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Essay/Term paper: Chaucer and the house of fame

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Geoffrey Chaucer

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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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