"We Wrechched Wymmen Konne Noon Art":
Dido and Geffrey in the House of Fame
Playing with one's own name, putting it in play is, in effect, what is always going on. . . . The very structure of the proper name sets this process in motion. That's what the proper name is for. At work, naturally, in the desire—the apparent desire—to lose one's name by disarticulating it, disseminating it, is the inverse movement. By disseminating or losing my own name, I make it more and more intrusive; I occupy the whole site, and as a result my name gains more ground. The more I lose, the more I gain.
Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other
Dido and the Critics
In the Parliament of Fowls , in the narrator's rendition of the book he reads before his dream, Africanus offers his grandson Scipio a celestial vision that begins with a brief, dismissive glimpse of Carthage, the earthly city whose destruction is essential to Scipio's career as a Roman militarist. In the next chapter, I shall argue that Scipio's dream represents, among other things, a perspective rooted in the history of gender relations, and that Carthage might also be remembered as the city ruled by the legendary queen Dido. Dido is the female figure who is not named, the femininity that is repressed in Scipio's dream at the beginning of the Parliament , but her story—the story of how her name was lost—is told twice elsewhere in the Chaucerian canon, in the Legend of Good Women , and, before that, with more apparent interest and sympathy, in Book I of the House of Fame .
In the House of Fame , as in the Parliament of Fowls , the poet's dream-vision begins in Venus's temple. After a brief description of his surroundings there (119–39), the narrator launches directly into a rendition of the one classical legend he seems to find most noteworthy among the temple's wall inscriptions, the story of the Aeneid . This story itself is told in highly compressed form until Dido appears on the scene, in line 241. The first Chaucerian version of her encounter with Aeneas characteristically conflates at least two sources, Virgil's epic and Ovid's Heroides . Two apparently original touches are also added: a long monologue spoken by Dido, the only character to whom reported speech is given in this episode, and the narrator's own sententious interjections: for example, he moralizes, "Allas! what harm doth apparence, / Whan hit is fals in existence!" (265–66).
The function of Book I of the House of Fame as it now stands has been the subject of much critical debate. Some modern readers have noted that it is a markedly unconventional beginning, Wolfgang Clemen, for instance, points out that unlike other medieval love visions, the House of Fame does not open with an allegorical representation of Love, and Chaucer's readers, Clemens thinks, "must have been surprised to find Venus depicted solely by means of the Dido-episode." Robert O. Payne goes so far as to insist that Book I is irrelevant to subsequent material: "It does not suggest anything which follows, and critics have been able to correlate its 'sentence' with the rest of the poem only by abstracting to so great a degree as to vitiate comparison." But many scholars have contended otherwise. The story of Dido, taken as a classic case of an already ambiguous legend whose ambiguities are only heightened in Chaucer's rendition, is said to bring to the fore questions about loyalty, about sympathy, and—central to arguments for the cohesiveness of the poem—about interpretation. Along these lines, critics have commonly addressed questions such as: Whose side is the narrator on, at any given point? Dido's or Aeneas's? Ovid's or Virgil's? Whose side was Virgil on, for that matter?
Even critics who agree on the cohesiveness of Book 1 with the rest of the poem, however, differ sharply in their answers to such questions about the nature and course of the narrator's sympathies and tone throughout the episode. Opinion has ranged from those who see an essentially pro-Dido (and/or pro-Ovid) version here, and attribute it to Chaucer as well as to the narrator, to those who view Dido as a representative of carnality to whose evils the narrator is blind, while Chaucer (like Virgil, or at least like medieval commentators on Virgil) is not. Some find the tone of the poem consistently "light-hearted," "entertaining," even "gay, buoyant," and "fun-filled," while others find it disturbing or at least "faintly unpleasant." Insofar as such disagreements have created two camps, one (possibly like Ovid) reading Dido as more or less innocent victim and one (possibly like Virgil) more or less hostile to Dido and sensitive to the mitigating circumstances surrounding Aeneas's desertion of the queen of Carthage, modern commentary has replicated the very controversy that the poem inscribes in its display of conflicting evidence from the sources and in its own departures from them. And several of the most recent and interesting studies of the poem concur that this, at last, brings us to the real point of the Dido episode: it is not meant to evoke sympathy for or hostility toward Dido or the womanly attributes, good or bad, that she represents, but to introduce the epistemological, moral, and hermeneutical questions that the poem goes on to explore in Books II and III. For John Fyler, for instance, the episode proves the narrator's "disillusionment" with the literary tradition of love, whose enigmas "deny the possibility of understanding and discriminating judgment. All one has left in the face of the incomprehensible is a pious hope."
More recently, Jesse Gellrich has questioned whether even "pious hope" really resolves the problem that the House of Fame as a whole confronts. Although Gellrich does not focus on Book I—which he describes, interestingly enough, as "the treatment of sources about Aneas " (my emphasis)—he suggests that the conflict between Virgil's story and Ovid's "is appropriate to the larger subject of Chaucer's poem" (my emphasis) because of its ambiguity. Chaucer is not unable to choose between Ovidian and Virgilian versions, but he refuses to do so in order to call into question the power of narrative itself to moralize. The poem as a whole, Gellrich argues, does not leave us with hope or skepticism, but positively rejects "the Book of the past," and its accompanying myth of language and moral closure, in favor of "his own text, the language of poetry and its capacity to explore old books." The subversive power of the fictive and the arbitrary in turn authorizes the poet as and only as a fiction, "a creation of the text."
Like Gellrich, Jacqueline Miller also self-consciously uses contemporary theoretical concerns and methods in her investigation of authority and authorship at the heart of the House of Fame . Miller, however, is less confident that the poem wholeheartedly valorizes poetic language or the poet's voice. Arguing that the dream-vision is inherently a form that allows the writer to explore the conflict between "external" authority and "individual vision or voice," Miller contends that the narrator oscillates between the two alternatives, finding at times "confidence in the personal vision" that is "forceful but not total," but ending with a "not entirely hopeless" silence that serves "to salvage the image of an anonymous figure whose authority is merely suggested, and never tested."
Like Gellrich, too, Miller focuses little attention on Dido, but what she does have to say about Book I is for my purposes highly suggestive: she sees it as a discussion of language, not love, and points out, as others have done, that Dido's problem, her betrayal by a man with "godlyhede / In speche" (330–31) but no "trouthe," is analogous to the nar-
rator's problem. The Virgilian and Ovidian versions represent not contradictory truths, but contradictory attitudes toward authority: is it absolute, or "something more local, relative, and individual"? In his invention of Dido's long lament, according to Miller, the narrator himself asserts his growing "self-reliance." Yet just as Dido's speech does not save her or her name from abandonment and disrepute, so too the narrator is not empowered by his departure from tradition, for he returns to a reliance on external authority (in Book I, in the catalogue of betrayed women, "as the book us tellis" [388–426], and in the sudden lurch to present the "Virgilian" view of Aeneas's motives, as "The book seyth . . . "[427–32]). And he images the terror and loneliness of self-reliance in the vision of emptiness and sterility that closes the Dido episode and Book I.
I give somewhat extensive summaries of Gellrich's and Miller's readings because they seem to offer such persuasive and rich ways of placing the House of Fame at the center of our current revaluation of the Middle Ages as a period more formative of and analogous to our own than has sometimes been thought, with a poetic tradition highly conscious of the intersecting problems of language, authority, and subjectivity. Perhaps only in the context of a study like mine, with its insistent and single-minded focus on the histories and historicity of women, gender, and sexual politics, do their considerations still leave something out. The questions I want to pursue are already predictable and in formulation, at least, simple. Why does a poem that turns out to be about the illusory nature of fame, truth, and interpretive authority start as the story of a woman's response to a man's sexual betrayal? What is the significance of the poem's representation of Dido as a woman, and what can be said about its depiction of a male narrator, addressed as Geffrey, who seems both to sympathize with and resemble his female character? Given the similarities between male narrator and female character, what signification may we assign to Geffrey's closing claim to self-sufficiency and self-possession of a name ("Sufficeth me . . . That no wight have my name in honde," 1876–77) as opposed to Dido's insistence that she has lost her name (345ff.)? The assertion that Chaucer is interested not in the Dido story per se but in the "larger" conflict between Ovid and Virgil begs these questions and invites criticism—following the lead of the text and the old story it retells—to abandon the woman once again.
Clemen suggested several years ago that the Dido episode "could be taken as an anticipation and prelude leading up to the Legend of Good Women ," and that although Chaucer does not make this point explicit, his audience would have recognized his attempt to tell a famous story about a woman's abandonment and a "man's untrouthe" as part of the contemporary controversy over Le Roman de la Rose , a crucial source of the long-lived querelle des femmes . Clemen pursues this line of reasoning no further, and in fact summarily dismisses the importance of the connection he has perceived: "It is obvious, however, that Chaucer himself did not take this controversy seriously." If Chaucer did not enter the late medieval debate over Woman seriously, however, he certainly did so frequently, even obsessively. From my perspective it is obvious that Dido's story, taken in the context of this obsession, raises and helps to answer hitherto unasked questions about relations between the male author and his female characters. In this chapter I want to consider again, then, how "the woman question," as it emerges in the late fourteenth century—as a question about the nature and meaning of sexual difference, "men" versus "women," often particularized in the thematics of betrayal versus loyalty and domination versus submission—functions as the origin of the Chaucerian challenge to literary tradition, as the ground and instigation of the poet's subversive encounter with authority and authoritative discourse. Here, as in the Book of the Duchess , problems that the defense of Woman and the discourse of love bring to the fore are coterminous with problems of meaning and intention; and the text's complex representation of a female character and her putatively typical femininity to some extent strategically addresses those problems. And I suggest that the development of the poetic self, of subjectivity itself, of what Miller calls "the promotion of the speaker as the only authority principle," both constructs and depends on the gender system as we (still) know it and as it constrains and constitutes the authoritative (male) speaker and engenders authors and authority. In the next section of this chapter, I focus on key aspects of the contrast, first, between the marginal, irrelevant Dido and the central female figure of Chaucer's first dream-vision, White; then I suggest that there is also some common ground between the two visions with regard to the narrator's characteristic representation of women and the concomitant problem of artistic
authority. In the concluding section, I turn to the figure of the poet, here, uniquely, named with the proper name of the author, Geffrey (729), to explore the strategic function of his feminization, which serves paradoxically to characterize a self-constructing difference between him and his female character, Dido.
Dido and White
To some modern scholars, Dido clearly and straightforwardly embodies lust and worldly appetite, and thus she would seem to stand in clear opposition to Chaucer's first female character, the paragon White. It is hard to find evidence in the House of Fame , however, for this view of Dido's character. Her passion and sexuality are downplayed by the narrator's trivializing, prudish circumlocutions. For example, he describes her sexual relations with Aeneas thus: "she . . . let him doo / Al that weddynge longeth too" (242–44). His worst accusation seems to be that she has done "amys" (269), and is guilty of "nyce lest, / That loved al to sone a gest" (287–88), while Aeneas is, by implication at least, charged with "many a shrewed vice" (275). The Chaucerian version of Dido's story does not accord her the implicit power and purpose suggested by the stereotypical view of Woman and female sexuality as evil incarnate. Dido in the House of Fame is indeed presented as a foil to White, but in ways that stress how weak, not evil, she is, and how constituted and constrained by certain allegedly typical attributes of her gender. If White and Dido together bespeak something of the radically split view of Woman that we can trace throughout the medieval period and into later centuries, they suggest that this split is less between spirit and flesh, virgin (or chaste wife) and whore, in fact, than between the strong exception and the weak rule; consequently, the rule, the norm, the reality of Woman is all the more firmly equated with the weak.
Following the dictates of courtly convention, as I suggested in the last chapter, White is depicted as a woman both exemplary and singular; among ladies she was "oon / That was lyk noon of the route" (BD 818–
19); formed, moreover, so as to have "surmounted" the planets, moon, and stars (BD 826); "chef ensample" of all Nature's work (BD 911). When the dreamer in that poem implies that the Black Knight's superlatives may reflect his biased (not to mention conventional) perspective—"Yow thoghte that she was the beste" (BD 1049)—the Knight launches into a long, densely allusive defense of White's status as paragon and exception, concluding as he began, "She was as good, and nothyng lyk" (BD 1085). Although Dido too is portrayed in previous literary works as a queen of superlative beauty, wealth, and power who could offer a poet matter for another conventional depiction of the potent and peerless courtly lady, she is deflated in Chaucer's first rendition of her story to the most common female denominator. In marked contrast to incomparable White, this Dido is a mundane embodiment of any and every woman, especially in terms of her natural victimization at the hands (or, more precisely, at the words) of an equally typical, deceptive male stranger.
White also differs from Dido in that she properly resists the appeals of the Black Knight for some time. In contrast to the aloof paragon whose reluctance is the subject of so many flattering couplets in the Book of the Duchess , Dido falls in love with Aeneas two lines after she is introduced to the story. The narrator alleges the typicality of this behavior, telling us that she quickly and regrettably "dide hym al the reverence . . . That any woman myghte do" (259–61, my emphasis), and he goes on to moralize in the same terms: "Loo, how a woman doth amys / To love him that unknowen ys! . . . For this shal every woman fynde" (269–70, 279, my emphasis). Dido herself authorizes the narrator's intepretation of her meaning and status as typical, foolish, seductible Woman—a woman, any woman, every woman. She represents her own experience as the typical and universal experience of "wymmen" versus "men," "we" versus "ye," artless victim beguiled by smooth-talking victimizer:
Allas, that ever hadde routhe
Any woman on any man
Now see I wel, and telle kan,
We wrechched wymmen konne noon art,
For certeyn, for the more part,
Thus we be served everychone.
How sore that ye men konne groone,
Anoon as we have yow receyved,
Certaynly we ben deceyvyd!
Here, as well as later in this speech, a second and paramount preoccupation emerges, identified once more as a typically feminine one and one that constructs Dido, an everywoman, in opposition to White, the paragon. White's name, the Black Knight insists, was no metaphor: "She hadde not hir name wrong" (BD 951). Her love of the propriety and virtue of that perfectly faithful name was in itself the safeguard of her most important womanly quality, her sexual purity: "No wyght myghte do hir noo shame, / She loved so wel hir owne name" (BD 1017–18). Dido, on the other hand, has no name whose transparent fidelity to the idea it signifies guarantees her honor, nor does she live in a world where such accord between the word and the deed, referent and reference, is deemed possible. The power and propriety of language, the capacity of the word to invoke and control reality that White putatively embodies and makes coterminous with female sexual purity, is as lost as White is dead, and Dido's fall is in more ways than one a linguistic issue.
Dido is deceived by the prevailing gap in this poem as a whole between utterance and intention. She is taken in, specifically, by the words of Aeneas: as the narrator tells it in his brief summary of their wooing, Dido listened to Aeneas's story and then gave him her love, "Wenynge hyt had al be so / As he hir swor" (262–63). She herself similarly blames Aeneas's duplicitous and seductive words and indicts his godlike rhetorical skill as a typical male endowment: "'O, have ye men such godlyhede / In speche, and never a del of trouthe?'" (330–31). A few lines later, in the long passage cited earlier, Dido contradicts one widespread assumption about women by alleging that she, like all women, differs from men in her lack of this rhetorical talent, the capacity to be artful, to deceive: "'We wrechched wymmen konne noon art'" (335). But her own professed honesty and humility—virtuous enough qualities, in the abstract—do not empower her or safeguard her chastity; on the contrary, it is her rhetorical innocence that guarantees her sexual guilt. Lacking the necessary understanding that speech is not always true, or coming to this understanding just too late, she is the one who loses (the capacity to play with) her "name"—a concept that imbricates, as for White, control over sexuality and textuality, power over her own body and over the words that will represent that body to present and future speakers and listeners (and readers):
"O, wel-awey that I was born!
For thorgh yow is my name lorn,
And alle myn actes red and songe
Over al thys lond, on every tonge.
O wikke Fame! for ther nys
Nothing so swift, lo, as she is!
O soth ys, every thing ys wyst,
Though hit be kevered with the myst.
Eke, though I myghte duren ever,
That I have don, rekever I never,
That I ne shal be seyd, allas,
Yshamed be thourgh Eneas,
And that I shal thus juged be—
'Loo, ryght as she hath don, now she
Wol doo eft-sones, hardely;'
Thus seyth the peple prively."
(345–60, my emphasis)
As my emphasis indicates, these lines embed the rhyme of "noo shame / hir owne name" that we heard in the Book of the Duchess (1017–18), but here the phonetic cohesion is so dissipated as to go unnoticed because of Dido's fall, alleged to be both inevitabe and storyworthy. In her world, words are unreliable; men rely on that unreliability to seduce and abandon women; and women are incapable of resisting, although with hindsight they can both lament their doom and avow its universality and predictability. The only truth and certainty, according to Dido, is that her shame will be "red and songe . . . on every tonge." Thus, as Dido's assertion might further suggest, her role in the affair is the one thing that is actually not in dispute; rather, it is Aeneas 's motives that are differently construed by Ovidians and Virgilians—and in this sense Gellrich's reference to Book I as "the treatment of the sources about Aneas," which I cited earlier, may not be as insensitive to the interests of the text as it seems at first glance. The very complexities and ambiguities in which the story is enmeshed, the "myst" in which it is all the more emphatically covered by the narrator's particular manner of telling, only make the certain "fact" of Dido's emblematic experience more solid and real, the single common denominator of an allegedly problematic "dual tradition."
At the same time that the poem establishes such a contrast between White and Dido, and between the ideas of Woman and the theories of language that they respectively embody, the Dido episode also permits us to see in the House of Fame precisely what we saw in the Book of the Duchess: a poem, a male poet's dream of enabling and storyworthy discourse, that is grounded in and takes off from its concern to fix the
reputation of a (dead) woman. Dido, like White, is brought to imaginative life and made into a speaking subject in Book I of the poem, but then she is forgotten, left behind, and killed off. In suicide, she confirms her proper sense of shame and, like Alcyone in the Book of the Duchess , her seemly femininity. Alcyone's powerlessness to act or do, as I argued in the last chapter, is underscored by the narrator's subtle omission of even the minimal agency that suicide requires: he just notes that she "deyde," and then uses occupatio to get on with the story. Dido's suicide is mentioned as such, but undercut as an act of any real importance by the narrator's familiar matter-of-factness: "when this was seyd and doo, / She rof hirselve to the herte, / And deyde thorgh the wounde smerte" (372–74). As in the case of Alcyone, moreover, the narrator's putative disinterest in expanding the story in certain directions is signaled by a narrative rupture, occupatio (381–82), and an intertextual allusion that at once invokes and dismisses literary precursors: "whoso to knowe hit hath purpos, / Rede Virgile . . . Or the Epistle of Ovyde" (377–79).
If White, along with the power of women and Woman that she represents, is as threatening to men and to models of meaning, in both her presence and her absence, as I have argued in the preceding chapter, then the representation of Dido serves in another way to disarm that threat. Dido, the poem insists, is generic and typical; most women aren't like White; there's no need to worry quite so much about their power or their loss. After White's all but paralyzing death and its enunciation in poetry, we are left to imagine the poet of the Book of the Duchess going on to write about other topics with "renewed creativity." The House of Fame seems to fulfill this promise. In the continuation of the dream, in Books II and III, having fixed Woman and women in a proper, typical, and inescapable position of weakness, difference, and linguistic vulnerability, the figure of the poet moves on to explore his so-called larger interest in some of the issues that implicitly arose in the interaction between the narrator and the Black Knight: his anxious verbal rivalry with male precursors and figures of authority and the struggle for power, within the institution of literature, between reader and writer.
Dido and Geffrey
To stop with this observation, however, is like stopping with the absence and textuality of the Wife of Bath or the marginality and erasure of Blanche/White. Such a partial reading, accurate as far as it goes, nevertheless occludes further dimensions of the problem that the topic of women, construed as a category, forces the author, construed as a man, to negotiate. It accedes, moreover, to the notion that Books II and III are the central portions of the poem in which Chaucer explores his more important concerns, concerns beyond the problems of gender difference and heterosexual love. The poem is to an extent strategically constructed to reinforce precisely this viewpoint. The narrator, having told Dido's story with a characteristic display of ambivalent sympathy, appears to abandon the topic of Woman and the representation of women as suddenly and completely as Aeneas sets sail for Italy. A more persistent reading of what follows can suggest, however, that it is actually impossible for the figure of the poet as represented here to leave Woman and women behind him completely, in part because femininity as Dido represents it is so obviously integral to his own nature and experience. Here too, as in the Book of the Duchess , the problem is not just what we might speak of as "the woman outside," either the perfectly unattainable and transcendent paragon, White, who resists, or the all-too-available and tempting victim, Dido, who yields. It is also "the woman inside": the fear and the demonstrated actuality, with all its attendant consequences, that gender differences may not be so clear and fixed as Dido's insistent "we wymmen" and "ye men," sealed off in Book I, would suggest. The female character's self-denigrating essentialism is demonstrably inadequate to account for the behavior and experience of the narrator of this poem, the instability or fluidity of whose gender is brought out from the beginning. Three indications of the feminization of this figure of the male poet are prominent: first, his self-characterization as a womanly type in the Proem to Book I; second, his sympathy and identification with Dido and his confirmation of the linguistic lesson she learned, too late; third, his relation to the manly (and preposterous) golden eagle of Book II. The narrator's self-representation before and during his dream undermines the simplistic, categorical and clichéd opposition of male and female enunciated and embodied by Dido. Paradoxically despite and because
of this, the poem reintroduces a fundamentally self-constructing difference between Geffrey and his female character at the close (as we now know it) of Book III.
In the Proem to Book I, the narrator presents himself as someone learned but remarkably confused about the possible causes of dreams. His hyperbolic confusion recalls the similarly foregrounded uncertainty of the narrator in the prologue to the Book of the Duchess , an uncertainty that he shared in that poem with Alcyone, and that accords with medieval assumptions about female irrationality in general. In the House of Fame , I suggest, his opening remarks quietly embed a detailed correspondence between the narrator and another legendary woman, the Wife of Bath. "For hyt is wonder, be the roode, / To my wyt, what causeth swevenes . . . " (2–3), the narrator announces, for example, at the beginning of the poem. He catalogues a wide range of possible explanations for dreams in the next fifty lines, and then simply ends this discussion by restating the initial claim and dismissing the subject:
But why the cause is, noght wot I.
Wel worthe, of this thyng, grete clerkys
That trete of this and other werkes;
For I of noon opinion
Nyl as now make mensyon . . .
The terms of this disclaimer are much like those of that similarly disingenuous strategist, the Wife of Bath, whose own opening claims for experience over authority are supported by her repeated protestations that she cannot fully understand clerkly disputation and will pit her own brand of common sense against it. Her comment on Jesus' reproof of the Samaritan who had five husbands, for instance, sounds much like the narrator's "But why the cause is, noght wot I" (HF 52): "What he mente therby, I kan nat seyn . . ." (CT 111.20).
The analogy between the narrator of the House of Fame and Chaucer's most famous female character is even more clearly brought out by his next moves in the Proem. Following his disavowal, for the moment at least ("as now") of any sure "opinion" about dreams, the narrator says that he will offer instead only the story of his own personal experience, his dream of December 10—although what follows, like the Wife's allegedly personal experience, will turn out to be a compendium of citation, a discourse constructed fairly obviously of a patchwork of authoritative,
traditional material. In concluding his proem, he prays for a blessing on all those in his audience who "take hit wel and skorne hyt noght" (91)—and a vicious curse on those who "mysdeme hyt" (97). He self-critically sums up the meanness of his sentiment: "I am no bet in charyte!" (108).
The Wife repeatedly calls attention in this same way to her mental and spiritual shortcomings. She argues, for instance, that Christ intended to recommend poverty "to hem that wolde lyve parfitly; / And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I" (CT III.111–12). One of her most notable moral imperfections, according to the General Prologue , again identifies her with the narrator of the dream-vision: when others precede her to give their offerings at church, "she was out of alle charitee" (CT I.452). She ends her tale, just as the narrator ends his Proem to Book I, with a curse on her enemies, a curse whose primitiveness and viciousness strikes me as highly similar to his: she asks that God shorten the lives of unruly husbands and "sende hem soone verray pestilence!" (CT III.1264), while the narrator of the House of Fame prays that his detractors may suffer "every harm that any man / Hath had, syth the world began" (99–100).
Assuming the chronology of composition that is usually accepted by modern scholars, the text of the House of Fame can only retrospectively bring to bear these marked parallels between male narrator and female character. But I am not arguing that the narrator is directly modeled on the Wife, or the Wife on the narrator. My point is that the Wife and Geffrey share many traits: their disingenuous claims about the limits of their own understanding; their sarcastic distinctions between their own powers of reasoning and those of clerks; their misleading citation of allegedly personal experience, although again and again they actually take on and subvert authoritative discourse; their strategic self-criticism; and their final recourse to the curse, which implies their sense that the power of language can be tapped into but is ultimately outside and above human control. In her Prologue and Tale , these traits identify the Wife, many readers seem to agree, as a stereotypically feminine being, a real woman, Chaucer's most convincing portrait of actual female experience. If so, then the same traits so prominently displayed by a male character must surely call his proper masculinity and the integrity and difference of maleness into some question.
The narrator's self-presentation in the Proem, moreover, lays a foundation for his alleged and oft-noted sympathy for Dido, which borders on a possible identification with her. For, like the narrator in the Book of
the Duchess and his Alcyone, Geffrey and his Dido share two serious worries. First, neither can trust words, nor the appearances they create, though both are eager to do so. The narrator, like Dido in her long speech, shows sound hindsight in his allegation that this woman's experience teaches an obvious lesson: "Hyt is not al gold that glareth" (272). Given this truism, he should also be forewarned that there is something glaringly wrong with his vision, at the end of Book I, of an eagle "of gold" (503; in case we miss the reference, the eagle is also compared to a sun made of gold in 506, and his feathers are "as of gold" in 530). The golden eagle's failure to provide a solid, transcendent, authoritative vision is made clear in the next episode of the dream, in Book II. The narrator will be similarly disillusioned by false appearances in Book III, from the opening moment when what looks like shining rock or glass in Fame's temple turns out to be ice. Second, even before the dreamer arrives at the House of Fame, he and Dido are both troubled by a related concern about words: both worry about what "wikke Fame" will say of them. Dido/any woman/every woman knows she will be subjected to both Fame and the wicked tongues of "peple pryvely." The narrator from the beginning is worried about his similar subjection to both the authorities of the past and the readers of the present and future, those who "mysdemen" his work, "Thorgh malicious entencion . . . thorgh presumpcion, / Or hate, or skorn, or thorgh envye, / Dispit, or jape, or vilanye" (93–96).
In Book II, the narrator's feminization is also brought out not only by his similarities to women inside or outside the poem but also by his womanish display of fear, passivity, and speechlessness and by his subordination to a manly figure who at once terrifies him and gives him great pleasure. The golden eagle speaks "In mannes vois" and with all the authority of those "grete clerkes" from whom the narrator dissociates himself in the Proem. Geffrey's position throughout Book II, by contrast, is almost completely passive and submissive to the authority of his guide. Literally he is seized "as I were a larke" (546) by the "grymme pawes stronge" (541) of the eagle; he is all but overcome with "drede, / That al my felynge gan to dede" (551–52); later he sweats with fear (1042). He is also all but silenced by the eagle's authoritative discourse and responds to his captor/mentor's long speeches mostly in monosyllables. But he is
impressed as well as petrified by the eagle's manly voice of authority. Near the end of his flight, just after he has been shown the Milky Way and given its mythological explanation, the dreamer expresses his delight in the new heights, literal and figurative, to which the eagle's discourse carries him: "He gan alway upper to sore, / And gladded me ay more and more, / So feythfully to me spak he" (961–63).
Is the golden eagle, then, the man that Aeneas wasn't—a faithful speaker who can bring true pleasure to the fearful narrator in the dream of a homosocial relationship wherein the narrator plays the part of the woman? Most modern readers have said no, for they see the eagle as "tiresome" and "windy," and some have suggested that the dreamer's silence during the flight is a sign less of fear than of disinterest, boredom, or growing disenchantment. The narrator, however, never explicitly voices a critique of the eagle but leaves that to his audience. Within the dream, his self-proclaimed feelings of pleasure and his apparent susceptibility to a powerful authority that also terrifies and silences him resemble, again, the feelings of many of Chaucer's female characters—like Criseyde, another "sely larke" (TC III.1191), and her dream of silent submission to an experience that ought to be painful but is actually thrilling, and that incidentally also involves a manly eagle.
The problem of his feminization is also implicated and illuminated in the dreamer's curious refusal, a few lines later, to learn more about the stars, a refusal of supposedly higher, truer knowledge, of things beyond the power of normal human vision—and a refusal, the allusions of the poem suggest, that markedly differentiates the dreamer from certain mythic male heroes. He explains his demurral by saying that he will believe what is written, and that to look at the stars "shulde shenden al my syghte" (1016). At this point, the dreamer seems to fear the heights to which other men, as the eagle already pointed out, have fatally aspired; we are even higher, the eagle tells him (914 ff.), than Alexander, or Scipio, or Daedalus and Icarus. In other words, he fears the pride of men, particularly men in the mythical role of sons, who wish to surpass their fathers, to see for themselves what lies beyond the limits set for human understanding; he does not imagine himself to be like Scipio, able to have a transcendent vision.
At this point, and especially in thus ostensively settling for faith in authority as opposed to his own confirming or transcendent vision, the dreamer's characterization brings out the paradoxical double bind of proper masculinity as it is often normatively defined in Western culture and the deep and complex feminization that is involved in the very reliance on authority that authoritative discourse recommends. Authoritarian arguments espouse the possibility of one truth, of fixed and absolute standards; moreover, they assume that enlightened individuals will see and agree on this truth and these standards. Practically, however, they tend to measure enlightenment in terms of orthodoxy, and they require submission, a passive acceptance of authorized doctrine, in lieu of an individual quest for truth. As the stories of Icarus and Phaeton suggest, the son who takes the power allegedly given into his own hands by the father is never strong enough or wise enough to control it; the individual ambition and personal aspiration of sons is, in these myths, quite literally suicidal. (The alternative tragedy for men is the Oedipal fate.) There is an inherent flaw or trap, then, in theories of patriarchy. And so in fact the man who respects authority, who is a good and faithful reader and learns his lesson well—a good Christian, and a man like the dreamer in Book II, at least—in one regard forfeits masculinity. To choose experience, as women like the Wife are said to do, is to run great risks, and in Book II there seems to be little to gain by doing so.
By the end of Book II, in the ways I have suggested, Geffrey's complex feminization has become dear and is part and parcel of the problem that the dream seems designed to work out. The simple, generic, essentializing opposition between a/any/every man and woman that the story of Dido and Aeneas enforces and embodies is falsified both by the narrator's self-characterization and by his experience within the dream. No wonder that this unstably gendered narrator, whose own telling of the Dido story seems to bring out the innate and inevitable opposition of men and women, is confused, unable to take a stance or to make the sources or signification of his dream dear and single. Book I suggests that at some level he would like to endorse accepted views of gender difference, just as he would like to take pleasure in the golden authority that glitters in the form of the eagle. But both his self-presentation in the
Proem to Book I and his experience in the dream either belie the conventional wisdom about men and women or prove that he is an unnatural man. Thus it is in this man's likeness to women, in his femininity or perhaps androgyny, that the narrator differs from, and is superior to, Dido. The womanly Dido sees "we wymmen" and "ye men" as innately different and inevitably antagonistic, and she firmly endorses her own subjugation within the totalizing category of women. The unmanly, sympathetic narrator, by contrast, articulates in his self-representation the ambiguity and fluidity of gender, which become readable as the possibility of transcending the problems of gender and heterosexual relations altogether. The woman loses her name, even as her reputation is fixed; the poet puts into play his proper name even as he flaunts its fictive status (that is, as he names himself a character within his fiction) and proclaims his independence and individuality. In Book III, in particular, as the dreamer displays a more openly iconoclastic, less submissive attitude toward authority, his difference from Dido becomes even more overt and even more enabling, for the ambiguity that proves fatal for Dido is comprehended by the narrator's claim to artful, creative evasion and subjectivity.
At the end of Book III, the narrator specifically claims to escape the submission to the feminine figure, the powerful, unreliable Fame, that Dido abhors but accepts. By disavowing any interest in or subjection to Fame, he differentiates himself from women like Dido and resists that feminine and feminizing power to which poets in particular are subjected. Dido's final words in Book I, quoted earlier, simply acknowledge
that she is now the helpless and hopeless victim of "wikke Fame" (349). The dreamer, by contrast, emerges from his absorbed vision of the pageant of the nine petitioning groups with a clear and firm declaration of his independence. Asked by the unnamed "frend" if he has come to Fame's court to get some for himself, he denies it vigorously:
"Nay, for sothe, frend," quod y;
"I cam noght hyder, graunt mercy,
For no such cause, by my hed!
Sufficeth me, as I were ded,
That no wight have my name in honde.
I wot myself best how y stonde;
For what I drye, or what I thynke,
I wil myselen al hyt drynke,
Certeyn, for the more part,
As fer forth as I kan myn art."
In this passage many commentators have heard Chaucer the poet proclaiming the authority of art and the individual author. In Gellrich's words (although not in specific reference to this passage), Chaucer is alleging that "the 'origin' for knowledge in the poem can only be the text itself." Fictional language—the "craft" that Chaucer practices—"is its own authority . . . and its author (notwithstanding his testimony to the 'soth' of what he 'sawgh') a creation of the text, a pure fiction, and even given a name—in order to sever finally the anonymous myth of the Book from the only authority the poem can have—'Geffrey.' " Miller also cites this passage directly and reads it as "the final and firmest expression of faith in self as artist—as principle of conception, judgment, and interpretation—that the narrator delivers," although she goes on to emphasize, in contrast to Gellrich, that the "tone of confidence," strongest here, is still only fleeting, one swing of the pendulum that carries the poet back and forth between "forthright independence" and "self-effacing subservience."
Miller also mentions the echo, in the narrator's reference to "myn art," of Dido's earlier admission of powerlessness, "We wrechched wymmen konne noon art . . . " (335). Pointing to the contrast between the dreamer's claims for authorial independence (temporary, in her view)
and Dido's self-denial of her own authority, Miller sees both passages as part of "a unit where denial and assertion of autonomy become inextricably, almost reciprocally merged." Insofar as the relation between Dido and Geffrey does form a "unit" bespeaking the fluidity of gender boundaries—for one of them, the man—by highlighting the narrator's own womanliness, and insofar as the narrator's resistance to his feminization is strategically incomplete, I agree with Miller's reading. It leaves out, however, the gendered distinction between Geffrey's assertion and Dido's denial, the one certainty that the poem affirms. Dido, here as always, emphasizes that her lack of control, her lack of art, is an inescapable condition of her gender: she speaks, again, only as one of an invariable class, "We wrechched wymmen . . . Thus we be served everychone ." The dreamer's claim, whether we see it with Miller as temporary or with Gellrich as final and complete, affirms his autonomy and subjectivity as an individual, whatever his gender or whatever the uncertainty thereof. Thus he differs from Dido and claims that, feminized as he is by circumstances and perhaps by predilection, he is finally not a woman, and not like women/any woman/every woman. He lays claim, in telling his own dream, to both a position of subjectivity, by contrast to the archetypal woman's subjugation, and again a proper name: precisely what Dido, of course, has lost, and what Gellrich understands to be so important to the authority of poetry and the fictiveness of poets: "even given a name."
In Book I, it is ironically the otherwise arbitrary and wicked Fame who allegedly inscribes what Dido herself avows as the only certain truth: the repeated, inevitable story of woman's seduction and abandonment, about which "everything is wyste." But the evasive narrator cannot and will not be seduced and abandoned or subjected to judgment; he alone remains covered in a truly enabling, self-created mist. Instead of being taken in by ambiguity, like Dido (and later others, most notably Criseyde), he takes it into his self-representation. In complicated gestures of submission and resistance to male authorities that play with and thereby play out his own femininity and his own name, he leaves Dido behind (for now) and distinguishes his career from hers. Thus he lays claim through the very act of sympathetically representing a woman to the authority of his own imagination and discourse. As he says in introducing the self-incriminating dialogue he invents for Dido:
In suche wordes gan to pleyne
Dydo of hir grete peyne,
As me mette redely;
Non other auctour alegge I.
Better the open-ended silence at the (in)conclusion of the House of Fame , better by far the resolution to hold on to and play with the name "Geffrey" (the more fictive, the better), than the capacity to speak, like the kind of fiction of Woman that Dido represents here, only in the first person plural.