Writing dreams to good: reading as writing and writing as reading in chaucer's dream visions.
Needless to say, none of these issues will be new to a reader even slightly acquainted with Chaucer's oeuvre; one of the most famous passages from the shorter poetry makes explicit the poet's enduring fascination with just this relationship between "olde feldes" and "newe corn," or rather "olde bokes" and "newe science" (PF 22-5). (2) Yet, for a poet as eager to produce rereadings in his own writing, at other times Chaucer remains decidedly ambivalent about the whole business: the questions of how and why to read and write become more complex when the author recognizes that he, too, must surrender control over his own rereadings to someone else's rereading. Indeed, one might very well read the House of Fame as a 2200-line caveat to this lofty image of the fruitful clash between tradition and the individual talent. I would argue, then, that the three dream visions in question together dramatize a variety of failures of reading, even as they finally maintain that some transactional process of rereading remains the only way to derive meaning from texts. Of course, the danger in advancing this kind of argument lies in the natural impulse of the contemporary reader to apply modern conceptions of textual openness to Chaucer's medieval mentality; both Jill Mann and Rosemarie McGerr have written on this matter at length, acknowledging the risk and proposing methods of circumventing it. (3) Like them, I do not wish to suggest that Chaucer has "anticipated" the postmodern condition, reader-response theory, or the entire legacy of twentieth-century Continental philosophy; rather, I find persuasive and useful Mann's argument that we can see in Chaucer's poetry what we might describe roughly as a "recognition of the dialogic creation of meaning" ("Chaucer and Atheism" 19). (4) Hereafter, I will take care to distinguish modern hermeneutic models from what I conceive of as Chaucer's own, as I examine how his articulation of a more "open" poetics plays out across the three dream visions: for Chaucer, every good reader becomes a kind of writer, in the sense that he or she creates new meaning in dialogue with a text, but the good writer, of course, must remain an excellent reader whose own texts emerge from a conscientious process of rereading.
Each of these three poems takes up the problem of rereading in a different way, but all three call attention to and then attempt to contain the openness that underlies writer-reader transactions. I will begin with the Book of the Duchess, a poem in which the narrative structure portrays the relationship between dream and text as mutually edifying: the narrator's dream furnishes him with the key to understanding an old text, and the old text provides the key to the dream vision. (5) Chaucer, however, tampers with his source texts from the start, as the narrator's version of Ceyx and Alcyone passes over the Ovidian ending in which the lovers reunite as immortal birds. (6) This abbreviation invites comparison with Chaucer's adaptation of the tale of Midas in the Wife of Bath's Tale, a story in the Metamorphoses barely 300 lines distant from Ceyx and Alcyone. Since reading Ovid's account reveals the alterations in the Wife's version, her instruction to seek out the original (WBT 981-2) draws attention to these revisions, Chaucer's possible reasons for making them, and the larger issue of relationships among texts. Although the narrator in the Book of the Duchess fails to refer the reader directly to his source, his conspicuous suppression of the tale's"happy ending" establishes how the story will function within the dream vision, or rather how pre-texts, once reread, can function in new texts generally.
While the Wife of Bath's "rereading" of Ovid represents a misogynistic transmutation of the tale that presumably rounds out Jankyn's "book of wikked wyves" (WBP 685), it remains less clear why Chaucer or his narrator removes the consolatory metamorphosis in the Book of the Duchess. Anne Rooney offers one explanation: "In its truncated form the story omits the hope of reunion after death (perhaps because this might be seen as condoning suicide, later rejected vehemently by the Dreamer, lines 714-41)" (309-10). Alternative rationales include the possibility that Chaucer's narrator simply fails to reach, notice, or understand Ovid's conclusion, or that the poet himself found the fantastic consolation artificial and inappropriate in light of the very real death commemorated in the poem, that of John of Gaunt's wife, Blanche of Lancaster. I understand the omission as, above all, a foregrounding of the narrator's rereading of the pre-text, perhaps one that begins as a fortuitous misreading but proves meaningful in terms of what the narrator eventually comes to recognize: the alteration at once highlights the narrator's problem of reading and then later assists him in correcting his flawed approaches to both the interpretative act of reading and the reality of death. Steven Davis also reads the narrator's progress through the layers of(re)vision as a process of learning and "awakening": "The narrator's response to 'Seys and Alcyone' is the first indication that he needs to be led ... to a presumably deeper and more Chaucerian sense of mortality and the 'good of literature'" (397). In other words, the narrator's failure to read properly necessitates that the dream vision teach him how to do so.
Much has been made of the narrator's laborious inability to understand that the black knight's lady has died. At the very least, some additional irony compounds the narrator's earlier warning of how impossible interpreting his dream will prove, since he does not even comprehend--or at least pretends not to comprehend--what the black knight seems to tell him so unequivocally on so many occasions, until his stunned response at the end of the dream: "Is that youre los? By God, hyt ys routhe" (1310). To make the best sense of the narrator's "dullness," we must conceive of his lack of discernment as contrived or even over-contrived, the poet's deliberate subversion of the narrator's ability to read and interpret. (7) This understanding of the narrator's behavior remains useful even if we decide, like McGerr and Philip Boardman, that his greatest interpretative problem lies in an incapacity to escape "the realm of courtly discourse, in which tales of a lost "fers" (654) or a lady described as "ded" and "agoon" in a ballad could in fact signify an unfaithful mistress (479). (8) Of course, on the level of narrative action, the narrator's lack of understanding also serves to draw out the black knight's story and to increase the pathos of the knight's sadness that the narrator cannot understand the pain he feels at the true tragedy--not merely a superlatively "poetical topic"--of the death of a beautiful woman. For example, the narrator fails to pierce the metaphor of the chess queen, exclaiming, "But ther is no man alyve here / Wolde for a fers make this woo!" (740-1). The knight could give the response that follows to anyone failing to sympathize with the seriousness of his loss: "Thou wost ful lytei what thou menest; / I have lost more than thou wenest" (743-4). In the end, the black knight demands a greater engagement than the narrator can provide by passively listening to the relation of his narrative, or even by simply rehearsing the words of authorities (717-40).
Swept up in the plot of the ensuing dream, one may forget the narrator's earlier deferred expression of sorrow for Alcyone, especially since he does not revisit that reaction in the concluding portion of the poem's frame, instead only expressing enthusiasm "to put this sweven in ryme" (1332). The narrator's final reaction to Ceyx and Alcyone, however, comes not at the end of his first reading of the story, nor at the end of his dream, nor at the end of his poem, but temporally after the dream takes place and thus after the narrator's initial desire to write it:
Such sorowe this lady to her tok That trewly I, that made this book, Had such pittee and such rowthe To rede hir sorwe, that, by my trowthe, I ferde the worse al the morwe Aftir to thenken on hir sorwe. (95-100)
Play effaces the immediacy, but not the significance, of the response indicated in this passage, entirely bracketing it: at first, the narrator misconceives of the "romaunce" (48) for which he asks as a pleasant read, "better play" (50) than other games, and, even after reading the tragic tale, "in [his] game" he playfully prays to Morpheus (238). One could even say that the enjambment of "the morwe / Aftir" further emphasizes the importance of futurity both at the end of one line and at the beginning the next; this promise of sorrow on the morrow naturally becomes lost in the effusive catalogue of votive dedications that the narrator promises to Morpheus in exchange for sleep. In effect, due to a failure to understand the depth of sorrow in the tale during his literal reading, the narrator does not fare any worse yet, casting aside any contemplation of sorrow in order to grab some shuteye. Moreover, the self-designating epithet, "I, that made this book," calls attention both to the narrator's role as writer and again to the fact that this sorrow grips him only in the future, after having completed the poem. (9)
Although the narrator jests about Ceyx and Alcyone after reading the tale, he feels sorrow after writing about the tale. Therefore, when Chaucer's narrator claims he had "such rowthe / To rede hir sorwe" (97-8), the word "retie" may not refer to his literal reading at all, instead taking on the Middle English sense of the word that persists in the second definition recorded by the OED: "To make out or discover the meaning or significance of (a dream, riddle, etc.); to declare or expound this to another." No longer limited to reading about her sorrow, the narrator has learned how to read--and write--the meaning of that sorrow. And only in the act of interpreting and understanding the full significance of Alcyone s despair can the narrator provide the appropriate response; the capacity for such an interpretation results from the educative experience of the dream vision. Due to the word's proximity to the line that reminds us that the narrator "made this book," we may perhaps even extend the meaning of the word "rede" to apply to the act of making said book as well, the means of declaring, expounding, and explaining to others the immensity and inexpressibility of the sadness of death.
In the House of Fame, it should be noted, Chaucer makes extensive use of this meaning of "rede" as "narrate" or "tell": "But hit were al to longe to rede" (1354); "this halle of which I rede" (1493); "al thys hous of which y rede" (1935); and on many other occasions (77, 347, 722, 1455). Indeed, Chaucer uses the word in these three dream visions with a range and frequency that should command our attention: in the Parliament, a form of the word "rede" appears in over one out of every 44 lines in the poem, or about once per every seven sentences. (10) John Gardner, then, is certainly right to emphasize "Chaucer's use of verbal repetition to suggest subtle connections within the narrative" of the Book of the Duchess (l. 51), but the recurrent appearance of the word in all of its meanings and across all of the dream visions underscores the absolute importance Chaucer attaches to "reading"--an act that encompasses reading, interpreting, and writing--as the process by which both to uncover and to convey meaning. Several more variants of "rede"/"reed"/"red" appear in the Book of the Duchess as well, usually in reference to advice, a remedy, or the color red. While, as in such cases as these latter two, it is not feasible to propose alternative meanings to supplant or complement the literal ones, often the contexts in which "rede" signifies another concept carry associations with reading. After all, this poem of consolation must devote some time to treating the matter of the black knight's own crisis of reading, his need of a curative "reed." Furthermore, since a negation almost always precedes the word "rede"/"reed" in these related instances, they, too, may point towards a failure of reading.
In addition to the narrator, both figures of the bereaved, Alcyone and her parallel in the black knight, in fact exhibit failures of reading connected on some level to a lack of "reed." The first use of the word "reed" as "remedy" in the poem occurs in the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, when the latter decides to pray to Juno: "Ne she koude no reed but oon" (105). Chaucer chooses to precede "reed" here with a negative, even though the meaning of the sentence remains positive: Alcyone does know one solution. Moreover, her solution takes the form of the composition of a prayer, and, in answer to her prayer, Alcyone receives a longed-for explanation. When Morpheus-Ceyx arrives in phantom aspect to relate his death, he again negates "reed" when he tells Alcyone, "For in your sorwe there lyth no red" (203). At least partly, in her sorrow lies no means to overcome that grief, no understanding, the lack of which leads her to surrender to suicide. Alcyone even arguably misreads/misinterprets the ghost's command of "Let be your sorwful lyf" (202) as a suggestion that she end her own life, which she does implicitly in Chaucer's version but explicitly in Ovid's when she leaps from a cliff (Metamorphoses XI.1046). Since Morpheus-Ceyx concludes by praying that God might her "sorwe lysse" (210), he evidently means for Alcyone to abandon her life of sorrow and her ceaseless mourning, rather than resign herself to damnable suicide. He also instructs her to "Awake!" (202), placing the real remedy not in his speech but after it, upon awakening, and awakening to interpretation and integration, in much the same way that Chaucer's narrator fails to understand the story and his dream until the following morning. Alcyone's engagement with the words of Morpheus-Ceyx consists of nothing more than a cry of woe, and thus she cannot obtain consolation from his explanation: "'Alias!' quod she for sorwe, /And deyede within the thridde morwe" (213-4). Her persistent sorrow leads directly to her death, as does her misunderstanding, a failure to read contained in how she "saw noght" immediately after the speech of consolation (213).
This association of negated "reed" (as remedy) with the act of "reading" as previously defined would almost seem coincidental but for the way in which the black knight's situation echoes these same aspects of the Ceyx and Alcyone story. In response to his own sorrow, the black knight expresses his inappropriate wish for death--"I wolde deye" (584)--and he, too, describes that sorrow in terms of negated "reed": "This ys my peyne wythoute red / Alway deynge and be not ded" (587-8). Without a remedy, without the proper understanding, without reading, comes this desire for death. In his narrative of how he once wooed his lady, the knight again invokes the absence of"rede," which we may interpret as either advice or remedy: "'Alias,' thoghte I, 'y kan no red'" (1187). First, the black knight's isolated "alias" recalls Alcyone's "alias" (213); next, perhaps we need not go so far as to propose a rereading of the latter portion of this line as, "I know not how to read," yet the following line indicates that, in this case, telling or explaining again defines the knight's singular remedy: "And but I telle hir, I nam but ded" (1188). Such profuse negations of "rede" reflect a poem rife with failures of reading.
While, at the end of the poem, the narrator does not return explicitly to the idea of a postponed understanding (that "To rede hir sorwe / ... al the morwe"), he evokes similar sentiments by declaring that his reading (as interpretation) and writing of the dream require "processe of tyme" (1331). Furthermore, the word "routhe" in line 1310 links the conclusion of his dream to that earlier "concluding" reaction, since the narrator also feels "rowthe" upon finally reading the meaning of Ceyx and Alcyone (97); the narrator's carefully constructed ignorance bears further fruit in delaying this "routhe" until the point of revelation and awakening at the end of reading and writing. (11) Chaucer, then, uses the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone to frame and foreshadow the story of bereavement in the context of the dream, while the completion of the dream vision helps Chaucer's narrator--or his creator--understand the depth of the bereavement that could not impress itself upon him by means of his reading the tale alone. Davis finds the narrator's sympathetic awakening so compelling that he asserts that, by the end of the poem, both "Dreamer and patron" have found their way to "a new truth," but only after, he notes, "[t]he Dreamer, in attempting to lay open through questioning the malady of the Man in Black, exposes his own" (400-1). But we must keep in mind that any "new truth" at work does not prevent the narrator from faring "the worse al the morwe" (99). After understanding the grief of both Alcyone and the black knight, the narrator does not necessarily lead a happier life in which death holds no power; even the narrator's new understanding fails as a sound didactic declaration of the appropriate method of overcoming grief, which we might expect in such a poem of consolation.
What Chaucer does offer in the Book of the Duchess is a way to begin coming to terms with death through reading and writing, rather than attempting to enforce any direct, cavalier consolation, which parallels the indirect or perhaps inconclusive consolation in the Parliament. In this later dream vision, the text at first seems to advocate either a generically Stoic philosophy or a sort of contemptus mundi: "That he ne shulde hym in the world delyte" (66). These preliminary consolations, however, evaporate after the dream itself commences, or possibly even before; although the poem contains approximately half as many lines as the Book of the Duchess, its plot ranges farther afield, suggesting greater complexity than one consolation can account for, and acknowledging that debates rage even in dreams, even in the paradise of Nature, even, perhaps, among waterfowl. Primarily, the narrator of the Parliament faces a similar challenge to his understanding, but it comes in the guise of that other topic in literature: not death, but love. Just as the narrator of the Book of the Duchess must confront the problems of reading texts and reading the world, this narrator, piecing together various authorities and sources, must search for the proper reading or definitive explanation of the nature of love.
Although Chaucer's narrator begins the dream vision with a discussion of Love, who "Astonyeth with his wonderful werkynge" (5), he proceeds to speculate about other causes than lovesickness for the specific images that direct his dream, tracing them, of course, to texts. When framed by the genre of the dream vision, literary pre-texts like Ovid's or Cicero's may appear to provide starting points from which the poet's imagination may freely wander, according to the whimsies of the dreamlike form--selecting for a guide Scipio Africanus, a learned eagle, or a puppy--but Chaucer deviates from his sources according to deliberate artistic aims, even frequently calling attention to these deviations. (12) Indeed, in contrast to how Africanus shows the dreaming Scipio the whole of "the hevenes quantite" and "the nyne speres" (58-9), there is something very "down to earth" about Chaucer's Macrobian observation that "The juge dremeth how his plees been sped; / The cartere dremeth how his cart is gon" (101-2). As an ordinary dreamer assembles a dream out of fragments of everyday life, so the dream visionary assembles the text of the dream vision out of other textual sources, fragments of a literary life. Of course, Chaucer stresses this equally causal relationship between pre-text and dream vision precisely by having his narrator express doubt about it: "Can I not seyn if that the cause were / For 1 hadde red ofAffrican byforn / That made me to mete that he stod there" (106-8). When the narrator shortly arrives at a rather Dantean gate (127), we begin to understand that the poem follows not one text, but many; soon enough, the plot of the dream passes through Dante and on to a garden out of Boccaccio, "ful of blosmy bowes" (183). From there, on to other texts, and then on to yet others. In short, Chaucer's narrator should attribute the occasion for his dream to more than a single "olde bok" (110); he obviously possesses a mind full of "olde bokes" (24), and the entirety of that mental library produces the fabric of his dream vision. Moreover, if the behavior of the narrator of the Book of the Duchess strikes us as overly contrived, the Parliament instead depicts a journey that can seem chaotic, formless, somnambulant, almost random, with the narrator drifting from one scene, one text, one sphere, to another.
While the latter half of the Parliament at first appears to build towards some kind of unifying order through the rule of "Nature, the vicaire of the almyghty Lord" (379), even then Nature's voice all but fades in the midst of the ensuing cacophony of competing birds, with no apparent resolution in the poem but deferral, a "respit for to avise" (648). So numerous are the different voices in the dream vision, and so manifold its sources, that the poem's potential meanings threaten to dissolve into dissonance and disunity: H. Marshall Leicester, Jr. begins his landmark deconstructionist analysis by noting "the conspicuous failure of criticism to reach any substantial agreement on the unity of the poem and the nature of its themes" (15). Attempts to impose unity on the poem's parts do founder, but we may perhaps avoid an interpretation that concludes in dissonance, as long as we understand the abundance of sources as part of a poetic image rather than part of a poetic argument: a picture of various authorities, texts, interpretations, and problems in literature and in life, problems which both the narrator and the reader must attempt to make sense of during the poem, at its end, or even afterwards. Again we see that the declaration, "I hope, ywis, to rede so som day," at the poem's conclusion (697)--and even the formel eagle's one-year period of advisement--place the best possibility of understanding at a point in the future. If, however, understanding and meaning exist only inpotentia, we cannot read the dream vision as some great synthesis of conflicting sources, nor as a perfect symbol of the narrator's journey to wisdom. Instead, the poem's appropriation of various texts and set pieces results in a mosaic-like effect: if we cannot find a unified image, we may still see a picture--albeit a fractured or at least segmented one--that evokes the problems facing the narrator during, as McGerr puts it, the "ongoing process of interrogation and re(interpretation)" (2).
The Parliament does not unconditionally praise ambiguity or downplay the difficulties that uncertainty, plurality, and conflicting opinions can create, yet it is the very range of human experience and human opinion that seems to most interest Chaucer in the Parliament, an interest that the poem's many catalogues reflect. (13) First comes the catalogue of trees and their properties, beginning with "The byldere ok, and ek the hardy asshe" (176 ff.), followed by the list of the plenteous personifications present in the temple of Venus. "Foolhardynesse, Flaterye, and Desyr," et alia (218 ft.), and finally culminating in the catalogue of birds: "The waker goos; the cukkow ever unkynde" (323 ff.). The members of this last catalogue, however, quickly convene their debating society, with each bird representing a different human perspective on love, and, in the parliament proper, Chaucer presents a Canterbury-esque picture of the diversity of human opinion on matters great and small. Although the overall situation produces a comic effect--the speakers quack and cluck in pentameter--the irresolvable disputes retain the potential to break into violence, as the tercelet remarks in frustration: "I can not se that argumentes avayle; / Thanne semeth it there moste be batayle" (538-9). Nature's authority, or the light-hearted spirit of this part of the poem, manages to contain this violence, but Chaucer seeks more in the Parliament than a simple defusing of ideological conflict; his narrator does struggle to make sense of it all and finds some kind of consolation in learning and reading.
Both the Parliament and the Book of the Duchess open with their respective narrators out of touch with truth and feeling rather unwell, either "Fulfyld of thought and busy hevynesse" (PF 89) or suffering from "melancolye" (BD 23) and "Defaute of slep and hevynesse" (BD 25). Still, the particular natures of their afflictions differ somewhat: while we might speculate that the problem of the Duchess narrator concerns a failure to read properly due to a lack of experience reading properly--suggested by his misconception of Ceyx and Alcyone as a sort of beach read--the Parliament narrator instead suggests that his own failure of understanding results from a lack of more worldly experience: "I knowe nat Love in dede" (8). Unlike the Duchess narrator, the slightly more sophisticated, self-conscious Parliament persona has, in fact, obtained most of his knowledge through a perfectly proper reading of books. Instead, he questions the applicability of such "newe science" (25) to real human experience, of which he claims to possess little and which Africanus accuses him of lacking: "But natheles, although that thow be dul,/Yit that thow canst not do, yit mayst thow se" (162-3). The modesty topos may underlie Africanus' belittling accusation, yet, much as the other characters mirror the narrator's shortcomings in the Book of the Duchess, so, too, do the Parliament narrator's problems with hesitation and uncertainty become the central issues for the fowls in the latter half of the poem, especially in the "choys" of mate for the indecisive formel eagle (649). Also, regardless of the differences in their respective diagnoses, the diseases that afflict the two narrators similarly appear as much psychological as somatic. The setup seems flawless: the "reed" for their ills can then naturally come in the form of philosophical, moral, or spiritual consolation, the perfect subject for a poem of high sentence. Unless, however, we accept the concluding roundel in the Parliament as a satisfying and complete resolution--even the narrator does not seem to do so--we cannot see the consolation in the poem as anything but imperfect.
As an unconventional dream vision without an unequivocal philosophical resolution, the Parliament easily lends itself to interpretations of its dissonance or incompleteness, and the poem may even seem to argue that books themselves offer nothing but irresolution. Michael Near aptly describes the poem as more "a record of an intellectual experience" than a means of consolation, and he argues against the imposition of any one framework of unity or meaning on the poem, for then "the poem becomes a tract which says something regardless of the degree to which that something is ambiguous or multivalent" (18). One problem with this kind of reading rests in its inexorable extension, which obliges us to agree that, by the end of the poem, "No conclusion has been reached" (20). I would propose that, as in the Book of the Duchess, here, too, Chaucer locates the key in reading, but in everything that reading can mean:
I wok, and othere bokes tok me to To reede upon, and yit I rede alwey. In hope, ywis, to rede so sore day That I shal mete som thyng for to fare The bet, and thus to rede I nyl nat spare. (695-9)
Recalling the uses of the word "rede" with an outward, explicative, and even narratory sense in the House of Fame and in select places in the Book of the Duchess, a rereading of "reading" in the poem's last stanza as "explaining" or "writing" illuminates the fullness of the narrator's quest to understand and share his understanding. If I might make a crude illustration, the following literal replacement of "rede" by a word with a more explanatory sense yields a compelling result: "I wok, and othere bokes tok me to, / To expound upon, and yit I expound alwey." In this way, the narrator's continued struggle becomes one of explanation rather than one of simple reading, a conclusion entirely in keeping with his problems and his progression in the poem. (14) This reading brings the consolation of the Parliament narrator closely in line with the way in which the narrator of the Book of the Duchess improves in his ability to read and interpret, since the former now intends to approach his books with a renewed appetite for edification.
Another word replacement, however, resonates even more profoundly for the narrator and Chaucer himself as twinned poet figures, namely, the replacement of "rede" everywhere in this final stanza with modern English "write": "thus to write I nyl nat spare." By the end of the poem ("processe of tyme"), the humble reader of the first few stanzas has taken up the mantle of the writer, he who expounds to others. His purpose in dreaming up new poems attains an ethical dimension: he dreams not only for himself, but also for his readers "to fare / The bet." In order to complete this interpretation of the narrator as one who concludes his poem as a newly self-aware reader-writer, we could also reconsider the meaning of the word "mete" in the poem's penultimate line. Rather than simply "to dream," the verb "meten" in Middle English may also mean "to encounter" or "to mete out," and the MED lists another intriguing definition: "To paint (sth.); sculpt; also, design (sth.)." The poet, then, records his powerful wish to succeed in providing "sentence" and "solaas" (GP 798) to his audience: "That I shal create som thyng for to fare / The bet." Finally, applying this meaning of "rede" as "write" to one of the first uses of the word in the poem reframes the dream vision in light of the author's delight in expounding and sharing his vision, rather than only in his literal act of reading: "But now to purpos as of this matere: / To rede forth hit gan me so delite" (26-7). The Parliament takes up many subjects, but none so unambiguously as this joint process of reading forth and writing forth.
With these alternative readings in mind, let us now return to Chaucer's well-known description of the production of new texts at the beginning of the poem, in which "newe science" sprouts perennially from "olde bokes" (22-5). Both the Parliament and the Book of the Duchess call especial attention not only to, as Margaret Bridges puts it, "the reader-beholder's status as interpreter" (157), but also to the reader-beholder's potential as a writer himself; the Book of the Duchess likewise ends with an emphasis on and exaltation of the reader-narrator's act of putting his "sweven in ryme" (1332). While Chaucer cannot provide solutions to all of his narrator's problems of reading, he does set down a powerful validation of the importance of those problems and the attempt to solve them; the reader-interpreter-writer's struggle to understand depicts the acts of reading, interpreting, and writing as a set of truly transformative experiences. (15) In spite of the recursiveness of the closing roundel and the lack of plot resolution, the experience of the dream vision has indeed advanced the narrator beyond the state in which he began: as writer, he manages to redefine "reading," or, rather, he succeeds in reappropriating "reading" for himself as a grand, universal process of which he has now become a part. In this fashion, Chaucer, too, proudly declares himself among the mediators in the relationship between "olde bookes" and "new science," in an act of artistic self-glorification comparable to but subtler than the manner in which Chaucer's beloved Ovid concludes his epic by exulting in his lasting poetic power. (16)
We must keep in mind, however--as Chaucer does--that Ovid was one of the lucky ones: not only has the ice on which his name is carved chanced to stay in the shade, but Chaucer erects for him an eternal pillar of copper (HF 1486 ff.). What about all those other poets that the House of Fame leaves too much in the sun, "almost ofthowed so / That of the lettres oon or two / Was molte away of every name" (1144-5)? So much for lasting poetic power! Along these same lines, Mann observes that the liberties Chaucer takes as rereader in the Parliament carry with them consequences that the poet as himself a poet cannot ignore: "This is all great fun for readers. But it creates certain problems for writers" ("Authority of the Audience" 5). Mann reasonably suggests that Chaucer's recasting of Dido in the House of Fame represents an example of a positive, "creative" rereading (10), but I would also emphasize how the second half of the poem, in which Fame awards honors or oblivion to her petitioners at random, comments in particular upon the problems of reception and rereading. In other words, after the poet produces his own rereading of Virgil, he must then face the fact that the deep structure of the universe, as the aquiline interlocutor begins to reveal to him, permits not only productive misprisions but grossly "wrong" or at least arbitrary rereadings. (17)
The House of Fame, however, does not completely undercut the wonderful potential Chaucer finds in rereading and writing, for in this dream vision the poet demonstrates a deep engagement with these same issues, so much so that many critics have described the poem as a kind of ars poetica. I would proceed a step farther and contend that we must read the House of Fame with the other two dream visions in order to acquire a fuller picture of Chaucer's "open" poetics of rereading. But far more thoroughly than the other dream visions, the House of Fame addresses the subject of the audience. In a recent article on the poem, William A. Quinn, after demonstrating how Chaucer leaves a "phantom" of his presence in the poem, concludes with a compelling suggestion for the identity of the famously truant "man of gret auctorite" (2158), arguing that the poem "calls for the arrival of the text's only real person of great authority, the present reader" (190). (18) In a sense, this argument is also the one Mann takes up: "[Chaucer's] representations of the reading process constitute ... an acknowledgement of the essential role played by the reader in the creation (or destruction) of literary authority" ("Authority of the Audience" 2). I do not unconditionally accept Mann's conclusion that Chaucer authorizes the passing of "literary authority ... from the author to the reader" (10), but I agree that, for Chaucer, "[i]t is in the reader's imagination that the literary work finds the fullness of meaning" (12). In this respect, however, the Parliament equally serves as a caveat to the House of Fame's transfer of literary authority, because the recursive conclusion suggests that anything like "the fullness of meaning" in a single literary text must always remain elusive, even in the mind of the capable reader. Rather, the pursuit of a fuller sense of meaning necessitates the perpetual series of transactions between writers who are readers and readers who are writers.
Indeed, Chaucer demonstrates a constant awareness of the author's ineluctable inability to control his own destiny and reception, the necessary corollary to his own "open" poetics of rereading and rewriting, or rather simply a part of what must happen when the precious "litel bok" has left its maker (TC V.1786). In the end, perhaps an author can only hope and pray, "God turne us every drem to goode!" (HF 1), with "drem" of course standing in for dream vision, and dream vision standing in for text. One cannot help but notice that Chaucer in fact begins the House of Fame with this invocation and later repeats it verbatim (57); it may not be too preposterous to propose that this dream vision not only serves as an exploration of the risks of rereading as a universally-implemented hermeneutic, but also as a sort of apotropaic charm, a guarantor against the vagaries of audience reception. Moreover, if we entertain Robert Hanning's provocative hypothesis that "we will perhaps understand Chaucer's poem better if we, in effect, read it backwards" (146), the opening prayer could become its valediction as well, usurping this privileged position from the frustratingly "open" conclusion that terminates only in an absence.
Continuing to read the poem backwards, we see that the voice of Chaucer's multiple proems and prologues appears to anticipate much of what the narrator will discover about poetry and fame during the vision experience: the author here expresses an extra-ordinary anxiety about both his ability to tell the tale (77-80, 518-28, 1091-1109) and its eventual reception. Both ends of the writer-reader transaction concern Chaucer, because, of course, he finds himself on both, and, as I have been arguing, he all but collapses the one into the other; a close look at the language of these paired petitions reveals the same poetics of rereading that I locate in the other dream visions. For instance, while the narrator repeatedly asks that the gods allow him his "sweven for to telle aryght" (79), he does not demand that his audience receive it "aryght" in exactly the way he intends, but only that they not "hyt mysdemen in hir thoght / Throgh malicious entencioun" (92-3). This last qualifier seems to underline the essential point here; the poet goes on to call down a curse only on those misreaders who do so "thorgh presumpcion, / Or hate, or skom, or thorgh envye, / Dispit, or jape, or vilanye" (94-6). Thus, I understand this polemic on audience reception as one that in fact permits a wide range of interpretations among good readers, that is, well-meaning readers, those "That take hit wel and skome hyt noght" (91).
We might then wish to conclude, as Judith Ferster argues based on the Parliament, that Chaucer stresses "[t]he necessity for good-faith engagement with people and poems" (68). On one level, the strength of Ferster's argument is clear, since the House of Fame, a poem she addresses only in passing, bears it out; in the end, however, she perhaps ascribes an overly didactic character to Chaucer's "open" poetics, suppressing the utter randomness that can characterize fame and therefore reception. Chaucer does demand both empathy and acumen from his audience, but only as a starting point: neither the Parliament nor the House of Fame can chart such a straight path to hermeneutic salvation. In the latter, the explicit reference to the dream's audience complicates yet strangely complements the narrator's boast in the Book of the Duchess that no one could interpret ("rede") his dream, for, in the House of Fame, Chaucer recognizes that all kinds of people will be interpreting ("reading") his dream, and in all kinds of different ways. The terror that the howling winds of the House of Fame inspire in the narrator--"yt doth me for fere swete" (1042)--makes it all the more imperative that the reader rage against the dying of the ice and the fickleness of Fame: empathetic reading is not the ultimate key to remembrance, but the extension of that reading into writing itself, the preservation of poets on textual pillars.
Rereading in writing, however, obviously entails more than repeating the words of earlier auctors: we should keep in mind the failure of the narrator of the Book of the Duchess to console the black knight with a scrap of remembered Socrates and a catalogue of twice-told tales. Let us now briefly consider Chaucer's "Little Aeneid" as a sort of case study in sensitive rereading and writing: while the frame of the House of Fame mentions no physical book, the narrator dreams himself into "a temple ymad of glas" ostensibly belonging to Venus but more properly dedicated to Virgil's text (120). Chaucer's major modification to the original is a clear indictment of Aeneas as betrayer (294); at the same time, a sympathetic reading of Dido dates back to Virgil's own day, a fact that the narrator highlights by referring to the Heroides (379). We must then ask why the poet-persona stipulates, in a line that cannot pass without comment, that he traces her complaint to no other auctor: "In suche wordes gan to pleyne / Dydo of hit grete peyne, / As me mette redely--/ Non other auctour alegge I" (311-4). One could argue that Chaucer simply flags this specific interpolation as consisting of his own words: the poet-narrator wishes to make it clear that he has carved out his own corner of "auctorite" in this most unlikely of places, right in the midst of tradition. Katherine Terrell, among others, suggests that Chaucer intentionally juxtaposes the Virgilian (Aeneas as hero) and Ovidian (Aeneas as traitor) traditions in order to call attention to both "the discord that exists between these two respected literary authorities" and "the predicament of the reader faced with such unreliability" (284). Therefore, by "non other auctour," Chaucer may be insinuating that he can rely on no single "man of gret auctorite" Not only does the poet take care to cite both of his contradictory sources (378-9), but he also includes Virgil's point of view on Aeneas' pietas, rather than attempting to cement his characterization as newly authoritative: "But to excusen Eneas / Fullyche of al his grete trespas, / The book seyth ..." (427-9). These last three words distance the rereader and his own interpretation from what he perceives to have been the intention of the author. In other words, with his rereading of Dido, Chaucer presents no insuperable synthesis of Ovid and Virgil but a presentation of both perspectives tempered with his own opinions, his own rereadings: in part, Chaucer rises to the interpretative challenges to which he calls our attention by not ignoring or oversimplifying them.
In the end, Chaucer's model readers, it seems clear, are writers, and writers who must prove themselves first-class rereaders, willing to innovate as well as preserve and share the memory of the past. If, as Pope quipped, Homer makes us hearers and Virgil leaves us readers, it is perhaps Chaucer who finally makes us writers. The alternative interpretations of the word "rede" that I have proposed should demonstrate how intimately Chaucer connects the processes of reading, understanding, and writing. (19) Above all, Chaucer exposes the workings of this "open" interpretative and poetic process, and he invites his future readers to continue in it themselves. In fact, in diametric contrast with Biblical and other traditional injunctions against adding or removing words from a text (Rev 22:19, Deut 4:2), the narrator of the Troilus, rendering a medieval formula of humility quite sincere, claims that he speaks his words "alle under correccioun" and submits them to the discretion of his readers: "To encresse or maken dymynucioun / Of my langage, and that I yow biseche" (III.1331-6). (20) Here Chaucer insists on his readers' engagement with and reevaluation of his work, literally beseeching them to produce their own engagements with his engagements, new readings of his readings, future writings on his writings. Of course, as Barbara Nolan puts it, for Chaucer, "the teller must share uncertainty and limitation with the audience in the face of the matter he takes up" (218), but so, too, does the writer share with his readers in the exuberance of the hunt for meaning. Inevitable, then, is the recursive conclusion of the Parliament, which directs us back to our starting point but with new insight; inevitable is the cacophony of discordant authorities in the House of Fame, which threatens to drown out the voice of the innovator; inevitable is the insufficiency of the consolation in the Book of the Duchess, which reminds us that we cannot erase the ultimate loss with a single text. No, the dream visions contend, there is no man of gret auctorite, but only men of auctorite, gret and smal, and that infinite interplay of readers and writers and writers and readers, which generates a new harvest year after year in the face of fate, fortune, and the grave. Whether or not we wish to describe his poetics as to some extent "open," Chaucer strives to keep us conscious along with him that, whatever great work he may read or whatever great work he may produce, something more remains to be read, and something more remains to be written.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
Boardman, Philip. "Courtly Language and the Strategy of Consolation in the Book of the Duchess." ELH 44.4 (1977): 567-79. Print.
Bridges, Margaret. "The Picture in the Text: Ecphrasis as Self-reflectivity in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, Book of the Duchess and House of Fame." Word& Image 5.2 (1989): 151-8. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson et al. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1987. Print.
Davis, Steven. "Guillaume De Machaut, Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, and the Chaucer Tradition." The Chaucer Review 36.4 (2002): 391-405. Print.
Edwards, Robert R. The Dream of Chaucer: Representation and Reflection in the Early Narratives. Durham: Duke UP, 1989. Print.
Ferster, Judith. Chaucer on Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.
Gardner, John. "Style as Meaning in the Book of the Duchess." Language and Style 2 (1969): 143-71. Print.
Hanning, Robert W. "Chaucer's First Ovid: Metamorphosis in The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame." Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction. Ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon. Rochester: Solaris, 1986. 121-63. Print.
Howard, Donald R. "Flying through Space: Chaucer and Milton." Milton and the Line of Vision. Ed. Joseph Anthony Wittreich. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1975. 3-23. Print.
H. M. Leicester, Jr. "The Harmony of Chaucer's Parlement: A Dissonant Voice." The Chaucer Review 9.1 (1974): 15-34. Print.
Lynch, Kathryn L. Chaucer's Philosophical Visions. Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Print.
Mann, Jill. "The Authority of the Audience in Chaucer." Poetics: Theory and Practice in Medieval English Literature. Eds. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti. Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 1991. 1-12. Print.
--. "Chaucer and Atheism." Studies in theAge of Chaucer 17 (1995): 5-19. Print. McGerr, Rosemarie. Chaucer's Open Books. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998. Print.
Near, Michael. "Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls: Reading as an Act of Will." Pacific Coast Philology 20.1-2 (1985): 18-24. Print.
Nolan, Barbara. "The Art of Expropriation: Chaucer's Narrator in The Book of the Duchess." New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism. Ed. Donald L. Rose. Norman: Pilgrim, 1981. 203-22. Print.
Palmer, R. Barton. "Rereading Guillaume de Machaut's Vision of Love: Chaucer's Book of the Duchess as Bricolage." Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. Ed. David Galef. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998. 169-95. Print.
Perkins, Nicholas. "Haunted Hoccleve?: The Regiment of Princes, The Troilean Intertext, and Conversations with the Dead." The Chaucer Review 43.2 (2008): 103-39. Print.
Phillips, Helen. "The French Background." Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. Ed. Steve Ellis. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 292-312. Print.
Quinn, William A. "Chaucer's Recital Presence in the House of Fame and the Embodiment of Authority." The Chaucer Review 43.2 (2008): 171-96. Print.
Rooney, Anne. "The Book of the Duchess: Hunting and the 'Ubi Sunt' Tradition." The Review of English Studies 38.151 (1987): 299-314. Print.
Ruffolo, Lara. "Literary Authority and the Lists of Chaucer's House of Fame: Destruction and Definition through Proliferation." The Chaucer Review 27.4 (1993): 325-41. Print.
Sklute, Larry. Virtue of Necessity: Inconclusiveness and Narrative form in Chaucer's Poetry. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984. Print.
Terrell, Katherine H. "Reallocation of Hermeneutic Authority in Chaucer's House of Fame." The Chaucer Review 31.3 (1997): 279-90. Print.
T. S. Miller
University of Notre Dame
(1) The most relevant definitions from the Middle English Dictionary: "5a.(a) To relate (a narrative), tell (a story), recount (sth.); 5b.(a) To explain something; state (sth.) in speech or writing; 6.(a) To interpret (a dream, parable, etc.); 8a.(a) To counsel, give advice; 8b.(a) To advise (sb. to do sth.), urge; advise (to do sth.)."
(2) Nicholas Perkins superbly describes this much-discussed trademark of Chaucer's work, the "self-deprecating authorial persona that promotes open-ended relationships between text, literary tradition, and audience" (118). Helen Phillips has even similarly concluded that "[e]ach of Chaucer's dream poems takes elements from the tradition of dits and dream poetry and puts them in new juxtapositions that invite the reader's participation in the creation of meaning" (299).
(3) McGerr examines the concept of "the open work" as it relates to problems of reading in Chaucer. I find her definition of "openness" more useful than the "inconclusiveness" for which Larry Sklute argues, not in least part because his study ends, perhaps unsurprisingly, with an indistinct conclusion. For McGerr, it is enough that "the issue of how readers generate meaning from texts was a matter of ongoing concern for medieval artists, as it is for modern ones; and though some medieval writers responded to the inherent openness of texts by attempting to close them, other writers sought to underscore this openness by making it more explicit" (7-8).
(4) Mann's method of approaching Chaucer dialogically is loosely based in the work of Jauss, Bultmann, Yodorov, and Bakhtin. She insists--and ultimately finds the poet himself insisting--that "[meaning] is something that resides in the interaction between text and reader, endlessly remaking itself as that interaction changes its character over time" ("Chaucer and Atheism" 9).
(5) In the dream prologue to the Legend of Good Women, the narrator even more explicitly states that old texts serve as the key to memory: "And if that olde bokes were aweye, / Yloren were of remembrance the keye" (F 25-6). I would note that "remembren" can also function ditransitively.
(6) See Ovid, Metamorphoses XI.589-1066. R. Barton Palmer emphasizes the influence of Machaut and his French contemporaries over Ovid, noting that "roughly two-thirds of the work's 1,334 lines ... deriv[e] directly from various French models" (185), yet the scope of my inquiry forces me to limit my attention to the Ovidian pre-text; Palmer himself points out the significance of the fact that, "unlike Machaut, Chaucer thematizes the story as a rereading" (179).
(7) Barbara Nolan likewise describes the narrator as "a carefully wrought
rhetorical construct" (221). To my mind, the possibility that the narrator affects his own ignorance as an amateur pyschoanalyst attempting a "talking cure" gives too much credit to the persona. As Davis keenly observes, "Chaucer renders the Dreamer's reading, his whole way of reading, inadequate" (399).
(8) See McGerr, Chaucer's Open Books, 52-3; Boardman, "Courtly Language."
(9) Mann comes to a comparable conclusion about futurity and postponement in the poem: "[T]he story expands within the reader's mind, taking on its own life and fashioning itself into new shapes, realizing its effects obliquely and over time" ("Authority of the Audience" 11).
(10) For some comparative "calkulynge," in the Troilus, the ratio is closer to one instance per 165 lines, meaning that the frequency is nearly four times higher in the Parliament. In the House of Fame, the word still appears about twice as often as in the Troilus, and, in the Book of the Duchess, roughly one and a half times more often. In the Tales, the ratio is less than 1:200.
(11) Kathryn Lynch calls the poem "as much about the postponement of knowledge as it is about knowledge itself" (57), further noting that the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone serves as an example of failed reading or "frustrated knowledge" (41), where, in light of Alcyone and the narrator's shared misunderstanding of the story, "reading should lead to the achievement of communication and understanding, although here it does not" (42).
(12) Again, I would not suggest that Chaucer anticipated the invention of Harold Bloom, yet he seems to have had some idea of the poetic "swerve" despite Bloom's claim that even Shakespeare wrote "before the anxiety of influence became central to the poetic consciousness" (11).
(13) Chaucer's propensity for catalogues derives chiefly from Alan of Lille's De planctu naturae, which the poet names as a source in his text (316). Several critics have noted that the old book literally "comes to life" in Chaucer's dream, since the birds that decorate Nature's garment in Alan flutter off into the "reality" of Chaucer's poem (e.g., Mann, "Authority of the Audience" 5).
(14) Judith Ferster makes a similar remark about writing as reading in the poem: "To write an experience, whether of nature or a dream or a book, is essentially to give a reading of it" (63).
(15) Piero Boitani elegantly summarizes these processes of reading as writing and writing as reading as "the way in which the poet, both satisfied and dissatisfied with what he has read, produces his own books by connecting his texts, relating them to each other, and integrating them with his own images and ideas" (71).
(16) See Ovid, Metamorphoses XV. 1099-112.
(17) With admirable understatement, Mann refers to these as "less dignified kinds of misreadings" (10), among which she includes the Duchess narrator's initially sophomoric reaction to 'Ceyx and Alcyone.' Also, what I observe here in the House of Fame Donald Howard has phrased far better: "[HF] represents poetic influence as a grab bag of verbal tidbits ('tydynges') which may be lies or truths filtered to posterity by capricious Fame; their content can be exaggerated or distorted, the value put upon them just or unjust, their meaning understood or misunderstood" (5).
(18) Quinn explores the issue of audience reception from a different angle, yet still emphasizes its centrality: "Such a text seems at once to record both a reciter's lectio,--that is, an 'audience-directed communication'--and a scribe's 'ennaratio, a writing of a reading'" (173). Similarly, Lara Ruffolo points to the lists in the poem as indicative of Chaucer's sense that "[f]inal authority rests in each hearer of a work" (340), and Terrell also traces how in the House of Fame Chaucer "invests the reader with a significant measure of hermeneutic authority over literary truth" (279).
(19) Here I do not hesitate, following Mann, to suggest that we might even aspire "to recuperate a structure of meaning unperceived by the author" ("Authority of the Audience" 10).
(20) One might object that this stanza, if "sincere," would run counter to the fastidiousness Chaucer expresses in "Adam Scriveyn": "Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle / Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe, / Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle, / But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe" (1-4). Here, though, Chaucer only insists that the scribe report his words accurately, rather than forbidding an engagement with them in a process of innovative artistic creation; in other words, we can surely count transcriptional "negligence and rape" (7) among those "less dignified" kinds of misreading.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
|Previous Article:||"Jeweled style": autonomous artificiality as gemstone text-ure in Wilde's The Sphinx.|
|Next Article:||Mary Grover. The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping: Middlebrow Authorship and Cultural Embarrassment.|