Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The House of Fame

Chaucer's House of Fame is one of his major "dream poems," and many critics feel it's his finest. Although unfinished, it has all the best elements of his work: a vast, cosmic setting, a wry take on the conventions of allegory, and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Other poets were lofted to the skies by eagles, but only Chaucer's eagle complains about how heavy he is (and this would seem to accord with the portraits we have).

Many of the classical and continental poets admired by Chaucer used the dream-poem, with its personalized allegory of the order of things, as a vehicle for theological or ethical argument; some of the best-known were Cicero's Dream of Scipio Africanus, Alain de L'Isle's Plaint of Nature, and The Romance of the Rose (an English translation of which appears to have been Chaucer's first major work as a poet). Even Dante's Divine Comedy, with its most serious of settings, takes many of its cues from this tradition.

In the House of Fame, we see an explanation for the "fickleness" of Fame, both eternal (the names in stone) and ephemeral (the names carved in ice). We also get a treatise on acoustics, by way of explaining how the sounds of human chatter reach to the heavens, where the blind goddess Fame heralds them with one sort of trumpet -- or another.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the poem, and the one that speaks most to us today, is the final section, describing the Domus Dedali (house of Daedalus). Here, trapped in a vast wicker rotating chamber, rumor-mongers of all stripes, repeat, distort, mangle, and contend with language. It sounds a lot like the Internet to me!

Some order is promised at the end, when a "man of great authority" -- imagined by some to have been meant to have been Dante himself -- steps forward -- but this, alas, turns out to be the last line of the poem. Unless some forgotten fragment turns up, the world will never know what this man might have said, or done.

NB: You can skip the latter portion of Book I (lines 140-496) which rehearses the story of the ├ćneid.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Wife of Bath

Of all of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, the "sely" Wife of Bath -- Alisoun, by name -- has been, from the very start, the most vivid and memorable. Her passion, her "wandering by the way," and her battles with each of the five husbands she had "at chirche door" are the stuff of legend.

And, as with other Canterbury pilgrims, the variants in Chaucer's manuscript reveal rich and complex possibilities that are lost in a standardized text or translation.  For instance, the Wife of Bath's Prologue famously begins:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right y-nough for me ...

Except that, in many manuscripts, it doesn't. In the Corpus Christi manuscript -- one of the oldest and finest known -- it runs this way:

Experiment though noon Auctoritee
Were in this world, is ryght ynough for me ...             (folio 100r)

What difference does that make?  An enormous one, both then and now, as the renowned British author Jeanette Winterson has noted:
I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
So, if you were editing the text of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, which word would you choose?  And why?
NB: If you like, you can look up the words experiment and experience in the Middle English Dictionary, which will show you how those words were used in Chaucer's day.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clerici" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a sort of graduate student -- represents a significant class today; there are 20.2 million college students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.