The Legend of Good Women, a poem recounting the stories of women from history and myth who were martyrs to love, is written in the tradition of medieval love poetry. Unlike Geoffrey Chaucer’s masterpieces, Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382) and The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), this work only occasionally rises above the limitations imposed by the artificial conventions of the times and is, therefore, somewhat inferior to these other works. Chaucer’s greatness as a poet resulted less from his ability to perfect the current modes of writing than from his capacity to transcend them. Although his debt to contemporary thought and literary practice was considerable, his lasting position among English writers depends largely on his gift for bringing reality to a literature that was customarily unrealistic. In The Legend of Good Women, however, he constructed a framework so restrictive as to prevent his being able to infuse it with the richness and subtle shadings of human existence.
The most engaging part of the poem is the prologue, in which Chaucer expresses his elation at the arrival of spring and his delight in roaming through the meadows, listening to the small birds, and gazing at the flowers. He is especially attracted to the daisy, which he can observe for hours without becoming bored. One spring day, after a walk in the fields, he falls asleep and has a vision in which the god of love and the beautiful Alceste, dressed in the colors of the daisy, appear before him. Cupid denounces the dreamer for having committed heresy against the laws of love in writing of Criseyde’s infidelity and translating the Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370), with its disparaging remarks about womankind. Cupid’s companion (the same Alceste whom Hercules rescued from Hades after she had given her life to redeem her husband from death) rises to the poet’s defense by contending that he, having appropriated his plots from other writers, has acted out of ignorance, not malice. She concludes that he might gain Cupid’s forgiveness by writing a legendry of wives and maidens who have been faithful in love all of their lives.
The prologue is filled with literary devices popular in the fourteenth century. The religion of love—which had its sins, penances, self-abnegation, and sanctity, as well as the figures of Cupid and Alceste, somewhat analogous to God and the Virgin Mary—closely paralleled the Christian religion. The daisy had recently replaced the rose as the symbol of love. Chaucer touches on the question of whether the flower or the leaf is superior, apparently a hotly debated issue in courtly circles, but the poet does not commit himself. The dream-vision used here had been a very popular device ever since the appearance of the Romaunt of the Rose, and Chaucer himself employed it in several works. Despite this elaborate machinery, which today is mainly of historic interest, the prologue has about it a universal appeal; cheerfulness, humor, and a tinge of ironic detachment preserve it from mediocrity. Also delightful is Chaucer’s expression of pleasure in nature.
According to the prologue, Chaucer planned to write twenty tales about good women. He finished eight and left a ninth just short of completion. The theme of all the legends is the fidelity of women in love. All the heroines suffer for, and the majority die for, their love. All are treated as wholly admirable, even saintly, without regard to the illicit nature of some of the relationships presented. Events in their lives that are not concerned with their fidelity are omitted or...
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