Order Now!

Chaucer and Gower: understanding of morality essay

In: Ethics free essays

Chaucer and Gower: understanding of morality essay

In the dedication of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer invokes moral Gower and philosophical Strode as men of good convictions, makers and keepers of law, men who uphold standards: they can vouch for the moral value of his poetic effort. As established moral and intellectual authorities, Gower and Strode validate the newer and less established poetry of their younger contemporary. Gower's morality cannot however be taken at face value. In poetry and criticism from the fifteenth century onwards, the phrase `moral Gower' has been picked up and repeated, and Gower himself has been constructed as a rigid moralist, a foil for Chaucer's poetic. 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, or as imposing an ethical or political order upon wayward human nature. In his essay `O Moral Gower: Chaucer's Dedication of Troilus and Criseyde' R. F. Yeager argues that Gower's poetry does not simply strive to legislate or `correcte' human behaviour, but seeks to engage his readers in conscious and deliberate moral choice.

The dedication of Troilus and Criseyde suggests two kinds of anxiety: that readers will think the poem is immoral, and that they will fail to understand and engage in the morality of the poem. Chaucer's poem subverts readers' expectations by presenting Criseyde as complex psychologically; she is not simply a loose woman for us to condemn, and in Book 2 we are encouraged to sympathise with her dilemma over falling in love. Chaucer also tries to defend Criseyde once she has moved from Troilus to Diomedes, asking for our `compassioun'. This shifts the focus from the moral message of the story to Chaucer's understanding of his readership. In order therefore to anchor the poem in a safe moral area Chaucer calls on `moral Gower', shifting the moral meaning from the text itself to the readers' understanding of it; the text is not morally correct in itself, but by association and understanding.

Yeager argues however that this does not mean Gower is merely a moral benchmark for Chaucer, in opposition to poetics, but quite the opposite; Chaucer sees Gower as an ally capable of understanding the ethical intent behind the complex moral choices presented in the poem. Gower's `corrective role' is not therefore of the text itself, but of readers who might not understand the complex morality. This complex moral choice is present in Gower's work as well as Chaucer's, particularly in the incest tales in the Confessio Amantis.

In the introduction to the Man of Law's tale Chaucer contradicts the idea of Gower conveyed in the dedication of Troilus and Criseyde. The Host displays his knowledge of astrological time, Senecan letters, and legal language, and the Man of Law tries to outdo him by referring to Chaucer's and Gower's works. This section presents Chaucer as a love poet who is failing because he cannot differentiate between worthy old love stories, but who is at least sensible enough to avoid the `unkynde abhomynaciouns' of Canacee and Apollonius. In contrast Gower the moral poet is now an example of a poet who cannot recognise unworthy or unsuitable topics for poetry. Chaucer is here dramatising the reaction of his readership to his work; the Man of Law expects sermons from Chaucer's poetry, and disapproves of any topics that are not concerned with `moralitee and hoolynesse'. In Chaucer's characterisation the Man of Law appears to be ridiculously prudish in suggesting he is more moral than moral Gower. Chaucer is not just poking fun at the Man of Law, but exploring the very real problem of how to write a moral story - one that encourages virtue in its readership. The Man of Law is too rigid in his idea of moral storytelling; as far as he is concerned Criseyde should be condemned as wicked; and Constance should be upheld as virtuous, symbols rather than people.

In `Constance and the Trouble with Reading' Elizabeth Allen suggests that Chaucer implicitly argues that taking the subject of incest, an amoral act, is an act of the highest virtue. The two tales the Man of Law refers to, the tale of Canacee and Machaire and the tale of Apollonius, treat incestuous relations differently, though both revolve around the problems of natural kinship and misgovernment. In Book 3 of the Confessio, Genius tells the tale of Canacee and Machaire as an example of wrath, not incest, and naturalises the brother-sister relationship. The Apollonius of Tyre story, in contrast, takes up nearly all of Book 8 and represents a fuller concern with incest as a form of misgovernment. The process of the hero's moral development is the motivating force of the story; his avoidance of incest with his daughter is the defining moment in the process by which he learns to be a good king. Gower depicts incest in both stories as both natural and unnatural; he suggests that incest and its avoidance are not naturally very far apart. What is `natural' cannot be defined, so both of Gower's incest tales ultimately place the responsibility for moral behavior not on nature but on human will.

In the story of Canacee and Machaire, incestuous desire is natural, even sympathetic: the brother and sister grow up together `In chambre' and, when they reach `the youthe of lusti age,' they fall in love. Gower's Genius accentuates the natural motivation of their love:

“Sche which is Maistresse

In kinde and techeth every lif

Withoute lawe positif, . . .

Nature, tok hem into lore

And tawht hem.”

Reason, which would prevent their incestuous impulses, never plays a role; for whether incestuous or not, love `no reson can allowe'. Their furious father, Eolus, on the other hand, loses his reason and behaves with tyrannical, `horrible crualte'. When his daughter invokes their filial bond in begging for his mercy he betrays his own blood and sends her the sword by which to kill herself. This figurative blood becomes literal in the form of the blood that `rolls' out from her breast after she falls obediently on the sword. The shocking image of Canacee's child basking in its mother's warm blood captures a disturbing intersection between an innocent and even `natural' pleasure in a literal kinship tie and a violent severing of that tie. Eolus has rendered the family's natural bonds unnatural.

The father's rage, which arises from his own inexperience in love (`for he was to love strange'), itself carries a jealous, incestuous charge. Throughout the Confessio, the mark of tyranny is the lone will of the king, acting in isolation from subjects, counsellors, and his own reason. Eolus enters his daughter's chamber and admits no `pite'; he takes counsel not with wise men but `in his herte'; he acts not deliberately but `in this wilde wode peine' when he sends her the sword. Canacee obeys him perfectly, for `as he wole it schal be do'. Eolus' word, like any ruler's, is law, but it is based on personal desire.

This tyrannical wrath contrasts with the natural love between the brother and sister, rendering them sympathetic and victimised, and at the same time accentuating the instability of natural familial bonds. For the Man of Law, naturalising incestuous sin creates a specific threat. His own tale depends upon the consistent and unchanging innocence of his main character. Gower's combination of sympathetic innocence and socially unacceptable behavior in the tale of Canacee and Machaire complicates the Man of Law's insistence that innocence and passivity define ideal female conduct. For him, sympathy for Canacee amounts to endorsement of her unnatural behavior. Such sympathy threatens not only his storytelling methods but his moral stance as well; he cannot entertain the slightest ambiguity. Eolus' violence suggests the difficulty of imposing the activity of human will upon the `natural' passions, and even further highlights the necessity of careful `mesure' in processes of regulation. Gower's implication that moral choice is both necessary and complex threatens to expose the Man of Law's unmeasured emotional involvement with his heroine as highly immoral.

The Man of Law is threatened by Amans' misguided reading as well as by the story itself. Amans' reception shows the unreliability of any reader: he tries earnestly to confess his sins, but is limited by his vision, as Genius demonstrates in his narratives. Amans' discourse is single-minded: his response after Genius tells the story is not very different from his response before. The tale is offered for his `hertes ese', but he uses it to reinforce his idea that the consequences of his misery in love fall wholly upon himself.

Before he hears the tale of Canacee, Amans admits that his love-melancholy makes him tyrannical, at least within his household:

“I am so malencolious,

That ther nys servant in myn hous

Ne non of tho that ben aboute,

That ech of hem ne stant in doute,

And wene that I sholde rave

For Anger that thei se me have.”

His view of his destructive impulses focuses on himself; he reads his servants' fear as fear for his own well-being. Genius attempts to correct Amans' self-involved discourse through Eolus. Amans tries to suggest there is no similarity between himself and Eolus:

“Bot that I wraththe and fare amis,

Al one upon miself it is,

That I with bothe love and kinde

Am so bestad, that I can finde

No weie how I it mai asterte…

I miself schal noght forbere

The Wraththe which that I now bere.”

Amans claims Eolus' wrath is directed outward against the love of Canacee and Machaire, while he directs his wrath `Al one upon miself.' This is contradicted by Genius, who presents Eolus' killing of his daughter as a kind of self-destruction, however Amans continues to pity himself rather than draw a lesson from the tale.

Gower's tales do not provide Amans, or the reader, with absolute models of good and bad social conduct, as the Man of Law attempts to do; instead, it is Amans' process of confession and so self-examination that carries the moral lessons. The reader's self-examination comes in determining how far we agree with Amans' response to the tales.

Social responsibility is at the heart of the tale of Apollonius. The Man of Law reads, or misreads, the tale as sympathetic to violence, which shows that Gower's poetry is not simply didactic, but presents a moral challenge. Gower suggests that the violent act is the result of too much power:

“Bot whanne a man hath welthe at wille,

The fleissh is frele and falleth ofte…

This king hath leisir at his wille

With strengthe, and whanne he time sih,

This yonge maiden he forlih…

The wylde fader thus devoureth

His oghne fleissh, which non socoureth.”

Antiochus' social position and wealth make him as wild as Eolus; his daughter is helpless in the face of such power: `Whan thing is do, ther is no bote, / So suffren thei that suffre mote'. Antiochus' tyranny results in misreading. His daughter cannot resist for `drede' of him, so he interprets her fear as acquiescence:

“…such delit he tok therinne,

Him thoghte that it was no Sinne;

And sche dorste him nothing withseie.”

Apollonius arrives in Atioch `a yong, a freissh, a lusti knyht', ready to speak about `every naturel science' with the King. He solves the riddle of the `privete' between the King and his daughter, however in doing so he involves himself in their system of privacy and is forced to flee. His willingness to explore the subject of incest implicates him in the incest system, just as the Man of Law suggests Gower himself is implicated in the subject matter. Both Antiochus and the Man of Law are concerned about incest becoming part of a public discourse.

Apollonius himself is placed in incestuous situations. Through the quasi-romance plot Gower sends him into the arms of his daughter after three storms. After the third storm Apollonius cuts himself off from everyone by hiding in his ship's hold, entering into self-pity just like Amans in Book 3. Apollonius in contrast to Amans is affected by the story he hears, that which his daughter Thaise tells him. Apollonius eventually tells her to leave him, at which point she touches him. This elicits a response that recalls the father-daughter violence at the start of the tale:

“And after hire with his hond

He smot: and thus whan sche him fond

Disesed, courtaisly sche saide,

`Avoi, mi lord, I am a Maide;

And if ye wiste what I am,

And out of what lignage I cam,

Ye wolde noght be so salvage.'”

In contrast to Antiochus' silent daughter, Thaise asserts herself through her cultured eloquence, preventing Apollonius from making the same mistake. Thaise insists on the corret interpretation of her `lineage', and she and Apollonius learn `what is to be so sibb of blod'. Thaise marries the local king, Athenagoras, and Apollonius emerges into the world to make publicly useful moral choices. This happy resolution depends on subtle acts of reading. Thaise reads her father's silence correctly, leading to Apollonius asking to her the story of her identity. This mutual readership revises Apollonius' earlier destructive eloquence, leading to a loving relationship in which `hire hertes bothe anon descloseth'.

If we can understand the experience of Thaise and Apollonius as an act of reading, the opposite could also be true: our act of reading is an experience. The framework of the Confessio explores Amans' reading as a reflection of the reading processes within the tales. Amans impatiently rejects the idea that Apollonius' tale has anything to do with him; like the Man of Law, he wants examples of specific behaviour to apply directly to his own situation. The narrative of the tale encouraged us to read like Thaise, but we are also given the possibility of reading like Amans. We can sympathise with Amans' frustration that Genius fails to establish coherent rules for love, or social, conduct. It could be argued however that Gower is exploring Amans' internal development through the juxtaposition of characters, narrators, readers and so on, and that this should inspire a similar circuitous moral process of reading in us.

The Man of Law suggests that `moral Gower' cannot be as easily defined as we might think, and that his morality challenges his readers to self-examination. This is reinforced by the structure of the Confessio. The internal narratives and the framing narrative tell and retell stories about reading, in contrast to the Man of Law's tendency to reduce stories to content.

The main source for the tale of Constance is the Anglo-Norman chronicle of world history written by the Dominican friar Nicholas Trivet. Trivet suppresses any suggestion of incest in the tale in order to create an unblemished mother of Christianity. Gower also suppresses the incest, but for a very different reason: in order to examine the price of silence. The tale begins with a Latin inscription, translated as `noble Love restrains his tongue to keep/The word he speaks from bearing sinister things'. Genius elaborates this, advising Amans to keep silent about rival lovers. The narrative however challenges this, showing that restraint inhibits and victimises the heroine and masks responsibility for her plight. Constance repeatedly refuses to reveal her identity, which makes her vulnerable, as Domilde points out; what is `privee' is not institutionally acknowledged, so those with secrets can be preyed upon by others. Constance's passivity in the face of her potential rapists, her swooning at the sight of Hermengyld and her silent response to Domilde's detraction raise the question of responsibility. Constance's secrecy subjects her to others' misreadings of her, for example the two knights and the two mothers-in-law who make up lies about her. The suppression of incest means that Constance's restraint emerges as a denial of incest, in which Trivet and Genius are complicit.

Gower redeems Constance not just by her religious associations but also by exploring her growing social responsibility. When Constance is in exile for the second time she swoons `as ded', but is revived by the sight of her child:

“If I sterve thou schalt deie:

So mot I nede be that weie

For Moderhed and for tendresse…”

In a scene that the Man of Law later uses to evoke the Virgin and child, she begins to nurse her son. Gower presents Constance as more erring human than martyr; she does not actively defend the Church or moral values, but is victim of Domilde's tyranny. She is exiled rather than burnt, so that the Northumbrians' overwhelming response to the idea of her burning at the stake seems sentimental or even satirical. Instead it is Domilde who dies at the hand of her son Allee. Constance's passivity can be interpreted as a lack of moral will, rather than martyrdom. When she arrives in Northumbria `sche hire wolde noght confesse, / Whan thei hire axen what sche was'. The Confessio is centred on confession, therefore this refusal to confess could be read as a denial of responsibility.

Gower is not therefore another Trivet, allowing his audience to escape moral dilemmas. How then can we understand Chaucer's critique of him? It could be a question of style: Gower's octosyllabic rhymes, his narration largely according to ordo naturalis, his frequent rime riche and often repetitive, lengthy sentences seem to encourage a certain surface passivity. Gower however sets up his readers to read passively, the style reinforcing this, and then disrupts them by showing us the limitations of the character with whom we were identifying, or by leading a plot away from a conventional ending. Chaucer perhaps suggests that readers sometimes refuse to see poetic fiction as a moral process; in a changing society, poetry might seem to be a stable morality based on tradition, rather than as a force for social change.