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Essay/Term paper: Chaucer's "the house of fame": the cultural nature of fame

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Geoffrey Chaucer

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Chaucer's "The House of Fame": The Cultural Nature of Fame




Many critics have noted the complexities within Chaucer's The House of Fame,
in particular, the complexities between the oral and the literary. The
differences between these methods are constantly appearing; Chaucer is well
aware of rapidly changing communicative practises and contrasts the preservation
of utterance with the longevity of literary texts. He achieves this by
discussing the nature of "Fame" and the difficulties that arise from it. "Fame"
can both destroy and create. It can result in the eternal preservation of great
works and their creators. However, Chaucer is quick to note the precarious
nature of "fame" noting the unreliable process of attaining it and its
potentially momentary existence. Every creator with their respective work/s
naturally crave and desire "fame"; they want their subjects to remain fresh in
the minds of their audience. Chaucer, while neither totally praising the written
nor the oral, reveals how essentially the written word is far more likely to
become eternal as opposed to the oral. The relative "fame" of any work is
dependent on many factors. Many traditional and classical ideas result in the
formation of the English canon, yet as Chaucer indicates, the "fame" of these
works can easily become annihilated. The arrival of new readers with different
ideals and thereby changing tradition, can reject classical or "canonical" work
and their "fame" will melt into nothingness.
Most stories, histories and legends that emerge from oral heroic poetry are
to herald the achievement of the powerful and wealthy so that their histories
will not fade from the memories of the population. The stories of Beowolf are a
clear example of this, as within these stories, (whether embellished or no),
Beowolf's fame and legend reaches the modern reader hundreds of years later.
Clearly, Beowolf is still very much dependant on the conventions of oral
traditions and written to leave a permanent reminder of Beowolf, to enforce
Beowolf's fame. The use of "Hwaet" to mark the start of an oration, emphasises
the continuation of oral tradition. Most oral cultures (usually illiterate),
pass on stories and legends learnt from the previous generation, basically using
the authority of recalled memory, not as an actual witness; rather 'I have heard
it said` than 'I know this to be true`.
The importance of the terms 'auctor` and 'auctoritas' is noted by A.J.
Minnis. Minnis states the importance of the 'auctoritas', quoting Aristotle who
defines this as the "judgement of the wise man in his chosen discipline." The
great reverence and respect shown towards writers of antiquity is clearly
evident in Chaucer's The House of Fame, yet there remains a definite
inconsistency within Chaucer's work. While Chaucer is clearly familiar with many
classical writers and their works, such as; Virgil's Aeneid, several works of
Ovid , Boccacio and Dante, Chaucer's work raises several questions about the
classical writers, the nature of written texts and the complexities of " fame".
The term "fame" had a myriad of meanings in Middle English, it could mean
"reputation", "renown", or "rumour". Chaucer plays on all these meanings and its
implications, yet his ideas are clouded and obscured so it is difficult to
define whether his arguments are mocking, condemning or celebrating. J. Stephen
agrees with Shelia Delany's argument in her book, The House of Fame: The Poetics
of Skeptical Fidelism and believes that The House of Fame is indeed "a
sceptical poem". However, Russell is rather extreme in his view, believing that
Chaucer is "writing to deconstruct the tyranny of the written word". It is
difficult to agree with this view, and although there are elements to suggest
this may be the case, one would tend to agree with Delany's argument, that
Chaucer "preferred to transcend the choice between traditions rather than to
commit himself whole heartedly to a single intellectual position or a consistent
point of view".
Chaucer, in his description of Virgil's Aeneid decides to alter the events
within Virgil's narrative. There is always the problem of what can be considered
"true",the problems of authenticity and originality remain. These great writers
that Chaucer often references, like Virgil, Ovid, Boccacio, Boethius and Dante
are 'auctors` who carry great weight and authority, yet , as this is Geffrey's
dream he is able to manipulate the events within The House of Fame. Thus Geffrey
has the power of both the oral and written 'auctor`, he has heard the stories
before, (in Ovid and Virgil) yet can 'retell` these events to the reader with
perhaps even more 'auctoritas' as he can also state to the reader that 'I was
there so I can tell you the truth`. However, Chaucer's 'auctoritas` is
diminished because even though he was an actual witness, it was still a dream, a
hazy and unpredictable area which can neither be totally rejected nor believed
and accepted. These implications show that Chaucer was perhaps rejecting the
'auctoritas' of these writers, revealing the possible discrepancies within any
text, written or oral, and how narrative events are able to change depending on
the reliability of the 'auctor`. The mocking of Geffrey and his scholarly life
and ambitions would also indicate Chaucer's dislike of the scholarly and
academic world of the 14th century. Geffrey is caricatured as a book-worm,
unable to comprehend events outside the world of books. The Eagle speaks to
Geffrey of the futility and emptiness of a scholar ; "Thou goost hom to thy hous
anoon,/And, also domb as any stoon,/Thou sittest at another book/Tyl fully
daswed ys thy look;/And lyvest thus as an heremyte,/Although thyn abstynence ys
lyte." (655-660) During the Eagle's impressive monologue the intelligent
Geffrey can only answer in rather dull-witted monosyllables; "Gladly","Noo?
why?", "Yis" and "Wel". Geffrey is also portrayed as a rather weak and stupid
fellow, despite his scholarly habits. When one compares him to the classical
heroes of classical mythology, he realises that he is a mere mortal and afraid;
'"Oh God," thoughte I, "that madest kynde,/Shal I noon other weyes dye?'. Unlike
the heroes of old, Geffrey is aware that he is no brave hero; "nether am Ennock,
ne Elye,/Ne Romulus, ne Ganymede." (557-558) Despite these negative
representations, there still remains elements of respect and awe towards
classical writings and the strong belief entrusted in these works as contained
in the line, "In certeyn, as the book us tellis." (426) The same respect is
reflected in a speech made by the Eagle to Geffrey; "Loo, this sentence ys
knowen kouth/ Of every philosophres mouth,/ As Aristotle and daun Platon,/ And
other clerkys many oon;/ And to confirme my resoun,/Thou wost wel this, that
spech is soun," (757-762) It seems as though Chaucer is exploring both elements
of what is the true 'auctor` and questions the idea of 'auctoritas`.
It is important to scrutinise the depiction of "fame" within Chaucer's
work as it remains a crucial point in the formation of the modern canon of
English literature. As noted earlier, fame has many meanings and can mean
"reputation", "renown" or "rumour". Chaucer describes the more negative effects
of fame, how it is granted to people with little or no merit and how transient
the nature of "fame" can be. When Dido feels despairing and states, "O wel-awey
that I was born!" she is not churlish with Aeneas or Virgil, but curses, "O
wikke Fame!". According to Russell, it is Virgil's Fame that has "immortalised"
the infamous behaviour of Dido and she is made the eternal villain, continually
playing her wicked role whenever one opens and reads the Aeneid. In this way
Dido is riding a cyclical machine where she is destined to a life of ever-
renewed "fame"and Dido's clearly despises this. The nature of "Fame", is often
transient and momentary. Chaucer takes note of the huge blocks of ice with the
engraved names of the famous. However, some of these names are exposed to the
sun and are melting away, clearly these are the people who will lose their
"Fame" and disappear into obscurity. Other names are preserved as they are
protected from the heat of the sun. The way in which the personification of
"Fame", the figure of the goddess of Fame, grants "Fame" is haphazard and
illogical. People of little merit, are granted "Fame" by achieving infamous
deeds, while others of merit are bluntly refused "Fame". In this way "Fame" is
shown as a complete mystery, a strange and uncontrollable force, not granted on
the status of value and logic, more to do with chance than reason.
One can then ponder what Chaucer considered the greater evil, the "tyranny
of the written word" or the "tyranny of orality". One obvious example that
refutes the earlier claims of Russell is the negative portrayal of Chaucer's
House of Rumour. Within this place is great confusion and disorder, "And therout
com so gret a noyse" (1927). The idea of noise and confusion is again repeated
in; "No maner tydynges in to pace./ Ne never rest is in that place/ That hit nys
fild ful of tydynges,/ Other loude or of whisprynges;/ And over alle the houses
angles/ Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles." (1956-1960). These various rumours
obviously contain embellishments to the truth, if not a complete fabrication. It
seems that the negative rabble contained within the House of Rumour is more
severe than the relative mocking of the written word and its scholarly
institutions. It seems that the written word, despite its many faults, is still
more commendable and "true" than that of the spoken word which is far less
reliable than the 'auctoritas` of classical writers.
When one looks at the flaws within The House of Fame it brings to question
the construction of the modern English canon and how it is formed. Obviously,
Minnis' claim that the oldest texts were generally considered the best is an
idea that is prevalent even today. Certainly the academic institutions were
still a main factor regarding the formation of the English canon. Like Geffrey
and Chaucer who studied classical writers like Virgil, Ovid and Dante, students
studied this at school as it was considered the most "valuable" of the texts,
again reflecting the "older is better" idea of 'auctoritas`. According to
Kaplan and Rose, Dr. Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets was the beginning of
the formation of the English canon. Dr. Johnson chooses the books that he
personally felt was admirable and worthy of his praise. Already there is the
presence of an "elitist" society. Originally, as only the wealthy and privileged
were able to read and write, the process of the English canon was decided by
the key academic and scholarly figures, who decided to choose what the "right"
type of work would go into the English canon and repeatedly studied at
institutions, therefore making it cyclical, ever-renewing and therefore a
permanent text that was entrenched within The House of Fame. Just as the early
oral heroic poetry was created to make characters like Beowolf famous and
therefore a permanent reminder to the population, the written texts also serve
as the anchor of "fame". However, there is also the ephemeral nature of "fame",
just as names melt into oblivion in The House of Fame, the modern reader's
disinterest in a text can also disintegrate the "fame" of a text. Suddenly the
various canonised texts may not be considered relevant; an obvious example of
this would be the arrival of feminist theories, eventually emerging in academic
institutions and "melting" the "fame" and status of many canonical authors and
texts, who no longer are considered appropriate or informative. It would seem
that Chaucer's depiction of The House of Rumour could also be correct. The power
of the written word has survived far better than that of the spoken. There are
few if any "rumours" that remain fresh and clear several hundred years later.
The spoken word is carried away in the wind, the constant mutterings often
forgotten whereas the written word has endured for many hundreds of years.
Clearly Chaucer has mixed feelings toward the power of literacy and orality.
Both can be enduring, but in an increasingly more literate society, the use of
orality to immortalise narrative events is rarely used. As Chaucer indicates,
the written word does remain in The House of Fame whereas the spoken word is
more likely contained within the constantly changing murmurings in The House of
Rumour. However, although Chaucer is himself a scholarly and academic man like
Geffrey, he is still rather mocking of the academic society and the scholars who
seem to be permaently fixed within the world of literature and relying entirely
on book-learning, rather than experiences from the events in the outside world
of reality. Chaucer within his description of The House of Fame also questions
the relevance of literary works, proving that the "fame" of authors and their
works is a tenative one. Chaucer is clearly reveals the beginnings of the
English canon and the works contained within it. He stresses the fluctuations of
"fame" and how works can become a part an elite grouping. The modern reader
knows, that the books within the English canon may gradually disappear or can
reemerge, depending on the attitudes of people like Geffrey, the readers and
scholars, and of institutions that continually study the "classical" texts.
According to Chaucer, "fame" is not considered a noble accomplishment and the
result of chance rather than any literatary merit or virtue.


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