The Clerk's Tale:
A Chaucerian "Poetics of Conversion"
Two tales from the point of view of Dante's Infernal mode and the principle of contrapasso, which in its narrative-dramatic application means that anything you say will be held against you, were discussed in the preceding chapter. The Clerk's Tale involves a rather more complex relation between teller and tale, as surely befits a member of the intellectual class. The reader may wonder what justifies the tale's inclusion in the present study, since it has no evident relationship of intertextuality with the Comedy . My provisional answer is that I want to examine the Clerk's Tale precisely as a test case for my thesis of a Dantean poetics in The Canterbury Tales . Does the thesis break down here? Will it be necessary to admit other models, such as the Petrarchan, say? By way of anticipating my conclusion to that question, I propose that the Clerk's narrative performance becomes the arena where two literary-intellectual ideologies associated with the two major figures of the Italian trecento collide.
I stress the idea of the Clerk's performance because, as I intend to show, it is here, as part of the epic theater discussed in preceding chapters, that the ideological conflict appears and is played out, with
the Clerk undergoing a poetic conversion of sorts. In a general way this conversion begins with the Clerk's struggle against the moral and literary authority of Petrarch, whose story, he announces, he will retell. That this is a real struggle is suggested by the way the Clerk speaks about Petrarch, which implies that at the very least he once was a disciple of the Italian author and considered the tale he "learned" from him as no mere entertainment but as a vehicle of its author's insights.
In the course of retelling this, to him, canonical story, I will argue, the Clerk develops doubts about it that focus first on Walter's treatment of his wife, Griselda, but then also on Griselda's conduct, and finally on Petrarch's notion of allegory. At the conclusion of his tale the Clerk utters a humorous but nonetheless serious "recantation," which implicitly puts him in the Dantean "camp," first of all in regarding allegory's prime responsibility to be to the literal and concrete level, a matter discussed at the beginning of chapter 2. In the Envoy, furthermore, the Clerk addresses himself primarily to the Wife of Bath and "archewyves" like her, and in so doing he once again puts himself on "Dante's side," in the sense that the Wife of Bath's role in The Canterbury Tales is more or less analogous to that of Beatrice in the Comedy . Both may be said to embody their respective texts in that they have the capacity—or seem to have it—of standing apart from the text that creates them as its "reality principle," possessing the characteristics we associate with the concrete (but not the textual) body: contingency, mortality, otherness, mystery, historicity.
The reader who has no trouble associating the Wife of Bath with corporeality may well balk at doing the same for Beatrice. She, after all, has died and gone to heaven. This is undeniably the situation presented in the Comedy . But the very "historicity" of her physical death, insisted upon by the structure of the Vita Nuova and also at the center of the Comedy, paradoxically makes it easier to think of her as appearing in the flesh to the Pilgrim in the Earthly Paradise. She refers to her own death as "when, from flesh to spirit, I / had risen" ("Quando di carne a spirito era salita," Purg . XXX.127), and to "my buried flesh" ("mia carne sepolta," Purg . XXXI.48), and, almost in the spirit of Francesca, to "the lovely limbs in which / I was enclosed—limbs scattered now in dust" ("le belle membre in
ch'io / rinchiusa fui, e che so' 'n terra sparte," 50–51). But Singleton has noted that Beatrice's appearance in the Griffin-drawn chariot is repeatedly associated with the bodily resurrection and the bodily advent of Christ, and I suggest that both chariot (It. carro, with a possible play on Lat. caro, flesh) and Griffin—in the line of succession from Geryon—are symbols of the body. To the Pilgrim in the Earthly Paradise, it seems safe to say, Beatrice does not appear as a disembodied shade or spirit.
The symbolic and dramatic role of the Wife of Bath as a counterpart to Beatrice will concern me later in this chapter when I deal with the Envoy to the Clerk's Tale, which, he says, he will sing "for the Wyves love of Bathe" (IV.1170), a gesture signaling the Clerk's embrace of a Dantean over against a Petrarchan perspective. The idea that the Clerk starts as a disciple of Petrarch derives from his Prologue, where he reveals that he "lerned" his tale "at Padowe of a worthy clerk" (27). That the Clerk has traveled all the way to Italy surprises one, in view of the reclusive impression one gets of him in the General Prologue. Could he have gone on a personal pilgrimage in order to sit at the feet of the famous man who "taughte" (40) him this tale? One imagines a scene somewhat like that pictured by Petrarch himself in a letter to Boccaccio included by Petrarch in the final volume of his collected correspondence. In this letter Petrarch tells Boccaccio that his love for the final tale of the Decameron —the tale of Griselda—led him to memorize it and then to retell it in Latin. He then gives the tale to two friends to read, the first of whom
is so overcome with emotion that he cannot go on, while the other remains dry-eyed but says he would have wept if it had not been just a fiction. "If it were true," he asks, "what woman, whether of Rome or any other nation, could be compared with Griselda? Where do we find the equal of this conjugal devotion, where such faith, such extraordinary patience and constancy?" (p. 187).
We do not know whether Chaucer knew the entire text of this letter or worked from a manuscript that contained just the Latin story as Petrarch transcribed it. Nor is the question strictly relevant to my argument, which has to do with the Clerk 's reaction to the tale. As we have seen, for him it was evidently an instrument of instruction from the master rather than something designed to play upon the emotions, as it was for Petrarch's naively literalist friends. Undeniably, however, it would be nice to be able to place the Clerk's Tale alongside Petrarch's letter as an ironic commentary on the Rezeptionsgeschichte that the letter anticipates, as it were, for his Griselda story. That this was an extraordinary one even during the fourteenth century is not a matter I need dwell on here, though Petrarch's contemporaneous and posthumous Europe-wide fame encourages me to speculate that Chaucer might have expected some readers to catch an allusion to Petrarch's correspondence, which included letters to kings and other potentates, in the Host's admonition to the Clerk to speak plainly so that the other pilgrims can understand him:
Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
Keepe hem in stoor til so be ye endite
Heigh style, as whan that men to kynges write .
(16–18; my italics)
Regardless of whether we are permitted to read such an allusion into the Host's words, they do serve to put the Clerk on his guard, in that he suppresses the fact that what he learned from Petrarch was in Latin. Twice during his narration, indeed, he applies the Host's
"heigh style" to Petrarch's original, and precisely at points when he seeks to distance himself from it (see lines 41–55 and 142–48). He knows, or assumes, that for Petrarch Latin was virtually identified with the high style and a certain remoteness from the concerns of everyday life, which for him was the province of the vernacular. He thus avoids telling the pilgrims that the tale was never intended for people like them, that it was never really told to or for an audience, but set down as a closed linguistic order to which only "clerks" would have the key.
Our Clerk and his tale, in short, are situated at the center of the paradox that characterizes the European reception of a number of Petrarch's works: written in Latin, with active disdain for anything but an elite audience, they nonetheless achieve an enormous popularity through a prolific series of translations. As one of the translators and intermediaries, the Clerk is in a special position because, as was already intimated, he faces both ways, to his original and its author, and to his audience, which is threatened with incomprehension by the original's "high style." His sense of this dual responsibility is apparent in his tribute to the master, which with a slight touch of pedantry also identifies him for his unlearned audience:
a worthy clerk,
As preved by his wordes and his werk.
He is now deed and nayled in his cheste;
I prey to God so yeve his soule reste!
Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete,
Highte this clerk, whos rhetorike sweete
Enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie,
As Lynyan dide of philosophie,
Or lawe, or other art particuler;
But Deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer,
But as it were a twynklyng of an ye,
Hem bothe hath slayn, and alle shul we dye.
The passage is full of hints supporting our earlier suggestion that the Clerk is or was a disciple to Petrarch. The repeated emphasis on death, the thought about fame, time, and eternity—these are of course not themes exclusive to Petrarch, but they have a prominence in his works (especially the Trionfi and Canzoniere ) that suggests the Clerk has absorbed an entire way of looking at life from the Italian poet-philosopher. A certain irony enters into the encomium, however, because Petrarch's life and achievements are now invested with the pathos of his own obsessive concern with death and the brevity of life.
From the beginning, then, the Clerk demonstrates a certain ambivalence toward his author, an ambivalence that also manifests itself in the narration and gathers momentum there. Thus he dismisses Petrarch's geographical "prohemye" (43) as "a thyng impertinent" (54), that is, irrelevant, but not before he has rendered a good part of it. The ambivalence derives, as was suggested, from, on the one hand, the Clerk's attachment to the Petrarchan model, to which he is in many ways scrupulously faithful, and, on the other hand, from his consciousness of an audience of socially and in other ways diverse individuals. In Bakhtinian terms, he is compelled by the latter circumstance to transform the Latin text from a monologic to a dialogic narrative where words and sentences, instead of claiming a semantic fixity, are uttered in implicit response to challenges, objections, questions. Thus, where Petrarch has impersonal declarations, the Clerk shows his personal, ethical involvement. With respect to Walter's
blameworthy traits, for instance, Petrarch has "quodque in primis egre populi ferebant, ab ipsis quoque coniugij conscilijs abhorreret" ("and what the people took amiss above all was that he shrank away from the very idea of marriage"). Significantly, the Clerk makes the people's objections his own:
I blame hym thus: that he considered noght
In tyme comynge what myghte hym bityde,
But on his lust present was al his thoght,
As for to hauke and hunte on every syde.
Wel ny alle othere cures leet he slyde,
And eek he nolde—and that was worst of alle—
Wedde no wyf, for noght that may bifalle.
In so doing he shows he does not accept Walter as a simple given and does not expect his audience to do so, but takes seriously the problems raised by his character and conduct.
Even at this early point, in other words, the Clerk is indicating that his (view of the) tale is moving in a direction that is not necessarily Petrarch's. His narrative stance, let us note further, invites the audience to take such matters as Walter's marriage quite seriously, even at the level of mundane, practical details. At the same time, by arguing with the text and with the audience, he insinuates an allegory, as we shall see, concerned less with great spiritual truths than with a critical examination of the narrative itself.
In making Walter's refusal to marry the climactic criticism of his character, the Clerk brings out what is merely subliminal in Petrarch's text. Walter's concentration on the "lust present" of hawking and hunting to the exclusion of all other "cures"—these are presented as symptoms of someone who wants to evade any serious commitment. For the Clerk, as for Kierkegaard, marriage is the ethically serious antithesis of a false "immediacy," a point further suggested by the scene in which a delegation of the people urges Walter to marry. The leader of the delegation reminds Walter of the very things that, as we saw, occupied the Clerk's mind in the Prologue and that
the marquis in his pursuit of happiness presumably wants to block from consciousness:
thenketh, lord, among youre thoghtes wyse
How that oure dayes passe in sondry wyse,
For thogh we slepe, or wake, or rome, or ryde,
Ay fleeth the tyme; it nyl no man abyde.
And thogh youre grene youthe floure as yit,
In crepeth age alwey, as stille as stoon,
And deeth manaceth every age, and smyt
In ech estaat, for ther escapeth noon;
And al so certein as we knowe echoon
That we shul deye, as uncerteyn we alle
Been of that day whan deeth shal on us falle.
But in echoing the Clerk's earlier meditation on death with its resounding "and alle shul we dye" (38), the delegate of the people (speaking of course through the Clerk) criticizes not just Walter but implicitly the Clerk himself as well, with his possibly somewhat complacent philosophizing. We recall that in rather abruptly calling upon the Clerk to tell a tale, the Host had compared him to a still-virginal bride at the wedding table—"Ye ryde as coy and stille as dooth a mayde / Were newe spoused, sittynge at the bord" (2–3). For all its humor, the image reminds us that the Clerk, obviously no longer really a young man, has not yet committed himself to anything other than the study of logic and his books:
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes . . .
Though less frivolous, he nonetheless resembles Walter, who fears to surrender his liberty for the "servage" of marriage (145–46). Walter simply does not want to concern himself with the complications and possible disappointments that responsibilities and obligations bring with them and that the previous rulers of Saluzzo had apparently managed to avoid "thurgh favour of Fortune" (69). "For God it woot," he tells the delegation, "that children ofte been
/ Unlyk hir worthy eldres hem bifore" (155–56), demonstrating a natural anxiety that is belied only by the placid history of his dynasty (cf. 64–65).
If the Clerk was implicated in the delegate's criticism of Walter, the latter's conduct now points to an even larger target. When he promises to take a wife, the marquis solemnly charges the people to worship whomever he might choose to marry, "whil that hir life may dure, / . . . / As she an emperoures doghter were" (166–68). Well before he decides to test her, Walter has made Griselda an all-encompassing ideal, the embodiment of a virtue able to triumph over a difficult reality. This includes the political realm: she "koude so the peples herte embrace, / That ech hir lovede that looked on hir face" (412–13). Indeed,
So wise and rype wordes hadde she,
And juggementz of so greet equitee,
That she from hevene sent was, as men wende,
Peple to save and every wrong t'amende.
With the hint of Griselda's Christlikeness, her close kinship with Laura becomes apparent. Both are plucked from humble surroundings: Griselda from the poorest household in a "throop" (199) of Walter's domain, where she sets down her water pot "biside the threshfold, in an oxes stalle" (291); Laura from the "picciol borgo" ("little town," Sonnet iv) of her birth. Both are "translated . . . in swich richesse" (385) that they seem like "another creature" (406): Griselda, stripped and then reclothed in Walter's finery, is enthroned in his palace; Laura, dressed in the poet's finery, is enthroned in the palace of his imagination. For each, the "translation" means fame—"publiced was the bountee of hir name" (415)—and universal affection—she "koude so the peples herte embrace, / That ech hire lovede that looked in hir face" (412–13).
The parallels between Walter's idealization of Griselda and Petrarch's of Laura suggest that the Clerk's Tale is turning into a critical examination of "Petrarchism" before this had become a European
phenomenon. Griselda's idealization suggests an allegory in which woman becomes the mirror where men—husbands, lovers, poets, ordinary citizens—see their own perplexities mysteriously resolved. The idealization, in other words, is really a form of escapism, a mask for an underlying fear or hostility with respect to whatever the mind cannot control or has not itself created—an intellectualist attitude to which a "clerk" is surely more prone than a marquis. As was suggested, the most powerful symbol of this threatening extramental reality is death. In view of Walter's fear of marriage and of having children, it is perhaps easy to see how woman in her unidealized capacity can become a symbol of this threat. In the prophetic perspective of the Clerk's Tale, therefore, Petrarchism can be seen as a vast defense, or "troping," against a contingent, untextualized reality. And by way of this unexpected association of woman and death—woman as St. Paul's "body of death" (Rom. 7.24)—we have arrived at the source of the antifeminism that Petrachan idealization or troping is also designed to mask. That Chaucer had reflected on this point is suggested by Lee Patterson's comment on the Legend of Good Women, which, he writes, "argues that the goodness and moral authority of women is not merely defined but created by male tyranny, a dialectic that reimposes the encompassing authority of the very antifeminism it seeks to evade."
The Clerk shows his awareness of the intellectual trap described by Patterson, not least by his refusal to treat Griselda as an abstraction or simply a passive victim. He shows that to a certain extent she collaborates with her husband's tyranny, so that she bears at least some of the blame for the suffering inflicted on her. For example, when Walter first decides to "tempte his wif, hir sadnesse for to knowe" (452), the Clerk severely disapproves (449ff.) and goes on to note that Griselda "neither weep ne syked, / Conformyng hire to that the markys lyked" (545–46), even though she suspects that
the child is about to be killed. And at this point the Clerk goes beyond Petrarch's text by having Griselda speak to the child "in hire benigne voys"—perhaps the same with which the Clerk had "benignely answerde" (21) the Host:
Fareweel my child! I shal thee nevere see.
But sith I thee have marked with the croys
Of thilke Fader—blessed moote he be!—
That for us deyde upon a croys of tree,
Thy soule, litel child, I hym bitake,
For this nyght shaltow dyen for my sake.
Her reference to "thilke Fader . . . / That for us deyde" seems designed to contrast Christ-the-father with that other father, Walter, who is apparently sending his innocent child to her death. But this startling contrast between the two fathers points to yet another father, the heavenly one, who is like Walter in his mysterious demand for the sacrifice of his child. A grim and disturbing theology is thus implied in Griselda's seemingly innocuous prayer. It is as though we are suddenly in the oppressive atmosphere of the tower in which Ugolino and his sons are trapped in Inferno XXXIII. Griselda, too, is trapped in a world she imagines ruled by capriciously cruel fathers whose only possible kindness consists of dying "upon a croys of tree." At the same time, in commending her child's soul to Christ, she indicts herself as a mother unable to defend or even grieve for her baby, but also as accepting the idea that her child will die for her sake, in place of the mother. Even the role of mater dolorosa is denied her, since, in a violent twist on the idea of the vicarious sacrifice, she offers her child as a way of saving—herself!
At almost every point, then, we find the Clerk elaborating his tale in order to uncover complications and contradictions that Petrarch's version has glossed over. I will illustrate once more his growing uneasiness with the tale and his refusal to idealize or sentimentalize Griselda in her role as victim. Elaborating the merest hint in his original, he gently criticizes Griselda for her "benign" acceptance of the removal of her child:
I trowe that to a norice in this cas
It had been hard this reuthe for to se;
Wel myghte a mooder than han cryd "allas!"
But nathelees so sad stidefast was she . . .
This very sad-steadfastness, the Clerk goes on to imply, may be at least somewhat to blame, for after the birth of their second child Walter "caughte yet another lest / To tempte his wyf yet ofter, if he may" (619–20). "O nedelees was she tempted in assay!" the Clerk observes (independently of Petrarch),
But wedded men ne knowe no mesure,
Whan that they fynde a pacient creature .
(621–23; my italics)
As with his first "temptation," Walter is clearly again testing his wife in order to resolve his own doubts, aroused in him by the birth of another child. When he pretends, for instance, that his people object to being ruled by someone with "the blood of Janicle" (632), he is surely expressing his own apprehensions about marriage to a social inferior and, more important, about the perennial conundrum of an heir who will eventually replace the father.
To Walter's threat that he will kill the son—as she is bound to interpret it—Griselda gives her usual agreeable answer, and yet its general tenor differs markedly from that in the Latin and French sources. There she reiterates the total coincidence of her will with Walter's. In the Clerk's Tale she professes utter obedience to a will or "lust" about which she leaves no doubt that it is both alien and superior:
Dooth youre plesaunce; I wol youre lust obeye.
And certes, if I hadde prescience
Youre wyl to knowe, er ye youre lust me tolde,
I wolde it doon withouten negligence;
But now I woot youre lust, and what ye wolde,
Al youre plesance ferme and stable I holde;
For wiste I that my deeth wolde do yow ese,
Right gladly wolde I dyen, yow to plese.
Deth may noght make no comparisoun
Unto youre love.
Significantly, Griselda speaks, not as she does in the sources, of "our love," but of "youre love." Her offer to die for him and her implicit equation of Walter's love with death show her realization that she is his means of appeasing the forces of darkness, of keeping death at bay.
With that we are recalled to the Prologue and the Clerk's meditation on "Deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer, / But as it were a twynklyng of an eye." From the perspective of Griselda's speech just quoted, these words now take on an unexpectedly dark, pessimistic tone: The world we consider home is in fact ruled by a hostile and arbitrary power that turns it into a battleground and earthly life into a brief holding action that ends with a violent defeat for everyone.
The Clerk's narration has, accordingly, uncovered the dark roots of Petrarch's tale and of "Petrarchism." This has been persuasively analyzed by Charles Trinkaus as what he calls Petrarch's "double consciousness," "his sense of an opposition between the religious and secular realms—life in accord with the discovery of God and holiness vs. the attainment of worldly goals such as literary fame, wealth, romantic love, and glory." In the Clerk's retelling, the marriage of Griselda and Walter reveals itself as an allegory of this ambivalence: two modes of consciousness uneasily united in one mind. The first of these is always ready to renounce the self and die to the world; the other is accustomed to command, yet constantly threatened by the thought of death. At the beginning of the tale, the focus is on Walter as yet unaware of the threat and awakened to it when urged to marry. Once married, however, he is able to transfer the burden of this awareness onto his wife. Like the ever-inventive, infinitely resourceful Petrarchan poet, he projects his own doubts and anxieties on a passively receptive figure while he himself
remains uninvolved. Walter can indulge his "lust" of devising ways by which he can triumph over death precisely because, like Laura, Griselda accepts from the start that his love is a form of death for her, an obliteration of whatever tenuous identity she had before he took her from her father's house. Her expressed willingness to die in order to please him, cited earlier (664–65), is really a tautology.
Walter's final "temptation," in which he sends Griselda back to her father's house and stages a mock-marriage with his own daughter, shows him playing out yet another fantasy of triumph over death. Griselda willingly "dies" when she is stripped once more and returns in her smock to "hir fader house" (896) so that her place can be taken by a much younger replica of herself. Momentarily, indeed, it looks as though this latest "death" might signal Griselda's transformation from a mere mirror or accomplice of Walter's fantasies into an autonomous person. Thus she tells him that she will remain in her father's house, a "wydwe clene in body, herte, and al" (836)—as though Walter had already died. By such gestures toward independence that he allows Griselda, often on the basis of slight hints in the original, the Clerk complicates and deepens the allegory. Insofar as he makes Griselda more than a passive cipher, he demonstrates the price Petrarchan dual consciousness exacts: literally, the oppression of woman; tropologically, the repression of the instincts, a hatred of life in the flesh, and a theology in which God and Satan become interchangeable.
Thus, when she learns that her children are alive after all, she instantly knows that this is due to the kindness of Walter:
"Grauntmercy, lord, God thanke it yow," quod she,
"That ye han saved me my children deere!
Now rekke I nevere to been deed right heere;
Sith I stonde in youre love and youre grace,
No fors of deeth, ne whan my spirit pace!
"O tendre, o deere, o yonge children myne!
Youre woful mooder wende stedfastly
That crueel houndes or som foul vermyne
Hadde eten yow; but God of his mercy
And youre benyngne fader tendrely
Hath doon yow kept."
Once more ready to "die"—she will shortly be stripped one last time and dressed in new finery (1114ff.)—Griselda has here completed her allegorical role. The tyrannical father she had earlier contrasted with the "father" who died on the cross, is now, in her words "redeemed" as "youre benyngne fader" (that word again!), like Christ and like her own helpless old father, who at the end comes to live at Walter's court, "til that the soule out of his body crepeth" (1134).
Griselda's readiness to suppress or sacrifice her identity "saves the appearances," makes it possible to believe that a benign Father rather than a pitiless tyrant (whose name may be Father, Death, or whatever) rules over human existence, and allows Petrarch to turn the tale into an edifying allegory. By the time the Clerk presents Petrarch's formulation of his allegorical intent in the first part of his two-part "postscript" to his tale (the second part being the Envoy), Petrarch has completed the "sacrifice" of Griselda as a true-to-life wife so he can turn the text into the allegory he envisioned:
This storie is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,
For it were inportable, though they wolde,
But for that every wight, in his degree,
Sholde be constant in adversitee
As was Grisilde; therefore Petrak writeth
This storie, which with heigh style he enditeth.
For sith a womman was so pacient
Unto a mortal man, wel moore us oghte
Receyven al in gree that God us sent;
For greet skile is he preeve that he wroghte.
But he ne tempteth no man that he boghte,
As seith Seint Jame, if ye his pistel rede;
He preeveth folk al day, it is no drede,
And suffreth us, as for oure exercise,
With sharpe scourges of adversitee
Ful ofte to be bete in sondry wise;
Nat for to knowe our wyl, for certes he,
Er we were born, knew al oure freletee;
And for oure beste is al his governaunce.
Lat us thanne lyve in vertuous suffraunce.
In presenting to his audience the allegorical significance Petrarch ascribed to his tale, the Clerk, like Griselda, "saves the appearances," making it seem that he has faithfully retold the text he "learned" in Padua. By this point, however, the reader is aware that the Petrarchan moral can apply only if much of the narrative is erased: Walter's conduct as husband and as tempter god, Griselda's as literal woman and wife. When the Clerk declares her humility to be "inportable," he is not just translating Petrarch's "vix imitabilis," "scarcely imitable," but also implying what we have seen his version repeatedly insinuate, namely, that Griselda's "humility" is unbearable in being morally repugnant.
The Host's words in the Prologue, then, once again prove to be on target when he jokingly suggests to the Clerk: "I trowe ye studie aboute som sophyme" (5). The Clerk, who "unto logyk hadde longe ygo" (I.286), will have understood the Host's term in the precise, technical sense. By the end of his tale he has in effect exposed Petrarch's allegory as a sophism, "A specious but fallacious argument, either used deliberately in order to deceive or mislead, or employed as a means of displaying ingenuity in reasoning" (OED, s.v.). Petrarch, the Clerk implies, either wants a Griselda who is both an imaginable historical actuality and a timeless allegorical ideal, without admitting that the two are incompatible; or else he is prepared to sacrifice, as we saw, the literal Griselda for the sake of a preconceived spiritual idea that is more or less completely disjunct from the narrative. In either case we are dealing with a form of violence.
When he addresses the audience directly before launching into the high-spirited Envoy, the Clerk bears a remarkable resemblance to the actor who speaks the epilogue of an Elizabethan comedy:
But o word, lordynges, herkneth er I go:
It were ful hard to fynde now-a-dayes
In al a toun Grisildis thre or two;
For if that they were put to swiche assayes,
The gold of hem hath now so badde alayes
With bras, that thogh the coyne be fair at eye,
It wolde rather breste a-two than plye.
Like the actor, he is getting ready to leave the stage—"herkneth er I go"—and, already halfway out of his dramatic role, he shifts his tone in order to communicate more directly (perhaps) with his audience. There is of course only the make-believe stage of the road to Canterbury. Nonetheless, the gesture of transition that the Clerk makes, like the Elizabethan epiloguist, providing a bridge between the fictive world of his story and the "actual" world of the pilgrims, is of enormous significance for The Canterbury Tales . The tale has been a kind of theatrical performance in which, as we have seen, the Clerk encountered himself by "impersonating" (to use Marshall Leicester's felicitous term) Griselda and Walter; at the same time it involved a return to the past in Padua where Petrarch's presence seemed to make an ideal Griselda possible or at least imaginable. But as the Clerk steps into the "now" of the pilgrimage, he bids a final farewell to Petrarchan idealism, not without a satiric thrust at the humanist-antiquarian's habit of opposing a golden past to a degenerate present. But the Clerk's prime target is quite simply an
allegory that disjoins the literal from the other senses and in effect presumes to impose these others on the text by authorial fiat. The Petrarchan allegorist, in other words, does not expect the literal text to yield an allegorical meaning voluntarily or naturally, and if it does, he is not interested in it. Like Walter with Griselda, he feels the need to subject his text to violence so that it will conform to his spiritual idea.
The Clerk concludes his performance with the epilogue-song (1177–1212) "for the Wyves love of Bathe— / Whos lyf and al hir secte God mayntene / In heigh maistrie, and elles it were scathe" (1170–72). It seems at first a strictly backhanded tribute to the Wife, as if to say that wives must choose between an "inportable" patience and an equally unbearable "maistrie." But the tone of playful irony suggests otherwise. The opening announcement that "Grisilde is deed, and eek her pacience, / And both atones buryed in Ytaille" (177), implies that even as a moral-spiritual ideal Griselda is as timebound as her author, whose death the Clerk so emphatically mentioned twice in his Prologue in terms that his song is surely intended to recall. But in the radically different perspective of the song, death is perceived, not as a quasi-demonic force, as it was in the Prologue and through most of the tale, but as in the nature of things and even as a means of liberating the living from an undue attachment to authoritative texts, images, figures of the past by enforcing their temporal, contingent character.
By invoking "the Wyves love of Bathe" the Clerk is signaling, I believe, a victory of sorts over the Petrarchan dread of death as a threat to all human endeavor. Of all the pilgrims, the Wife represents most fully a vitality that does not shrink from old age and death, and the Clerk's advice to all wives to fight it out in her fashion is, finally, no merely ironic gesture but a seriocomic statement of the real moral of his tale: unless the woman's voice makes itself heard, the man will be tempted to become a tyrant; unless the integrity of the literal is respected, the allegorical will be a mere sophism, a specious argument designed to deceive the audience and perhaps the allegorist himself.
The Clerk, we have seen, has in the course of his narration come to recant his youthful Petrarchism and by the end, under the aegis of the Wife of Bath, as it were, has moved decisively in the direction of what at the beginning of the chapter I called a Dantean ideology. I now want to make this last point more persuasive.
Perhaps the best commentary on the Clerk's Tale and the "odyssey" it has involved him in is the Pilgrim's dream of the siren in canto XIX of the Purgatorio . This dream begins with the appearance of a stammering woman with eyes askew, crooked feet, and so forth. The dreamer's gaze transforms this woman into a beautiful one, who identifies herself in song as the siren who "turned aside Ulysses, although he / had longed to journey" ("Io volsi Ulisse del suo cammin vago," 22f.). At this moment in the dream, a woman appears, "alert and saintly" ("santa e presta," 25), who asks Virgil, "Who is this?" Virgil then violently tears off the siren's clothes (who says sirens do not wear clothes?), exposing her belly, and the resultant stench awakens the Pilgrim.
For the Pilgrim this dream represents part of his gradual reeducation before he can be reunited with Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise. For him the decrepit, repulsive figure of the woman is the repressed image of the dead Beatrice, a point reinforced by the simile applied to the effect of the dreamer's gaze on her: "just as sun revives / cold limbs that night made numb" ("come 'l sol conforta / le fredde membra che la notte aggrava," 10f.). The death of Beatrice ("recorded" in the Vita Nuova ) left Dante (Pilgrim and Poet) disconsolate and tempted by what Robert Harrison has called the "Petrarchan alternative," which, he says, became "real for Dante only in the wake of the loss of Beatrice." The temptation of this Petrarchan alternative would seem to be perfectly exemplified by the dream, specifically the dreamer's transformative gaze, analogous to Walter's having Griselda stripped and then clothed in his finery, so that like Laura she will be essentially the product (and fulfillment) of his desire, his imagination.
In the dream another Beatrice figure, the "donna . . . santa e
presta" (26), rescues the Pilgrim-dreamer from the Petrarchan alternative by calling on Virgil. But Virgil's act of stripping the siren and exposing her belly, as Walter has Griselda stripped a second time before sending her home, is obviously not a satisfactory solution, and the fact that the dreamer is awakened by the stench from her belly shows his continuing disgust at the (female) body. He will require the further reeducation of three Purgatorial terraces and another dream (in Purg . XXVII) before he is ready to be reunited with Beatrice.
The preceding excursus into the Comedy is intended to suggest that the Clerk undergoes an education very much as Dante's Pilgrim does, at his own hands, as it were. After all, "gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche" (I.308). Tempted at one time by the siren song of Petrarchism and its promise of intellectual mastery and self-sufficiency, the Clerk gains an insight into its darker consequences and implications. In the end he realizes that it is not the self-pleasing image of an obediently stammering Griselda, but the full-bodied and cantankerous "person" of the Wife of Bath—she of the loosened tongue!—that has been the goal of his quest all along. An unlikely marriage! the reader will say. But is it? What, after all, was her fifth husband?
I am not suggesting the beginning of a literal roadside romance. My point is merely that through the theatrical play of his tale, and through the awareness of the audience for which he "performs" the Petrarchan fable, the Clerk learns what the Wife of Bath is about. For this moment, at least, she is his Beatrice.