Writing the Literary Zodiac: Division, Unity, and Power in John Gower's Poetics
This dissertation explores attitudes toward literary form in fourteenth-century London's trilingual culture and what it means to package science, politics, and social upheaval as literature. John Gower, the author of substantial poems in the three languages of his day treating topics as varied as clerical greed, aristocratic vice, rebellion, astronomy, and alchemy, writes at the intersection of literature, history, and science. Though called a historian and a compiler, Gower was foremost a poet whose political, cultural, and scientific writings grew out of his sense of poetry as a whole built from smaller pieces. Division was a force Gower feared, yet exploited. Though Gower critiques the broken political body, most famously in his treatment of the 1381 Rebellion but also throughout his many writings on politics, division could also signify marvelous design. To Gower, the music of the mythical harper Arion is not pure magic but a technical product of "mesure," a word signifying notes organized in a pattern. Similarly, the stars of the zodiac are divided into signs, and alchemy, though it transforms diverse metals, requires divided elements before it can unite them through an elaborate process of refinement. Gower examines the sciences' negotiation between division and harmony as a way of articulating his own poetic project. Division is a theme throughout his corpus, physically rendered by the metaphor of the body -- be it zodiacal, alchemical, political, bestial, incestuous, or verbal -- and thus the body's valences are multiplied by examining its parts as well as its whole structure. Division is not always something to be feared; it can be a way to know an object more fully by examining its detailed composition. Broadly speaking, the chapters investigate Gower's poetic experiment with parts and wholes. Chapters One and Two explore the parts and wholes of language. Meaningful play in rhyme words can underscore words within words and differences in words that appear the same. Syllabic play, meanwhile, allows a poet to build words from pieces. Chapter Three investigates Gower's attitude toward alchemy, the process of converting base metals to gold, or multiplicity to singularity. While Gower lauds this science, he is aware of language's limitations in engaging in this process; words generate more words, and translations lose the secrets of older texts composed in other languages. In Chapter Two I discussed the bodies of the 1381 rebels, allegorized as beasts with hybrid forms, while Chapter Four explores processes of change in composite bodies, including the zodiac man, Nebuchadnezzar's Statue of Precious Metals, and the Greek pantheon as an anatomical man. Chapter Five contrasts Chaucer's and Gower's literary presentation of astronomy; Chaucer's House of Fame seeks authority in literature, while Gower's praise of science is for its own sake. Gower's treatise is given a literary spin in the manner in which Gower writes of the constellations as objects that operate as couplets, both of which engage in meaningful repetition and productive duality. Chapter Six treats linguistic composite bodies through the theme of incest in riddles as developed in Gower's Mirour de l'Omme and Confessio Amantis.
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