Chaucers “the House Of Fame”: The Cultural Nature Of FameChaucer’s “The House of Fame”: The Cultural Nature of FameQUESTION 7. DISCUSS THE CULTURAL NATURE OF FAME AND ITS TEXTUAL EXPRESSION WITH REFERENCE TOONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING: ORAL HEROIC POETRY, CHAUCER’S DEPICTION IN THEHOUSE OF FAME AND THE MODERN CONSTRUCTION OF THE CANON OF ENGLISH LITERATURE. YOU SHOULD FOCUS YOUR ANALYSIS ON THE INTERPLAY OF ORAL AND LITERARY TRADITIONSIN THESE CONTEXTS. Many critics have noted the complexities within Chaucer’s The House of Fame,in particular, the complexities between the oral and the literary.
Thedifferences between these methods are constantly appearing; Chaucer is wellaware of rapidly changing communicative practises and contrasts the preservationof utterance with the longevity of literary texts. He achieves this bydiscussing 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 greatworks and their creators. However, Chaucer is quick to note the precariousnature of “fame” noting the unreliable process of attaining it and itspotentially momentary existence. Every creator with their respective work/snaturally crave and desire “fame”; they want their subjects to remain fresh inthe minds of their audience.Order now
Chaucer, while neither totally praising the writtennor the oral, reveals how essentially the written word is far more likely tobecome eternal as opposed to the oral. The relative “fame” of any work isdependent on many factors. Many traditional and classical ideas result in theformation of the English canon, yet as Chaucer indicates, the “fame” of theseworks can easily become annihilated. The arrival of new readers with differentideals and thereby changing tradition, can reject classical or “canonical” workand their “fame” will melt into nothingness. Most stories, histories and legends that emerge from oral heroic poetry areto herald the achievement of the powerful and wealthy so that their historieswill not fade from the memories of the population. The stories of Beowolf are aclear example of this, as within these stories, (whether embellished or no),Beowolf’s fame and legend reaches the modern reader hundreds of years later.
Clearly, Beowolf is still very much dependant on the conventions of oraltraditions and written to leave a permanent reminder of Beowolf, to enforceBeowolf’s fame. The use of “Hwaet” to mark the start of an oration, emphasisesthe continuation of oral tradition. Most oral cultures (usually illiterate),pass on stories and legends learnt from the previous generation, basically usingthe authority of recalled memory, not as an actual witness; rather ‘I have heardit 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 whodefines this as the “judgement of the wise man in his chosen discipline. ” Thegreat reverence and respect shown towards writers of antiquity is clearlyevident in Chaucer’s The House of Fame, yet there remains a definiteinconsistency within Chaucer’s work. While Chaucer is clearly familiar with manyclassical writers and their works, such as; Virgil’s Aeneid, several works ofOvid , Boccacio and Dante, Chaucer’s work raises several questions about theclassical writers, the nature of written texts and the complexities of ” fame”. The term “fame” had a myriad of meanings in Middle English, it could mean”reputation”, “renown”, or “rumour”. Chaucer plays on all these meanings and itsimplications, yet his ideas are clouded and obscured so it is difficult todefine whether his arguments are mocking, condemning or celebrating.
J. Stephenagrees with Shelia Delany’s argument in her book, The House of Fame: The Poeticsof Skeptical Fidelism and believes that The House of Fame is indeed “asceptical poem”. However, Russell is rather extreme in his view, believing thatChaucer is “writing to deconstruct the tyranny of the written word”. It isdifficult to agree with this view, and although there are elements to suggestthis may be the case, one would tend to agree with Delany’s argument, thatChaucer “preferred to transcend the choice between traditions rather than tocommit himself whole heartedly to a single intellectual position or a consistentpoint of view”.
Chaucer, in his description of Virgil’s Aeneid decides to alter the eventswithin Virgil’s narrative. There is always the problem of what can be considered”true”,the problems of authenticity and originality remain. These great writersthat Chaucer often references, like Virgil, Ovid, Boccacio, Boethius and Danteare ‘auctors’ who carry great weight and authority, yet , as this is Geffrey’sdream he is able to manipulate the events within The House of Fame. Thus Geffreyhas the power of both the oral and written ‘auctor’, he has heard the storiesbefore, (in Ovid and Virgil) yet can ‘retell’ these events to the reader withperhaps even more ‘auctoritas’ as he can also state to the reader that ‘I wasthere so I can tell you the truth’. However, Chaucer’s ‘auctoritas’ isdiminished because even though he was an actual witness, it was still a dream, ahazy and unpredictable area which can neither be totally rejected nor believedand accepted. These implications show that Chaucer was perhaps rejecting the’auctoritas’ of these writers, revealing the possible discrepancies within anytext, written or oral, and how narrative events are able to change depending onthe reliability of the ‘auctor’.
The mocking of Geffrey and his scholarly lifeand ambitions would also indicate Chaucer’s dislike of the scholarly andacademic world of the 14th century. Geffrey is caricatured as a book-worm,unable to comprehend events outside the world of books. The Eagle speaks toGeffrey of the futility and emptiness of a scholar ; “Thou goost hom to thy housanoon,/And, also domb as any stoon,/Thou sittest at another book/Tyl fullydaswed ys thy look;/And lyvest thus as an heremyte,/Although thyn abstynence yslyte. ” (655-660) During the Eagle’s impressive monologue the intelligentGeffrey can only answer in rather dull-witted monosyllables; “Gladly”,”Noo?why?”, “Yis” and “Wel”.
Geffrey is also portrayed as a rather weak and stupidfellow, despite his scholarly habits. When one compares him to the classicalheroes of classical mythology, he realises that he is a mere mortal and afraid;'”Oh God,” thoughte I, “that madest kynde,/Shal I noon other weyes dye?’. Unlikethe heroes of old, Geffrey is aware that he is no brave hero; “nether am Ennock,ne Elye,/Ne Romulus, ne Ganymede. ” (557-558) Despite these negativerepresentations, there still remains elements of respect and awe towardsclassical writings and the strong belief entrusted in these works as containedin the line, “In certeyn, as the book us tellis. ” (426) The same respect isreflected in a speech made by the Eagle to Geffrey; “Loo, this sentence ysknowen kouth/ Of every philosophres mouth,/ As Aristotle and daun Platon,/ Andother clerkys many oon;/ And to confirme my resoun,/Thou wost wel this, thatspech is soun,” (757-762) It seems as though Chaucer is exploring both elementsof what is the true ‘auctor’ and questions the idea of ‘auctoritas’. It is important to scrutinise the depiction of “fame” within Chaucer’swork as it remains a crucial point in the formation of the modern canon ofEnglish literature.
As noted earlier, fame has many meanings and can mean”reputation”, “renown” or “rumour”. Chaucer describes the more negative effectsof fame, how it is granted to people with little or no merit and how transientthe nature of “fame” can be. When Dido feels despairing and states, “O wel-aweythat I was born!” she is not churlish with Aeneas or Virgil, but curses, “Owikke Fame!”. According to Russell, it is Virgil’s Fame that has “immortalised”the infamous behaviour of Dido and she is made the eternal villain, continuallyplaying her wicked role whenever one opens and reads the Aeneid. In this wayDido is riding a cyclical machine where she is destined to a life of ever-renewed “fame”and Dido’s clearly despises this. The nature of “Fame”, is oftentransient and momentary.
Chaucer takes note of the huge blocks of ice with theengraved names of the famous. However, some of these names are exposed to thesun and are melting away, clearly these are the people who will lose their”Fame” and disappear into obscurity. Other names are preserved as they areprotected 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 andillogical. People of little merit, are granted “Fame” by achieving infamousdeeds, while others of merit are bluntly refused “Fame”.
In this way “Fame” isshown as a complete mystery, a strange and uncontrollable force, not granted onthe status of value and logic, more to do with chance than reason. One can then ponder what Chaucer considered the greater evil, the “tyrannyof the written word” or the “tyranny of orality”. One obvious example thatrefutes the earlier claims of Russell is the negative portrayal of Chaucer’sHouse of Rumour. Within this place is great confusion and disorder, “And theroutcom so gret a noyse” (1927). The idea of noise and confusion is again repeatedin; “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 housesangles/ Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles.
” (1956-1960). These various rumoursobviously contain embellishments to the truth, if not a complete fabrication. Itseems that the negative rabble contained within the House of Rumour is moresevere than the relative mocking of the written word and its scholarlyinstitutions. It seems that the written word, despite its many faults, is stillmore commendable and “true” than that of the spoken word which is far lessreliable than the ‘auctoritas’ of classical writers. When one looks at the flaws within The House of Fame it brings to questionthe construction of the modern English canon and how it is formed. Obviously,Minnis’ claim that the oldest texts were generally considered the best is anidea that is prevalent even today.
Certainly the academic institutions werestill a main factor regarding the formation of the English canon. Like Geffreyand Chaucer who studied classical writers like Virgil, Ovid and Dante, studentsstudied this at school as it was considered the most “valuable” of the texts,again reflecting the “older is better” idea of ‘auctoritas’. According toKaplan and Rose, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets was the beginning ofthe formation of the English canon. Dr. Johnson chooses the books that hepersonally felt was admirable and worthy of his praise.
Already there is thepresence of an “elitist” society. Originally, as only the wealthy and privilegedwere able to read and write, the process of the English canon was decided bythe key academic and scholarly figures, who decided to choose what the “right”type of work would go into the English canon and repeatedly studied atinstitutions, therefore making it cyclical, ever-renewing and therefore apermanent text that was entrenched within The House of Fame. Just as the earlyoral heroic poetry was created to make characters like Beowolf famous andtherefore a permanent reminder to the population, the written texts also serveas 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’sdisinterest in a text can also disintegrate the “fame” of a text. Suddenly thevarious canonised texts may not be considered relevant; an obvious example ofthis would be the arrival of feminist theories, eventually emerging in academicinstitutions and “melting” the “fame” and status of many canonical authors andtexts, who no longer are considered appropriate or informative. It would seemthat Chaucer’s depiction of The House of Rumour could also be correct.
The powerof the written word has survived far better than that of the spoken. There arefew if any “rumours” that remain fresh and clear several hundred years later. The spoken word is carried away in the wind, the constant mutterings oftenforgotten 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 oforality to immortalise narrative events is rarely used.
As Chaucer indicates,the written word does remain in The House of Fame whereas the spoken word ismore likely contained within the constantly changing murmurings in The House ofRumour. However, although Chaucer is himself a scholarly and academic man likeGeffrey, he is still rather mocking of the academic society and the scholars whoseem to be permaently fixed within the world of literature and relying entirelyon book-learning, rather than experiences from the events in the outside worldof reality. Chaucer within his description of The House of Fame also questionsthe relevance of literary works, proving that the “fame” of authors and theirworks is a tenative one. Chaucer is clearly reveals the beginnings of theEnglish canon and the works contained within it. He stresses the fluctuations of”fame” and how works can become a part an elite grouping.
The modern readerknows, that the books within the English canon may gradually disappear or canreemerge, depending on the attitudes of people like Geffrey, the readers andscholars, and of institutions that continually study the “classical” texts. According to Chaucer, “fame” is not considered a noble accomplishment and theresult of chance rather than any literatary merit or virtue.