Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope those of you who have loved ones are snuggled up warmly and safely out of the vile weather and those who don’t are spending a cozy evening with a good book, good booze, or another entertainment of your choice 😉 I’ve been having a bit of fun reading this article about the medieval origins of Valentine’s Day: A Theft of Love: How Geoffrey Chaucer Stole Valentine’s Day From John Gower. As a loyal Gowerite, I was amused and gratified 😉 Our boy doesn’t get much credit (even though he introduced the word ‘histoyr’ into the English language. That itself should qualify him for awesomeness).
For those who have no idea who I’m talking about, John Gower was a contemporary of Chaucer’s. There’s enough evidence left to suggest the two men were friends, including some decidedly snarky dedications of poems to one another. They were both at the centre of the late fourteenth-century revival of English verse which is the foundation of the modern English literary tradition. From this distance, it seems hard to understand that simply using English as a literary language was cutting-edge, but these two were engaged in a consciously European literary tradition that established English as a suitable language for sophisticated writing. They were courtiers, who relied on other income to support their writing (Chaucer was a customs official, among other jobs, and Gower was a lawyer). Both were well-known to royalty– Gower recounts how a chance meeting with Richard II by the Thames inspired his book, while Chaucer wrote a lament to his empty purse and then dedicated it to his neglectful patron, Henry IV. In the throes of the Hundred Years War, there was a politically-motivated demand for English vernacular literature which hadn’t really been seen since Alfred the Great started recruiting scholars to write in Winchester in the 880s. Gower himself wrote in the Preface of the Confessio Amantis:
And for that fewe men endite
In oure Englissh, I thenke make
A bok for Engelondes sake.
Gower, of course, wrote in more than just one language: he composed three epics in his lifetime, one in Latin, one in Anglo-Norman, and one in English. He also wrote ballads in Anglo-Norman. His English epic, Confessio Amantis, is his third work. Unlike his first two poems, which were moral polemics, this one is all about love. It’s a gleefully massive compendium of contradictory stories about love, organised around the seven deadly sins. Gower’s a less flashy writer than Chaucer, but his pared-down style contains a sly irony. He’s a supple and a subtle writer, who tends to be scorned as dull and worthy by Chaucer purists. It’s easy to miss just how lucid his style is until you try to break it down or reword it.
Hmm, I’ve slipped into teacher mode, haven’t I? This preamble started because I thought it might be fun to offer you a little taster of Gower’s poetry. Below I’ve translated the first sixty lines of Book 1 of the Confessio Amantis. I’m rather fond of this passage, and modernising it was a fun puzzle. I’ve stuck to Gower’s octosyllabic couplets, and have included the original and much better version afterwards. Do read it– it’s much lovelier than my version. As a romance writer, this is a passage I return to frequently.
Confessio Amantis, Book One, 1-60
I may not stretch up to the sky
My hand, nor make the whole world lie
Flat, that’s always held in balance:
I just don’t have the influence
To have such very great effects
So I will let it go, and next
On other matters, I’ll converse.
I’ll change the style of my verse:
From this day forth, I’ll start to write
Of things which aren’t so far from sight,
Which all living things have to hand,
Which whereupon the world must stand,
And has done since it first began
And will while there is any man,
And that’s love, about which I mean
To explain, as soon shall be seen.
In love, man may not rule himself—
Love’s law is unruly itself!
Blame, well, every man for giving
Too much (or too little) loving.
But nonetheless, there’s not one man
In all this world so wise he can
Pour perfect measures of passion:
Chance can add an extra splash on.
Wit and strength make no difference.
Claiming otherwise is nonsense—
You’ll end up falling on your face
And you’ll get no help back to grace.
No one’s bright enough, I’m sure,
To make a universal cure
For what God’s set as natural law.
Trust no man who dares to assure
He’s found the salve for such a sore.
It was, and shall be evermore,
That love masters what he chooses
And no living thing refuses.
For wherever love likes to pause,
No power can bind him with laws.
So, what shall happen at the last
But this truth, that no sage forecast,
That love falls upon us by chance.
If there ever was a balance
By which shares of luck were controlled,
I’ll just believe what I was told:
That balance is held in love’s hand,
Which reason will not understand.
For love is blind and will not see
And therefore may no certainty
Now be placed in his reasoning.
But, as the wheel starts to spin,
He rewards the undeserving
With prizes from the long-serving:
Love’s loyal servants lose the bet
Like a man playing at roulette;
Therefore, the lover does not know
Until the wheel lets it show,
Whether he shall lose or shall win.
And thus quite often men begin
Who, if they knew what true love meant,
Would change their entire intent.
John Gower’s original Confessio Amantis, Liber Primus
I may noght strecche up to the hevene
Min hand, ne setten al in evene
This world, which evere is in balance:
It stant noght in my sufficance
So grete thinges to compasse,
Bot I mot lete it overpasse
And treten upon othre thinges.
Forthi the stile of my writinges
Fro this day forth I thenke change
And speke of thing is noght so strange,
Which every kinde hath upon honde,
And wherupon the world mot stonde,
And hath don sithen it began,
And schal whil ther is any man;
And that is love, of which I mene
To trete, as after schal be sene.
In which ther can no man him reule,
For loves lawe is out of reule,
That of to moche or of to lite
Wel nyh is every man to wyte,
And natheles ther is no man
In al this world so wys, that can
Of love tempre the mesure,
Bot as it falth in aventure.
For wit ne strengthe may noght helpe,
And he which elles wolde him yelpe
Is rathest throwen under fote,
Ther can no wiht therof do bote.
For yet was nevere such covine,
That couthe ordeine a medicine
To thing which God in lawe of kinde
Hath set, for ther may no man finde
The rihte salve of such a sor.
It hath and schal ben everemor
That love is maister wher he wile,
Ther can no lif make other skile;
For wher as evere him lest to sette,
Ther is no myht which him may lette.
Bot what schal fallen ate laste,
The sothe can no wisdom caste,
Bot as it falleth upon chance.
For if ther evere was balance
Which of fortune stant governed,
I may wel lieve as I am lerned
That love hath that balance on honde,
Which wol no reson understonde.
For love is blind and may noght se,
Forthi may no certeineté
Be set upon his jugement,
Bot as the whiel aboute went
He gifth his graces undeserved,
And fro that man which hath him served
Ful ofte he takth aweye his fees,
As he that pleieth ate dees;
And therupon what schal befalle
He not, til that the chance falle,
Wher he schal lese or he schal winne.
And thus ful ofte men beginne,
That if thei wisten what it mente,
Thei wolde change al here entente.
Happy Valentine’s Day!