Very little is known about John Gower’s early life. He probably held a legal office of some kind, perhaps in Westminster. His first major work, probably begun about 1376, was in French. It is called Miroir de l’Omme, or Speculum meditantis. In it Gower describes the development of sin, the vices and virtues, and the remedy available to man, with a special appeal to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Some time about 1377 Gower retired to the priory of St. Mary Overy in Southwark. He soon began work on his long Latin poem Vox clamantis. Book I, written after 1381, contains a vivid description of the Peasants’ Revolt, used to set the theme for a moral analysis of social decay in England. At this time Gower was acquainted with Geoffrey Chaucer, who gave him power of attorney while Chaucer was away on the Continent in 1378. Chaucer later dedicated Troilus and Criseyde to Gower and to Ralph Strode.
In 1390 Gower completed the first version of his most famous poem, written in English but given the Latin title Confessio amantis. He says that he wrote it at the request of King Richard II, who had asked him for “som newe thing” to read. The first version of the poem was dedicated to Richard. In a later version Gower dedicated his poem to Henry of Derby, the son of John of Gaunt and the future King Henry IV.
Confessio amantis means “the lover’s confession,” but it is not an autobiography of the poet and it does not concern itself with Gower’s amorous adventures. After a prologue in which Gower points out that division in the soul introduced by sin creates division and strife in the world, he introduces the lover, a man overcome by lust and the desire for selfish pleasure. In the remainder of the poem, which occupies 8 books and some 34,000 lines, the lover confesses to Genius, the priest of Venus, gradually recovering his reason and overcoming the division within himself. The poem ends with a prayer for good government and the rule of reason in the commonwealth. Gower’s masterpiece contains an enormous amount of standard medieval moral philosophy and is illustrated by a great variety of exemplary tales. Some of the tales are very well told.
Between 1394 and the end of his life Gower wrote some Latin poems and, probably, some of his French ballades. He married late in life in 1398.