The Importance of the Prologue: Poetry and Politics in “Confessio Amantis”

Having subdivided the text into three distinct parts, namely, the State, the Church and the Commons, Gower’s Prologue addresses all three estates from its stylistic “medial” point. Although initially dedicated to the king, this poem addresses all people – the “lewed” as well as the learned, though with perhaps less of an emphasis on the Commons. While the trinity of the estates in the conventional sense suggests a structure in which the three estates (those who pray – the clergy; those who fight – the nobility; and those who work – the peasants) were supposed to work together for the common good, their actual history is one of constant friction and conflict. In Gower’s vision, this idealism has given way to a profound pessimism and even despair about the current disintegration of the social order. Much like in Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, what is interesting about Gower’s Prologue is not that it portrays an archaic and closed social order, but that it reveals an order that is about to experience an awaited disaster. Gower’s characters are by no means content to stay in their proper places, but are rather engaged in the corrupt pursuit of wealth, status (out of their estate), and respectability. The conflict between the old and the new, and between tradition and ambition is evident throughout the Prologue, emphasized by the poet’s constant nostalgic comparisons between the utopian situation of “tho” and the failure of “now”.Bot now men sein is otherwise, Simon the cause hath undertake, The worldes swerd on honde is take; And that is wonder natheles, … How now that holy cherche is went Of that here lawe positif Hath set, to make werre and strif For worldes good, which may noght laste. (Prol. 240-249)While taking into account the fact that the Confessio Amantis was written during a period in which social structures and social theory were constantly changing, it is worth noting that one of the main differences between the order of medieval and the order of modern society is the pre-eminent role played in the former by the Church and its many institutions. The Church was in itself a complex social structure, and inevitably constituted one of the divisions made in medieval social theory. An obvious division is the bipartite one between the clergy and the laity – those belonging to the Church and those outside it. Another, one of several tripartite divisions and stemming from the Roman Church’s doctrine of celibacy of the clergy, is based on sexual activity: virgins, widowers and widows, and married people. (This is the classification that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath professes to accept while defending her right to remarry as often as she pleases.)Gower uses the metaphor of these divisions (“regnes ben divided” Prol. 127) emphatically in the Prologue of Confessio Amantis to depict the decrepitude of 14th-century England: the source of all woes of the times. As Gower puts it, sin is “moder of divisioun” (Prol.1030), and division is “moder of confusioun” (Prol.852). Through the metaphors of division, Gower links the romance plot of Books 1-8 with the estates critique of the Prologue. The Prologue also functions as an indicator of Gower’s own political alliance – (“A book for King Richardes sake / To whom belongeth my ligeance.”) Dedicated initially to Richard II, the Prologue to the Confessio was as much indicative of Gower’s admiration for Richard II, as it was later, due to its revision, indicative of his disappointment in the same monarch. While the Confessio could have been the result of Gower’s visit onto the royal barge (as told in lines 24-92 in the first recension of the poem), Gower’s Prologue ultimately incorporates a revised dedication to “myn oghne lord, Which of Lancastre is Henri named” (Prol. 86-87) that is suggestive of the troubled times in England.Like England, Amans is a state at war with itself, unable to arrive at a treaty that suits the demands of its many factions. As men are generally confused by “the fortune of this worldes chance,” so Amans is bewildered by the fortune of his love and more generally that “as the whiel aboute went/ (Love) yifth his graces undeserved” (Book 1. 50-51). This state of puzzlement is symbolic of the confusion that originates in Aman’s internal debate, where in the body politic, the members do not obey the head, and neither does the head regard the members or “her trowthe allowe.” This division originates in sin, and Aman’s cure thus depends on confession and a priest, and on what the priest sermonises: counsel derived from books. Toward the end of his confession, Genius will compare Amans to a burning stick that reduces itself to ashes. Abiding by the pattern of the body politic introduced in the Prologue, Venus in Book 8 applies a healing “oignement” to Aman’s heart, temples and kidneys, implying the restitution of his three estates (the kingdom of his soul, the sanctuary of his intelligence, and the residence of his passions) – the same salve that the narrator finds amiss among the men in the Prologue. (“Men sen the sor withoute salve, / Which al the world hath overtake.” Prol. 134-135). By analogy, these times of division seem to apply equally to “the lasse world” of the lover, as well.The story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue of degenerative time (Prol. 585-880), followed by the story of Arion, the bard whose song was so sweet that it restored peace wherever it was heard (Prol. 1053-88), are examples of key issues in the Prologue; namely, the destructive effects of divisiveness in modern times and the need for imaginative amelioration through restorative tales. Both identify the critical and therapeutic concepts that support the basic thesis of the poem’s progress.Concluding with the story of Arion, the Prologue functions with a thrust that is opposite to the fractiousness of the preceding Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and introduces introducing a “poetic of amelioration,” within which the poem operates for the betterment of humankind. The poet is society’s “rememberer” who seeks to charm people out of their melancholy and “divisioun.” He teaches people to laugh, not hate (Prol.1071). Gower must surely have seen his own purpose in the example. His poem, like the music of Arion, would provide therapy in troubled times. Perhaps, as for Beothius, the act of writing initiates a cognitive wrestling with thoughts that in itself is therapeutic for a poet who “seknesse have upon honed/ And longe have had.”