The Confessio is divided into a prologue and eight books, which are divided thematically. The narrative structure is overlaid on this in three levels: the external matter, the narrative frame, and the individual tales which make up the bulk of the work.
The external matter comprises the prologue, which spills over briefly into the start of Book 1, and an epilogue at the end of Book 8. Unlike the bulk of the Confessio, these have much in common with Gower's previous works (Pearsall 1966:475). In the prologue he details at some length the numerous failings he identifies in the three estates (government, church, and people) of his time. This section ends with an account of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (which draws on a similar passage in the Vox Clamantis), identifying the statue's feet of iron mixed with clay with the medieval world that Gower perceives as hopelessly divided and in danger of imminent collapse. Tens of thousands of lines later, the epilogue returns to these concerns, again touching on the matters Gower believes each estate needs most urgently to attend to.
In this context, the plan of the work given in the prologue is one of the most-quoted passages of the poem:
- Bot for men sein, and soth it is,
- That who that al of wisdom writ
- It dulleth ofte a mannes wit
- To him that schal it aldai rede,
- For thilke cause, if that ye rede,
- I wolde go the middel weie
- And wryte a bok betwen the tweie,
Somewhat of lust, somewhat of lore...
This is essentially what he does; the external matter and parts of the narrative frame, together with some long digressions (most notably the whole of Book 7, discussed below) make up the "lore", while the majority of the tales are wholly concerned with "lust".
The frame story as such is easily summarised. The narrator of this section, conventionally referred to as Amans or the Lover, wanders through a forest in May, as medieval lovers typically do, and despairs at his lack of success. He invokes Venus and Cupid, who promptly appear and demand to know the reason for his sorrow. Upon being told that he is on the verge of dying from love, Venus insists that he be shriven, and summons her chaplain Genius to hear his confession. When at last Genius pronounces Amans absolved of all his sins against love, Venus cures him of his infatuation.
As the work's title implies, therefore, the bulk of the work is devoted to Amans' confession. This broadly follows the pattern of Christian confessions of the time. Genius leads Amans through the seven deadly sins, interpreting them in the context of the courtly love tradition. He explains the various aspects of each one with exempla, and requires Amans to detail any ways in which he has committed them. The design is that each book of the poem shall be devoted to one sin, and the first six books follow the traditional order for the first six sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, and gluttony.
At this point, however, Gower breaks his form and digresses: at the end of Book 6 Amans requests that Genius give him a break from the confession and teach him wisdom instead, and Genius responds in Book 7 by discoursing at length on the education given by Aristotle to Alexander the Great. In Gower's hands this becomes a treatise on good kingship, and it is in this book that it is most obvious how the work is intended to answer the royal commission. This notwithstanding, the digression, and the consequent flaw in an otherwise strict plan, is the most frequently criticised aspect of the poem's structure (see e.g. Pearsall 1966:476).
Book 8 returns to the confession. According to the traditional system, the final sin should be lechery, but since this can hardly be considered a sin against Venus, the topic of the final book is narrowed to the single perversion of incest. Though this is one sin Amans is innocent of, Genius contrives to fill a book nonetheless by telling the longest and best-known story in the Confessio, namely Apollonius of Tyre (VIII.271–2008).
The treatment given to individual stories varies widely. The Apollonius is nearly 2,000 lines long, but at the other extreme, the distinction between tale and allusion is hard to define; for example, summaries of the story of Troilus and Criseide appear in three places (II.2456–2458, IV.7597–7602, VIII.2531–2535), but none can really be described as a "tale". It follows that it is hard to produce a definite figure for the number of tales in the Confessio. Even excluding the very shortest, however, there are over 100 individual stories (Macaulay 1908), making them more numerous than the strict 100 of the Decameron, and much more so than the Canterbury Tales or the Legend of Good Women.
None of Gower's tales are original. The source he relies on most is Ovid, whose Metamorphoses was ever a popular source of exempla; others include the Bible and various other classical and medieval writers, of whom Macaulay (1908) lists Valerius Maximus, Statius, Benoît de Sainte-Maure (the Roman de Troie), Guido delle Colonne (Historia destructionis Troiae), Godfrey of Viterbo, Brunetto Latini, Nicholas Trivet, the Romans des sept sages, the Vita Barlaam et Josaphat, and the Historia Alexandri Magni.
The best-known tales are those that have analogues in other English writers, since these are often studied for comparison. These include the Apollonius, which served as a source for the Shakespearean Pericles, and the tales shared with Chaucer, such as the tales of Constance (II.587–1603, also told by the Man of Law) and Florent (I.1407–1875, also told by the Wife of Bath).
List of the Tales
- The Tale of Acteon (I.330-388)
- The Tale of Medusa (I.389-462)
- Aspidis the Serpent (I.463-480)
- The Sirens (I.481-530)
- The Tale of Mundus and Paulina (I.761-1076)
- The Trojan Horse (I.1077-1230)
- The Tale of Florent (I.1407-1882)
- The Tale of Capaneus (I.1980-2020)
- The Trump of Death (I.2021-2253)
- The Tale of Narcissus (I.2275-2366)
- The Tale of Albinus and Rosemund (I.2459-2647)
- Nebuchadnezzar's Vainglorious Punishment (I.2785-3042)
- The Tale of Three Questions (I.3067-3402)
- The Tale of Acis and Galatea (II.97-200)
- The Tale of the Travelers and the Angel (II.291-372)
- The Tale of Constance (II.587-1612)
- The Tale of Demetrius and Perseus (II.1613-1860)
- The Tale of Deianira, Hercules, and Nessus (II.2145-2307)
- The Tale of Geta and Amphitrion (II.2459-2500)
- The Tale of the False Bachelor (II.2501-2781)
- The Tale of Pope Boniface (II.2803-3040)
- The Tale of Constantine and Sylvester