The Passive Poet: Amans as Narrator in Book 4 of the Confessio Amantis
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 3 (1986)
Of the eight books of the Confessio Amantis, Book 4 most aptly suits the work’s title, for it devotes a notably large amount of space to Amans’ discourse. In Book 4, the book concerning the sin of sloth, Amans becomes active with words. He uses the forms and vocabulary of courtly poetry to express his ongoing imaginative condition of passive desire. Throughout Book 4, Amans’ poetry enables Gower to explore both the nature of desire disjoined from its function in nature and the nature of the poetry which delineates and sustains such desire. Amans’ courtly poetry reflects the way he interprets courtly vocabulary, especially the term gentilesse, which Genius dwells on at length in Book 4 (4.2190-2337). Gentilesse and the similar term courtoisie had a spectrum of meanings in medieval poetry that underlie, in part, the way Amans discourses on love and adapts aspects of previous texts, such as the Roman de la Rose and Chaucer’s Troilus, for his own poetry. Both these works depict desire in ways related to the theme of gentilesse. While gentilesse originally referred to noble lineage, it came to suggest innate superiority in several areas: morality, rational intellect, sensibility, and behavior. Gentilesse is a major theme in many medieval works, from courtly romances to philosophical and religious treatises. Thus, its importance for Gower springs not only from its connection to high social status, exquisite manners, and page 115 refined sensibility but also from the Boethian idea that true gentility shows itself not in noble birth, but in a virtuous character.