Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319
The Legend of Good Women is a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the great English poets of the Middle Ages. Composed in the 1380s, the poem is a dream-vision that begins with the God of Love chastising Chaucer for writing about women’s betrayal of men. The God of Love tells Chaucer to write about women who are good, departing from his past works that cast women as villains. Alceste, the queen to the God of Love, also appears to stop the narrator from portraying women as evil.
The poem features a narrator whose identity is never revealed in the poem but who is assumed to be Chaucer himself. In the prologue to the poem, the narrator is enjoying a spring day when Cupid materializes and accuses the narrator of committing heresy against love. The poem goes on to detail tragic love stories of the past, like Cleopatra and Dido. These are stories of women who have been abandoned or betrayed by men. Here, Chaucer is switching from women who betray men to men who betray women. The poem presents nine different legends and myths of women who were hurt by men: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra. These nine stories reveal women who have been, in various ways, damaged by men. Here there is a reversal of some of Chaucer’s earlier writings, as women are viewed as morally good and men morally bad. These nine sections work to show the ways that bad men can wrong women.
Scholars suggest that the God of Love in the poem functions kind of like a literary critic. The God of Love is seen as critiquing Chaucer’s portrayal of women but also critiquing his writing. The poem is also significant because it is one of the first to use iambic pentameter, which is now one of the most common literary devices in English poetry.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476
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 hastily summarized. With the exception of the first two legends, the women suffer as the result of the treachery of men, who are generally thoroughgoing villains.
The longest and one of the best of the legends retells the story of Dido’s love for Aeneas. After Aeneas lands on the Libyan coast, he meets Venus, his mother, who instructs him to go to the court of Dido, the queen of Carthage. Dido greets him cordially and, knowing of his flight from Troy, feels great pity for the disinherited hero. With her pity comes love, and to comfort and entertain Aeneas during his visit, she provides everything her riches can command.
One day, when Aeneas, Dido, and her retinue are hunting, a thunderstorm bursts upon them. Everyone rushes for shelter, and Dido and Aeneas find themselves together in a cave. There the perfidious Aeneas protests his love for her, and she, after much importuning, has pity and yields herself to him. For a time afterward, Aeneas does everything a courtly lover should, but finally, becoming weary, he makes plans to leave. When Dido notes his lessened ardor and asks him what is wrong, he tells her of a vision he has had (a pure fabrication, Chaucer implies) in which his father has reminded him of his destiny to conquer Italy. Ignoring Dido’s pleas, Aeneas steals away to his ships without her. As soon as she discovers his absence, she has her sister build a funeral pyre upon which she stabs herself, using Aeneas’s sword.
Chaucer’s principal source for this tale was Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), to which he made only slight modifications in the plot but substantial changes in characterization. Dido, who in Vergil’s telling does not escape censure, is made blameless by Chaucer, mainly by his elaboration of the scene in the cave. By minimizing the intervention of the gods and degrading Aeneas’s motives, Chaucer turns Vergil’s pious Aeneas into a mere seducer. He thus transforms a story of tragic struggle between love and duty into one of man’s treachery and woman’s loyalty.
Chaucer’s source for “The Legend of Lucretia” was Ovid’s Fasti (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1859), which he followed quite closely. To prove the virtues of his wife, Lucretia, Collatinus offers to accompany Tarquin, the king’s son, to Rome to see her. Secreted outside her chamber door, they find her spinning among her servants and expressing concern for her husband’s safety. Tarquin, observing her beauty, conceives a great desire for her. The next day, his lust increasing, he determines to return to Collatinus’s house and seduce Lucretia. Stealing into her room at night, he threatens her at the point of a sword and, while she lies in a swoon, rapes her. After he leaves, Lucretia dresses in mourning, calls her friends about her, and tells them what has happened. Declaring that her husband shall not gain a foul name from her guilt, she stabs herself.
“The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea” recounts the double treachery of Jason. On his expedition to recover the Golden Fleece, Jason stops at the island of Lemnos, where he and Hercules meet Queen Hypsipyle and conspire to win her for Jason. While Jason counterfeits modesty, Hercules extols his virtues, thus ensnaring Hypsipyle, who consents to marry Jason. After using her wealth and begetting two children with her, Jason leaves Hypsipyle. He ignores her letter imploring him to return, but she remains true to him and dies of a broken heart.
After Jason arrives at Colchis, he is entertained by King Aeetes, and Medea, the king’s daughter, becomes enamored of him. She tells him that the Golden Fleece can be secured only with her help. They agree to marry, and Jason makes a solemn promise never to be untrue. Later, after the expedition is successful, Jason again proves false, leaving Medea to marry Creusa.
Toward the end of The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer’s work indicates a definite weariness with his subject. By adhering to his original plan, he had written tales with a tiresome sameness about them. Committed to depicting perfect women and, in most instances, evil men, he found it difficult to develop his characters. A further deterrent to good characterization was his effort to keep the tales brief; as a result, some are little more than plot summaries. Because he lavished more attention on Dido than on his other heroines, hers is the most lifelike portrait. There are, however, good touches in the other female characters, including, for example, the pathos of Lucretia in her death scene and the mingled fear and courage of Thisbe. Chaucer’s men are, however, little more than abstractions.
These tales mark a step toward Chaucer’s later work. In The Legend of Good Women, he first used the decasyllabic couplet that he afterward employed so successfully in The Canterbury Tales. Moreover, juxtaposing The Legend of Good Women with Troilus and Criseyde was good preparation for the subtler contrasts of the Marriage Group. It is possible that Chaucer abandoned the work because of growing absorption with The Canterbury Tales. Whatever the case, The Legend of Good Women is an interesting transitional work with merits of its own.
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