We know little about the life of John Gower, the protagonist of A Burnable Book, beyond a few essential facts and some intriguing literary clues. Born sometime before 1340, he was likely trained in the law though does not seem to have actively practiced it, and while he was a man of considerable wealth, there is no record of how he acquired it. He was a landowner and may have been a merchant, though of what sort we don’t know. Gower wrote poetry in three languages (Latin, French, and English), and while he was prolific, his writings did not have a wide circulation during his lifetime. He lived for many years in a house located at the priory of St. Mary Overie in Southwark, near the foot of London Bridge (current site of Southwark Cathedral). Gower died in 1408, and his tomb at the cathedral is a brightly painted effigy in which the poet’s head rests on a pillow composed of his three greatest works.
Gower had a long and perhaps difficult friendship with his contemporary poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, also a central character in A Burnable Book. We know about this friendship from a number of sources, perhaps most famously from a stanza near the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde beginning “O Moral Gower, this book I direct to thee”: a remarkably visible and forthright mark of literary homage, coming as it does in the penultimate stanza of the poem. Chaucer gave Gower power of attorney during one of his trips to Italy in 1378, and Gower himself reciprocated Chaucer’s literary benediction at the end of his great English poem Confessio Amantis, in a series of lines Gower puts in the voice of Love:
And gret wel Chaucer whan ye mete,
As mi discipline and mi poete:
For in the floures of his youth
In sondri wise, as he wel couthe,
Of Ditees and of songes glade,
The whiche he for mi sake made,
The lond fulfild is overal…
There’s a subtly teasing tone in these lines, as the older Gower prods the younger Chaucer “in his old age” to make a testament of love. This exchange of addresses is one of many such moments of poetical banter between the two men, leading scholars to assume that their friendship was a close and enduring one.
Another aspect of Gower’s life concerns his visual disability. We know that Gower was blind or nearly so by the early years of Henry IV’s reign (1399-1413), though there are no records of the potential cause of his affliction, nor does he say anything about whether his blindness came on over a number of years or appeared suddenly at the turn of the century. In A Burnable Book and its (yet-to-be-titled) sequel, set in 1385 and 1386 respectively, I have been working on the assumption that Gower lost his vision gradually, over a quite long period of time. This is an unprovable hypothesis, of course, though there is an intriguing hint at the end of the Confessio Amantis (completed circa 1390) that the poet was already suffering from impaired vision at the time he wrote his long Middle English poem: “Myn yhen dymme” (“My eyes dim”), Gower’s narrator says, listing the visual condition among a wider catalogue of afflictions assaulting him in his old age. That Gower would live and write for another decade and more following the publication of the Confessio is a testament to the durability and richness of his literary imagination. You’ll find many resources about the poet, his writings, and his known biography at the website of the International John Gower Society.
One of the few surviving likeness of John Gower comes to us from a manuscript containing several of his works and written around the year 1400, before the poet’s death (Glasgow Univ. Lib., MS Hunter 59 [T.2.17] folio 6v). Here Gower appears as an archer about to shoot the world, an image clearly inspired by some lines from his Vox Clamantis: “I throw my darts and shoot my arrows at the world. But where there is a righteous man, no arrow strikes. But I wound those who live wickedly. Therefore let him who recognizes himself there look to himself.” Gower is in many ways an enigma, and thus an ideal historical figure to conjure with in fiction.