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    Chaucers the House Of Fame: The Cultural Nature Essay

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    The differences between these methods are constantly appearing. Chaucer is well aware of rapidly changing communicative practices and contrasts the preservation of utterance with the longevity of literary texts. He achieves this by discussing the nature of “Fame” and the difficulties that arise from it. “Fame” can both destroy and create. It can result in the eternal preservation of great works and their creators. However, Chaucer is quick to note the precarious nature of “fame,” noting the unreliable process of attaining it and its potentially momentary existence. Every creator with their respective works naturally craves and desires “fame”; they want their subjects to remain fresh in the minds of their audience.

    Chaucer, while neither totally praising the written nor the oral, reveals how essentially the written word is far more likely to become eternal as opposed to the oral. The relative “fame” of any work is dependent on many factors. Many traditional and classical ideas result in the formation of the English canon, yet as Chaucer indicates, the “fame” of these works can easily become annihilated. The arrival of new readers with different ideals and thereby changing tradition can reject classical or “canonical” works, and their “fame” will melt into nothingness. Most stories, histories, and legends that emerge from oral heroic poetry are to herald the achievement of the powerful and wealthy so that their histories will not fade from the memories of the population. The stories of Beowulf are a clear example of this, as within these stories (whether embellished or not), Beowulf’s fame and legend reaches the modern reader hundreds of years later.

    Clearly, Beowulf is still very much dependent on the conventions of oral traditions and written to leave a permanent reminder of Beowulf, to enforce Beowulf’s fame. The use of “Hwaet” to mark the start of an oration emphasizes the continuation of oral tradition. Most oral cultures (usually illiterate) pass on stories and legends learned from the previous generation, basically using the authority of recalled memory, not as an actual witness; rather, “I have heard it said” than “I know this to be true.” The importance of the terms ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritas’ is noted by A. J. Minnis.

    Minnis states the importance of the ‘auctoritas’, quoting Aristotle who defines this as the “judgement of the wise man in his chosen discipline.” The great reverence and respect shown towards writers of antiquity is clearly evident in Chaucer’s The House of Fame, yet there remains a definite inconsistency within Chaucer’s work. While Chaucer is clearly familiar with many classical writers and their works, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, several works of Ovid, Boccaccio, and Dante, Chaucer’s work raises several questions about the classical writers, the nature of written texts, and the complexities of “fame”. The term “fame” had a myriad of meanings in Middle English; it could mean “reputation”, “renown”, or “rumor”. Chaucer plays on all these meanings and its implications, yet his ideas are clouded and obscured so it is difficult to define whether his arguments are mocking, condemning, or celebrating.

    J. Stephen agrees with Sheila Delany’s argument in her book, The House of Fame: The Poetics of Skeptical Fideism and believes that The House of Fame is indeed a skeptical poem. However, Russell’s view is rather extreme in believing that Chaucer is “writing to deconstruct the tyranny of the written word.” It is difficult to agree with this view, and although there are elements to suggest this may be the case, one would tend to agree with Delany’s argument that Chaucer “preferred to transcend the choice between traditions rather than to commit himself wholeheartedly to a single intellectual position or a consistent point of view.”

    Chaucer, in his description of Virgil’s Aeneid, decides to alter the events within Virgil’s narrative. There is always the problem of what can be considered “true.” The problems of authenticity and originality remain. These great writers that Chaucer often references, like Virgil, Ovid, Boccacio, Boethius, and Dante, are ‘auctors’ who carry great weight and authority, yet, as this is Geoffrey’s dream, he is able to manipulate the events within The House of Fame. Thus Geoffrey has the power of both the oral and written ‘auctor’; he has heard the stories before (in Ovid and Virgil) yet can ‘retell’ these events to the reader with perhaps even more ‘auctoritas’ as he can also state to the reader that “I was there, so I can tell you the truth.”

    However, Chaucer’s ‘auctoritas’ is diminished because even though he was an actual witness, it was still a dream, a hazy and unpredictable area which can neither be totally rejected nor believed and accepted. These implications show that Chaucer was perhaps rejecting the ‘auctoritas’ of these writers, revealing the possible discrepancies within any text, written or oral, and how narrative events are able to change depending on the reliability of the ‘auctor.’

    The mocking of Geoffrey and his scholarly life and ambitions would also indicate Chaucer’s dislike of the scholarly and academic world of the 14th century. Geoffrey is caricatured as a bookworm, unable to comprehend events outside the world of books. The Eagle speaks to Geoffrey of the futility and emptiness of a scholar: “Thou goost hom to thy hous anoone, / And, also domb as any stoon, / Thou sittest at another book / Tyl fully daswed ys thy look; / And lyvest thus as an heremyte, / Although thyn abstynence ys lyte.” (655-660) During the Eagle’s impressive monologue, the intelligent Geoffrey can only answer in rather dull-witted monosyllables: “Gladly,” “Noo? why?,” “Yis,” and “Wel.”

    Geoffrey is also portrayed as a rather weak and stupid fellow, despite his scholarly habits. When one compares him to the classical heroes of classical mythology, he realizes that he is a mere mortal and afraid; ‘”Oh God,” thoughte I, “that madest kynde, / Shal I noon other weyes dye?’. Unlike the heroes of old, Geoffrey is aware that he is no brave hero: “nether am Ennock, ne Elye, / Ne Romulus, ne Ganymede.” (557-558) Despite these negative representations, there still remain elements of respect and awe towards classical writings and the strong belief entrusted in these works as contained in the line, “In certeyn, as the book us tellis.” (426) The same respect is reflected in a speech made by the Eagle to Geoffrey; “Loo, this sentence.

    As noted earlier, fame has many meanings and can mean “reputation,” “renown,” or “rumor.” Chaucer describes the more negative effects of fame, such as how it is granted to people with little or no merit and how transient the nature of “fame” can be. When Dido feels despair and states, “O well-away that I was born!” she is not churlish with Aeneas or Virgil, but curses, “O wicked Fame!” According to Russell, it is Virgil’s Fame that has “immortalized” the infamous behavior of Dido, and she is made the eternal villain, continually playing her wicked role whenever one opens and reads the Aeneid. In this way, Dido is riding a cyclical machine where she is destined to a life of ever-renewed “fame,” and Dido clearly despises this. The nature of “Fame” is often transient and momentary.

    Chaucer takes note of the huge blocks of ice with the engraved names of the famous. However, some of these names are exposed to the sun and are melting away. Clearly, these are the people who will lose their “Fame” and disappear into obscurity. Other names are preserved as they are protected from the heat of the sun. The way in which the personification of “Fame,” the figure of the goddess of Fame, grants “Fame” is haphazard and illogical. People of little merit are granted “Fame” by achieving infamous deeds, while others of merit are bluntly refused “Fame.”

    In this way, “Fame” is shown as a complete mystery, a strange and uncontrollable force, not granted on the basis of value and logic but more to do with chance than reason. One can then ponder what Chaucer considered the greater evil: the “tyranny of the written word” or the “tyranny of orality.” One obvious example that refutes the earlier claims of Russell is the negative portrayal of Chaucer’s House of Rumor. Within this place, there is great confusion and disorder, “And thereout com so great a noise” (1927). The idea of noise and confusion is repeated again in “No maner tydynges in to pace. / Ne never rest is in that place/ That hit nysfild ful of tydynges,/ Other loude or of whisprynges;/ And over alle the houses angles/ Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles” (1956-1960).

    These various rumors obviously contain embellishments to the truth, if not a complete fabrication. It seems that the negative rabble contained within the House of Rumor is more severe than the relative mocking of the written word and its scholarly institutions. It seems that the written word, despite its many faults, is still more commendable and “true” than that of the spoken word, which is far less reliable than the ‘auctoritas’ of classical writers. When one looks at the flaws within The House of Fame, it brings into question the construction of the modern English canon and how it is formed. Obviously, Minnis’ claim that the oldest texts were generally considered the best is an idea that is prevalent even today.

    Certainly, the academic institutions were still a main factor regarding the formation of the English canon. Like Geoffrey and Chaucer, who studied classical writers like Virgil, Ovid, and Dante, students studied this at school as it was considered the most “valuable” of the texts, again reflecting the “older is better” idea of ‘auctoritas’. According to Kaplan and Rose, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets was the beginning of the formation of the English canon. Dr. Johnson chose the books that he personally felt were admirable and worthy of his praise.

    Already, there is the presence of an “elitist” society. Originally, as only the wealthy and privileged were able to read and write, the process of the English canon was decided by the key academic and scholarly figures, who decided to choose what the “right” type of work would go into the English canon and repeatedly studied at institutions, therefore making it cyclical, ever-renewing, and a permanent text that was entrenched within The House of Fame. Just as the early oral heroic poetry was created to make characters like Beowulf famous and therefore a permanent reminder to the population, the written texts also serve as the anchor of “fame”.

    However, there is also the ephemeral nature of “fame”. Just as names melt into oblivion in The House of Fame, the modern reader’s disinterest in a text can also disintegrate the “fame” of a text. Suddenly, the various canonized texts may not be considered relevant; an obvious example of this would be the arrival of feminist theories, eventually emerging in academic institutions and “melting” the “fame” and status of many canonical authors and texts, which are no longer considered appropriate or informative. It would seem that Chaucer’s depiction of The House of Rumour could also be correct.

    The power of the written word has survived far better than that of the spoken. There are few if any “rumors” that remain fresh and clear several hundred years later. The spoken word is carried away in the wind, the constant mutterings often forgotten, whereas the written word has endured for many hundreds of years. Clearly, Chaucer has mixed feelings toward the power of literacy and orality. Both can be enduring, but in an increasingly more literate society, the use of orality to immortalize narrative events is rarely used.

    As Chaucer indicates, the written word does remain in The House of Fame, whereas the spoken word is more likely contained within the constantly changing murmurings in The House of Rumour. However, although Chaucer is himself a scholarly and academic man like Geoffrey, he is still rather mocking of the academic society and the scholars who seem to be permanently fixed within the world of literature and relying entirely on book-learning, rather than experiences from the events in the outside world of reality. Chaucer, within his description of The House of Fame, also questions the relevance of literary works, proving that the “fame” of authors and their works is a tentative one. Chaucer clearly reveals the beginnings of the English canon and the works contained within it. He stresses the fluctuations of “fame” and how works can become a part of an elite grouping.

    The modern reader knows that the books within the English canon may gradually disappear or can reemerge, depending on the attitudes of people like Geoffrey, the readers and scholars, and of institutions that continually study the “classical” texts. According to Chaucer, “fame” is not considered a noble accomplishment and the result of chance rather than any literary merit or virtue.

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    Chaucers the House Of Fame: The Cultural Nature Essay. (2019, Jan 08). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/chaucers-the-house-of-fame-the-cultural-nature-essay-67330/

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