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House of Fame Short Intro.pdf - The HOUSE O£ Fame If the...

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Unformatted text preview: The HOUSE O£ Fame If the chief focus of the Book of the Duchess is human emotion, specifically the power of grief, the House of Fame forms a distinctive contrast: It is a highly intellectual and literary poetic performance, skeptical if not lighthearted in tone. As one reader calls it, this “most bookish of Chaucer’s books”l puts Chau- cer’s learning on display. In the guise of bewilderment, the dreaming narrator launches into the major theories of the origins and interpretation of dreams' themselves. He draws knowledgeably upon biblical dreams and themes, he retells the ancient story of Dido and Aeneas from the conflicting perspectives of Virgil and Ovid; he demonstrates a wide-ranging knowledge of classical and medieval literary traditions from Homer (whom he could only have known indirectly) to the great Italian visionary poet Dante; and he even shows a respectable understanding of medieval astronomy, physics, and aeoustics. Although the poem wears its learning lightly—«indeed, it mocks erudition and artistic pretense—\it is an ambitious and bravura demonstration of its author’s increasing confidence in his craft. It is probably the poem that his fifteenth- century admirer and imitator, John Lydgate, called “Dante in lnglissh.”2 At the same time, the House of Fame presents something of a paradox: Far from “bookish,” its nervous, confiding narrator offers us glimpses into What seems to be the poet’s “real life.” To some extent, this impression is a function of Chaucer’s growing ability to capture the pace and movement of dialogue in the engaging conversation of the eagle and his fretfui charge: ‘Don’t you want to learn anything about the stars?’ the bird asks the squirming poet he carries in his ciaws higher and higher into the heavens. “Nay, certeynly,” the dreamer replies, "right nought.” “And why?” “For I am now too old” (993—95). When the eagle plays upon his passenger’s fear of falling, drawing attention to how troublesome he is to carry (see 574, 660, 737—46), the reader recalls medieval portraiture of a small, plump Chaucer and the other places in his poetry where he represents himself as a r‘popet” (a little doll) with a wide waist (see the Prologue to Sir Thopas, the Canterbury Tales 7.700—701). Like those other, later “Chaucers,” this one is presented as a poet—one who has composed “bookes, songes, dytees” in honor of Love (622). Who, one wonders, is the person (the r‘oon I coude nevene [name],” 562) of whom he is reminded by the eagle barking out the command “Awake”? Many have conjectured that it is the poet’s wife, Philippa Chaucer, a surmise reinforced by the seeming veri— similitude of the poem’s description of late nights reading, after a day spent laboring over the “rekeninges” or accounts that would have been Chaucer’s very real responsibility in his job as customs controller (see, 652—60). Indeed, ' the eagle goes so far as to address Chaucer by his given Christian name: “Gef- frey" (729)—the only time in ail his poetry where he is addressed with this kind of familiarity. I _ But it is important to remember that such gestures are at the same time highly conventional. Beatrice also called Dante by name at a similar moment 1. A. J. Minnis, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Shorter Poems (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995), 183. 2. lohn Lvdeate. Fall of Princes. m-I. Henri! neropn FFTR ns 12] n .manw nvrnwi no room 40 THE HOUSE or FAME in the Divine Comedy (Purgatorio 30.5 5), to mark a moment of spiritual tran- sition. In the House of Fame, the theme of identity, reputation, name (a word that appears twenty—three times just in Book 3) is central to the poem’s mean— ing. Chaucer is thus not so much self-revealing here as he is deploying the notion of privacy as part of a complex investigation of different kinds of truth, both personal and public. In the end, the House of Fame remains stubbornly skeptical about the y:ad_idfiy_o_l:hh_unian cpmfirnnnicatiom..both.written.amLoral, and the narrator dissatisfied with the—kinds of revelations he discovers in either the palace of the goddess Fame or the contiguous spinning House of Rumor. Rather than conferring authority on Fame, the narrator declares that he does not intend to seek meaning in literary or social reputation (“l wot myself best how I stonde”; 1878), and he expresses frustration with the news he finds in her realm: “[T]hese be no swiehe tydinges /A5 1 mene of” (1894795). Given what he has observed, his conclusions are unsurprising. The only law that governs Fame’s distribution of renown is that of complete arbitrariness; worth and desert have nothing to do with the reward of good or bad fame, as individ- uals in precisely equal positions receive from the goddess opposite results (see, for example, 177L432). On the level of form, the poem registers its skepticism in its parody of the traditional dream vision. From its temporal and physical setting (December 10, rather than the conventional springtime; a sandy desert, an icy palace rather than a lush garden) to the lore and science provided by its garrulous avian guidezfigure, the House of Fame systematically frustrates the reader’s visionary expectations. Chaucer repeatedly reminds us of all the aspiring visionaries of literary, mythological, and biblical history to whom he should not be compared. “1 am not Enoch,” he asserts, "nor Elijah, Romulus, or Ganymede” (588—89), echoing Dante’s “I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul” (Inferno 2.32). But, whereas for Dante such protests called attention to the poet’s visionary aspirationgfoi Chaucer they offer repeated”opportunipiesfitgifldermine it, especially as he draws ffid fellow travelers, like Icarus and Phaeton (920, 942), into his circle. The eagle, himself a transplant from Dante’s Porgotorio (9.13733), may soar into the stratosphere, but his science is decidedly pedestrian and peculiarly material, as for instance when he informs the narrator that, in the principality of Fame, sounds assume the bodily form of the person who uttered them "[bJe it clothed red or blake” (1078). Similarly, the invocations to Books 2 and 3, based on invocations in the Divine Comedy, fall flat, with the poet's repeated expressions of doubt in his own ability (“if any vertu in thee be”; 526) as with his plan to kiss the next laurel he sees if only Apollo will assist him (1106— l 108). Such parodic moments are less likely to put one in mind of Dante than of the hapless dreamer in the Book of the Duchess when he promises a feather- bed to Juno, Morpheus, or ‘any other person, I don’t care who’ (242—44), if providedwith the gift-of sleep. It is difficult even to be sure what kind of vision the Home of Fame is sup- posed to be. There are many clues that it will be a love—vision: The chief loca— tion of the first book, which explores different interpretations of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas, is the Temple of Venus; BOUk 2. begins with an invocation to the goddess of Love; and the eagle there promises the dreamer recompense for his service of Venus and Cupid (613—19). But the theme of love is more intermittent than consistently developed, and there is certainly no sustained attempt to follow earlier medieval authors like Alain de Lille, Jean de Meun, or Dante in building a serious philosophical discussion on the frame- work of earthly love. Ultimately, _th£p9gr_n ,seerng flfimlnfld‘m’w ent synthesis of topilisfo'riany philo phical or literary position _eyp_n_d,a. Qumran-sakes);"of'éé‘ftlil'jffame. This postfire certainly‘lias implications for under—slant mg ' hat islprobalily'the greatest puzzle posed by the H ouse ofFome, THE House or FAME 41 While the poem’s first editor, the fifteenth-century bibliophjle William Cax— ton, solved the problem expeditiously with a twelve-line wrap—up (included here in a footnote) that awakens the poet who marvels briefly at his dream and determines to understand it better in the future, later readers have offered more elaborate theories. The man of great authority,” who suddenly appears at the poems end to be on the point of delivering much-awaited news and closure, has been variously identified. Perhaps he is a member of Chaucer’s audience (whether John of Gaunt, a foreign messenger bringing a report on a highly anticipated marriage, or the master of revels at a seasonal celebration), a literary-historical figure (maybe Boethius or Boccaccio), the allegorical figure of “Amer,” or Jesus Christ himself.3 Of course, such identifications assume that Chaucer had a specific figure in mind, a premise that many readers, espe— cially more recent ones, argue the poem does not support. Indeed, during the past two decades, most critics have turned from the task of identifying the “man of great authority” to discussing the significance to the world—view of the poem of his absence. His is an authority that, as the Pmuhmli£€ line suggfsfltflsiggpfllflsegngswtflflbe.” Thumdfifing forward toward reso utiEn in the form of a unitary truth imparted at the poem’s conclusion, the poem's structure is labyrinthine or circular.4 For no advance on its opening discussion of dreams has been achieved, and nowhere does it establish any basis for a secure or definitive conclusion, as is suggested as well by the mul- tiplication of truths in Book 3, almost as long as Books 1 and 2 combined. In the end, the whirling Wicker House of Rumor, where the dreamer ends his travels observing the inevitable compounding of truth and falsehood, offers a fitting architectural image for the restless, tentative world of texts that Chaucer represents in this poem. Like her sister—goddess Fortune (see 1547), Fame, of course, also conveys the contingency and instabilit of earthly renown. Chaucer draws his descrip— ition of Fame chiefly fromttgséespassages of classical literature: first, her char- acterization in Virgil’ sgneiipl. 173—97 as the last of Mother Earth’s daughters, a swift and s apéTEhifting monster covered with feathers that con- ceal watchful eyes, blabbing mouths, and ears pricked up for the slightest news; second, her mountaintop location in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 12.39763, midway between “the land and seas and the celestial regions,” in a dwelling with count— less entrances and openings and visited by mobs of liars and tale-tellers who fill her hall with a roar like that of the sea (both passages are included here in the Contexts section). Chaucer is alert to the differences between Virgil and Ovid elsewhere in the poem. In Book i, lines 1437467, their conflicting per- spectives on the story of Dido and Aeneas help the poet to (dis)organize his own complex reading, which veers from word—for—word citation of Virgil to over— identification with Dido and back again to Virgil and Aeneas’s victories in Italy. The placement of Virgil, carrying "[tJhe fame of Pius Eneas’.J (1485), next to Ovid, “Venus clerk” (1487), inFame’s hall in Book 3, eoyly reminds us that neither alone offers a full or verifiable account. If they concur about nothing 3. Space prevents a comprehensive enumeration of the many critics who have participated in this debate, but a partial list would include Larry Benson, "The ‘Love Tydynges’ in Chaucer’s House of Fame,” in Chaucer in the Eighties, ed. Julian N. Wasserman and Robert J. Blanch (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, £986), 3—22 (marriage news); B. J. Shoeck, "A Legal Reading of Chaucer’s Home of Fame,” University of Toronto Quarterly 23 (1954): 185792 (seasonal celebration); John M. Steadman, "The House of Fame: Tripartite Structure and Occasion," Conndtations 3.1 (1993): 1— 12. (seasonal celebration); Paul G. Ru ggiers, “The Unity of Chaucer’s Home of Fame,” Studies in Philology 50 (1953): 16729 (Boethius); R. C. Goffin, "Quitjng by Tidings in the Home ofF'cme,” Medium Aevum 12 (i943): 40—44 (Boccaccio); Pat Trefzger Overbeck, “The ’Man of Gret Auc- torite’ in Chaucer's House omene,” Modern Philology 73 (1975): 157m61 ("Amor”); B. G. Koonce, Chaucer and the Tradition of Fame: Symbolinn in the Home ofFame (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966), esp. 266—75 (Christ). ': 4. As suggested by Penelope Reed Doob, The idea of the Labyrinthfrom Classical Antiquity through the il'liddle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), 307—39, and Rosemarie P. McGerr, Chaucer‘s Open 42 THE HOUSE orT FAME else, however, Virgil and Ovid provide a vision of Fame herselfiher incon- stancy, perfidy, and general monstrousnessithat is remarkably consistent. They agree, paradoxically, only that-there is no authoritative textual basis for agreement——that is, for validation of a unitary truth. And linguistically, Chau- cer pushes their rupture even further. In distinguishing between the dwellings of Fame and Rumor, Chaucer draws a contrast that would not have been-pres— ent in his Latin sources (where the word “Fama” means both “Fame” and “Rumor"l In every way, then, the lady Famewand all her queendom—produces an unsettling, even frightening, portrait of caprice and inconstancy. It is somewhat ironic to find this essentially misogynist icon in a poem that had earlier intro- duced examples of female resistance to male transgression. Here, perhaps for the first time—through brief retellings of the misfortunes of Dido, Phyllis (389w96), Ariadne (405—26), and other57Chaucer undertakes to represent the woman’s point of view, a theme that will occupy many of his future poems. Compared to the Boole of the Duchess, which praises the lady Whyte without ever inhabiting her perspective, the House of Fame shows a genuine, if comic, interest in female agency and subjectivity. It also interestingly includes the non-human animal voice, in the eaglewguide and indeed in feather-covered Fame herself.S Certainly, this blurring of boundaries—across genders and spe- ClESwiS not experienced as entirely positive; it contributes to the sense of dan- ger and uncertainty that surrounds Fame, but the poem’s fluidity also suggests that not all truths will be found in the determinate textual tradition under- written by male authority. The House of Fame grants significant power to the oral/aural distributing of information over which Fame presides and to which the narrator-poet is referred for material for his art. The relationship of the House of Fame to Chaucer’s later poetry, and espe cially to the Parliament of Fowls, the dream vision that most critics believe he turned to next, is thus complex. Again in the Parliament, Chaucer will show a realm ruled by a goddess or two, if one counts the seductive figure of Venus; again, he will explore a way to represent female agency; again, the animal world will be represented in the parliament of birds. Because the Parliament brings greater unity and closure to these and other disparate elements—and because it uses verse forms associated more closely with Chaucer’s later career—editors and critics traditionally have assigned the House of Fame an earlier date, usually between 1378 and 1380. Although no theory as to the poem’s specific occasion has ever won favor, there is little doubt that it post—dates the Book ofthe Duch— ess; it demonstrates a more flexible and adept metrical sense, and the pervasive influence of Dante argues for a date after Chaucer’s first trip to Italy in 1372- 73. But little certainty can be had about whether the House comes before or after the Parliament, usually dated 1380—82. Although its four-beat line makes it metrically more similar to the Book of the Duchess than tothe rest of Chau- cer’s poetry, which works in a five—beat line, some of the short lyrics, also composed in complex pentameter verse forms (for example, “An ABC” or “The Complaint to Pity”), are usually assigned an early date, complicating any simple division of Chaucer’s career solely on the basis of metrics. In fact, many schol- ars and editors register some uncertainty about the date of the House of Fame. Among other arguments, Helen Cooper notes the extensive influence of Boe— thius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which Chaucer probably translated in the early £3805, as a reason to date the House of Fame after the Parliament of F owls.“ While the Oxford Guide to the Shorter Poems affirms the earlier date, 5. See Lesley Kordecid, “Subversive Voices in Chaucer’s House ofP'amc,"Exemplaria 11 (1999): 53— 77. 6. Helen Cooper, “The Four Last Things in Dante and Chaucer: Hugolino and the House of ”hr x; 1A .. U”... THE House or FAME ' 43 it does so only tentatively: “[T]here seems to be no compelling reason to aban— don the dating of 1379—80. Yet there seems to be no utterly compelling reason in favour of it either.”7 And, on the basis of the poet’s representation of his art in a state of crisis, John Fisher’s edition locates the House between the Parlia- ment andpoemslike-Imilus‘aual Criseyglggandglleflanier‘hyly l ales thatflld --fi~.n___/ .4... ,_ a , A. strike out in a new direction: The poem is placed here between the Book of the Duchess and the Parliament of Fowl: in deference to tradition. If, however, we take its own words to heart, we will be skeptical of all claims to certainty where literary tradition is concerned. The text here is based chiefly on the version found in the Fairfax manuscript (Fairfax 16, Bodleian Library). The House of Fame - Book 1 God turne us every dremD to goode! For it is wonder,° by the roode,° make every dream tum (f ml? marvel / (Christ's) cross To my wit what causeth swevenes° bfll‘g‘lj . dreams Either on mornzes° or on evenes,“ «5,» in the momings /evenings 5 And Why the effect folweth of some" some come true And of some it shal never come;° some do not Why that is an avisioun . And this a revelacioun, Why this a drem, Why that a sweven, 10 And nought to every man liche even; Why this a fantom, why these oracles I noot;l but whoso° of these miracles whoever The causes knoweth bet° than I, better Devyne he,° for I certeinly 15 Ne can hem nought,° he never thinke Too besily° my wit to swinke° To knowe of hir signifiaunce The gendres, neither the distaunce 0f tymes of hem,2 ne the causes, 20 Or why this more than that cause is; As if folkes complexiouns Make hem dreme of reflexiouns,3 Let him pronounce (upon them) Do not know them Too diligently / work, apply '7. Minnis, 171. 1. Why that one is a vision, and this one a revelation; why this one is a nightmare, why that one a dream, and they don't come equally to all people; (and) why this one is an hallucination, why those are prophecies, 1 do not itnow (any of this), (In the opening lines of the poem, Chaucer introduces the confusing topic of dream classification, derived ultimately from such writers as Artemidorus [second century 0.13.] and Macrobius [ca. 400 (3.13.; selections included in the Cone texts section]. Different systems suggested slightly divergent, though overlapping terminology for the various categories of dream experience; "swevens" and "dreams,” for example, are basically synonymous. Because eariy writers and thinkers did believe in prophecy and dream prognosticae tion, their most difficult task was to distinguish between true and false dreams; no system offered a foolproof way of accomplishing this. Dreams that occur in the early morning {sec line 4] were believed more likely to be true than those experienced earlier in the night.) 2. To know about the different kinds of meanings (they hide), nor the intervals of time (when they happen). . 3. I.e., I don't know if their physical constitutions are reflected in the dreams that different people have. (Nledieval dream theorv attributed snme unreliable rlrpslm‘: tn thp rlrpampr’c I‘Flh'lhnzV-rlmu‘nf ...
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