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The Message of the Ruins:
Reading Devastation

by Robert J. Meindl

part 2

Just as we understand Gower’s poem in part by contextualizing the poet, so can we also gain an additional perspective on an important work of Gower criticism by locating its author in place and time. Completely apart from any superficial resemblances between London and Cologne, it is no exaggeration to say that history had prepared Wickert, embedded in her own national penitential context, to be the perfect reader of the Vox Clamantis.

For the most part we can only imagine on the basis of contemporary descriptions what Gower’s London looked like when the smoke from the ruined Savoy and St. John of Clerkenwell’s rose above the Thames and the mob in the streets hunted down the Flemings and any others with whom it had grievances.

We don’t have to imagine what Wickert’s Cologne looked like. It was amply documented in famous still photos and newsreel footage shot from the air and by combat photographers on the ground. The most striking photograph shows the cathedral standing alone, its battered spires reaching above a vastness of ruin.

One famous newsreel clip shows American infantrymen cautiously moving forward towards St. Gereon’s Basilica to their front with the cathedral visible to their left. The scene is wrenching, the entire district, the heart of the city, reduced to the shells and skeletons of buildings decorated by their own collapse. Only a few hundred meters away, Albertus Magnus rests obliviously in his crypt.

Gower’s message about man’s responsibility for the consequences of his acts is unequivocal throughout the Vox Clamantis. We ourselves shape our futures, the poet argues in sound medieval manner, and dismisses in their turn sors, fata, fortuna, and the stars as arbiters of human destiny. At the same time, he attaches primary blame to those who lead society and reserves his harshest judgments for those at the top, the rulers who mislead their subjects and take them into situations that result in catastrophic consequences.

The little people, while not necessarily blameless, are powerless and themselves afflicted by the leader’s miscalculations and willful misconduct, suffering as a result tribulations that are their earthly punishment. Gower’s judgment of Richard II by the time of the B-Text of the Vox Clamantis is harsh and becomes more so by the time he rededicates the Confessio Amantis to Henry IV, whose accession to the realm he justifies in the Cronica Tripertita, which he then appended to the Vox Clamantis as if it had been intended all along as the poem’s logical completion.

Richard was a wretched leader and his people suffered the consequences of his misrule. Shakespeare’s portrait of a melancholy poet who was in over his head and misled by vicious advisors is attractive but lets Richard off the hook for his own criminal tendencies. That Richard was more than a flawed king, was in fact an active aggressor in the mistreatment of his subjects and the pursuit of foreign adventures is clear and was so generally perceived during the course of and in the immediate aftermath of his own rule.

Richard’s behavior had earned him the worst sort of bloody reputation, as contemporary references make clear. Here, for instance, is part of a letter that Chancellor Coluccio Salutati of Florence writes in 1401 from Italy to Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury, who had himself suffered under Richard’s misrule:

sepiusque cedibus et sanguine suspitiones et pericula crescere quam auferri; cuius rei vobis exemplo sufficiat rex depositus et extinctus. More often it is to increase rather than remove suspicions and dangers by massacres and blood. Let the deposed and killed king suffice to you as an example of this.

A twentieth-century historian notes that “confrontations during Richard’s ‘tyranny’ with manifestly unjust orders and acts “were of a sort unhappily familiar to twentieth-century Europeans.”

At the same time, the culpability of the leaders did not absolve others of their responsibility in national events. What must Wickert have thought when she read Gower’s repeated judgment against the people, including himself, for its own misfortunes? For example:

Talia fingebam misero michi fata parari,
Demeritoque meo rebar adesse malum
Sic mecum meditans, tacito sub murmure dixi,
“Hec modo que pacior propria culpa tulit.”
Non latuit quicquam culparum cordis in antro,
Quin magis ad mentem singula facta refert:
Cor michi commemorat scelerum commissa meorum
Ut magis exacuat cordis ymago preces.
Reflecting in misery the fates prepared for me,
I thought this evil due my own defect.
And thinking to myself I said, in murmur low,
“My guilt has brought these things I suffer now.”
No sin of mine lurked deep in my heart’s inner cave,
But all the things I’d done came back to mind.
My heart recalled the doing of my wicked deeds
So that my prayers were urged by image keen.

Of course, Gower was no more responsible for the crimes of Richard II than Maria Wickert for the brutal misrule of the Nazi Party and its perverse leadership in the person of Adolf Hitler. Yet, like Gower and others in his day and place, she had suffered the consequences of the misuses of power occasioned by the inability of a people’s military, intellectual, economic, and spiritual leadership to deflect or manage a political danger when it first appeared and as it solidified its hold upon a nation.

Like others, she had no doubt noted the short-term achievements of the Nazi government in the early years and benefitted from them. Consequently she, too, had suffered as an individual the fate of the people, enduring the privations of wartime and its aftermath, including the intensive bombardment of the Rhineland and the bitter winters of 1945-46 and 1946-47, when many Germans starved to death. Much more so than the English poet, she had been iam prope depositus ... mundo, frigidus, eger (1.1829-1830) (now cold, sick, almost buried in the earth).

As I worked my own way through her text and its elegant arguments about Gower’s poetry, I was struck by the passages that Wickert singled out as especially praiseworthy. Take, for instance, the poet’s poignant recognition of his involvement in his people and his commitment to the national identity, lines which speak as well to the German love of land and people and the post-war situation:

set propriam super omnia diligo terram,
In qua principium duxit origo meum.
Quicquid agant alie terre, non subruor inde,
Dum tamen ipse foris sisto remotus eis;
Patria set iuvenem que me suscepit alumpnum,
Partibus in cuius semper adhero manens,
Hec si quid patitur, mea viscera compaciuntur,
Nec sine me dampna ferre valebit ea:
Eius in adversis de pondere sum quasi versus;
Si perstet, persto, si cadat illa, cado.
But most I love my own land over all,
In which the source brought forth my own onset.
Whatever other lands may do disturbs me not,
Because I live afar, distant from them.
But if my native land, which fed me as a child,
Within whose realm I ever fixed remain,
Should suffer anything, my heart and soul are wrenched.
She cannot bear her judgments without me.
Almost destroyed I am by weight of her dismays.
Stand she, stand I; fall she, then fall I too.

Discussing this passage, Wickert calls the poet’s “acknowledgement of involvement in the national misfortune ... one of Gower’s best pieces” (Wickert 195).

Wickert also finds much to admire in Gower’s treatment of the creation, especially the passage in which Adam awakens to life, self-consciousness, and amazement at the wonders of himself, his companion, and the earth designated for their habitation, shaping a joyous personal experience out of doctrinaire abstractions. “Here Gower ... knew how to describe convincingly something of the first man’s wonder in the beginning of the world” (Wickert 187):

Stat formatus homo, miratur seque suosque
Gestus, et nescit quid sit et ad quid homo:
Corporis officium miratur, membra moveri,
Artificesque manus articulosque pedum.
Artus distendit, dissolvit brachia, palmis
Corporis attractat singula membra sui:
In se quid cernit sese miratur, et ipsam
Quam gerit effigiem non videt esse suam:
Miratur faciem terre variasque figuras,
Et quia non novit nomina, nescit eas.
Erexit vultus, os sublimavit in altum,
Se rapit ad superos, spiritus unde fuit:
Miratur celi speciem formamque rotundam,
Sidereos motus stelliferasque domos:
Stat novus attonitus hospes secumque revolvit,
Quid sibi que cernit corpora tanta velint.
Noticiamque tamen illi natura ministrant;
Quod sit homo, quod sunt ista creata videt:
Quod sit ad humanos usus hic conditus orbis,
Quod sit ei proprius mundus, et ipse dei.
Ardet in auctoris illius sensus amorem,
Iamque recognovit quid sit amare deum.
Man stands begun and wonders at himself and all
His acts, and knows not what and why he is.
He notes the functions of his flesh, the limbs that move,
The skills of his hand, the joints of his feet.
He spreads his limbs, he frees his arms, and with his hands
He touches every member of his flesh.
He marvels over what he sees, and yet himself
Sees not his likeness is his very own.
He wonders at the face of earth, its different shapes,
And since he knows no names he knows them not.
He raises up his face, exalts his voice on high,
Strives to the heights from whence his spirit came.
He wonders at the splendid circle of the sky,
The astral motions and the starry homes.
His new companion stands agape, and with him thinks,
What might the many forms portend for them.
And nature him administers the knowledge true,
That he is man, these are created shapes.
That this created orb to human use was made,
That earth belongs to him, and he to God.
His feelings flame with love for Him who made it all,
And now he knows what loving God should be.

Amidst the rubble of her world, Wickert responds to Gower’s presentation of the earth and mankind in their newness, to their relationships to each other and to their creator, the loss of which is the source of earthly travails.

But Gower’s primary concern is sin and redemption. “Gower’s tears and those of his audience are intended,” Wickert remarks, “as rueful tears of the sacrament of penance, to lead to reconciliation with God and regeneration of the individual as well as of the people” (Wickert 29).

Throughout the Vox Clamantis, Gower makes the usual medieval point that God sends afflictions upon mankind to punish it for sin and remind it that a proper path of conduct, intended to lead to salvation, is required in this life. “It is the parable of the prodigal son that the author experiences,” explains Wickert, “just as Augustine had seen it, in two principal phases of self-contemplation and return to God. Thus is discovered the meaning of earthly suffering, which is to divorce the soul from the world and guide it back to God” (Wickert 52). Recognition of individual responsibility for present circumstances is the precondition for that return.

Central also to Wickert’s study is the perception that Gower’s poem is not estates satire per se, but an extended penitential sermon in the manner of a Johannine homily, which typically proceeds in its condemnation of society by examining categories of people responsible for the failures of the community.

It is no accident that the third and most extensive of five chapters dealing with the Vox Clamantis (the sixth and last is a discussion of Gower’s narrative technique in the Confessio Amantis) shows in great detail how Gower’s criticism grows in both content and form out of the late medieval ecclesiastical notion that the corruption of the world has gotten so out of hand that Christian congregations must be hammered into compliance with the teachings of the church by combined applications of increpatio (rebuke), admonitio (warning), and comminatio (threat).

Gower’s presentation of the failures of the military, the church, and the various components of the economic strata of his society must have resonated with a German scholar of the immediate post-war period living in the midst of a similar national evaluation of a military that had lost its way, an industrial-commercial complex that had been content to go along for the profits, and an ecclesiastical community whose own backward-looking habits coincided all too neatly with those of the extreme right who had hijacked Germany.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2013 by Robert J. Meindl

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