The Merchant's Tale:
Allegory in the Mirror of Marriage
Just before the veiled Beatrice appears "in person" for the first time in the Comedy, an old man invites or announces her entrance into the Earthly Paradise in the words of the Song of Songs: "Veni, sponsa, de Libano" (Purg . XXX.11). The great formality of the scene, the use of Latin, and the symbolic trappings—the old man is one of twenty-four representing the books of the Old Testament, in this case the Song of Solomon—should not obscure the fact that Dante is here using the language and allegorical symbols of the Bible, for the purpose of dramatizing a highly personal and in the first instance quite literal, nonallegorical event, namely, the reunion at long last of the Pilgrim and Beatrice. What underlines both the personal and the literal element here is the fact that for the only time in the entire poem the name Dante is mentioned (l. 55), it being the first word addressed to him by Beatrice. The extratextual "biographical" reality or status of these two characters is powerfully suggested by this detail, and it is reinforced by their extended references to a shared past before the poem's fictive present (see ll. 34–42; 114ff.). They know each other not as allegorical entities but as concretely imagined individuals.
Of the entire scene, including the enigmatic pageant that begins in canto XXIX, Bernard Stambler has written in words that stress the boldness of Dante's poetic undertaking:
We must realize that the entire pageant is being staged for the intensely personal transaction that Beatrice has to execute with Dante. If Scripture, Church, and Christ are to be thought of as universal and transcendent, Dante reminds us that by the same token all three exist for every individual being.
What Stambler calls the "intensely personal transaction" must be, given the citation from the Song of Songs, a kind of marriage. The Pilgrim, in other words, becomes the Solomonic bridegroom to Beatrice's Queen of Sheba in a marriage that was merely deferred in the Vita Nuova . And the procession that has so puzzled the commentators is surely, at its most fundamental level, their wedding procession.
It is in the mirror of this impossible or at least unconsummated sacrament that I think the Comedy takes shape. Just after Beatrice has declared her identity to him (XXX.73), the Pilgrim happens to see himself reflected in the water of Lethe, and he withdraws his eyes in shame (76–78), a clear sign that his pilgrimage is still crucially incomplete. It will take him to the end of the Paradiso before he can "see" the identity between the image glimpsed in the water and that inscribed in the divine circle, before his Solomonic marriage can be consummated. Marriage, in short, is a mirror in which the partners find a reflection of themselves and of the other; it is, furthermore, the mirror in which poets like Dante and Chaucer discover an abstract of their society and civilization. If this is true of the Comedy, it is all the more true of The Canterbury Tales, where, as we know, the institution becomes a well-nigh obsessive metaphor.
In no other tale is this obsessiveness more apparent than in the Merchant's Tale, one reason, I think, for its central place in the total design of The Canterbury Tales . Its importance to the present study derives from the fact that it takes as its basic premise the "wedding" of Dante and Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise, and in so doing incorporates, again as no other single Canterbury tale does, many of the major themes and motifs of the Comedy in its own exuberant and yet also grimly satirical comedy. My discussion of the tale in the following pages, accordingly, is intended to be a kind of sum-
mation at the same time of the intertextual relations between the two epics with which I have been concerned throughout.
In telling his tale, the Clerk was aware of his audience of fellow pilgrims, among them the Wife of Bath, who, it was suggested, becomes a Beatrice leading him out of the closed world of Petrarchan allegory into Dante's and Chaucer's "theater in the round." In the Merchant's Tale, contrariwise, the Wife of Bath plays a very different role. There, one of the characters, Justinus, concludes a discussion about marriage by facetiously declaring that "the Wyf of Bathe, if ye han understonde, / Of mariage, which we have on honde, / Declared hath ful wel in litel space" (1685–87). By thus incorporating her in his fiction, the Merchant seems to be reducing her to the size (as it were) of his fictive characters, though it could be argued that he is raising the latter to the level of the pilgrims. In any case, this amusing gesture, whatever its precise effect, does imply that for the Merchant the boundaries of (his) fiction are much more loosely drawn than they are for the Clerk. Indeed, at times in the course of his tale it seems as though these boundaries are so blurred as to scarcely exist at all. And this is all the more surprising since the Merchant's Tale is surely the most "literary" of all the Canterbury tales, a veritable storehouse of intertextual "sources and analogues," and of explicit allusions and citations naming a variety of texts and authors. Among these texts, the Comedy, though it remains unnamed, occupies, as I have indicated, a place of central importance.
This last statement will need defending for various reasons, the first of which is that the Merchant's Tale has often seemed to commentators to lack a central focus or organizing principle, and this lack has also repeatedly been cited to cast doubt on the "dramatic theory" according to which the tales are the expressive utterance of a particular narrator. There is unquestionably a problem here, and since the theory is a cornerstone of this study, I propose to deal with it head-on.
Let me begin by granting that the tale lacks a unified perspective. As a corollary to this, I suggest, we are meant to see a narrator who is unsure of his own viewpoint, does not know quite where he stands. The relationship between this teller and his tale, in other words, differs subtly from that of the others in that the tale seems to have a life and a dynamic of its own, which the teller is unable to control,
to which he can only react. The image that comes to mind is one I discussed in chapter 3: the monster Geryon carrying the terrified poet-pilgrim down to the eighth circle of the Inferno. The Geryon episode, I argued earlier, implied a view of the Comedy as a text emerging from the hidden recesses of the pilgrim-poet's mind and seeming to "write itself" without his conscious intervention. The analogy with the Merchant's Tale as a kind of ventriloquist's text "telling itself" is of course rough. The Merchant is no professional poet and has no expert beast-handler like Virgil to help him. What he does perhaps have is a great mimetic gift, if we are to believe Boccaccio, who explains why Mercury is the god of merchants by the fact that they must "adapt themselves to the customs of the nations to which they go, and conduct all their business with a certain astute circuitousness of speech" (quadam astuta sermonis circumvolutione ).
A monster rather like Geryon does crop up in the Merchant's Tale, and if it causes him no terror, it does express his anxiety. More precisely, it appears in his exclamation at the sudden blindness of his male protagonist, January. I will cite the passage, not with any pretense that Chaucer had Geryon in mind when he wrote it, since the reference to a scorpion in both is sufficient to explain the similarity between them, but because it vividly illustrates the Merchant's emotional investment in the progress of his story, its ability to provoke in him violently ambivalent feelings:
O sodeyn hap! O thou Fortune unstable!
Lyk to the scorpion so deceyvable,
That flaterest with thyn heed whan thou wolt stynge;
Thy tayl is deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge.
O brotil joye! O sweete venym queynte!
O monstre, that so subtilly kanst peynte
Thy yiftes under hewe of stidefastnesse,
That thou deceyvest bothe moore and lesse!
Why hastow Januarie thus deceyved,
That haddest hym for thy fulle freend receyved?
And now thou hast biraft hym bothe his yen,
For sorwe of which desireth he to dyen.
What, the reader wonders, justifies this passionate outburst, this concern for January as Fortune's victim and even as tragic protagonist (in the manner of the Monk's Tale) who has brought a terrible fate upon himself? And how did Fortune become a monster of a deadly sexuality: Thy tail is death, O sweete venym queynte ? The incongruities, the rhetorical excess, and the sexual double entendres hint at a hidden, "repressed" logic. Just before the onset of his blindness January had used his garden retreat for sexual pleasure with his wife, May, a matter that the Merchant related with evident pleasure (2048–55). The invocation, therefore, of a Fortune at once seductive and lethal is a protest at and a covert justification of what is now happening to January. For this intensely ambivalent narrator the story turns into a battle between erotic desire and the belief that eroticism will somehow destroy a man.
This ambivalence may be further illustrated by the account of January's wedding. Picturing the bride sitting "with so benyngne a chiere," the Merchant says that "Hire to biholde it semed fayerye" (1742–43), putting himself in the place of the bridegroom "ravysshed in a traunce / At every tyme he looked on hir face" (1750–51), and of another spectator, January's squire, Damyan, also "ravysshed" (1774) at her sight. All are ravished not just by the bride but also by the wedding procession where Venus "with hire fyrbrond in hire hand about / Daunseth biforn the bryde and al the route" (1727–28). But when this squire finds that Venus has "hurt hym with hire brond, / As that she bar it daunsynge in hire hond" (1777–78), the traditional wedding torch becomes, like the scorpion-For-
tuna discussed above, not just exciting but also quite alarming, so alarming, indeed, that the Merchant feels compelled to exclaim against it in yet another of his outbursts:
O perilous fyr, that in the bedstraw bredeth!
O familier foo, that his service bedeth!
O servant traytour, false hoomly hewe,
Lyk to the naddre in bosom sly untrewe,
God shilde us alle from your aqueyntaunce!
O Januarie, dronken in plesaunce
In mariage, se how thy Damyan
Thyn owene squier and thy borne man,
Entendeth for to do thee vileynye.
God graunte thee thyn hoomly fo t'espye!
For in this world nys worse pestylence
Than hoomly foo al day in thy presence.
In his typically repetitive, almost incantatory manner, the Merchant here does what we saw him do in the exclamation against Fortune. By, in effect, identifying the perilous fire with Damyan as the homely or familiar foe, he can speak simultaneously about the story and his own emotional state. Like that other oxymoron, "the sweete venym queynte," the homely foe is to be feared and shunned because it will betray and destroy: "God shilde us alle from your aqueyntaunce!" Yet we all know it is there and not to be denied: "God graunte thee thy hoomly fo t'espy." Looking outward to the actual story, the double prayer is fulfilled with startling literalness much later in the tale when the god Pluto grants January the ability to spy Damyan with May in the tree, and he proceeds to repress the knowledge of what he has seen. Looking inward, the prayer speaks to and from the Merchant's embattled soul.
When he tells of January's wedding night, the Merchant's view of Damyan has changed. Now he shows him as the victim of the very fire with which he earlier identified him: "This sike Damyan in Venus fyr / So brenneth that he dyeth for desyr, / For which he putte his lyf in aventure" (1875–77). So solicitous has he become that he speaks to him as though he were a friend by his side:
O sely Damyan, allas!
Andswere to my demaunde, as in this cas.
How shaltow to thy lady, fresshe May,
Telle thy wo? She wole alwey seye nay.
Eek if thou speke, she wol thy wo biwreye.
God be thyn help! I kan no bettre seye.
May has stepped into the role of the homely foe who "wol thy woe biwreye," a role she will play again later to January when he has become blind and Venus's fire turns into "the fyr of jalousie" that "So brente his herte that he wolde fayn / That som man bothe hir and hym had slayn" (2075–76).
For January, sexual desire has become indistinguishable from the desire for murder and suicide, and it is tempting to see here a reflection of the Merchant's own psychic state, the "soory herte" of whose sorrow, he says at the end of his Prologue, he will not tell any more. That his tale does in fact tell "more" has been my argument so far, and also that it does so without the Merchant's being aware of it. At innumerable points it touches upon what he wants to shield from his "aqueyntaunce," and it is just this that enables the tale to push and pull him around, as we have seen it do.
And if the tale reveals what its teller is, or wants to remain, unconscious of, it will do so in an indirect fashion. As an example, let us note the transposition undergone by the two months the Merchant says he has been married (1234). Rather conspicuously, like the purloined letter, they reappear in the names of the marriage partners. Later, quite inconspicuously, they show up when January is reconciled to his blindness but not to his jealousy, "after a month or tweye" (2081). What is the Merchant inadvertently—by the "parapraxis" of tale-telling—revealing about himself and his marriage?
In attempting to answer that question we must first look at the Prologue to his tale, which begins with his outburst about his marital unhappiness, an outburst rather strangely triggered by the Clerk's humorous envoy, whose last line it echoes. He blames his wife for this unhappiness and denounces her with extraordinary ferocity as "the worste that may be" (1218) for her "hye malice" and "cursednesse" (1222, 1239). We learn that "thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were, / She wole hym overmacche, I dare wel swere" (1219–20), and are left wondering how such a diabolical monster could be unmasked in a period of two months. But when the Merchant declares that there is "a long and large difference" between Griselda's patience and his wife's "passyng crueltee" (1225), the thought presents itself that the Merchant is fictionalizing even before he has
started his tale. So I propose that the Merchant, reacting to the Clerk's Tale, has in fact turned his marriage into a Petrarchan allegory or morality play, in which his wife plays the part of Walter and he that of a kind of Griselda.
When the Merchant now turns to his tale he is turning, not, as we might have thought, from "real life" to fiction, but from one kind of fiction—Petrarchan, to another—Dantean, Chaucerian. In short, he is making the same transition we saw the Clerk making, except that the Clerk made it consciously, the Merchant not. The specifically Dantean character of the Merchant's Tale will already be apparent to the reader—especially in light of the narrator's conspicuously dual role as both outside and (in various ways) inside his fiction—but its fuller intertextuality with the Comedy awaits discussion of January, the prosperous sixty-year-old Lombard knight with whom the tale begins. After a lifetime of following "ay his bodily delyt / On women, ther as was his appetyt" (1249–50), he has a sudden desire to marry. In the fourteenth century Lombards were generally considered synonymous with merchants, and so I propose the hypothesis that January stands for the Merchant in the first month of his marriage. By this I mean to imply no more than a parallelism between them, whether of outlook, habits, mannerisms, or the like. As an example, both are fairly addicted to invoking the name of God, and both tend to view things in theological or biblical terms. Thus the Merchant comments on the knight's sexual promiscuity when he was a bachelor, with "As doon thise fooles that been seculeer " (1251; my italics), that is, in the precise ecclesiastical sense of the term, "worldly, unspiritual." Similarly, the Merchant comments on January's desire to marry with "Were it for hoolynessse or for dotage / I kan nat seye" (1253–54). But if the narrator is uncertain, his character is in no doubt and begins by
Preyinge oure Lord to graunten him that he
Mighte ones knowe of thilke blisful lyf
That is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf,
And for to lyve under that hooly boond
With which that first God man and womman bond.
"Noon oother lyf," seyde he, "is worth a bene;
For wedlok is so esy and so clene,
That in this world it is a paradys."
Thus seyde this olde knyght, that was so wys.
The Merchant now follows with his own 126-line encomium of marriage, echoing and expanding January's reflections. January's reference to the "holy bond," the Merchant elaborates into:
A wyf is Goddes yifte verraily. (1311)
Marriage is a ful greet sacrement. (1319)
. . . womman is for mannes help ywroght.
The hye God, whan he hadde Adam maked,
And saugh him al allone, bely-naked,
God of his grete goodnesse seyde than,
"Lat us now make an helpe unto this man
Lyk to hymself"; and thanne he made him Eve.
Heere may ye se, and heerby may ye preve,
That wyf is mannes helpe and his confort,
His paradys terrestre, and his disport."
That last line in turn echoes January's idea of wedlock as "in this world . . . a paradys." Many commentators read these lines as bitterly ironic; others read them unironically and wonder who their speaker might be. Without abandoning the idea that they belong to the Merchant, I want to combine the two viewpoints and say, yes, the lines contain much irony (the Merchant is no longer in the first month of marriage), and yet they are not consistently ironic in the sense that at one time (the first month) the Merchant believed in them and he retains a certain faith in the institution if not in what it presumes about wives.
It is, after all, his wife whom he blames for his unhappiness, so that his virtual participation in the ensuing "marriage debate" as a defender of the institution, though certainly tinged with irony, is not completely insincere. Thus, his refutation of Theophrastus's antimatrimonial arguments (1293–1310) anticipates, or by anticipa-
tion echoes, the "disputisoun" (1474) that develops between Placebo and Justinus, two friends of January, after the latter has announced his decision to marry for the good of his soul (1400–1405). Now, this so-called dispute brings out an irony that has been present from the beginning of the "marriage debate," but of which the Merchant—as well as a number of commentators—has been entirely unaware, being himself one of its targets. It is that in a fundamental sense the "marriage debate" has been no debate at all, and the Merchant's alternatives, "hoolynesse" or "dotage," in this case involve a distinction without a difference. When Placebo extravagantly praises January's decision (1478–1518), and Justinus gravely cautions him against rushing into a risky transaction (1521–65), between them they define precisely January's idea of marriage as a sanctified way to the man's gratification (placere ). Like Theophrastus earlier, Justinus simply insists on using "realistic" terms, which for him means those of a hardheaded business deal; acquiring a wife is like buying livestock: "no man fynden shal / Noon in this world that trotteth hool in al, / Ne man ne beest" (1537–39). January does not disagree, except that in his language the livestock has turned to meat; his wife, he insists, must not be more than sixteen (some mss. have twenty) years old, for "bet than old boef is the tendre veel" (1420).
Whereas the reader, in other words, sees the "debaters" absolutely agreed on the basic purpose of marriage, the characters, including the narrator, are convinced they are engaged in a genuine clash of viewpoints, chiefly between what they consider a sacred or sacramental and a profane or economic idea of the institution. How serious January is about the theological implications of his undertaking, once he has found the young woman of his choice, is shown by the hesitation he confides to his friends:
"I have," quod he, "herd seyd, ful yoore ago,
Ther may no man han parfite blisses two—
This is to seye, in erthe and eek in hevene.
For though he kepe hym fro the synnes sevene, . . .
Yet is ther so parfit felicitee
And so greet ese and lust in mariage
That evere I am agast now in myn age . . .
That I shall have myn hevene in erthe heere.
For sith that verray hevene is boght so deere
With tribulacioun and greet penaunce,
How sholde I thanne, that lyve in swich plesaunce
As alle wedded men doon with hire wyvys,
Come to the blisse ther Crist eterne on lyve ys?
This is my drede, and ye, my bretheren tweye,
Assoilleth me this question, I preye."
Like Justinus, the reader is likely to consider this "folye" unworthy of serious refutation (1655ff.), though Justinus does give a theological answer of sorts that, as I have already noted, ironically invokes the authority of the Wife of Bath (1685–87). In fact, however, the question of the "two beatitudes" that concerns January was a live theological issue in the fourteenth century. Dante devotes serious discussion to it in De Monarchia and in the fourth treatise of the Convivio, continuing a tradition whose most authoritative exponents in the thirteenth century were Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and of course it is implicit in his two paradises, the terrestrial in the Purgatorio and the celestial in the next canticle. To be sure, from a traditional theologian's point of view January states the problem the wrong way around, since he proceeds from the absurd premise—of which Justinus tries to disabuse him—that marriage guarantees perfect earthly bliss. And the long-standing Christian belief in a supernatural bliss has always tended to imply that any notion of complete earthly happiness is illusory—something that, once again, Dante deals with in the treatises just mentioned. But once January's premise is accepted—and from the perspective of marriage as a sacrament it is not entirely unreasonable—his expressed concern gains considerable cogency and even qualifies as an indirect critique of Christendom with its fixation on the penitential and its opposition to eroticism.
I am not saying that January intends to criticize the Church or its
theologians. On the contrary, perhaps his most salient trait is a naive faith in the institutions of the Church, most particularly the sacrament of marriage. As we saw, this sacrament is closely linked with the Earthly Paradise because it is there that God established it. In January's words quoted earlier (and echoed by the Merchant), "that hooly boond / With which that first God man and womman bond" thus contains the promise of creating "in this world . . . a paradys."
In his earnest if ludicrously misguided quest for "holiness" and felicity in marriage, January is not altogether unlike that other quester who does pass through the Earthly Paradise and celebrates a kind of wedding there, preparatory to his entry into the celestial paradise! Accordingly, when "Heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse / Fro day to day gan in the soule impresse / Of Januarie aboute his mariage" (1577–79; my italics), the reader may be reminded of the climax of the Comedy when the pilgrim-poet's alta fantasia (Par . XXXIII.142), having brought him thus far, at last fails him. And when at length January has completed his search for a bride—its method deflatingly compared to setting up a mirror in the market-place (1582ff.)—and "apoynted hym on oon, / And leet alle othere from his herte goon" (1595–96), one may well think of the Pilgrim reunited with Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.
These parallels certainly suggest a travesty of the Dantean pilgrimage, but a travesty that is also a perfectly serious act of interpretation and "translation." By that I mean, first of all, that Chaucer in transforming Dante's otherworld narrative into a thisworldly one is, as it were, testing Dante's premises precisely by the incongruities that they create when seen in a different context. I shall argue also that in the Merchant's Tale the Comedy functions as one of the "repressed" texts—properly a subtext, therefore—which at the surface level will necessarily manifest itself in a distorted or travesty form.
As a text, the Comedy does what in his misguided way January also attempts to do, namely, to recuperate in its integrity the one biblical text that represents a celebration or sacramentalization of eroticism and the body. It is ultimately because she is a reincarnation, as her cantos in the Purgatorio demonstrate, of the mysterious female figure in the Song of Songs, that Beatrice has a body. But in allowing the Song of Songs its literal signification, the Comedy sets itself in opposition to the almost unanimous trend, going back to
the early Jewish commentators, of denying it the status of a literal love poem and giving it instead the status of a spiritual or quasipolitical allegory only. For the medieval view of the Song of Songs, Augustine's principles of biblical hermeneutics appear to have been fairly decisive. One of these decrees that any interpreter must be selective in considering the literal meaning of a biblical text, so that whenever the literal reading of a biblical text does not promote charity, its meaning should be taken only in an allegorical sense. Commenting himself on the Song of Songs, Augustine invoked Paul's dictum about the letter that kills and warned the reader against taking in a "carnal" sense "much that is written in the Song of Songs," because it will lead "not to the fruit of luminous charity but to a disposition of libidinous cupidity." For at least a millennium Augustine's warning appears to have been effective: the great majority of medieval commentators either ignore the literal sense of the Song of Songs or else pass over it very quickly in favor of discussing the allegory. Thus, even though the Song of Songs was generally regarded as a wedding poem or drama and was often thought to have been composed by Solomon himself in celebration of his wedding to Pharaoh's daughter or the Queen of Sheba, this "literal" sense is never discussed or examined for its own sake. Instead, the focus is on the allegorical significance of the Song of Songs, specifically the idea of a mystical marriage between God and man. A perfect early example of the resultant confusion with respect to the textual status of the Song of Songs occurs in Isidore of Seville's influential Etymologiae (sixth century), where the entry on wedding songs reads:
Wedding songs are songs for persons getting married, sung by scholars in honor of the bridegroom and bride. These were first composed by Solomon in praise of the Church and Christ. Hence the gentiles took over the epithalamium for themselves, making it a distinct genre. The gentiles first celebrated this genre on the stage but later it was used only at weddings.
In other words, whereas pagan writers modeled their wedding songs on Solomon's, his actually never concerned a literal marriage.
Augustine's hermeneutic principle, in effect denying the Song of Songs its literal level and clearly reflected in Isidore's account, is almost perfectly exemplified by the account of January's wedding and its preliminaries, demonstrating how the "ful greet sacrement" (1319) is cut off, not just from the erotic, but virtually from the entire realm of profane existence. First there are the legal and financial arrangements, which are made to appear rather discreditable: "by sly and wys tretee" (1692) May agrees to marry January, and she in turn by a variety of "scrit and bond / . . . was feffed in his lond" (1697–98). Then there is the ceremony in the church, by which the priest "made al siker ynogh with holinesse" (1708). After this ceremony there is the wedding feast at January's palace, in effect an elaborately staged epithalamium. Framed as it is by the priest's actions in church and in the bridal chamber, where he blesses the bridal bed (1819), the epithalamium conforms remarkably to the historical formula for the genre cited earlier from Isidore's sixth-century encyclopedia. It contains no biblical references, and instead calls attention to itself as an entirely classical occasion presided over by Bacchus, Venus, and Hymen, and accompanied by music superior to that of Orpheus and Amphion (1716).
Once married, January causes a garden retreat to be built, which, in the account the Merchant gives of it, could be considered an extension of the wedding feast, except that the gardens to which it is compared are no longer exclusively classical but are also of more recent provenience:
Somme clerkes holden that felicitee
Stant in delit, and therfore certeyn he,
This noble Januarie, with al his myght,
In honest wyse, as longeth to a knyght,
Shoop hym to lyve ful deliciously.
His housyng, his array, as honestly
To his degree was maked as a kynges.
Amonges othere of his honeste thynges,
He made a gardyn, walled al with stoon;
So fair a gardyn woot I nowher noon.
For, out of doute, I verraily suppose
That he that wroot the Romance of the Rose
Ne koude of it the beautee wel devyse;
Ne Priapus ne myghte nat suffise,
Though he be god of gardyns, for to telle
The beautee of the gardyn and the welle,
That stood under a laurer alwey grene.
Ful ofte tyme he Pluto and his queene,
Proserpina, and al hire fayerye,
Disporten hem and maken melodye
Aboute that welle, and daunced, as men tolde.
Among the profusion of sources and analogues cited by the Merchant, one is conspicuously absent. January, who is repeatedly linked with Solomon, clearly models his garden on that in the Song of Songs, especially that contained in the metaphor "a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" (4.12). Somewhat like a Freudian dream censor, the narrator is repressing the "forbidden" garden by a process of displacement, the gardens he does mention being surrogates for the unmentionable one. But these demonstrate the extraordinary emotional and imaginative charge that attaches to the displaced garden of the Song of Songs and represent, in a loose, apparently random way, a tradition of eroticism that somehow has survived and continued despite the hostility of official Christian culture.
The "clerkes" mentioned first, who "holden that felicitee / Stant in delit," are a case in point. They would seem to be followers of Epicurus, about whom feelings have always been ambivalent and worse in the West. Epicurus was known as the philosopher of the Garden as Plato was of the Academy, the garden being for Epicurus a place of withdrawal from the world and the cultivation of friendship. During the fourteenth century there is, alongside the usual condemnation, an attempted rehabilitation of Epicurus, in D. C. Allen's phrase, culminating in the next century in Lorenzo Valla's De Voluptate . Dante, for example, places the "Epicureans" who deny the immortality of the soul in the sixth circle of his hell (Inf .
X.13ff.), yet in the Convivio he describes without a note of disapprobation Epicurus's doctrine as positing "this our goal to be pleasure . . . , that is, delight without pain" ("questo nostro fine essere voluptade . . . , cioè diletto sanza dolore," IV.vii.11).
Of course, the narrator merely hints at January's Epicureanism, and in calling it honest he calls up a key term of Stoicism and so raises fleetingly the possibility that in this garden the ancient conflict between Stoic and Epicurean might be resolved. The view of January's garden quickly becomes more negative, however, as the narrator compares it, first, to that of Guillaume de Lorris, whose wall was intended to keep elde —time, old age—out and make it into a playground for feckless youth. And the next figure seems like a very sardonic comment on Guillaume's literary ancestry, for this Priapus is not a garden ornament but a god of gardens and a poet figure who, we are told, is unable to tell the beauty of January's garden. He could perhaps be considered the primitive Lacanian father of Ovid and his medieval descendants, whose eroticism has been described as a "cult of desire" in which "the other, the woman . . . has no more personality or presence than Echo. She is the reflection of male desire."
The narcissism of the Priapic poet is perfectly epitomized in the central feature of January's garden, "the welle, / That stood under a laurer alwey grene" (2036). With a sideways glance at the fountain in the Song of Songs, the well recalls the fountain of Narcissus—
under a pine tree—in the Romance of the Rose, into which the dreamer looks so that he falls in love. January, who earlier told his friends, "I feele me nowhere hoor but on myn heed; / Myn herte and alle my lymes been as grene / As laurer thurgh the yeer is for to sene" (1464–66), can now see his own evergreen virility (like poetic immortality) in the laurel tree mirrored in the glassy surface of the well below it.
At this point the narrative produces its boldest Verfremdungseffekt . January's walled garden opens up to worlds of pre-Christian myth, Roman and Celtic, as it becomes the setting for "Pluto and his queene, / Proserpina, and al hire fayerye," who "disporten hem and maken melodye / Aboute that welle, and daunced, as men tolde." With their fairy retinue, Pluto and Proserpina are both god and goddess of the Virgilian underworld and king and queen of the Celtic otherworld. And with their music and dancing they seem to be engaged in a continuous wedding procession, as if they had replaced King Solomon and his bride in the epithalamic garden of the Song of Songs.
The unexpected entry onto the scene of this divine couple produces a subtle but definite change in the entire atmosphere of the tale. It is as if, with their joint appearance above ground, the earth had been released from an ancient curse, as of course it has, and as if this world had suddenly been invested with the fairy splendor of the (Celtic) otherworld, where all the world's myths (as in some Fryean heaven) peaceably coexist. The question of the replacement or displacement of one myth by another thus no longer applies. Instead, there is genuine syncretism (as in Sir Orfeo ), where Pluto and Proserpina prove to be perfectly familiar with "Jhesus, filius Syrak " (2250), Christ and his church or "hous" (2282), and King Solomon and his views about women, which provide fuel for their argument about the perennial, first and doubtless last, question (see 2242ff. and 2275ff.). Equally significant, the garden of the Song
of Songs, which earlier we saw displaced from the narrative, suddenly makes its presence felt when January invites May to go with him into his garden:
er that dayes eighte
Were passed [of] the month of [Juyn], bifil
That Januarie hath caught so greet a wil,
Thurgh eggyng of his wyf, hym for to pleye
In his gardyn, and no wight but they tweye,
That in a morwe unto his May seith he:
"Rys up, my wyf, my love, my lady free!
The turtles voys is herd, my dowve sweete;
The wynter is goon with alle his reynes weete.
Com forth now, with thyne eyen columbyn!
How fairer been thy brestes than is wyn!
The gardyn is enclosed al aboute;
Com forth, my white spouse! Out of doute
Thou hast me wounded in myn herte, O wyf!
No spot of thee ne knew I al my lyf.
Com forth, and lat us taken oure disport;
I chees thee for my wyf and my confort."
The narrator responds to this lyrical pastiche from the Song of Songs with the laconic comment, "Swiche olde lewed wordes used he," and immediately continues with the story of the adultery May and Damyan are planning (2150–51). His abrupt dismissal of January's speech shows that the "censorship" we noted in his commentary on January's garden is now openly at work. As far as the Merchant is concerned, the Song of Songs must remain unacknowledged and its powerfully moving poetry disguised and discredited by the odd phrase "olde lewed wordes."
The Merchant's censorship is clearly implicated with a whole perspective on the Bible as epitomized in the Song of Songs and with the cause, ultimately, of his own marital unhappiness. In using the words from the Bible, as in constructing his garden, January is literalizing and appropriating for everyday purposes what should remain in the domain of allegory, an allegory that belongs to the Church and its "clerkes," who formulated it to begin with. Hence,
when the Merchant refers to January's use of the Canticles language as "lewed," he is using the term in a way that recalls his use of "seculeer" at the beginning of the tale. He means primarily, not that January's words are "stupid, worthless, lewd, ignorant," but that they are such above all because his is a "lay" usage belonging to the seculum, without benefit of clergy, that is, without the benefit of clerical exegesis.
In declaring various "old words" of the Bible unusable for everyday, profane existence, the Merchant is putting himself on the side of ecclesiastical orthodoxy. He thus endorses a deliberate dissociation of sensibility that reserves one area of human experience for Church and Bible and consigns the remainder to limbo (like Dante's!) for "pagan" literature, philosophy, and myth to deal with. The dissociation can be epitomized by the Prioress's Amor vincit omnia and the Wife's Allas! allas! that evere love was synne ! (III.614).
If this were the end of the tale, we would have to say that the Merchant learns nothing from his narrative performance. But we have already observed indications in his tale that its tenor is shifting from a male-centered perspective to one that accords woman her distinct role as person, a shift inaugurated by the mysterious divine visitors to January's garden. What happens there while they are the interested spectators and participants—recalling the amphitheater of the Knight's Tale with its divine onlookers!—does indeed once more produce a radical change in perspective in a tale that is characterized by dramatic twists and turns in its narrative course.
Pluto and Proserpina reappear just before the tale's climactic scene in the pear tree. And there we are referred to Claudian as the author who told the story of how Pluto obtained his wife by abducting her "in his grisly carte" while she was gathering flowers in the mead (2227–33). As M. J. Donovan demonstrated more than thirty years ago, Claudian's brief mythological epic De Raptu Proserpinae (fifth century A.D. ) is a major subtext of the Merchant's Tale. Indeed, Claudian's poem is of enormous relevance to the entire "marriage debate" in The Canterbury Tales and is astonishingly Chaucerian in spirit, humorous, ironic, psychologically subtle, and (presumably)
unfinished. Marriage is viewed from the woman's perspective as a kind of rape and a kind of death, which the self somehow survives, though at a considerable loss in vitality and freedom. Ceres, Proserpina's mother, dreams about her lost daughter as, among other things, a laurel tree cut down to the roots (III.75–79), and at poem's end she is still lamenting her loss, so that for the reader she achieves a kind of identity with the daughter become mournful consort of Pluto in his dusky underworld.
The Claudian subtext, in other words, is a commentary on the January-May marriage. It was a kind of rape by which he ambiguously wanted to take into himself her vitality (the laurel tree that he sees as his image) or reduce her to his own morbidity, but either way as a means for him to escape death. Claudian's poem also provides a proleptic commentary on the ending of the Merchant's Tale by raising the possibility that when January leads his wife out of the garden and back to his palace he is indeed taking her—from her momentary freedom with Damyan—back into the dungeon of wedlock.
Whether Chaucer intended an allusion to Sir Orfeo in making Pluto and Proserpina king and queen of Fayerye, we do not know, but it would certainly fit with the present context of the Merchant's Tale. The Middle English romance deals very subtly with a marital relationship, and it represents a kind of inversion of Claudian's and the Merchant's stories—as of the classical Orpheus legend—in the sense that the husband gains the full release of his wife from her otherworld bondage. I believe that Heurodis's enchantment by the king of Fayerye is intended as an aspect or phase of her marriage to Orfeo, from which she is finally released when her husband, after his ten-year penance in the wilderness (212ff.), sees her for what she is. Whether January ever reaches this point is something that I will try to determine before the end of the chapter. It could be that May's marriage is itself a form of "otherworld bondage" from which the gallant adulterer Damyan is unable to rescue her.
On this interpretation, Sir Orfeo meshes extraordinarily well with another major subtext of the Merchant's Tale, the Wife of Bath's, where the queen of fairies is transformed into a beautiful young woman once her husband acknowledges her as a "sovereign" person. In her tale, the Wife of Bath clarifies another point about the fairies
that entered the Merchant's Tale as the retinue of Pluto and Proserpina. They were driven out of the land, she says, by the friars. For her, in other words, the fairies represent a stage in Western history—imaginary as it might be—before the triumph of monastic asceticism as represented by the friars. In the Merchant's Tale, similarly, the fairies, in their association with Pluto and Proserpina and January's garden, point to an age before an ascetically inspired exegesis had read or written the erotic out of the sacred text. Once this happens, as the Wife of Bath recognizes, woman as person is in jeopardy. Paul's antipathy to "ese / Of engendrure" (III.127–28) is the real threat to her. The triumph of the ascetic exegetes means that women no longer belong in the scheme of things, that they become not unlike otherworld creatures, fayerye, elusive, seemingly insubstantial beings glimpsed as objects of fear or desire.
In this context the sudden onset of January's blindness (2057ff.) can be regarded as a way of underlining his failure from the start to see May—or any woman—as other than an object for his "bodily delit." But the equally sudden "cure" of this blindness does not necessarily imply that his vision is now purged. Indeed, the significance of this event in the scheme of the Merchant's Tale seems particularly ambiguous. Through the intervention of Pluto, January is enabled to see May up in the pear tree "dressed" (2361) by Damyan. His reaction is to let out "a roring and a cry, / As dooth the mooder whan the child shal dye: / "Out! Help! Allas! Harrow!" he gan to crye, / "O stronge lady stoore, what dostow?" (2364–67).
What are we to make of this scene and the simile the narrator applies to it? Let us begin with the simile, which endows the entire scene with a sense of unfathomable depth, especially the gender shift in seeing and hearing January as anguished mother at the sight or thought of the child's impending death. Or is the anguish she articulates—"Out! Help! . . . "—also the pain of childbirth? And since
the cry was actually triggered by the sight of May and Damyan having intercourse, we seem to have here a perfect instance of the mystery of conception, birth, and death in "the unintelligible and unknowable continuity which is the secret of eroticism," to use the words of Bataille quoted in chapter 1.
The child that "shal dye" is the inscription of this continuity. It is the child being conceived in the tree; it is Christ on the cross-tree dying and resurrected; it is the self that must die to be reborn; and it is the (unrepresentable) body, with whose frequently unhappy destiny both The Canterbury Tales and the Comedy have been much concerned, as this study has attempted to show. We have said enough about the pear-tree scene in the perspective of the mother-child simile to make the case, I hope, that, supremely comic fabliau moment that it is, it is also Chaucer's—and the Merchant's—version of nostra effige, our human, divine, and inescapably double image, as the text declares: "in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1.27), where the term "image" hardly seems adequate to the relationship implied. Enough, also, to persuade the reader that January's garden is Chaucer's version of the Earthly Paradise or, in January's formulation, "hevene in erthe heere" (1645).
But even if January's sight of the lovers in the pear tree is a version, as I allege, of the paradisal vision, and the garden where it takes place a version of the Earthly Paradise, is it not simultaneously, at least for January, a moment when paradise is lost? The simile discussed above might imply that something, possibly of great value, will take its place. On the other hand, the ensuing dialogue between January and May—Damyan having mysteriously vanished from the scene—might suggest that the Earthly Paradise was a delusion all along. To May's obviously false yet also true claim that she had attempted to heal his eyes by struggling with a man upon a tree (2372–74), January responds with "He swyved thee, I saugh it with myne yen" (2378). May's reply, especially the line I have italicized, seems to say that January's language shows he still cannot see her as she needs to be seen:
"Thanne is," quod she, "my medicyne fals;
For certeinly, if that ye myghte se,
Ye wolde nat seyn thise wordes unto me .
Ye han some glymsyng, and no parfit sighte."
But is May right in objecting to January's language? Does it convey an attitude of disrespect or contempt? For us this question is at least in part one involving the rules of linguistic decorum in Chaucer's day, a tricky matter at best, since we know so little about them. That they are at issue here is evident from the Merchant's elaborate apology to the "ladies" in his audience (2350ff.). He is a "rude man" who cannot "glose" but must give the facts and say: "sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng" (2352–53). This is certainly vivid, but scarcely (I would guess) the violation of decorum he had led his audience to expect. And now he goes on to do what he has just said he cannot do, and that is to "glose" in describing how January saw "that Damyan his wyf had dressed / In swich manere it may nat been expressed, / But if I wolde speke uncurteisly" (2361–63).
In thus playing with his audience and the idea of narrative decorum, the Merchant wittily draws attention to January's use of "swyve" and to the fact that May's objection to it signals an unexpected reversal of roles. It is now she who would play the part he played earlier, that of the "censor" who rules out of order certain "olde lewed wordes" for being too much "cosyn to the dede" (I.742). She thus makes herself complicit in the general willingness to ignore the evidence of the senses and preference for "glymsyng" over "parfit sighte," of which we earlier saw her, like all women, the victim. Accordingly, when she gets January at length to accept her explanation of the happening in the tree and he leads her home to his palace (2415), we may feel that she has at least taught him the Miller's lesson that a husband must not be inquisitive about his wife's "pryvetee" (I.3163–64). But it could also signal the triumph of a grim view of life that rejects the possibility of a "hevene in erthe heere" and sees in the mirror of marriage only a mutual purgatory where husband and wife "rule" like Pluto and Proserpina in the underworld.
More completely than the other tales, then, the Merchant's Tale incorporates the three realms of Dante's Comedy as so many ways
of fashioning and seeing the world of earthly experience. Also more completely than the others, the Merchant's Tale continues and extends the Comedy 's epic project of recuperating not just the sacred texts from the ecclesiastical exegetes, but other areas of human experience traditionally declared off limits for serious discourse like epic poetry. One such area might be loosely called the taboo, which would include elements like the obscene, the repulsive, the grotesque, the blasphemous. The pear-tree episode obviously fits into this category in a number of ways, and along with January's "swyve" it constitutes part of Chaucer's redefinition in The Canterbury Tales of epic decorum, another way of incorporating the body and its opacity in his fiction. The Merchant-narrator's playful acceptance, as I intimated, of this decorum, seems to me a sign that he has learned to "see" in the course of his narrative, just as the Dantean Pilgrim learns to see throughout his journey, but especially in the Paradiso .
As I suggested near the beginning of this chapter, the Pilgrim's instruction in seeing begins and ends, in a sense, in the mirror of the impossible sacrament uniting a young woman long dead and a middle-aged poet. For all that Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales transforms, transposes, and reinterprets the Comedy, it is clear that he and Dante are engaged in a fundamentally similar project of healing the dissociated sensibility of their civilization by "marrying" the human image to itself again, showing that it is not single or static but rather the ever-varying story of the old man, the man and woman in the tree, and the child that already knows it "shal dye."