Reading, Knowing, And Making
There is in the Legend no single named generative text, as there were in the Book of the Duchess and the Parliament of Fowls, to provoke a dream or to provide thematic material. Instead, there is tradition at large, literary tradition as a source of information, or at least of stories about all sorts of things:
Of holynesse, of regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sondry thynges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersynges.
The poem starts neither with tradition nor with the search for information, however, but with something more basic. Chaucer
backs up to take a long running leap at literary tradition, and so must I in approaching the question I have posed about reading and writing.
The poem opens with an epistemological inquiry: how do we know, and what are the sources of knowledge? This is a reader's problem, for it seeks out the rules governing the reception, interpretation, and evaluation of propositions:
A thousand tymes have I herd men telle
That ther ys joy in hevene and peyne in helle,
And I acorde wel that it ys so:
But, natheless, yet wot I wel also
That ther nis noon dwellyng in this contree
That eyther hath in hevene or helle ybe,
Ne may of hit noon other weyes witen
But as he hath herd seyd, or founde it writen;
For by assay ther may no man it preve.
The nature of evidence had preoccupied the medieval intelligentsia since the mid twelfth century, when Latin translations of Aristotle and of Aristotle's Arabic commentators brought to the attention of Christian Europe a worldview considerably more rationalist and materialist than that of Christianity. In the Sophist, Plato describes the conflict of idealism and materialism as a perennial gigantomachy, a battle that "rages, as it has always raged, with unabated fury" (246C). In the high and late Middle Ages, this unabated fury took the form of book-burnings, excommunications, heresy trials, and lists of books banned by the Church from university curricula. Yet these tactics were far from effective, and others were devised than open warfare. Some scholars accepted from classical and Arabic philosophy what harmonized with Christianity, rejecting the rest; others attempted to produce a synthesis by christianizing Aristotle; still others took Aristotle as he was but severed philosophy from faith. The work of Aristotle and, eventually, of those who went beyond Aristotle, flourished in the universities of France, England, Germany, and eastern Europe.
Without being a university-trained intellectual, Chaucer was nonetheless well placed to appreciate some of the important philosophical issues of his day in their empirical manifestations, particularly as these related to the nature of evidence. The problem of
faith versus experience was posed in the most immediate way by several major disasters of the period. The defeat of the Crusade movement toward the end of the previous century showed (or might be construed to show) that Christian faith does not necessarily suffice in combat against pagan hordes. Later, one did not have to be an intellectual, or even literate, to observe that the Black Plague that swept Europe in several waves beginning in 1349 made no discrimination of good or evil, just or unjust, baptized or unbaptized. And anyone might feel the deleterious impact upon faith of two (indeed, at one point, three) competing popes with their bureaucracies in Rome and Avignon after 1378. What was the moral and historical meaning of these fiascoes? Was retributive justice a valid concept? What was the value of a virtuous life, the efficacy of one's priest or of confession, the nature of evidence, demonstration, authority, or truth? These questions were not limited to clerics or professional philosophers, but were of concern to the populations of Europe, "lerned and lewed."
Chaucer would have had a more intimate appreciation of these issues than many, for during the hair-raising events that precipitated the Great Schism of 1378, he was in Italy, part of an English team negotiating with Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan and old enemy of popes and priests. Visconti's niece Violante had married Chaucer's former patron Prince Lionel in 1368, and it is possible Chaucer attended the wedding in Milan. Visconti's militarism had made him one of the most powerful men in Italy and a threat to the Papal States. He had been excommunicated as a heretic in 1363 by Urban V, who also—in what Barbara Tuchman calls "one of the century's more futile gestures" (249)—preached a crusade against him. Visconti was a not unsuitable ally for the English, who—although loyal to the Roman pope, Urban VI, during the schism—were generally resentful of papal interference in domestic ecclesiastical affairs. The schism was exclusively a political event, with no doctrinal content whatever, and although the English were not negotiating the schism, still ecclesiastical politics must have been very much on Chaucer's mind.
Not for the first time, either, for it is likely Chaucer was acquainted with the doctrines of John Wyclif—perhaps with Wyclif himself, at least in passing. During the 1370s, Wyclif was a zealous proselytizer for subversive anti-papalist doctrines such as had pre-
viously been expounded by Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. This was precisely what recommended him to the English ruling elite as a theoretician and propagandist of national independence from papal supremacy. Wyclif entered the royal service in the early 1370s. He was present as a spectator at the 1371 Parliament; subsequently he was the king's chaplain and a protégé of John of Gaunt's. In 1374 he was among the king's envoys in negotiations with a papal delegation in Bruges. Wyclif had followers, the socalled "Lollard Knights," among Chaucer's friends and colleagues at court, and Michael Wilks claims that Wycliffism was, during the 1370s, "a court-centered movement ¼ the expression of an officially approved reform programme, which carried the seal of royal authentification" (65–67). Moreover, Wyclif's ideas were frequently preached in London churches during the 1370s and 1380s, both by himself and by other priests, so that Chaucer would have had ample opportunity to encounter them; indeed, he would have been unable to ignore them. In short, Wyclif was genuinely part of the Chaucerian milieu for close to a decade: the decade usually considered formative for Chaucer the poet. Wyclif's ideas, far from being abstruse academic or theological theories, were in favor by reason of their applicability to the relations between Church and state. Had the ruling elite taken Wyclif's advice to its conclusions, the English Reformation might have occurred a century and a half before it did, for Wyclif supported the disendowment of Church properties—a not-unpopular idea in France at the time either. There is no hard evidence that Chaucer supported Wyclif's doctrines, even during the period of Wyclif's popularity at court, but there is every reason to believe that Wyclif and his London followers conveyed key contemporary issues of faith, experience, and tradition to Chaucer. As we shall see in Chapters 2 and 3, it is equally likely, too, that Wycliffite literary activity helped focus Chaucer's concern about matters of translation and interpretation.
Another fairly obvious channel for such issues was the "philosophical Strode" addressed, at the end of Troilus (5.1857), along
with "moral Gower" as a special patron spirit of the poem. Ralph Strode was a friend and critic of Wyclif, fellow of Merton College before 1360, and, according to Robinson, "an eminent Thomist philosopher and authority on logic" whose works are now for the most part lost, although some responses to them exist in Wyclif's work. Robinson makes a case for identifying the scholarly Ralph Strode with the lawyer Ralph Strode who lived in London and who was associated with Chaucer during the 1370s and 1380s. The dedication is, I suggest, more than a gesture of goodwill toward a learned colleague, for it is possible to see Troilus as an exploration of key philosophical problems at Oxford of the previous generation (i.e., Strode's generation): a medieval "Philosophy in the Bedroom" if you will. Troilus's agonized question "If no love is, O God, what fele I so?" (1.400) has impeccable literary roots in a sonnet of Petrarch's, but it is nonetheless, for any scholar, a serious philosophical question, raising not only the problem of universals but also those of cognition and will. Elsewhere, the characters implicitly and explicitly pose several important questions about "entente" (will, intention). Has will a cognitive function? Does will preserve its independence despite its dependence on God? Is it possible to measure the intensity of will, especially in the context of love? As Konstanty Michalski shows, these were three prime problems explored by Oxford philosophers in the second and third quarters of the century, and if Chaucer was able to shape the courtly erotic romance to accommodate them, that is further affirmation of his consummate art.
That there is joy in heaven and pain in hell is what one hears and reads but can never prove by logic or experimentation. The impossibility of verification opens the way to strict empirical skepticism, for one might wish simply to dismiss the unverifiable. This possibility the Narrator rejects with horror:
But God forbede but men shulde leve
Wel more thing then men han seen with ye!
Men shal not wenen every thing a lye
But yf himself yt seeth, or elles dooth;
For, God wot, thing is never the lasse sooth,
Thogh every wight ne may it nat ysee.
Bernard the monk ne saugh nat all, pardee!
The passage echoes John 20:29: "Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.'"
But it also echoes real philosophical controversies of the period. The nature of visual perception was a major topic in European and English universities during the fourteenth century. In fact, the bold investigation of vision theory, with its skeptical and empirical tendencies (or its deviations and distortions, as the more conservative said), was distinctively and notoriously English. Richard de Bury—bibliophile, bishop of Durham, and lord chancellor of England—boasted of his countrymen's tendencies and influence when he wrote, in Philobiblon (1344), of English perspicacity ("Anglicana perspicacitas") and of the English subtleties ("Anglicanas subtilitates"), which, publicly condemned, were furtively pursued at night. A far more hostile attitude was expressed by Petrarch, who met Bury at Avignon during the years of papal residency there (1309–78, the so-called "Babylonian captivity"). Petrarch showed little of the British cleric's enthusiasm for dialectic. His attitude toward it resembled that of George Bernard Shaw toward socialism: the man who does not follow it at twenty has no heart, the man who still follows it after forty has no brain. Writing (about 1350) to Tomasso Caloiro da Messina, a friend from his student days in Bologna, Petrarch conceded that dialectic is "not a useless armor for those stepping into the thorny way of the philosophers. It rouses the intellect, marks a way of truth, teaches the deceits to be shunned. In short, if nothing else, it makes men resolute and very keen¼ . But," warns Petrarch,
a place we pass through once and enjoy is not a place where we can justifiably linger; just as indeed it is insane for a pilgrim to forget the goal of his journey because of the pleasantness of the road. And who among us is not a pilgrim? ¼ Dialectic can be part of the journey; but it is certainly not its goal¼ . If as old people we are unable to abandon the school of dialectic because we had fun with it as youngsters, we should not be ashamed by that same token either to play the
game of odds and evens or ride on a trembling reed or be rocked in the cradle of children.
Petrarch considered British dialecticians responsible for this folly, which had now infected even Sicily:
Where will we flee from the presence of these madmen if even the islands are not safe from them? Can it be that neither Scylla nor Charybdis kept the passage of this plague from Sicily? Indeed it has now become a pestilence peculiar to the islands that to the ranks of British dialecticians is now being added the swarms of new Cyclopes from Aetna.
Whether or not Petrarch knew the dialecticians' work directly, nonetheless, as a courtier at Avignon, where various doctrines were examined, tried, and condemned, he was well placed to know something about the potentially subversive inclinations of the British.
English logic, natural philosophy, and the new theology they generated constituted, in the fourteenth century, an international tradition derived largely from the immensely influential work of the English Franciscan William of Ockham. Although the label "Ockhamist" did not exist at Oxford as it did at Paris, nonetheless William Courtenay reminds us that throughout the century, "Ockham's name and ideas did remain at the forefront of philosophical and theological discussion. He was in no sense forgotten or ignored¼ . The elements [of his epistemology] that best survived ¼ continued to make Ockham controversial in the more conservative atmosphere of Oxford in the 1360's and 1370's" (107). Some of the more radical scholarly formulations of this tradition show that Chaucer was by no means operating in an intellectual void when he composed the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. Given the internationalism and ease of diffusion in this intellectual milieu, almost any text will serve to illustrate the tendencies within it. I have chosen one that is fairly close in its concerns to those of the opening lines of the Prologue. It is by Gottschalk of Pomuk, a Cistercian of the 1360s, on the impossibility of proving either the
existence of God, or the original creative act, or eternal blessedness of heaven or pain in hell. The passage is excerpted by Michalski from Gottschalk's commentary on Lombard's Sentences :
Nullus viator potest naturaliter demonstrare aliquem articulum fidei¼ . Tertio infero, quod beatitudinem nostram finalem non potest aliquis naturaliter probare ¼ , quia est mere creata et probatur est ex alio, quia si posset naturaliter probari, quod justi praemiabuntur post hanc vitam, eodem modo posset probari naturaliter, quod mali punirentur post hanc vitam. Sed hoc non, quia hoc videtur repugnare rationi naturali ¼ , quod aliquis cruciatur ardoribus in perpetuum. (247)
No one [lit.: no pilgrim] can by natural means demonstrate any article of faith¼ . Third, I infer that our final blessedness cannot be naturally proved by anyone ¼ , because man is merely a creature and it is proved on other premises, so that if it could be proved by natural means that the just are rewarded after this life, it could be shown by the same natural means that the bad are punished after this life. But this can't be done ¼ , because it seems to oppose natural reason ¼ , that anyone should be confined to flames forever.
The empirical attitude was confined neither to England nor to university-clerical intellectuals. It filtered down, partly through the example and pressure of events, as noted above, partly through the very interpenetrated relations of ecclesiastical and lay life, courtly and urban life, courtly and university life. One instance will have to suffice for many. Marie-Christine Pouchelle writes brilliantly of Philippe le Bel's surgeon Henri de Mondeville, who composed a treatise on surgery during the first quarter of the fourteenth century. Mondeville's polemical aim was to overcome the then-dominant contempt for surgery as a particularly dirty manual craft—that is, to overcome the theory-practice split in contemporary medicine that elevated physicians at the expense of surgeons, the diagnostic function over the operative. To do so, Mondeville had to rehabilitate the senses—hand and eye—as means of knowledge, and thus risk contradicting a long and authoritative medical tradition not founded in experiment or detailed observation. At one point he writes:
Ce sujet étant donc litigieux et obscur, j'ai songé à procéder d'après l'observation sensibiliter et grosso modo équoique ce ne soit pas en accord avec les auteurs et les practiciens, ni pêut-etre avec la vérité. (44)
This subject [diseases of the skin] being disputed and obscure, I decided to proceed according to observation empirically and crudely ¼ although this may not be in accord with [medical] authorities and practitioners, nor perhaps with truth.
Noteworthy in this short but poignant passage is that its author continues to reserve the word "truth" for the theoretical formulations he knows are "wrong"—that is, in conflict with his own observations. But his medical practice will be on the basis of personal observation nonetheless. It is, in its own way, the doctrine of two truths on a small, intimate, and accessible scale.
If empirical skepticism questions all but the sensible, an even more radical extension of the impulse is what one might call "idealist skepticism": to question the existence not only of the unseen but of the seen, for how can there be any certain knowledge except of one's own consciousness ("soul")? As Etienne Gilson summarizes the position:
If God can conserve in us the intuition of something that is not actually existing [e.g., in dream, hallucination, or miracle], how shall we ever be sure that what we are perceiving as real is an actually existing thing? In other words, if it is possible for God to make us perceive as real an object that does not really exist, have we any proof that this world of ours is not a vast phantasmagoria behind which there is no reality to be found? (80)
Such extremism was fashionable in Chaucer's day at Oxford, Paris, and other European universities, where some enthusiasts of the socalled "Ockham's razor" had taken a fairly sensible rationalist caveat to the point of absurdity. This was especially the case in connection with the nominalist notion of the perfect freedom of God's will; for if God has both absolute freedom and absolute power, then he can at any moment alter any physical phenomenon or moral law. Therefore it is not a necessary and self-evident assertion that fire will burn wood, that incest is bad or honesty good, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and so on. Neither causal nor predictive assertions can be accurately (i.e., certainly) made. No thing can be demonstrated to be absolutely and eternally better than any other thing. The only possible first principle is "If something exists, something exists" (Si aliquid est, aliquid est).
Similar positions were advanced in what has been called "the
most famous discussion of cognition at Paris in the 1330's," the debate by correspondence between Nicholas of Autrecourt and a respected Franciscan scholar and teacher, Bernard of Arezzo. Bernard's side of the correspondence does not survive, and all we have of it is two of the nine letters of Nicholas. From this scant evidence, scholars deduce that Nicholas defended a somewhat moderated skepticism against arguments by Bernard that he, Nicholas, believed were an inadequate defense against complete skepticism. The debate centered on vision, as was common in epistemological discussions derived from the Ockhamist tradition (cf. McGrade). Apparently Bernard had stated propositions whose logical consequence would be the denial of any certitude about anything at all. The implication of Bernard's position was, according to Nicholas, that
you must say that you are not certain of those things which are outside of you. And thus you do not know if you are in the heavens or on the earth, in fire or water; and consequently you do not know whether today's sky is the same one as yesterday's, because you do not know whether the sky exists. Just as you do not know whether the chancellor or the Pope exists, and whether, if they exist, they are different in each moment of time. Similarly, you do not know the things within you—as, whether or not you have a beard, a head, hair, and so forth. And a fortiori it follows from this that you are not certain of the things which occurred in the past—as, whether you have been reading, or seeing, or hearing. Further, your position seems to lead to the destruction of social and political affairs, because if witnesses testify of what they have seen, it does not follow, "We have seen it, therefore it happened." Again, I ask how, on this view, the Apostles were certain that Christ suffered on the cross, and that He rose from the dead, and so with all the rest.
To avert these dreadful consequences, Nicholas affirmed the cognitive and evidential validity of the five senses and of formal experiment, while limiting the kinds of inference that can be made from
such evidence. In other words, although we may be sure that the sun rose today, we predict its rising tomorrow only as a probability based on experience, but not as an absolutely certain truth.
Whether the propositions on either side were made "in earnest or in game" is hard to judge, for when summoned to Avignon to be examined for heresy, Nicholas claimed that he had engaged in disputation only to show that very startling assertions could be made without logical contradiction, and that his logical speculations were possible but not probable. In 1347 he publicly recanted his positions in a sermon in Paris and burnt his own theses and tractate. "His moderation," Hastings Rashdall writes, "was not unrewarded. In 1348—two years after his condemnation—he is Dean of Metz, and the friends who shared his errors seem for the most part to have likewise achieved satisfactory ecclesiastical careers" (5). Obviously, many who flirted with philosophical radicalism were satisfactorily reintegrated into the establishment, though its initiator and best-known spokesman, William of Ockham, died unreconciled with the Catholic Church, while some of Ockham's serious followers, like Hus, died at the hands of the Church. Still, Autrecourt's story suggests the currency and the availability of the new ideas. I do not want to make overmuch of the attractive coincidence of name, topic, and philosophical orientation, but the traditional identification of Chaucer's "Bernard the monk" ("Bernard the monk ne saugh nat all, pardee!" [F 16]) with St. Bernard of Clairvaux has always struck me as rather tenuous. This is because the saint was so much more than a monk; because the acerbic tone of the line implies a criticism; and because the philosophical content of Chaucer's passage seems to require a rather more controversial figure than an orthodox and canonized eleventh-century theologian. However, since nothing can be proved, I rest content with nominating a candidate who, even though he was a friar rather than a monk, has as good credentials as many another Bernard.
When Nicholas of Autrecourt conceded, at his examination for heresy, that his propositions were logically possible but not probable, and when he was able therefore to conclude that "we should adhere to the Law of Christ, and believe that reward and punishment take place in the way in which it is expressed in the sacred law," he availed himself of the so-called "doctrine of two truths" or "leap of faith" that enabled many medieval (and later) intellectuals
to pursue their logical investigations while maintaining their status as Christians. It is essentially the same solution that Chaucer came up with in the House of Fame : to evade evident contradiction or a difficult choice by asserting faith:
"Y wot wel y am here;
But wher in body or in gost
I not ywys; but God, thou wost!"
These lines exemplify the fideistic paradigm, and so do the first twenty-eight lines of the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. The Narrator has already rejected a thoroughgoing skepticism and asserted (10–16) that where we do not know, there we must believe. We are warned, therefore, against the inadequacy of mere personal experience, mere phenomenology, as a basis for judgment. To rely on personal experience alone is to risk vulgar empiricism and solipsism; the antidote is faith.
Let us inquire at this point what the epistemology set out in the first sixteen lines of the Prologue (both F and G versions) means for the portrayal of women that is to come. It implies, first, that in general there is more than meets the eye. I do not mean this in the narrowly cynical sense that "women are deceptive," particularly not in a text that shows quite amply the deceptiveness of men. The implication is larger: no one's personal experience of human nature can be definitive, for no one sees everything. Furthermore, conjecture about the past, its events and personalities, is an unverifiable hypothesis, "For by assay ther may no man it preve" (9). History, as Hayden White has it, is necessarily "metahistory." From these principles enunciated in the poem's opening lines, then, we might legitimately deduce a very nuanced, and possibly ironic, treatment of the individual stories to follow, a treatment making fairly free with its sources.
What can be done to supplement the inadequacy of experience just stated? The second movement of the Prologue offers what appears to be a solution. "Than mote we to bokes that we fynde," the Narrator continues,
Thurgh whiche that olde thinges ben in mynde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeve credence, in every skylful wise ¼
And yf that olde bokes were aweye,
Yloren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel ought us thanne honouren and beleve
These bokes, there we han noon other preve.
This is a key (important) passage in its proposal of a key (solution) to the skeptical puzzle. In Middle English pronunciation, the word key and the letter k were exactly homophonic; moreover, the written letter as it appears in manuscripts closely resembles a late-medieval key with its handle and teeth. For whatever reason, the passage evidently struck a chord. John Lydgate, in a couplet echoing this Chaucerian locus, wrote,
For yiff pennys & writyng were a-way,
Off remembraunce we had lost the kay.
This is the passage that commended itself also to a younger noble contemporary of Chaucer. Edward Langley, second duke of York, dedicated his Master of the Game (a translation of a French hunting manual) to King Henry IV, justifying his literary effort with these words:
And for I ne wold that his hunters ne yours that now be or shuld come here aftir weren unknowe in the profitenesse [should probably read "parfitnesse"] of this art for thi shall I leve this symple memorial ffor as Chaucer saith in this prologe of the xxv good wymmen. Be wryteng have men of ymages passed for writyng is the keye of alle good remembraunce. (Spurgeon, 1: 18)
In practical matters as well as metaphysical ones, textual authority must take over when experience falters.
In the Legend, the leap of faith is to books, secular books, and in noting this we note a subtle but significant tactical shift in the terms of discussion. The poem opened with heaven and hell—doctrinal matters to be adjudicated by Scripture and its ecclesiastically approved supplements and interpreters. Now the subject is history as it appears in secular books of various genres whether hagiography, encyclopedia, chronicle, epic, or romance—that is, books telling
"Of holynesse, of regnes, of victories, / Of love¼ ." With this maneuver Chaucer removes himself from the potentially hazardous arena of theological speculation. It is a discreet move, for medieval ecclesiastics and their allies were not always receptive to the notion of an author-narrator or author-character distinction, as the letters of Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan would show a few years later in the "querelle de la rose." Nor is it, we might add, a distinction that the Narrator raises in his own defense against the God of Love, though something like it is broached when Alceste adduces the fact that the Narrator had only translated what others wrote, "as thogh that he ¼ had himself it wroght" (F 371–72).
The shift to history is also a move that eases us into the fiction about to begin, for it motivates the presentation of the Narrator as bookworm, much as we have seen him in the first two dreamvisions. Yet the extreme enthusiasm for written tradition evinced here might well give us pause, might well generate some suspicion, if we take seriously both the lesson of the House of Fame and the implications of the opening movement of the Legend. The relativism expressed in both places suggests that books simply cannot bear the epistemological load placed on them here. Such a conclusion is supported by the trial scene further on in the Prologue. The God of Love's angry response to Troilus and to Chaucer's translation of the Roman de la rose shows the extent to which "meaning is in the reader," as a proponent of contemporary affective stylistics might say. At the same time, Alceste's defense of the Narrator-poet challenges any easy assumptions about the motivation of critics (F 350–61) or of authors (F 362–72). Envy, stupidity, complaisance, or sheer opportunism may play a role. Alceste shows that assorted subjective and circumstantial factors may affect the production and reception of texts. Given all this, it becomes difficult to accept the Narrator's confession of "feyth and ful credence" in books as a sincere Chaucerian credo, and I shall show in the next chapters that the treatment of tradition in the legends justifies our suspicion here. It is worth noting, too, that while F remains fairly subtle, G text is quite overt in broadly hinting its subversive intention. There the Narrator claims he will translate "many a story ¼ / As autours seyn," but caps his couplet with the arch warning "leveth hem if yow leste!" (G 87–88).
The Narrator begins as reader, but his concerns soon shift to
authorial ones with the introduction of the daisy, which alone can lure him from his books. The intensity of his devotion to the flower triggers an apparent crisis of confidence: "Allas, that I ne had Englyssh, ryme or prose, / Suffisant this flour to preyse aryght!" (F 66–67). With this, the poet (whether Narrator or Chaucer is immaterial) bursts out of the naïve-scholar persona like Superman from a phone booth, for these words, although imitated in part from Boccaccio's Filostrato, inaugurate a thirty-line passage of striking self-awareness and poetic power. Doubting his ability to do poetic justice to his emotion or its object, the Narrator abases himself before the memory of his predecessors, the great love poets. (They are not named, but a list might include Ovid, Dante, Petrarch and possibly other stilnuovisti, Boccaccio, perhaps Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, and, among Chaucer's contemporaries at the French court, Deschamps, Froissart, and Machaut.)
But helpeth, ye that han konnyng and myght,
Ye lovers that kan make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whethir ye ben with the leef or with the flour.
For wel I wot that ye han her-biforn
Of makyng ropen, and lad awey the corn,
And I come after, glenyng here and there,
And am ful glad yf I may fynde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.
And thogh it happen me rehercen eft
That ye han in your fresshe songes sayd,
Forbereth me, and beth nat evele apayd,
Syn that ye see I do yt in the honour
Of love, and eke in service of the flour
Whom that I serve as I have wit or myght.
Will the Narrator-poet survive in the English tradition as an important and original author, or merely as minor and derivative? Implicit in this agony of influence is the problem of whether such vulnerability to precursors supplants or taints one's own passion. What is the relation of rhetoric and desire, books and nature, tradition and the individual talent?
Help is at hand, again, in a fideistic resolution. This allows the Narrator to transcend the dilemma of originality versus imitation by
shifting responsibility to the daisy, which, as his muse, controls the Narrator's creativity:
She is the clernesse and the verray lyght
That in this derke world me wynt and ledeth.
The hert in-with my sorwfull brest yow dredeth
And loveth so sore that ye ben verrayly
The maistresse of my wit, and nothing I.
My word, my werk ys knyt so in youre bond
That, as an harpe obeieth to the hond
And maketh it soune after his fyngerynge,
Ryght so mowe ye oute of myn herte bringe
Swich vois, ryght as yow lyst, to laughe or pleyne.
Be ye my gide and lady sovereyne!
As to myn erthly god to yow I calle,
Bothe in this werk and in my sorwes alle.
It is a perfect example of self-reflexive subversion, for while the central question in the passage concerns the poet's talent and whether or not he is a world-class maker, the intensity and virtuosity of the passage answer this question unequivocally in the affirmative, showing us what it modestly pretends to deny. It is, after all, about as genuinely modest as the ending of Troilus, where, as Talbot Donaldson commented, Chaucer manages to transmute the modesty topos "into something close to arrogance." The poet is even confident enough to rupture his own fictional illusion, for he refers to "this work" when the work has not yet been generated in the narrative.
The richness of this passage, and indeed of the entire Prologue, is such that discussion of it will appear in other connections further on. I use it here to note that the passage serves to jolt the Prologue from readerly into writerly concerns, the narrative persona from scholar to poet. That is where the balance rests throughout the Prologue, whose narrative is about the trial, defense, and expiation of a poet, a well-known and popular poet with a very considerable body of work behind him. The Narrator as poet is not only defended by Alceste, but he is sufficiently confident to defend himself (F 455–74), and with a great deal more dignity than Alceste's de-
fense allows. He concedes nothing to the God of Love but claims, contrary to the accusation, that he has in fact furthered the cause of love in both Troilus and the Roman translation. But his defense does no good, and expiation will be required. It is to write "a glorious legende / Of goode wymmen, maydenes and wyves, / That weren trewe in lovyng al hire lyves" (F 483–85). From this long dream of a prologue, the G text has the poet awake in the penultimate line. F has no awakening; instead its final couplet blends book and dream, tradition and subjectivity, in the act of composition:
And with that word my bokes gan I take,
And ryght thus on my Legende gan I make.
Yet both endings culminate in an assertion of authorial power. Both include a proud possessive designation of the text to follow, both include the minimal sentence "I make" as last assertion, both place the verb "make" in key position as last word in last line. What this confident author (whether Narrator or Chaucer is, again, immaterial) goes on to show us is that as reading writer, as writing reader, he has entered into the literary tradition far enough to be able now to put his mark upon it, to rework it and rewrite it to his own far-from-simple ends.