The Confessio was apparently popular in its own time; its 49 surviving manuscripts suggest a popularity about halfway between Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (80 copies) and Troilus and Criseyde (16 copies). Nonetheless, Gower, perhaps more than any poet of his period, has suffered through his close association with Chaucer, who as the preeminent maker of the English Middle Ages overshadows his peers in the same way that Shakespeare dominates the turn of the 17th century. And despite this apparent popularity, critical reactions to the work have often been unfavourable.
In the fifteenth century, Gower and Chaucer were invariably regarded together as the founders of English poetry. John Lydgate praised "Gower Chaucers erthly goddes two", The Kings Quair was dedicated to "Gowere and chaucere, that on the steppis satt/ of rethorike", and George Ashby called Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate "premier poetes of this nacion" (quoted by Fisher, 1965: 3).
The first known criticism is an apparent reference in Chaucer's 'Man of Law's Prologue': the eponymous Man, praising Chaucer, observes that
- no word ne writeth he
- Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee
- That loved hir owene brother synfully—
- Of swiche cursed stories I say fy!—
- Or ellis of Tyro Appollonius,
- How that the cursed kyng Antiochus
- Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede,
That is so horrible a tale for to rede
- (Canterbury Tales, II.77–84: Bradley et al. 1988)
Both these examples are references to the Confessio (Canace is III.143–336), and it has sometimes been thought that this passage was the direct cause of the removal of the dedication to Chaucer from the later editions of the work (see "Textual History" above). It should be noted that this veiled criticism of the Confessio 's immoral stories is not necessarily inconsistent with Chaucer's famous dubbing of his friend "Moral Gower"; that passage, in Chaucer's Troilus, was likely written before Gower even began the Confessio.
Later generations have been equally unkind. The influential assessment of Puttenham (1589:50) found Gower's English verse inadequate in every respect:
Gower [...] had nothing in him highly to be commended, for his verse was homely and without good measure, his wordes strained much deale out of the French writers, his ryme wrested, and in his inuentions small subtilitie: the applications of his moralities are the best in him, and yet those many times very grossely bestowed, neither doth the substance of his workes sufficiently aunswere the subtiltie of his titles.
By the 19th century, the Confessio was regarded by some as an established "monument of dulness and pedantry" (quoted by Coffman 1945:52). While Macaulay (1901, 1908) was cautiously appreciative, his contemporary Crawshaw (1907:61) attributed to the work "a certain nervelessness or lack of vigor, and a fatal inability to understand when he had said enough". Even C.S. Lewis, who has been quoted above admiring the style of the work, was unconvinced by its structure, describing the epilogue as "a long and unsuccessful coda" (Lewis 1936:222).
Gower has also been given his share of appreciation. A 15th-century treatise printed by Caxton describes "his bookes, called Confessionalle" as
- Ful of sentence / set ful fructuosly
- That hym to rede / shal gyue you corage
He is so ful of fruyt, sentence and langage
- (Book of Curtesye, 327–329: Furnivall 1868)
In some cases he is praised and damned at once; Jonson (1640) considers him dangerously attractive, and liable to damage young writers who might be tempted to imitate his style:
...beware of letting them taste Gower, or Chaucer at first, lest falling too much in love with Antiquity, and not apprehending the weight, they grow rough and barren in language onely
Peck (2000) interprets this as unambiguous praise. And even the structure of his work has been declared perfect by some: Coffman (1945:58) argues that
[it] has a large integrity and unity based on a defense of [Gower's] ethical scheme for the universe . . . Gower tells in the Prologue exactly what he is going to do. He does it well. It is worth doing. And he recapitulates in the Epilogue.
Watt (2003:11) sums up the divided critical reactions as "reflecting . . . the complexity of both the poem itself, which invites conflicting interpretations and contradictory reactions, and its textual history".