John Gower (1332-1408)

John Gower was the exact contemporary of Chaucer, though he died eight years later in 1408. His writing of three different works in three different languages shows that English is not yet considered a suitable instrument for literature. Besides certain love-ballads in the “Courtly style”, his chief works are :

1.Speculum Meditantis

(30,000 Lines). French work, a long sermon in verse. It is an allegory, an exposition of the corruption, vice, and immorality of the age. The exposition is frank and thorough. Chaucer called him, “moral Gower”, and this work justifies the epithet. The purpose of the poet is to teach, through creating symbolic figures of vices and virtues and the way by which the sinner may return to God. There is no trace in him of that zest for life which we find in Chaucer.

2.Vox Clamantis

The work is in Latin couplets. It is inspired by the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. It expresses the fear and terror of the rich landed class at the popular uprising. Gower was himself a landlord and his personal terrors, says Legouis, give these verses a strength and emphasis which are lacking in his other works. Gower has no sympathy for the popular cause but is the spokesman of the landed gentry.

The various leaders of the revolt are represented as wild beasts hungry for human blood or as domestic animals who refuse to do their duty. He declares in the end that men should hear, “the voice of the people, which is often the voice of God.” He thus strikes a curious modem note, the note of social democracy.

3.Confessio Amantis (1384)

It is written in English (East Midland dialect) probably under the influence of Chaucer, “It is an encyclopedia of the art of love (Ker),” It is his only work in Énglish. It is a collection of over one hundred stories and it runs to more than 40,000 lines. It is in octosyllabic couplets, which often grow monotonous and sometimes jarring. The poem is allegorical. Each of the stories is used to illustrate some moral. Most of the stories are love tale. Compared with Chaucer, Gower’s method of narration is more direct and clear.

As he was very leamed, many of his tales are more interesting and more original than those of Chaucer. But (l) he was not used to love. He was moral and didactic by nature and so there is some artificiality in his treatment of love. (2) He has no sense of humor and so often becomes tedious. (3) His method of linking together his stories is awkward and complicated. A lover confesses his sins to the priest of Venus and the priest narrates to him a number of love stories to expose the evil consequences of the various faults of character.

He is the typical average poet of the age. His writings are what Chaucer might have been without his genius.

William Langland (1330-1400)

He was essentially a poet of the people. We know very little about him. He seems to have been the son of a franklin; to have been born in the neighborhood of Malvern, and to have lived a life of poverty and struggle.

‘The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman’ is an enormous allegorical poem which in its final shape runs to upwards of 15,000 lines.

It gives a remarkably vivid account of the suffering of the peasants. The poem is original and remarkable. For centuries, literature had been busy in pleasing the upper classes. Langland tums to the common man and writes his suffering. “Here, at last, was a great poem which appealed directly to the common people and its success was enormous” In the poem we get:

  1. A denunciation of the corrupt clergy of the times. The criticism is fiery and satiric and is in sharp contrast with Chaucer’s treatment of the theme in ‘The Prologue’. The poem is a reliable source for the social and economic history of the times.
  2. An account of the suffering of the common man as a result of corruption, prevalent in the upper sections. We get a sympathetic picture of peasant life. We do not get such a picture in Chaucer, so as a social commentary as it is of great significance. “He recommends a parliamentary system in which the king supported by the commons would govern for the public weal” (Legouis). The boldness and originality of his thought is astonishing. He appears to be a sort of rebel against the feudal aristocratic system and social inequality. It is a vision of right triumphant over wrong, a direct forceful appeal to the conscience of men. He makes a peasant his hero and represents him as the savior of mankind.
  3. The Poem is also a great moral allegory. The poet gives us first, a picture of the corrupt times and then tells how things would improve if the teachings or Christ were followed and if all took to honest labor. Piers, the Plowman appears again and again as the savior of virtue in distress.

The poem is frankly moral and didactic and it excels, in this respect, other poems of the period. However, it is entirely formless. There is no characterization worth the name. In this respect, Langland is a hopeless failure. Moreover, it is written in the dead West Midland dialect. But outside Chaucer, it is the most remarkable work of the 14th century.

Sir John Mandeville

In 1377, it appeared in East Midland dialect a most remarkable translation of the French work ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’. It gives an account of the travels of an English Knight, Mandeville.

For a long time, the narration was supposed to be genuine but is now known to be merely a work of the imagination of a French Physician, Jean De Bourgone ‘The Travels’ are full of incredible descriptions, anecdotes, and adventures. There are descriptions of men, for example, who lives on snakes and he is like snakes of dog-faced men, of men who have such large feet that they use them as a sunshade. All this puts us in mind of the various travelers tales in the dramas of Shakespeare.

The work is important for the following reasons:

  1. It throws light on the credulity of the age.
  2. It is the first work in English prose meant for entertainment and not for moral edification.
  3. The style is colloquial, sweet and clear. It has a childish simplicity and charm.
  4. Sentences are short and well constructed and the method of narration is direct and straightforward. The writer has a charming way of beginning his sentences with ‘And’, and this device is both arresting and refreshing.
  5. It’s full romantic suggestions and every detail makes an appeal to the reader’s imagination. Over three hundred copies of this remarkable work are still extant. It had a very healthy influence on the development of English prose.

John Wycliffe

(1324-1384) The most original and powerful writer in English prose of the Age of Chaucer was John Wycliffe also called the “First Protestant” and ‘the Father of the English Reformation.” He may be called with equal justice the Father of English Prose.

He took to writing in English only towards the end of his life. The occasion was provided by the conflict between the Pope and the King. Following the example of Grance, King Edward refused to pay the arrears of tithes to the Pope. An anonymous pamphlet appeared defending the Pope’s claim and Wycliffe replied to it in clear, moving, English prose. His followers, known as ‘Lollards’, went about the country, preaching his ideals. He attacked violently not only the abuses of the church but also the very dogma of the church.

As a writer of English prose his contribution is two-fold:

  1.  He was the first to translate the Bible into English. He used the Latin version of the Bible, hence he is often awkward and faulty. There is much stiffness. Latin constructions and relative clauses abound. But he supplied the first elements of that Biblical language which was to become an integral part of the English tongue.
  2. He was the first to use pamphlets and leaflets as direct means of appeal to the people at large. Hence his style is simple and forceful. It does not have any artistic quality. But it has logic and vigor.

John Barbour (1316-95)

Another poet of Chaucer’s age was John Barbour. For some time he was Archdeacon of Aberdeen. He was Scottish by birth. As the real father of Scottish poetry, he holds a certain place in literature. His fame rests on his long poem ‘The Brus’ in which the great deeds of Robert Bruce are recorded in the spirited narrative.

READ ALSO: The Decline of English Literature after Chaucer