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.