Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry: British Analysis
When reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s works, one is struck by a sense of great variety. His poetry reflects numerous sources—Latin, French, and Italian—ranging from ancient authorities to contemporary poets and including folktales, sermons, rhetorical textbooks, philosophical meditations, and ribald jokes. Equally varied are Chaucer’s poetic forms and genres: short conventional lyrics, long romances, exempla, fabliaux, allegorical dream visions, confessions, saints’ legends, and beast fables. The characters he creates, from personified abstractions, regal birds, and ancient goddesses to the odd collection of the Canterbury pilgrims and the naïve persona who narrates the poems, are similarly varied. Finally, the poems present a wide variety of outlooks on an unusual number of topics. Like the Gothic cathedrals, Chaucer’s poetry seems all-inclusive. Not surprisingly, also like the Gothic cathedrals, his poems were often left unfinished.
“Experience, though no authority,” the Wife of Bath states in the prologue to her tale, “is good enough for me.” Unlike her fifth husband, Jankin the clerk, the Wife is not interested in what “olde Romayn gestes” teach, what Saint Jerome, Tertullian, Solomon, and Ovid say about women and marriage. She knows “of the woe that is in marriage” by her own experience. This implied contrast between, on one hand, authority—the established positions concerning just about any topic set forth in the past by Scripture, ancient authors, and the Church fathers and passed on to the present by books—and, on the other hand, the individual’s experience of everyday life is central to medieval intellectual thought. It is a major theme of Chaucer’s poetry. Often Chaucer appears to establish an authority and then to contrast it with the experience of real life, testing the expected by the actual. This contrast may be tragic or comic; it may cast doubt on the authority or further support it. Often it is expressed by paired characters—Troilus and Pandarus, for example—or by paired tales, the Knight’s and the Miller’s. The characters’ long recital of authorities may be ludicrous and pompous, Chaucer’s parody of the pedant, but the pedant may be right. After Chanticleer’s concern with what all the past has said about the significance of dreams, readers probably sympathize with Pertelote’s comment that he should take a laxative. Nevertheless, once the rooster is in the fox’s mouth, the authorities are proven correct. Similarly, the sum total of the Wife of Bath’s personal experience is merely the proving, in an exaggerated form, of the antifeminist authorities. As Chaucer states in the prologue to the Parlement of Foules, out of old fields comes new corn, and out of old books new knowledge.
Related to the contrast between authority and experience are a series of other contrasts investigated by Chaucer: theological faith versus human reason, the ideal versus the pragmatic, the ritual of courtly love versus the business of making love, the dream world versus everyday life, the expectations of the rule versus the actions of the individual, and the Christian teaching of free will versus humankind’s sense of being fated. Again, these contrasts may be treated seriously or comically, may be represented by particular characters, and may be brought into temporary balance. Seldom, however, does Chaucer provide solutions. The oppositions are implicit in human nature, in the wish for the absolute and the recognition of the relative. As novelist and critic Arthur Koestler comments on a modern political version of this dilemma (as represented by the extremes of the Yogi and the Commissar), “Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.” Chaucer’s poetic and highly varied treatment of these nonmixers may help to explain why his poetry continues to speak to readers today.
Chaucer’s concern with these topics—a fascination not unusual in the dualistic Gothic world—imbues his poetry with a sense of irony. Since the 1930’s, readers have certainly emphasized Chaucer’s ironic treatment of characters and topics, a critical vogue that may be due as much to the fashions of New Criticism as to the poetry itself. However, Chaucer’s characteristic means of telling his stories clearly encourages such readings. One can never be sure of his attitude because the poet stands behind a narrator whose often naïve attitudes simply cannot be identified with his creator’s. Perhaps the creation of such a middleman between the poet and his audience was necessary for a middle-class poet reading to an aristocratic audience, or perhaps it is the natural practice of a diplomatic mind, which does not speak for itself but for another. Whatever the reasons, Chaucer’s narrators are poetically effective. They provide a unifying strand throughout his varied work. Scholar A. C. Spearing notes that “the idiot-dreamer of The Book of the Duchess develops into the idiot-historian of Troilus and Criseyde and the idiot-pilgrim of The Canterbury Tales.” Later, he comments that when Chaucer assigns the doggerel poem “The Tale of Sir Thopas” to Chaucer the pilgrim as a joke, he “takes the role of idiot-poet to its culmination.”
One result of the use of such narrators is that, in contrast with the contemporary dream vision, The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362, A Text; c. 1377, B Text; c. 1393, C Text; also known as Piers Plowman)—with its acid attacks on English society, the failures of government, and the hypocrisy of the church—Chaucer’s poetry seems aware of human foibles yet accepting of human nature. He implies rather than shouts the need for change, recognizing that in this world, at least, major reform is unlikely. His essentially Christian position, hidden behind the naïve narrator and his concern with surface details, naturalistic dialogue, and sharp description, is implied by the poem’s larger structures. They often provide symbolic patterning. The contrasts in the Parlement of Foules between the steamy atmosphere of the temple of Venus and the clear air of Nature’s dominion or in Troilus and Criseyde between the narrator’s introductory devotion to the god of love and his concluding epilogue based on Troilus’s new heavenly point of view imply Chaucer’s position concerning his favorite topic, human love. Similarly, the traditional Christian metaphor identifying life as a pilgrimage and the Parson’s identification of Canterbury with the New Jerusalem suggest that the pilgrimage from a pub in Southwark to a shrine in Canterbury is a secular version of an important traditional religious theme. The reader of Chaucer, while paying careful attention to his realism that has been found so attractive, should also be aware of the larger implications of his poetry.
Behind the medieval interest in dreams and the genre of dream visions lies a long tradition, both religious and secular, originating in biblical and classical stories and passed on in the Middle Ages in the works of Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius and Boethius. As a literary type, the dream vision, given impetus by the Romaunt of the Rose, was particularly popular in fourteenth century England. The obtuse dreamers led by authoritative guides found in such works as Piers Plowman and The Pearl (c. 1400) are typical of dream visions and may have suggested to Chaucer the creation of his characteristic naïve narrator. Certainly Chaucer’s four dream visions, as different as they are from one another, already develop this narrative voice as well as other typical Chaucerian characteristics.
Book of the Duchess
The earliest of Chaucer’s very long poems, Book of the Duchess (1,334 lines), is a dream elegy in memory of the duchess of Lancaster. The poem begins with the narrator reading in bed about dreams, specifically the Ovidian story of the tragic love of Ceyx and Alcyone. After her husband’s death, Alcyone is visited in a dream by Ceyx, leading to Alcyone’s eventual brokenhearted death. This introductory section, which as usual refers to numerous authorities on dreams, combines Chaucer’s concern with both dreams and love. These authorities provide background for the narrator’s experience in a dream. After praying to Morpheus, the narrator falls asleep to dream of another couple divided by death, a man in black (John of Gaunt) and his lost lover, “faire White” (Blanche). The dreamer’s foolish and tactless questions allow the grieving knight to express his love and sense of loss, sometimes by direct statement, on other occasions by such elaborate devices as describing a game of chess in which fortune takes his queen. The traditionally obtuse dreamer is here used in a remarkably original way. The poet is able to place the praise of the dead and the feelings of anguish in the mouth of the bereaved. Thus, this highly conventional poem, with its conscious borrowing from Ovid, Romaunt of the Rose, Jean Froissart, and Guillaume de Machaut, is an effective elegy in the restrained courtly tradition.
House of Fame
The House of Fame, Chaucer’s second dream vision, breaks off suddenly after 2,158 lines. It creates a series of allegorical structures and figures in an analysis of the relationship between love, fame, rumor, fortune, and poetry. The dreamer is here provided with a guide, Jupiter’s eagle, that probably derives from Dante’s Purgatorio 9. In book 1 he relates the romance of Aeneas and Dido, two lovers of some poetic fame whose story is portrayed in panels on a temple of glass dedicated to Venus. This temple is contrasted with the house of Fame that the dreamer sees in book 3 when the eagle rather unceremoniously whisks him into the heavens. In this second allegorical structure, the dreamer views the goddess Fame surrounded by the great poets of antiquity on pedestals. They represent the authorities who, like Vergil, record the stories of such lovers as Aeneas and Dido. The dreamer realizes, however, that Fame (and thus presumably the poets of Fame) deals out good and bad at random, suggesting that there is little relationship between actuality and reputation. He next sees the house of Rumor. Full of noise and whispering people, it is perhaps an allegorical representation of the character of everyday life. In any case, this chaotic structure is no more attractive than the house of Fame. Still searching for “tydinges of Loves folk,” the dreamer sees “a man of greet auctoritee,” but the poem breaks off before the man can speak. The reader, like the dreamer, is left in the air; the poem is left without an ending. As Muscatine comments, “It is hard to conceive of any ending at all that could consistently follow from what we have.” In fact, the poem lacks a sense of unity. Its multiple topics and elaborate descriptions are best studied as set pieces. Of particular interest is the often comic dialogue between the dreamer and the eagle in book 2.
Parlement of Foules
The Parlement of Foules (699 lines) is a more satisfactory poem, although it shares much in common with House of Fame, including a series of allegorical portraits and locales, a guide who tends to shove the dreamer around, and birds as characters. A poem describing the mating of birds on Saint Valentine’s day, the Parlement of Foules begins, like the Book of the Duchess, with the narrator reading a book about a dream. The book is Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” the standard textbook on dreams, found in the last part of De republica (51 b.c.e.; On the State, 1817). Its guide, Scipio Africanus the elder, becomes the dreamer’s guide in the Parlement of Foules. He dreams of the typical enclosed garden of romance, guarded by a gate. The gate’s contrasting inscriptions alluding to the gates of Dante’s Inferno suggest the dual nature of love: bliss, fertility, and “good aventure” on one hand, and sorrow, barrenness, and danger on the other. Within the garden, the dreamer again sees two versions of love, although, as naïve as ever, he seems bewildered and unsure of what he witnesses.
Like the Renaissance masterpiece painting of “Sacred and Profane Love by Titian,” the poem contrasts two traditional ideals of love. One is symbolized by Venus, whose entourage includes Flattery, Desire, and Lust as well as Cupid, Courtesy, and Gentleness. Her religion of love is the subject of the poets and ancient authorities whom the narrator so often reads. Her palace is dark and mannered, painted with the tragic stories of doomed lovers. In contrast, the dreamer next sees in the bright sunlight “this noble goddesse Nature,” who presides over the beauty of natural love and mating of the birds. These ceremonies include description of all levels of the hierarchy of the birds, from the pragmatic arrangements of the goose and the love devotion of the turtledove to the courtly wooing of the former by the eagles. The language of the birds, often comic, similarly ranges from the sudden “kek, kek!” and “kukkow” to elaborate Latinate diction. Although lighthearted and sometimes chaotic, the openness and social awareness of Nature’s realm is clearly to be preferred to the artificiality and self-absorption of the temple of Venus. The poem ends under Nature’s skillful guidance as the birds sing a song of spring, which awakens the dreamer. In the prologue, the narrator states that he wishes to learn of love. This dream has...
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