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.