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Confessio Amantis: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will explore the 'Confessio Amantis,' a very old poem written by John Gower in the 14th century. The poem explores themes of Christianity and politics and consists mostly of a dialogue between two characters about sin.

Introduction

The Confessio Amantis, also known as The Lover's Confession, is a 14th century English poem written by John Gower. If the name John Gower doesn't ring any bells, the name Geoffrey Chaucer might. The two poets were contemporaries and often mentioned each other as influences in their writings, but Chaucer's work is a little more well-known these days. Nevertheless, the Confessio Amantis is definitely worth studying.

Organization and Summary

Written in Middle English, the Confessio Amantis is a long poem: 33,000 lines long, to be precise. As the name implies, the poem details the confession of Amans, the Lover. He confesses his sins against love to the chaplain of Venus. A chaplain is a member of a religious order, similar to a priest.

The Lover's confession is spread out over the course of eight books, which are filled with other narratives, including tales drawn from stories as varied as Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Bible. The eight books that make up the Confessio are framed on either side by a prologue and an epilogue, which Gower uses mostly to comment on the politics of the time.

An Illustration of Poet John Gower
Illustration Of John Gower

The structure of the Confessio is not as rigid as Gower's previous works. Since the book is largely a dialogue between Amans and the Chaplain, the non-rigid structure reflects the natural flow of this type of dialogue.

There are too many tales in the poem to list individually, but among them are stories that are familiar to audiences even today, such as the Trojan Horse.

Influence and Style

Gower was influenced by his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer. In one edition of the Confessio, he even dedicates the poem in part to Chaucer. Like Chaucer, Gower wrote in Middle English, but unlike Chaucer, Gower did not write in pentameter, which was the emerging style of the time. Instead, he wrote in octosyllabic lines, which was the previous standard.

Pentameter is made up of lines of ten syllables with a certain stress pattern. An octosyllabic line, meanwhile, is a line that is made up of eight syllables. While some critics admire Gower's writing, others have criticized it, claiming that the shorter lines are too simplistic and plain. Gower's poem is also written in couplets, which are two paired lines.

Here is the first couplet of Book One:

I may noght strecche up to the hevene/Min hand, ne setten al in evene.

Although it is written in Middle English, which compared to today's conventions can look strange and bewildering, you can still see how each line is exactly eight syllables.

Themes

The Confessio Amantis explores the theme of Christianity. Christianity was an important aspect of English society at the time Gower wrote the poem, and the Confessio explores each of the seven deadly sins in turn. The theme of Christianity is deepened by the conclusion that the Lover eventually stumbles upon at the end of the poem, which is that only Divine love is pure and free from sin.

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