Providence and incest reconsidered: Chaucer's poetic judgement of his Man of Law.
The Man of Law in Chauser's Poetic Judgment
For many recent writers, Chaucer's poetic relationship to his Man of Law, even in the context of the poet's ironic and dramatic method of exposition, is somewhat unusual: in the Introduction to the tale, we may note the characteristic tone of humorous detachment from the teller, but, as the story of Constance advances, we witness the poet's marked concern to satirize the other's learning,(1) his shrill rhetoric,(2) his apparent obsession with his heroine,(3) and, not least, his concern with moral judgments, which would somehow illustrate the workings of providence. The theme of providence (or fate) in one of Chaucer's major sources, Ovid's Metamorphoses, is often linked to the question of poetic judgment, whereby the ability of a speaker to represent the meaning of a traditional legend is scrutinized in Ovid's penetrating irony. I shall attempt, therefore, to identify analogous modes of poetic procedure between Ovid and Chaucer that dramatize the problem of a better poetic rendering of a traditional legend. Moreover, the theme of judgment is explicit in Chaucer's concern with the theme of incest in the Introduction to the tale, where the Man of Law fears that he will be likened to the Pierides, who lost their poetic competition with the Muses. But the theme of a judgment involves a poetic procedure somewhat different from the concerns illustrated in Trivet and Gower, though an assessment of Chaucer's poetic purpose is facilitated by the very proximity of these medieval sources, as they allow us to remark on the poet's most original emphases: the astrological invocations are part of his original additions, and the teller's insistence that providence protect Constance's purity and innocence in the face of her numerous trials differs from the theme of her beneficent evangelizing influence in Nicolas Trivet's Cronicle, where God's "purveance" allows her to win "honor e amur" over the whole earth (SA, 181).(4) It is obvious that Trivet, like Gower, wishes to draw a moral point from the story of his heroine's constancy, whereas in Ovid the emphasis is on the poetic quality of the speaker's rendering of a traditional story. Thus, Trivet's theme of virtue rewarded is congruent with the presumed point of Gower's exemplum, which is, at least according to his Genius, Constance's ability to overcome detraction and envy and thus to serve as an example of moral teaching for Amans, who professes to be troubled by his jealousy of his lady's other admirers ("Min herte is Envious withal," 11. 478). Genius's view is that Amans's detraction of his lady's admirers simply dirties his own hands ("For who so wole his handes lime, / Thei mosten be the more unclene..." [11. 574-75]), that the story of Constance should reveal envy and detraction to be self-destructive, and that these can be overcome by virtuous conduct.
We may expect that Chaucer would share with his immediate sources something of their moral tenor in an exemplary story of virtue and constancy rewarded,(5) but the lack of an overt moral is the paradoxical feature of Chaucer's mode of narrative that most clearly distinguishes it from its models: the Man of Law's interest in the relationship of human virtue to God's providential order is of course fully addressed in the tale, since he repeatedly intervenes to elicit our sympathy for Constance's trials and to condemn her antagonists as instruments of Satan. His major concern seems to be with his understanding of how providence will reward the virtue of his heroine, and he fears he cannot tell a thrifty tale (11. 46) that his creator has not already told. His contribution, however, will afford a contrast with the stories of a poet who has, apparently, produced many tales of women abused or mistreated. But the paradox here is that the Man of Law's catalogue refers also to the theme of poetic judgment, which does not address solely the question of content but also the manner of telling. There is a precedent for this in the House of Fame (11. 620-25) as the Eagle comments on the accomplishments of "Geffrey's" career as a poet of love:
And never-the-lesse hast set thy wit - Although that in thy hed ful lyte is - To make bookys, songes, dytees, In ryme or elles in cadence, As thou best canst, in reverence Of Love and of hys servantes eke...
and, more obviously, in the charge of the God of Love (Prologue to the Legend of Good Women F. 32040 / G. 246-316) as he accuses the dreamer of writing heresy against the law of love in his translation of the Roman de la Rose and in his handling of Cressida's inconstancy in the Troilus.
Irrespective of the comic ambiguities of these earlier judgments as to Chaucer's poetic service to the theme of love, the Man of Law's search for, or fear of, a poetic or moral judgment has a distinctive texture: 1) he is concerned to find an original story that will illustrate the theme of womanly virtue rewarded; and 2) he seems to acknowledge that Chaucer, who may have maligned a woman's constancy in love in some of his stories, never went so far as to depict the extreme degradation of incest:
But certeinly no word ne writeth he Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee, That loved hir owene brother synfully - Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy! - Or ellis of Tyro Appollonius, How that the cursed kyng Antiochus Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede ... (77-83)
Both of these "poetic judgments" invoked by the Man of Law obviously address the content of a poetic narrative, yet, interestingly enough, his third criterion of judgment has a novel component, for it raises the question of a poetic decision at the outcome of a competition. This involves, of course, the contest between the Muses and the Pierides in Ovid's Metamorphoses V. 294-678, where the theme of a woman's constancy in love is not an issue:(6)
But of my tale how shal I doon this day? Me were looth be likned, doutelees, To Muses that men clepe Pierides - Methamorphosios woot what I mene; But nathelees, I recche noght a bene Though I come after hym with hawebake. I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make. (90-96)
The judgment rendered by the nymphs at the close of Book V of Ovid's text certifies that the Pierides have been defeated in their use of the theme of the Gigantomanchia, whereby the gods have reduced themselves to bestial forms as they are temporarily overthrown by natural forces. The Muses, on the other hand, are victors not because they celebrate a story of incest but rather because they depict the triumph of marriage between Pluto and Proserpina in the Fates' decree which jupiter cannot rescind, and which Nature (represented by Ceres, the anxious mother) cannot oppose. At the heart of Ovid's contest is the question of the right, or true, expression of a legend - as opposed to a judgment of its content, or apparent moral teaching - a point that is not lost on Chaucer in his attitude toward his speaker's handling of his story. Moreover, the Man of Law's reference to the case of "Canacee" probably acknowledges as much the argument of Heroides 11 as it does Gower's own exemplum (CA III. 134-360). And, in the case of the Latin Epistle, we may argue, as have many Ovidians, that the overt subject of incest between the girl and her brother Macareus is oddly expressed by her acquiescence in the relationship, which is in any event dominated by the violent reaction of the father Aeolus, further dramatized in Gower. In both versions of the legend it will appear that the apparent subject of incest is overwhelmed by a special thematic emphasis which introduces other motives, in particular that of an ambiguous paternal obsession. In fact, Aeolus's role in the girl's death may have encouraged Chaucer to make the connection of her plight with the story of Gower's Apollonius (CA VIII. 271-2008), in which the explicit and implicit incest motives involve not only the riddle of Antiochus concerning his relationship with his daughter but also the reunion of Apollonius himself and his daughter (especially 1690-99).(7) In both of the Man of Law's allusions, then, there is a common point of an ambiguous father-daughter relationship beyond the explicit example of incest, and this common point depends heavily on the manner of exposition more than it does on the content. In turn, we may assume that the Man of Law's handling of his implicit themes - more than the overt moral of his tale, which seems to be above reproach - may lead to his poetic condemnation by Chaucer's Muse in a manner that will recall the defeat of the Pierides and their transformation into jangling magpies (Met. V. 662-78).(8)
What is remarkable, however, about Chaucer's allusion to Ovid's text is that poetic judgments in Ovid's Metamorphoses are unstated or ironic, unlike the precedent of Cupid's condemnation in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women: we do not learn explicitly from Ovid what is wrong with the content of the Pierides' song, although their transformation suggests an analogy with the fate of other would-be artists in the comic epic who misconstrue their love stories comparing human and divine love. And we shall find that Chaucer shares Ovid's concern with such an analogy, for the Man of Law insistently attempts to relate the function of providence - which in Ovid's contest is the role of fate, of which the Olympians and the Muses are agents - to human virtue or advantage. That is, in his tale the Man of Law appeals to providence to protect Constance against all manner of misfortune, but the appeal assumes that we can know the purposes of providence, and claim in our perception and poetic argument that they should reward the virtuous and punish the evil. In Constance's story, part of the evil is obviously the treachery of the two mothers-in-law, the Sowdanesse and Donegild (with the latent theme of incest exploited in the two mother-son relationships), but the greater evil may be poetic, that is, in the Man of Law's attempt to represent providence as the guarantor of Constance's apparent innocence and virtue. Thus, if it should turn out that the teller has mismanaged the relationship of providence to human constancy in the tale as a whole, then we may be in a better position to understand Chaucer's allusion to the defeat of the Pierides, which surely signals part of his attitude toward the poetic claims of a teller who seems to be "bisier than he was..." (General Prologue 1. 322). From this vantage, the outcome of the tale and its apparent moral need fuller scrutiny. If we may determine in some detail the poetic context of Chaucer's attitude toward his teller's story, we may in turn draw a better conclusion as to how he would silently reward his Muse in the victory of a superior poetics that would involve not the rejection of Constance's moral virtue but a more satisfying representation of its meaning.
Narratological Irony and Incest in the Heroides and the
Chaucer's implied analogy between the Man of Law's poetic capacities and the poetic defeat of the Pierides is worth some exploration, for Ovid's own ironic and comic attitude toward his narrators, in their treatment of traditional legends of love, has often been the subject of intense critical interest. A central issue here is the nature of Ovid's literary reaction to the claims of his speakers as preceptors of love: at times, this might seem to involve the pursuit of slapstick incongruity, as in the case of Ars Amatoria I. 283, in which the doctor of love will argue in favor of the ready female appetite for pleasure supposedly illustrated by the example of Byblis, or of Myrrha (285), and in the larger divedimento on Pasiphae, in her furious lust for the Cretan bull (289-326).(9) The first two examples specifically refer to incest, but readers have often suspected that the speaker's comic subversion of traditional legendary meaning does not fulfill the whole of Ovid's purpose. In fact, in the Ars, the "teachings" of the preceptor will eventually challenge the poetic power of the Muses themselves, and notably on the subject of the truth of a
poetic argument. Thus, at the opening of Book One, our preceptor denies that Clio and her sisters will need to inspire the truth of his song, as his own experience of the turf will yield sufficient material for his teachings:
Non ego, Phoebe, datas a te mihi mentiar artes,
Nec nos adriae voce monemur avis, Nec mihi sunt visac Clio Cliusque sorores
Servanti pecudes vallibus, Ascra, tuis: Usus opus movet hoc; vati parete perito:
Vera canam: coeptis, mater Amoris, ades! (25-30)
(I shall not lie in claiming that my art was given to me by you, Phoebus, nor that I am instructed by the voice of a bird of the air, nor that Clio and her sisters appeared to me while I watched over flocks in your valleys, Ascra. Experience is what inspires this work; listen to the experienced poet; I shall sing the truth: favor my projects, O Venus!)
But at AA II. 425-30 the preceptor fears, in the context of his discussion of his own infidelities, a possible charge of self-contradiction. If he has not found happiness in love, he might ask his Muse Erato (425) whether he is thereby inconsistent ("levitas") (429) with the truth of his earlier conquests. What may interest Ovid more at this point than his speaker's successes and failures, amatory and rhetorical, is his attempted adaptation of the Muses' power to a human experience of love, in his desire to satirize social conventions. And, in the Metamorphoses, the contest between divine and human artists in the representation of love will involve further consideration as to the quality of the speaker's argument.
But there is a dimension other than comic effrontery to the personality of Ovid's dramatic speakers, and this can be found in his earlier Heroides. In the eleventh Letter, Canace's dilemma is handled not as an exemplum to make an ironic instructional point about the power of rhetoric to control the substance of an argument, but rather as an unconventional or pathetic experience. In obvious contrast to the determined (and incestuous) arguments of Phaedra (Heroides IV), with her indifference to moral convention or her "mastery of the sophists' unwritten manual on how to make the lesser cause the greater excuse,"(10) Canace does not indulge in an attack on social conventions that inhibit her passion (for it is consummated, and reciprocated, by the more ardent Macareus),(11) but rather begins her letter with a reference to the drawn sword sent to her by her father (4-5). Her passivity and inexperience during the first signs of her pregnancy are emphasized, and, after the attempted abortion and the imminent birth of the child (44-45), Macareus's promise of marriage revivifies her (59-62). A comic moment is realized in the attempted deception of Aeolus, who reacts more with the outrage of a parent over an illegitimate birth (79-92) than with reference to its incestuous origin, since he had granted his permission for the marriage of the two siblings without knowing of their consummated love. Whether one can conclude that Canace is herself "banal" in her reaction to her muted passion as an emblem of an "ordinary" or private experience of love (Verducci 232-34), part of the poem's originality is that the union of the brother and sister is treated with a comic subterfuge (for example, in the attempt to spirit away the baby, whose screams reveal his presence). And the role of the father, in his violent reaction and his command of suicide to his daughter, is extraordinarily heightened, to become the central focus of her emotional energy in the Letter as a whole (Jacobson 167).
These thematic emphases return, of course, in Gower's version, where Genius treats the incest motive between Canace and "Machaire" as a force of Nature under the order of Cupid, against which the father's rage, or "Malencolie," is impotent:
Cupide bad hem first to kisse ... And tawht hem so, that overmore Sche hath them in such wise daunted, That thei were, as who seith, enchaunted. (111. 169, 175-78)
The role of Machaire is played down, and the father's violent reaction occupies the central panel of the exemplum (204-21), since, for Genius, the exhibition of his rage should caution Amans in his own anger and frustration over his pursuit of his lady. In fact, Canace's letter to Machaire is an original creation of Gower, which reveals the contradictory and dubious nature of her passion:
|O thou my sorwe and my gladnesse, O thou myn hele and my siknesse, O my wanhope and al my trust, O my disese and al my lust, ... O thou my love, o thou myn hate, For thee mot I be ded algate...' (279-82, 285-86)
Yet this passage works ironically in relation to Genius's presumed lesson against Amans's "Malencolie," with his fear of his rejection by his lady, for one can hardly recommend overcoming a lover's or a father's melancholy or rage in order to allow an incestuous passion - or indeed any other kind of dubious erotic attachment.(12) Recent readers of this passage are, however, quite correct in suggesting that Gower reproves Canace's attachment to Machaire as much as he does "Eolus's" anger. The fact, however, that the latter theme dominates the exemplum suggests that the ambivalent handling of the legend interests Chaucer more than it does Gower, since the violent relationship of father and daughter in both the Latin and English versions is probably the basis of the Man of Law's association of the legend with the story of Apollonius - an association that will have repercussions on his handling of the story of Constance.(13)
Ovid's own ironic treatment of the theme of incest emerges in more detail in two central panels of Metamorphoses IX (Byblis) and X (Myrrha), in that a theme of judgment as to the poetic quality of the speaker's argument is now developed. At the center of Byblis's lengthy declamation on her justification of her passion for Caunus is the question she raises as to whether incest among the gods can be used as a precedent for her own passion:
Di melius! di nempe suas habuere sorores; Sic Saturnus Opem iunctam sibi sanguine duxit, Oceanus Tethyn, lunonem rector Olympi. Sunt superis sua iura; quid ad caelestia ritus Exigere humanos diversaque foedera tempto? (IX. 497-501) (May the gods forfend! Yet did did not possess their own sisters? Thus did Saturn marry Ops, though she was related to him by blood, or Oceanus as much as the master of Olympus did Juno. Yet the gods have their own laws; how can I attempt to measure human rites in the perspective of celestial bonds [between the gods] that are of a different nature?)
The denouement of Byblis's overtures to her brother suggests, in answer to the speaker's erotic challenge to the Muses in AAI. 25-30, that human and divine love cannot be compared, and that there is an ironic (that is, unstated) interdiction in such a comparison. A more explicit interdiction, however, can be found in the comparable set-piece of Myrrha's declamation in the following book. There is a difference of emphasis here: Orpheus, narrator of Myrrha's story, is the son of Calliope (X.148), foremost of the Muses, yet he will no longer sing of Jupiter's power after he loses his wife once again, but proposes to sing of lighter subjects ("leviore lyra," 152). These will include the incestuous motive of Myrrha and Cinyras, among other stories of comic incongruity such as the idolatry of Pygmalion or the castration of Adonis. In her inset narration, Myrrha does of course invoke her fear of the Furies in her violation of the family bond ("Nec metues atro crinitas angue sorores..." 349 ["Do you not fear the sisters with black and snaky locks ... ]), but her union with her father Cinyras is consummated in a scene of high suspense that Orpheus obviously relishes.(14) Part of his poetic purpose, which differs from Ovid's, is revealed in this panel, for Orpheus had raised the question of whether his mother's story of the rape of Proserpina by Pluto (Metamorphoses V) is true:
Vicit Amor. Supera deus hic bene notus in ora est; An sit et hic, dubito; sed et hic tamen auguror esse; Famaque si veteris non est mentita rapinae, Vos quoque iunxit Amor...(X. 26-29)
(Love has overcome [me]. He is a god well-known in the upper world. Whether he is here also, I do not know, but I nevertheless imagine that he is, for if the story of the rape of long ago is not a false one, Love united you as well.) If the story is true, he would have Love's "irresistible" power over the gods justify his own desire for the physical return of his wife Eurydice. But in the attempt he fails, and this in turn reveals that his story of Myrrha, which purportedly illustrates also the point that the supreme power of natural love can overcome all obstacles (incest included) as a fit subject for poetry, is rather of dubious inspiration. More likely, it is akin to the song of the Pierides in Book V, by which they met with defeat in their competition with Calliope's story of the rape of Proserpina.
Like Orpheus, the Pierides indulge in a poetics of naturalistic inspiration, as they tell of a Gigantomachia in which the Giants rebel against the gods, who change themselves into lying forms in bestial disguise:
Bella canit superum falsoque in honore Gigantas Ponit et extenuat magnorum facta deorum... Et se mentitis superos celasse figuris... (V. 319-20, 326)
([The Pieridan] sings of the wars waged against the High Ones, attributing a false honor to the giants as she belittles the deeds of the great gods... [adding that] they concealed themselves in deceitful disguises.)
This theme of the overthrow of a theological order by the power of a natural one meets with the reply of Calliope, which illustrates not the theme of incest but the power of fate. Once the Giants like Typhoeus - of whom the Pierides sang - have been subjugated (348), Pluto can turn his attention to marriage, and when Proserpina is carried away, the mother Ceres learns from jupiter, to whom she appeals, that there are legitimate advantages to the match:
"... sed si modo nomina rebus Addere vera placet, non hoc iniuria factum, Verum amor est; neque erit nobis gener ille pudori, Tu modo, diva, velis..." (V. 524-27)
(But if only it pleases you to give things their true names, this union is not an outrage, but a genuine act of love; nor will such a son-in-law be a disgrace to us, if only, goddess, you would consent to it.)
And, Jupiter concludes, she must submit to the will of the Fates ("nam sic Parcarum foedere cautum est," 532 ["for by the decree of the Fates has this been decided"]).(15) Part of the basis of the competition between the Pierides and the Muses thus involves the relationship of natural forces, whether of love or violence, to divine prerogatives, as a feature of the proper handling of the truth of a legend. The Pierides are defeated, we may infer, for much the same reason that Orpheus's stories misconstrue the power of love over Pluto and Proserpina, which cannot be related to an authorization of incest, as Myrrha had attempted to argue.(16) That is, the songs of the Pierides and of Orpheus suppose that the purposes of nature can be made equivalent to those of fate (which in Chaucer functions in the guise of providence), and we may now return to our initial remark on the speaker's ambition in the Ars Amatoria: here is a preceptor who wished to sing a true song based on his natural experience as a lover and without the guidance of the Muses. But the truth of Calliope's song about Pluto and Proserpina shows that its teaching about love transcends nature in an immortal realm beyond life and death and in a marriage between divinities decided by fate. Thus, Byblis's question as to whether the incestuous example of the gods in love can be applied to human purposes is now settled with an emphatic negative. Yet if Myrrha has much to fear from the Furies (X. 349), the union of Pluto and Proserpina is sanctioned by the Parcae, and the divinity of Calliope herself recalls for us the theological nature of poetry which Orpheus, her mortal son, seems to wish to transfer to human concerns, such as the physical loss of his wife - as does his inset character Myrrha in her own dubious inspirations. Both of these latter narrators fail, in short, to control the justification of their love stories, and this gives us a further perspective on the pathos of Ovid's Canace, in suggesting that the apparent imperative of her "natural" love for her brother, which she seems to assume, may invite an implicit judgment by a superior poetic power. The violent reaction of her father may be extreme, if not ambiguous, but the marriage of brother and sister which Aeolus authorizes remains a poetic impossibility.(17) In turn, we shall attempt to argue that the Man of Law has much to fear from the supreme irony of Chaucer's poetic vision, which, like Ovid's Muse, addresses a higher providential truth that silently condemns the latent naturalism of his speaker. In what sense has the Man of Law mismanaged the relationship of providence to a human order of experience - which is the central subject of Chaucer's immediate sources as well as of his own tale?
PROVIDENCE, INCEST AND POETIC JUDGMENT IN THE MAN OF LAWS
The theme of providence figures prominently in Chaucer's tale, much as it does in Ovid's conception of fate in Metamorphoses V and X, and it affords a basis by which Chaucer will judge not only the Man of Law's tale-telling capacities but also the relative importance of the content of the Constance story in its relationship to the meaning of the poem.(18) Whether the Man of Law is himself a fatalist arguing for a predetermined outcome to Constance's trials, supported by his numerous astrological flourishes, is perhaps not crucial to our estimation of Chaucer's attitude toward him nor to the major poetic purposes of the tale as a whole. More significant, in this context, is the teller's repeatedly expressed anxiety about the limit of human knowing:
For in the sterres, clerer than is glas, Is writen, God woot, whoso koude it rede, The deeth of every man, withouten drede. ... but mennes wittes ben so dulle That no wight kan wel rede it atte fulle. (194-96, 202-03)
Moreover, the shrill tone in which he argues his concern for his heroine's misfortunes certainly reveals his sympathy with the purported moral of the tale as it is found in Trivet (virtue rewarded by providence) and Gower (detraction overcome by virtue). But, in Chaucer's original poetic argument, the teller's frequent invocations of God's ordering of human events suggest, rather, a distinct ambition to circumvent the limit of human knowing and to make the world a safer place for his apparently "unwemmed" heroine (924). And, in this project of adapting providence to a human purpose, he will find an unlikely ally and critic in the form of "Custance" herself.
Our teller's initial prayer that God will guide Custance on her journey to her wedding in Syria ("Now, faire Custance, almyghty God thee gyde!" 245) seems innocent enough, but it has an odd rejoinder in her meditation on God's purposes as she confronts her fate:
"Fader," she seyde, "thy wrecched child Custance, Thy yonge daughter fostred up so softe, And ye, my mooder, my soverayn plesance Over alle thyng, out-taken Crist on-lofte, Custance youre child hire recomandeth ofte Unto youre grace, for I shall to Surrye, Ne shal I nevere seen yow moore with ye.
"Allas, unto the Barbre nacioun I moost anoon, syn that it is youre wille; But Crist, that starf for our redempcioun So yeve me grace his heestes to fulfille! I, wrecche womman, no fors though I spille! Wommen are born to thraldom and penance, And to been under mannes governance." (274-87)(19)
While the theme of Custance's filial devotion is here delicately announced (probably without double meaning), our heroine makes a dubious transition, in Chaucer's original addition, as she equates God's grace, by which we obey His commandments, to the thraldom and suffering of women under "mannes governance." Moreover, the subsequent events of the narration do not sort well with Custance's meditation on grace, since both the Sowdan and Alla are, as far as we can determine, benign in their role as spouses, though much under the dominion of their ferocious mothers. Thus, the imprecations of the Man of Law against the Sowdanesse (358) and his condemnation of Eve (368), like Custance's own questionable comments on the subjection of women in the face of providence's design, reveal a presumption in characterizing the causes of good and evil that may well be the object of Chaucer's ironic scrutiny. And this scrutiny is further intensified in the teller's repeated question as to why Custance survived the Sowdanesse's murderous treachery at her son's marriage banquet (470-504), with the analogies to Daniel, Jonah, and St. Mary, in Chaucer's original addition. The Man of Law offers this explanation:
God liste to shewe his wonderful myracle In hire, for we sholde seen his myghty werkis; Crist, which that is to every harm triacle, By certeine meenes ofte, as knowen clerkis, Dooth thyng for certein ende that ful derk is To mannes wit, that for oure ignorance Ne konne noght knowe his prudent purveiance. (477-483)
But this apparently pious submission to the limit of human "ignorance," in contrast with God's purveiance," is not consistent with the teller's anger over what he perceives to be the wrong done to Custance's unblemished innocence - such as at her trial before Alla in Northumbria:(20)
Allas! Custance, thou hast no champioun, Ne fighte kanstow noght, so weylaway! (631-32)
In fact, although Trivet's theme of Custance's evangelizing powers on her arrival in Northumbria is sustained here with the rapid conversion of Hermengyld and the Constable, Chaucer's depiction of the young knight's accusation of Custance dramatizes once again the Man of Law's need to explain the workings of providence in its governance of the world. In Trivet, as in Gower, the hand of God smites the false accuser for slandering an innocent, yet, in the Man of Law's emphasis, the miracle serves to show that her virtue will be rewarded, much to his satisfaction:(21)
And after this Jhesus, of his mercy, Made Alla wedden ful solempnely This hooly mayden, that is so bright and sheene; And thus hath Crist ymaad Custance a queene. (690-93)
His claim to have illustrated the workings of providence is, however, subject to caution - for example in the Constable's lament over the forged letter ordering Custance's exile:
O myghty God, if that it be thy wille, Sith thou art rightful juge, how may it be That thou will suffren innocentz to spille, And wikked folk regne in prosperitee...? (813-16)
Custance, in turn, acknowledges that there is no comparison between Mary's woe and human sorrow (846-47), but she begs the Constable to show mercy on her child:
"... O mercy, deere constable," quod she, "As lat my litel child dwelle heer with thee; And if thou darst nat saven hym, for blame, So kys hym ones in his fadres name!" (858-61)
The pathos of the heroine's lament for her child has an incongruous quality, if it suggests that she cannot accept the incommensurability of Mary's suffering for her Child at the crucifixion with human sorrow - though she has just proposed such an acceptance. And the scene of the attempted rape in the boat outside the heathen castle (904) is dramatized in a more emphatic comic indirection:Custance is not reduced to pushing the rapist out of the boat, as she is in Trivet (SA, 176), but rather struggles mightily with him until he slips overboard and is drowned (921-23). On the other hand, the scene does allow our teller to indulge in a series of what he thinks are appropriate Scriptural analogies of the weak against the strong (e. g.Judith's decapitation of Holofernes [Judith 13: 7-13]) that will allow him to promote his understanding of providence as the guarantor of Custance's purity.(22) In this version, of course, she does not have to drown her attacker to protect her spotless condition:
But blisful Marie heelp hire right anon; For with her struglyng wel and myghtily The theef fil over bord al sodeynly, And in the see he dreynte for vengeance; And thus hath Crist unwemmed kept Custance. (920-24)
But the climactic scene of multiple recognition at the close of the tale perhaps best illustrates Chaucer's original poetic purpose, for the reunion of Custance and Alla through the King's improbable recognition of his wife's features in the son he has never seen brings into focus a central poetic truth that our poet wishes to dramatize. Custance's trials have been overcome not by the agency of providence, as the teller has insisted, but rather through a series of turns in Fortune's wheel. Why did the Sowdanesse not murder Custance with the rest of the Christians? Can the innocent, falsely charged with murder, depend on the hand of God to smite an accuser? Like the terminal recognition scene, such episodes, as depicted in Trivet and Gower, are an opportunity to draw a moral, but Chaucer's poetic point is more likely to be that human ignorance is not limited to our inability to fathom the workings of God's order, but also to our inability to understand, much less represent, the nature of human innocence itself. For, in Chaucer's original addition, the Man of Law's closing meditation on the brevity of earthly joys has a quite specific point:
But litel while it lasteth, I yow heete, Joye of this world, for tyme wol nat abyde; Fro day to nyght it changeth as the tyde. (1132-34)
We do not find here a development of Trivet's theme of Constance's devout passing away, and the meditation of Gower's Genius on her triumph over envy is mentioned (1138) only to make the point that her bliss with Alla did not endure (1141). The Man of Law thus seems to conclude with the protest that providence did not secure Custance's happiness for a greater length of time.
In fact, however, Chaucer's concealed meaning is that we cannot know as much as his teller seems to claim about the rewards that should be allotted to his heroine's apparently matchless purity. It is unnecessary for us to appeal to the opposite extreme, which might be to argue that Chaucer represents in her the emblem of an incestuous attachment in her reunion with her father, who dies in her arms as she leaves a trail of dead bodies behind her (Dinshaw 110). And the very content of a given tale in the Canterbury Collection may weigh less heavily in Chaucer's purpose than its ironic emphases, or the poetic handling of a traditional legend. It is here that Chaucer's purposes may be most clearly differentiated from those of his speaker: that is, we may argue that he has visited upon his teller the charge that Ovid silently brought against his Pierides, in their irreligious jangling. As much as they sought to place a natural order on the same level as a theological one, in the Giants' overthrow of the High Ones, so the Man of Law has sought to represent the workings of providence at the level of fortune, to suggest that we may earn its protection in our claim to innocence. In this poetic ambition, the teller receives an early warning from Custance herself, who reminds us of the incommensurablity of Mary's suffering for her Son with the heroine's own sorrows, but the dominant theme of his performance remains secularistic in outlook, as he seeks to render for us, often with a certain shrillness, a material vision of human purity which providence must somehow guarantee.
However, in the various accidents of Custance's good and bad fortune (which are merely tangential to her innocence), we may appreciate the operation of Chaucer's Muse, which signals for us the transition from the teller's poetic purposes to Chaucer's own, in the emergence of his personality as a poet: like Calliope in the report of her colleague on Helicon, his poetic purpose wins a victory over his teller by celebrating an unstated point that is the obverse of what is developed in the tale. This point is that the ways of providence, like those of Ovid's fate, are beyond the reach of human understanding, though they are at the center of the tale's ultimate meaning. In the texture of Ovid's narrative, we found that the laws governing human love cannot be applied to divine purposes, which mirror a fate whose power is beyond our grasp. The point, then, about the Man of Law's inhibitions with regard to Canace and Apollonius is not that his own tale is or is not about an incestuous father-daughter (or mother-son) relationship, but rather that the proper rendering of the legend cannot involve the simplistic theme of virtue rewarded, nor of envy overcome, in a confrontation of human innocence with injustice. The better rendering, in the emergence of Chaucer's central irony, will involve the celebration of a providence that transcends our understanding of the opposition of guilt and innocence: that is, the teller has inverted the role of providence in the tale by assigning it the function of rewarding the heroine's virtue, which can, however, be fulfilled only in the superior will of God. It is, then, in Chaucer's handling of the role of providence in a superior order of poetics that his poetic purpose is most clearly differentiated from those of his teller.
By attempting to apply the Muse of poetry to a secular moral on the practical advantages of purity (Trivet) or constancy (Gower) in the face of Fortune's wheel, the Man of Law exposes himself to Chaucer's irony, compatible with Ovid's own interest in a poetic judgment that will free the content of a legend from a human order of argument about innocence and guilt in love: it is this transcendent freedom from the moral content of the legend that the Man of Law has sought to deny, but which Chaucer pursues in an emphatic Ovidian departure from his two immediate models. The brief happiness that Custance wins at the close maywell make her the emblem of the pilgrimage of the Church (Kolve 316), yet Chaucer's ironic point is that her "unwemmed" condition has not earned her a reunion with Alla and her father at the close, but is rather an illustration of an ideal order to which the teller has alluded in his astrological flourishes, often comically mismanaged. In turn, his obsessive preoccupation with his heroine's purity and its protection are humorously linked to the ambivalent or latent themes of incest in her story that he has been determined to suppress.(23) Thus, most of the deceptions and reversals of romance tradition in the tale have a moral ambivalence that he would deny by assigning them, somewhat like Gower's Genius, a patent moral - as if this were sufficient to control their poetic significance. Yet the power of grace and salvation that presides over Chaucer's dominant poetic vision cannot be held within his teller's grasp, since Chaucer reveals in the final stanzas that providence transcends, or dismisses, Custance's sufferings. That is, she may prevail over them not because she can earn God's protection but because she should love Him through the free gift of His Grace, irrespective of such dispositions to virtue as she may possess. This is the central truth that Chaucer wishes to dramatize in his tale, and it is the basis of his indirect condemnation of his teller's dubious "Pieridan" poetics, a condemnation that in turn awards a clear, if unstated, victory to the poet's sovereign Muse.
Archibald, Elizabeth. Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991. _____. "The Flight from Incest: Two Late Classical Precursors of the Constance Theme." Chaucer Review 20 (1985-86): 259-72. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Boccaccio on Poetry. Ed. and tr. Charles G. Osgood. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956. Bryan, W. and Dempster, G. eds. Sources and Analogues to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities P, 1958. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. Correale, Robert M. "Chaucer's Manuscript of Nicholas Trevet's Les Cronicles." Chaucer Review 25 (1990-91): 238-65. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer's Sexual Poetics. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989. Gower, John. The English Works of John Gower. 2 vols. Ed. G. C. Macaulay. EETS e. s. 81, 82. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1900-01. Graf, Fritz. "Ovide, les Metammphoses et la Veracite du Mythe." Ed. Claude Calame. Metamorphoses du Mythe en Grece Antique. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1988. 57-70. Harbert, Bruce. "Lessons from the Great Clerk: Ovid and John Gower." Ovid Renewed. Ed. Charles Martindale. Cambridge. Cambridge UP, 1988. 83-97. Harty, Kevin J. "Chaucer's Man of Law and the |Muses That Men Clepe Pierides.'" Studies in Short Fiction 18 (1981): 75-77. Hatton, Thomas. J. "John Gower's Use of Ovid in Book III of the Confessio Amantis," Mediaevalia 13 (1987): 257-74. Hiscoe, David W. "The Ovidian Comic Strategy of Gower's Confessio Amantis." Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 367-85. Jacobson, Howard. Ovid's Heroides. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974. Janan, Micaela. "The Book of Good Love? Design versus Desire in Metamorphoses 10." Ramus 17 (1988): 110-37. Kolve, V. A. Chaucer the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1984. Lieberg, Godo. "Ovide et les Muses." Les Etudes Classiques 48 (1980): 3-22. McGerr, Rosemarie P. "Medieval Concepts of Literary Closure: Theory and Practice." Exemplaria 1 (1989): 149-79. Nagle, Betty R. "Byblis and Myrrha: Two Incest Narratives in the Metamorphoses." Classical Journal 78 (1983): 301-15. Nicholson, Peter. "The Man of Law's Tale: What Chaucer Really Owed to Gower." Chaucer Review 26 (1991-92): 53-74. _____. "Chaucer Borrows from Gower: The Sources of the Man of Law's _____ Tale." Chaucer and Gower. Difference, Mutuality, Exchange. Ed. Robert F. Yeager. ELS 51. Victoria: U of Victoria P, 1991. 85-99. Nolan, Barbara. Chaucer and the Tradition of the Roman Antique. Cambridge. Cambridge UP, 1992. North, John D. Chaucer's Universe. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988. Ovid. The Art of Love and Other Poems. Ed. and tr. J. H. Mozley. London: Heinemann, 1971. _____. Heroides and Amores. Ed. and tr. G. Showerman. London: Heinemann, 1971. _____. Les Metamorphoses, Ed. and tr. G. Lafaye. 3 vols. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1965-66. Pelen, Marc M. "Contradictions and Self-Contradictions in Chaucer's Poetic Strategy," Florilegium 10 (1988-91): 107-25. Reiss, Edmund. "Biblical Parody: Chaucer's |Distortions' of Scripture." ed. David L. Jeffrey. Chaucer and Scriptural Tradition. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1984. 47-61. Shoaf, R. A. "'Unwemmed Custance': Circulation, Property and Incest in the Man of Law's Tale." Exemplaria 2 (1990): 287-302. Verducci, Florence. Ovid's Toyshop of the Heart: Epistulae Heroidum. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. Weisberg, David. "Telling Stories about Constance: Framing and Narrative Strategy in the Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review 27 (1992-93): 45-64. Weissman, Hope Phyllis. "Late Gothic Pathos in The Man of Law's Tale." Journal of Medieval Renaissance Studies 9 (1979): 133-53. Wetherbee, Winthrop. "Constance and the World of Chaucer and Gower." John Gower: Recent Readings. Ed. R. F. Yeager. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan U, 1989. 65-93. Wood, Chauncey. Chaucer and the Country of the Stars. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970. Wright, Ellen. "Profanum Sunt Genus: The Poets of the Ars Amatoria." Philological Quarterly 63 (1984): 1-15. Wynn, Philip. "The Conversion Story in Nicholas Trivet's |Tale of Constance.'" Viator 13 (1982): 259-74. (1) The learning, in Chaucer's version, is perhaps most apparent in the astrological allusions, which are part of Chaucer's original additions to the legend. The function of these allusions may serve a comic purpose, however, in depicting the Man of Law's ambivalent attitude toward the central theme of providence. See, for example, Chauncey Wood, 192-244, esp. 242; and John D. North, esp. 497. (2) R. A. Shoaf suggests that the Man of Law is "one of the most prolix narrators in the Canterbury Tales" (291). The exaggerated rhetoric and pathos of his style of narration are examined in their historical context by Hope Phyllis Weissman.
(3) The obsession has been connected with the theme of incest, for which the teller has a covert fascination. See, for example, Winthrop Wetherbee, and Carolyn Dinshaw, esp. 99-100. (4) I cite from the edition of the Constance exemplum in the Anglo-Norman Chronicle of Nicholas Trivet included in Sources and Analogues to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 155-81. Robert M. Correale announces an edition of the Chronicle for the Chaucer Library, based on Paris BN Ms frangais 9687. (5) Chaucer's interweaving of the two sources in Trivet and Gower is a complex matter that has recently been reexamined by Peter Nicholson, who shows that Chaucer's dependence on Gower's text is somewhat heavier than has been thought. (6) The Man of Law concludes his catalogue of Chaucer's works by remarking that he is loath to be compared to the Pierides (by which he means the Pierides defeated by the Muses in Metamorphoses V), but then he appears to contradict himself, as he claims to care little whether his tale is of modest import ("hawebake," 95). His modesty may be related to his claim to speak in prose, while others may rhyme, and this apparent contradiction with the stanzaic form of his tale has of course provoked much discussion. Perhaps "prose" signifies here the Man of Law's diffident assessment of his poetic abilities. Yet the rhetorical energy of the teller's performance, obvious in his desire to vindicate Constance's purity, contradicts once again his professed indifference as to the quality of his utterance.
To my knowledge, the allusion to the Pierides has received little critical attention: see, for example, the brief note of Kevin J. Harty. (7) Elizabeth Archibald, in the Introduction to her edition and translation of the major Latin "RA" version of the Historia Apollonii, remarks (15-18) on its latent incest theme. (8) References to Ovid's epic are keyed to Les Mitamorphoses. Renderings of Latin citations in this article are my own. (9) The Art of Love and Other Poems. On the comic irony of the preceptor's advice see Ellen Wright. A full treatment of Ovid's use of the tradition of the Muses' divine inspiration is conducted by Godo Lieberg. (10) This perceptive phrase is part of the discussion by Florence Verducci (191) of the relationship of Canace's passion in Heroides 11 to the larger theme of incest in Ovid's other work. (11) Verducci, in her Chapter on Heroides 11 entitled "Ordinary Incest," itemizes a series of criteria that distinguish Ovid's major examples of incest (Phaedra, Byblis, Myrrha) from the tone and content of Canace's more passive supplication addressed to her brother (192-94). (12) The reliability of Genius's handling of this exemplum may be an occasion for us to glimpse the workings of Gower's poetic irony. Thomas J. Hatton remarks on the poet's condemnation of both the incest of Canace and Machaire and of "Eollis's" "malencolie" but observes that the condemnation does not support Genius's advice to Amans to control his anger. Genius "fails to see that as long as Amans serves his mistress Venus, that is, Amans's concupiscence, he cannot hope to act in a reasonable way" (270). See also the more general discussion of David W. Hiscoe as well as that of Bruce Harbert. (13) That is, in Chaucer's allusion to the legend of Canace we may observe a poetic interest in making a distinction between a poem's overt subject and its latent theme. Ovid and Gower both give greater weight to the father Aeolus's fury and his murder of the child than to the deed of incest, and in this emphasis Chaucer probably sees an ambiguous father-daughter relationship that is comparable to the explicit and latent themes of incest in the Apollonius story. Gower, on the other hand, does not make a connection between the two stories in CA III and VIII. (14) See the useful analysis of Betty R. Nagle. Ovid's narratorial attitude toward Orpheus has been the subject of active recent interest; see Micaela Janan. (15) A possible reference to an incestuous motive during Calliope's epyllion occurs at V. 564, as Jupiter must act as the "arbiter between his brother and his sorrowing sister" ("At medius fratrisque sui maestaeque sororis") but, in dividing the year in two equal parts for the wife of Pluto and the daughter of Ceres, he responds to the will of the Parcae and not to a dubious sexual indulgence. (16) The competition between the Muses and the Pierides ends as do other such competitions in the Metamorphoses (Athena-Arachne, Apollo-Pan), that is, with an implied judgment between two kinds of poetic inspiration. One cannot help but observe that the transformation of the Pierides is akin to the subject of their song, in which they represent the gods in bestial disguises. In all, the narrative voices of the Metamorphoses are often the object of the poet's irony in that they misconstrue important traditional themes (i. e. the truth) in the legends they recite. See Fritz Graf. (17) Verducci (198-99) reviews the Euripidean background of the legend, which may have ended with Macareus's suicide after Canace's. (18)'We may assume that Chaucer in his tale draws a firm distinction between God's order of knowing, or providence, and destiny or man's order of perception (fate), as the distinction is formulated in Chaucer's translation of Boethius's Consolation IV, prose 6: "For purveaunce is thilke devyne resoun that is establissed in the sovereyn prince of thinges, the whiche purveaunce disponith alle things; but, certes, destyne is the disposicioun and ordenance clyvynge to moevable thinges..." (451). (19) Custance's "thraldom and penance" (286) finds an odd, if not comic, echo in the Sowdanesse's "thraldom to oure bodies and penance" (338) as part of her condemnation of the "new law" of the Court's mandatory conversion to the Christian faith on the occasion of her son's marriage. (20) The workings of providence in the three versions of the legend serve quite different literary purposes. In Trivet, "la purveance dieu" (SA, 167) does not fail Constance in her first trial in Syria, but comforts her during her trip to Northumberland (SA, 168): "Mes dieux soul lavoit conforte e conseile de sa parlaunce." Both instances are related to Constance's evangelizing, and, in Gower, she is likewise the agent of "goddes pourveance" (CA II. 753) in her conversion of Hermyngeld. On the other hand, in Chaucer's tale, the theme of providence is continuously represented in its capacity to protect Constance from misfortune and injustice. Philip Wynn suggests that the initial conversion scene in Syria - as a displacement of the incest motive in other analogues-may have attracted Trivet to the Constance story, as an exemplum compatible with the moral tenor of his work (262). (21) In both Trivet and Gower, Constance does marry Alla, but the theme of a reward by providence for her innocence and virtue is Chaucer's addition. (22) Judith's murder of Holofernes at his banquet is an odd inversion of the gross attempt on Custance's virtue by the rapist, and Chaucer's addition of the Scriptural exemplum may reflect a comic sublimation of the heroine's drowning of Thelous in Trivet (SA, 175-76). In the equivalent scene of Gower's version. "Thelous" is blown out of the boat in direct answer to Constance's prayer (11. 1120-26). Chaucer's emphasis is distinctive, in that while Gower's Genius intends merely to illustrate the theme of Constance's faith in God, Chaucer's analogy may involve the hidden - and comic - suggestion that Constance's safety is all-important, and would justify even a violent action like the one in Trivet, commemorated here in Holofernes's decapitation. Chaucer's ironic use of Scriptural allusions has often been remarked upon, for example by Edmund Reiss. (23) The closing arguments of the tale, as of others in the Collection, raise perplexing ambiguities. Elizabeth Archibald ("The Flight from Incest") finds that the Man of Law's initial question about his choice of tale is bound to alert the audience to a series of literary concealments. The sense of inconclusiveness in the ending of the Man of Law's Tale is underscored by the ambivalent conjunction of providence with legitimate paternal authority. The ambiguous mother-son and father-daughter relationships in the legend are probably what most trouble the teller, in his attempt to express a providential order in any final sense. This kind of ambiguity has recently been assessed in terms of conflicting narrative "frames" in the context of contemporary narratological hermeneutics by David Weisberg. See Rosemarie P. McGerr on the larger question of medieval attitudes toward poetic closure.
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|Title Annotation:||Geoffrey Chaucer|
|Author:||Pelen, Marc M.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1994|
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