sonis:

‘Exulis hec dici nuper solet Insula Bruti. . .’

(“In port I quickly disembarked and sought
The shore; a crowd of folk by then had come
To meet me, and of these it chanced that one
Appeared a worthy man, above the rest;
I asked: ‘This island, what’s it like, and whence
So many folk? And how do they behave?’
That aged man, who stood there in that port,
To my remarks returned these fearful words:

‘Its name is now “the Isle of Exiled Brut”. . .'”)

It’s an uncanny and dramatic moment, pointed by Gower’s having withheld the keyword Bruti until the end of line 1963. Literally, of course, Gower and the noblemen are already in Britain, but the poem, following through on its Ovidian exile motif, washes them ashore there as if for the first time. Unlooked-for discovery of actually existing conditions from within a self-consciously fictional world is just what political prophecy is for, I think. And the representation of Britain as “Insula Bruti” emanates from a historiographical tradition that Geoffrey of Monmouth also initiated. I read the aged man (senex) as a projection, into the poem, of Gower’s self-appointed role as exponent of prophecy. In this scene, Gower in effect reads prophecy to himself.

I suspect the Visio Anglie shows the influence of the mid fourteenth-century Latin Prophecy ascribed to John of Bridlington, as Anne Middleton suggested (Justice 213n74). This was a widely disseminated topical poem, rarely read these days. It traveled with a Latin commentary, a textual form that clearly appealed to Gower, who wrote many Latin glosses, headnotes, and colophons to guide interpretation of his own poetry. Bridlington’s Prophecy and Gower’s Visio Anglie both feature a disturbed visionary narrator, animal symbolism, and pessimism about national politics. More sleuthing is needed.

further reading

Cornelius, Ian. “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt.” Representations 131 (2015): 22-51.

Fonzo, Kimberly. “Late Medieval Authorship and the Prophetic Tradition.” Diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013.

Fonzo, Kimberly. “Richard II’s Publicly Prophesied Deposition in Gower’s Confessio Amantis.” Modern Philology 114 (2016): 1-17.

Gower, John, and David R. Carlson, ed., and A. G. Rigg, trans. Poems on Contemporary Events. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011.

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1911.

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