Chaucer: The House of Fame
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
In the Retraction, Chaucer calls this the book “of Fame.” The original manuscript, “O,” is lost; the scribal copy of “O” is lost. We have only three manuscripts and all have lines missing and gaps:
Pepys — (Samuel, to Magdalene College, Cambridge)
Caxton’s Edition — with add-on ending (in the Riverside Textual Notes, 1142).
Thynne’s Edition — saw Caxton, adds conclusion.
The Italian Influence:
Chaucer journeyed to Italy in 1372 and in 1378. On this latter trip, contact with Boccaccio was probable, but his influence on The House of Fame is slight. Dante is an influence, and Lydgate called this work “Dante in Englyssh.” (There are three books, the eagle serves as a guide, the poet is “granted” the vision, etc.) There’s no single source but lots of influences: e.g., Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid. The verse is octasyllabic couplets still, so it’s probably early.
The work as we have it seems structurally poor and badly planned: Book I (Dido) is too long; other Book I love stories could be omitted; the description of walls in Book III is too long. Stylistically it looks rapidly written — the rhymes seem hasty. Is it an occasional poem, written quickly under pressure so that the poet sacrificed organization, plotting, and succinctness?
The poem does receive acclaim for its dialogue, especially successful colloquialism, and the characters. But it’s still the most enigmatic of the Minor Poems. Even if it was an occasional poem, it should still stand on its own like The Book of the Duchess. Does it?
- An allegory of his own life.
[Sandras, Etudes G.C., 1800s]
The poem is more autobiographical than other works.
The eagle is philosophy? [ten Brink].
Does Chaucer write allegory?
A focus on understanding his own poetics (a subject back in vogue); the problems of being a writer?
- An allegorical love vision.
[Wally Sypherd, Studies Chaucer’s HF, 1913]
- The prologue to a collection of love stories.
[J.M. Manly, G.L. Kittredge, Annual Papers, 1913]
But the poet calls Book III is called “this lytel laste bok.”
- An occasional poem.
[Imelman, Englische Studien 45 (1912)]
The poem stopped because the news didn’t occur?
An Anne of Bohemia engagement present? (1381 seems late though, and is this a likely engagement present in which Dido is declared a fool for trusting a man?)
An attack on John of Gaunt appearing publicly with Katherine of Swynford in 1378? [Ridel, JEGP 27 — a “stupid theory” (TG)].
An occasional poem that doesn’t have any occasion, or the anticipated good news did not occur. [Bronson, who is anti-persona].
Book I: Sight.
Book II: From sight to sound.
Book III: Sound.
Book I: Authority — the book, story.
Book II: Experience — his own, involvement.
Book III: Personal view finally — in the middle of a crowd or birds, he himself experiences without a guide.
Similar patterns in BD, PF?
Line 2 begins a digression that lasts to line 58! The concern is with Dream Science and Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (by Cicero). This pseudo-science tries to classify various kinds of dreams:
- Somnium — enigmatic, obscure, needs interpretation (so most relevant for literature: dream visions, allegory).
- Visio — prophetic, comes true.
- Oraculum — authoritative; an authority figure advises and makes revelations (like Marley’s ghost).
- Insomnium — a nightmare from mental or physical distress (so not to worry; induced by anxieties and drink, or a bit of undone potato).
- Phantasm (or Visum) — an apparition between wake and sleep; the “first cloud of sleep.”
More recent terminology (from Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, NY: W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997 — the section on rare mental states) includes a distinction between “hypnogogic hallucinations” soon after falling alseep and “hypnopompic hallucinations” just before waking up (96).
Why the insistence on this seemingly arbitrary date (63, 111)? An indication that this poem is occasional? astronomical? It’s set in the opposite of the love tradition, in December instead of May (and we get a desert instead of a garden). Does this correspond with his trip to Italy? 1372? That’s earlier than the standard dating, but November 12th he was commissioned to go on “the King’s business” and bureaucracy was notoriously slow so that December 1st he received money for this, probably expenses, and then needed a few days outfitting?
In any case, at least one 16th-century poet in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres copied this Chaucerian practice — perhaps just a crude form of verisimilitude.
To Morpheus (unnamed).
To God Himself — interpretation issue up front.
To Croesus — Romance of the Rose (6489ff) within the speech of Reason about Fortune and interpreting things allegorically. Croesus on the Wheel of Fortune believes a dream of the gods serving him and takes it literally (misinterprets) because of his pride; his daughter warns him, reading figuratively: he’ll be hung in rain and sun. The King scolds her for “glossing” and insists he’ll follow the “letter” of the dream.
The dreamer visits the Temple of Glass, where Venus is instrumental. He sees the story of Aeneas at the end of the Trojan War. (In Virgil, Aeneas sees the story of the Trojan War engraved on the walls of Carthage. He’s just been there, sees it engraved, then goes in to tell it. So we have a transmission of history into the present.) In Virgil, Aeneas is not exactly a cad; he has to go found Rome. The poet is interpreting and reacting, not just recounting, for a change. Is this all about distortion in transmission? That may depend on audience awareness of his alternate emphases. At least he indirectly invites us to look at the originals: Virgil, Ovid (1487), Boethius (978). Is he showing the phenomenon of selective reading? People who read stories get out of them what they want: misconstruing, misquoting, etc. — other phenomena eventually explored in The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer portrays himself as an outsider to love (245f).
Shakespeare may have been at least glancingly interested in the mention of white and red (135) during the Lucrece-like viewing of the story captured artistically. Cupido has the title “daun” (137); and we have another “tempeste” (209). The original Lavinia is mentioned (458), and later Chiron (1206), the centaur skilled in music, and Titus (1467), an alternate name for Dictys the Trojan historian. Reference to ducats of Venice (1348-1349) occurs with a mention of a light purse.
The dreamer is snatched up by the Eagle — Jupiter’s bird, God’s bird, always an imperial creature who suggests grace and heavenly assistance. This one is learned and devoted to logic, but a bit pompous and prolix. The Eagle is autocratic but kindly enough, a gentle giant finally, with a personality like a Canterbury Tale pilgrim.
Recurring rhymes include soun/multiplicacioun, name/fame/game.
The physicality of the flight undercuts the spiritual implications, with several mentions of what a burden Geffrey is to carry. The image is a grotesque of two creatures, and a tension of the flight upwards with the constant pull downwards.
The Eagle emphasizes the physics of sound (= of language?). Instead of a unification higher up where perspective should be found, here we find multiplication unto chaos.
Chaucer seems to have an interest in duality (1078): the spoken / temporal; written-textual / eternal. In manuscripts, the red and black suggests that some words are more important. But in the poem, no difference is apparent and all is jumbled.
In the terminology of knowledge in the Middle Ages, “science” = of nature; “wisdom” = of nature and God, so a higher brand of knowledge.
Chaucer’s persona is the scientific type: he has geological curiosity and expresses interest in the thermodynamics of shade and heat.
The rhetorical technique of “occupatio” calls attention to the role of the poet in temporal performance (1299ff, 1341ff). He “multiplies” things not told.
Where are we to establish authority? In old tales? Dreams? Natural science?
Finally it seems we find chaos, making this perhaps an early modernistic work: even post-structural. [See Robert M. Jordan, “Lost in the Funhouse of Fame: Chaucer and Postmodernism.” Chaucer Review 18.2 (1983): 100-115.]
There’s no closure structurally — the dream vision doesn’t end so it can’t be done (?!). Is the poem unfinished? What was Chaucer’s intention?
Evidence: he calls this the “lytel laste bok,” so how much longer was it to have run? It is already considerably longer than the previous “books.”
Under what circumstances would it be broken off? (Philippa called Chaucer away for a tunafish sandwich and he never returned? He gave up when he could have ended this quickly?)
But does the dreamer have a life outside the dream to get back to, as in The Book of the Duchess where some progress is implicit?
Fools, eel-stompers, clamor for authoritative word to come from on high.
But no easy answer from authority is forthcoming.
No dictated authorized meaning (to subsequently distort through transmission).