By Jonathan Dent
By the time Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he had been living for almost a year in obscurity in a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, and on his death he was buried in a modest grave in the church’s south transept. The poet’s last few months had not been his happiest. At the close of a decade in which he had gradually retired from the various administrative offices he had occupied under Edward III and Richard II, Richard’s deposition by Henry Bolingbroke in September 1399 had turned Chaucer’s world upside down. The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse, which was directed to the new king, makes it clear that his fortunes, which had been in the ascendant for much of Richard’s reign, could not now be much worse:
Ye [i.e. the purse] by my lyf, ye be myn hertes stere. life, star
Quene of comfort and of good companye,
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moot I dye. be, must, die
This story takes a happy twist, though, in the years immediately after Chaucer’s burial. A new incarnation of the poet found himself in luxurious circumstances, as likenesses of Chaucer began to pop up in the margins and on the frontispieces of increasingly sumptuous manuscript copies of his own works (especially of the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde), and even, as a tutelary and authorizing presence, alongside the works of his friend and disciple, Thomas Hoccleve.
By 1476 Chaucer’s reputation was such that the first printed book in English, issued by William Caxton from his new printing press at Westminster was the first edition of the Canterbury Tales. In 1556, the antiquary Nicholas Brigham paid for the erection of a new tomb for the poet in the Abbey, to which Chaucer’s bones were translated, an honour which before the Reformation would have only been accorded to a saint (the perceived anti-monasticism in the poet’s works made the Catholic poet surprisingly popular with Protestant reformers). In 1599, the burial nearby of another devoted Chaucerian, Edmund Spenser began the cluster of literary memorials in Westminster Abbey now known as Poets’ Corner.
As I’m writing this on the ‘tenthe day now of Decembre’, the date on which Chaucer chose to set the framing narrative of his poem The House of Fame, it seems like a good time to ask what Chaucer did to ensure that, when most other medieval English writers’ work was fading (or even being ignominiously thrust) into obscurity in the Renaissance, his name and fame lived on.
Never, sith that I was born since
Ne no man elles me beforn, else, before
Mette, I trow stedfastly, dreamed, believe
So wonderful a drem as I
The tenthe day now of Decembre,
The which as I kan now remembre,
I wol yow tellen everydel. every bit
With this impressive boast, the main action of The House of Fame is introduced. The promise to tell his audience everydel of what he claimed to have dreamt was not made good: the poem is unfinished, and breaks off enigmatically after just over 2,000 lines of fantastical action.
After a first book in which the dreamer finds himself in a glass temple to the goddess Venus, he is carried by a talking eagle to the house of the title: a castle or peel constructed entirely of beryl, and set on top of a rock of ice ‘Betwixen hevene, erthe, and see’, where all the talk of the world comes together. There he sees a grotesque goddess arbitrarily dispensing good and bad fame (or total obscurity) to her petitioners, irrespective of their merits and achievements. When asked if he too has come here to have fame, the dreamer is unequivocal in his denial:
I cam noght hyder, graunt mercy, not, hither
For no such cause, by my hed!
Sufficeth me, as I were ded,
That no wight have my name honde. . . man
For what I drye, or what I thynke, feel
I wil myselven al hyt drynke. all it drink
In one respect, Chaucer was as good as his dreamer’s word. Only twice in all his works is the poet referred to by name: once as ‘Geffrey’ by the eagle in The House of Fame, and once as ‘Chaucer’, by the Man of Law in The Canterbury Tales. This should not, perhaps, be surprising; writers don’t often refer to themselves within their work, except as a poetic ‘I’. If they did, we’d probably know the names of more of the medieval writers whose works were transmitted in manuscript form, in an age before the title page was invented.
Chaucer, however, is different: perhaps we expect him to name himself more, because he inserts such a vividly fictionalized version of himself (bumbling and tongue-tied, always apparently self-effacing, and ready to be shocked by the lewdness of what goes on around him) into most of his works.
Yet we not only do ‘have his name in hand’ more than 600 years after his death, we can attach that name not to a single work or manuscript, but to an established canon of ‘complete works’ that has remained largely stable for most of that time. Chaucer may make only fleeting reference to his own name, but he is less reticent about the titles of his works.
One of the reasons that the core canon of Chaucer’s works has remained unchanged for so long, but for a few mistaken attributions and deliberate frauds, is that three separate lists of his writings are embedded within them. The fullest and most important of these, in the ‘Retractions’ at the end of the Canterbury Tales, takes the form of a request for divine forgiveness for his profane writings, and for the prayers of his audience in acknowledgement of his sacred and moral works:
I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes, and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns, as is the book of Troilus, the book also of Fame. . . the tales of Caunterbury. . . and many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay.
While the pious sentiments seem genuine enough, it’s hard not to see this list, along with the others, as part of the same urge to list and claim a body of work, each time adding to and polishing the table of his achievements, and allowing it to shine more brightly by placing it against the portrait of the barely competent innocent-at-large who narrates most of his poems.
As well as listing his works in this unusual way, Chaucer takes great care to associate his name with the works of the classical poets. The famous apostrophe at the close of Troilus and Criseyde maintains an appearance of modesty, while asserting the right of his poem (the earliest to be described as a tragedy in English) to keep company with the works of the great authors of antiquity:
Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye, book
. . . But litel book, no makyng thow n’envie, literary work, [do] not envy
But subgit be to alle poesye; subject
And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace see
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace. Homer, Statius
A similar, slightly expanded version of this list of classical writers occurs in The House of Fame itself, where the right of the vernacular poet to take his place alongside his Latin predecessors is strongly hinted at in the paraphrase of Virgil’s Aeneid that takes up much of the first book, and in the dreamer’s repeated assertions that his experiences outstrip those of the most famous visionaries not only of classical literary tradition, but also of the Bible.
In claiming for himself this specifically literary version of Fame, Chaucer seems to come close to humanist ideas about authorship embodied in the works of the Italian writers of the fourteenth century. While Chaucer was certainly not the first English writer to use the work of the classical poets – throughout the Middle Ages, the pagan Latin authors remained an important part of the academic curriculum, and their stories and ideas were frequently recycled – he was one of the first to interact with, and borrow from, the work of the Italian poets Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.
Chaucer names the first two of this poetic triumvirate frequently in his works, acknowledging his debt to them for individual tales, allowing Petrarch his status as laureat poete, and describing Dante as ‘the grete poete of Ytaille’. However, he never mentions Boccaccio by name, although he relies heavily on his Italian near-contemporary’s work in two major works, The Knight’s Tale andTroilus and Criseyde, and may even have met him in Florence on a diplomatic mission in 1372. In the case of Troilus, Chaucer goes so far as to invent a spurious classical authority — ‘Lollius’ — as his source. It is as if, having aligned himself with the greatest authors of the past, Chaucer had found a source of poetic inspiration that was practically unknown to his audience, and that he wanted to keep it (and a greater share of the available fame) to himself.
Something else that he may have learned (or caught) from these Italian poets also helped Chaucer helped to align his work with the coming mainstream of European literature, prefiguring the concerns of English Renaissance poets, and ensuring his own continued relevance: his enthusiasm for classical mythology and legend.
Gods and Monsters
This interaction with the classical past was not in itself new in medieval English literature. The story of Troy, its destruction, and the wanderings of its survivors, was particularly popular in England, through the legend that traced the foundation of Britain back to the Trojan Brutus. Chaucer may not have been the first to reuse and recycle this classical material, but he was the first to do so consistently, and with such obvious delight in the details and machinery of Latin and Greek myth and legend.
Chaucer’s Thebes and Troy — in common with most medieval depictions of the classical past — may be barely distinguishable in social or material terms from fourteenth-century London and the court of Richard II, but the landscape and universe in which they are set are peopled with creatures and deities alien to earlier English writing. In fact it is in Chaucer that many of the creatures of classical mythology make their first appearance in English. When Criseyde swears her love to Troilus:
On every god celestial. . .
On every nymphe and deite infernal, nymph, deity
On satiry and fawny more and lesse, satyrs, fauns
That halve goddes ben of wildernesse. demigods
Each of these halve goddes seem to be new arrivals in English. Elsewhere, he finds it necessary to import the word monstre from French in order to classify the centaurs, harpies, and the three-headed dog Cerberus encountered by Hercules in his labours, which are recounted (albeit in brief) for the first time in English literature in The Monk’s Tale.
While it seems that theatrical and social ‘personalities’ first came to be called stars in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, it is fitting that the first recorded user of the word ‘celebrity’, and one of the first to use ‘famous’ in English should also provide our first evidence for the word starry, and that the dreamer in The House of Fame should be worried that he might be ‘stellified’ and placed among the stars of the ‘Galaxie, Which men clepeth the Milky Way’ (another two examples of first recorded use) when the eagle carries him aloft. Would the poet himself have been so alarmed at the prospect of being made a star? Somehow, I doubt it.
Jonathan Dent is a researcher on the OED, and begs—like Chaucer—that if there is anything in this blog that displeases you, that you ascribe it to the fault of his unknowing, and not to his will, which would gladly have written better if he had the knowledge.
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