First, a word of warning about this edition. It simply reproduces Gower's original text and does not contain any introduction, glossary or explanatory notes. It is not, therefore, suitable for anyone not already familiar with Middle English. Unlike, however, his contemporaries William Langland (a Midlander) and the so called "Pearl Poet" (a Northerner), Gower wrote in the south-eastern dialect which formed the basis for modern standard English, so anyone who knows Chaucer in the original should have no difficulty with his language.
John Gower is, together with Chaucer, Langland and the Pearl Poet (whose true identity is unknown) one of the key figures in the English literature of the late 14th century. These authors are sometimes known as the "Ricardians", after King Richard II in whose reign they produced most of their works, and the period has been seen as representing a rebirth of English as a literary language. Ever since the Norman Conquest three centuries earlier, English, although it remained the mother-tongue of the great majority of the population, had been overshadowed by Latin and French as a written language. Indeed, Gower himself (unlike Chaucer or Langland) wrote works in both those languages, "Vox Clamantis" in Latin and "Le Miroir de l'Homme, later renamed "Speculum Meditantis", in French. "Confessio Amantis" ("The Lover's Confession") is in fact his only major work in English.
Like Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" or Boccaccio's "Decameron" "Confessio Amantis" is a collection of tales set within a narrative framework. It is divided into eight books and takes the form of the confession made by a lover, named at first only as "Amans" (Latin for "lover") but later identified as Gower himself, to Genius, a priest of Venus. It is based upon the sort of confession a penitent might make to a Christian priest, and Genius leads Amans through the seven deadly sins, urging him to confess his "sins against love" and telling him a series of moral stories exemplifying the sins under discussion. (The one sin which is not fully dealt with is lust. In the eyes of a priest of the Goddess of Love this presumably does not count as a sin). There are also a number of lengthy digressions from the main theme, especially the whole of Book VII which consists of a lengthy discourse on the education given by Aristotle to Alexander the Great and a treatise on good kingship.
As with a number of literary works from the mediaeval and Renaissance periods the result is a blend of Christianity and paganism. Most of Genius' tales are taken from Classical mythology, but some come from history, some from the Bible and some from Christian legends of the saints. It can seem incongruous to the modern mind that a pagan priest is preaching the Christian gospel to a worshipper of Venus, but doubtless the fourteenth-century mind was less troubled by such matters.
The concept of the "seven deadly sins" also forms the basis of Chaucer's "Parson's Tale", and a number of the stories in the "Confessio" also occur in the "Canterbury Tales". For example, the "Tale of Constance" told by Gower in Book II is essentially the same as Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale". During their lifetimes, Chaucer and Gower were held in equal esteem by their contemporaries, and had the history of English literature taken a different course, "Poets Corner" might today be centred on Gower's elaborate tomb in Southwark Cathedral rather than on Chaucer's in Westminster Abbey. As things turned out, however, it is Chaucer who is often seen as the "father of English poetry", whereas Gower is a much less well-known figure. Chaucer's influence on subsequent literature has been immense, whereas few later writers were influenced by Gower. (The obvious exception is Shakespeare, who based his "Pericles" upon the "Tale of Apollonius of Tyre" in Gower's Book VIII).
Having now read all 30,000-odd lines of the "Confessio", as well as the "Canterbury Tales" and most of Chaucer's other original works, I can understand why it is Chaucer who today enjoys the greater reputation. Whether he is a "greater" poet than Gower is a subjective matter, but to my mind there can be little doubt that Chaucer is both more original and more varied. Chaucer's standard line is the iambic pentameter, at this period a new innovation in English poetry. His lines are normally arranged in couplets, but he sometimes varies this by writing in the seven-line stanzas known as "rhyme royal" (as in "Troilus and Criseyde" or "The Prioress' Tale") or even in prose (as in "Melibeus"). Apart from a brief passage in Book VIII, Gower writes throughout in octosyllabic couplets, and his shorter lines can lead to monotonous regularity.
One of the great attractions of the Canterbury Tales" for the modern reader is the vivid picture it gives of a cross-section of mediaeval society. Chaucer's narrators are drawn from a variety of different professions, and many of, such as the Pardoner or the Wife of Bath, emerge as great characters in their own right. There is none of this variety in the "Confessio", which retains throughout the same atmosphere of courtly love, except in those lengthy digressions which have more the atmosphere of the university lecture theatre.
This does not mean that Gower is not worth reading. He is an accomplished story teller and the "Confessio" contains some fine passages. He is, however, perhaps a writer for those with a special interest in mediaeval literature rather than one for the general reader.