Clothing The Text: Thisbe
More prominently than other Chaucerian works, the Legend of Good Women foregrounds the carrying over of learning (translalio studii ). In its opening lines and throughout, the poem poses the question of how the modern poet can or ought to use ancient material transmitted through a filter of grammatical and moral glosses, rhetorical amplification, and conflicting interpretation. What is the truth of such a mixed tradition, the weight of any given authority? What is it possible to know, and how may the maker judge? Although we are given no explicit answers, the answers are implied in Chaucer's poetic practice, which opts for heterogeneity of sources and multiplicity of meanings, hence suspended judgment: the very reverse, we may note, of a "naked text." I shall begin with the legend of Thisbe as my paradigm, and then turn to the other legends.
The Thisbe material came to Chaucer by way of Ovid's Metamorphoses (4.55–166) and a vernacular intermediary, the Ovide moralisé, a fourteenth-century French verse translation of, and moralized commentary upon, the Metamorphoses. The latter does not, however, give a straightforward translation of Ovid's tale of Thisbe. It offers instead a twelfth-century text, the Old French lai of Pyramus and Thisbe, inserted into the later work by its anonymous clerical compiler. It was not the only insertion, for as Paule Demats shows (ch. 2), this massive syncretic text also includes the lai of Philomela
by Chrétien de Troyes, material from other Ovidian works (particularly the Heroides ), material from earlier commentaries upon, or biographies of, Ovid, together with a variety of other sources such as Dares and Dictys, and Benoit's Roman de Troie.
For subsequent generations, the Ovide moralisé was a key text in translatio studii: a text located at the intersection of Latin and vernacular literatures, as Joseph Engels has remarked (81). Guillaume de Machaut transcribed whole sections of the Ovide moralisé into his Voir dit and other works. Christine de Pizan plundered it, especially for her Epistre Othéa; indeed, Campbell points out that for Christine, and doubtless for others, "Ovid" meant the moralization rather than the original Latin text. Chaucer too knew and used the Ovide moralisé, drawing on it, as I have shown elsewhere, for his distinctive portrait of Fame, as well as for several of his legends of good women.
In choosing the story of Thisbe, Chaucer joined an illustrious company of predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. A lai of Thisbe is one of the pieces performed by Gottfried's Tristan during his first appearance at King Mark's court, and a lai of Thisbe is mentioned in the thirteenth-century Provençal romance Flamenca (line 621). Either of these might refer to the extant text. A Latin prose version of the story was attributed to the influential grammarian Matthew of Vendôme. Boccaccio includes Thisbe among his famous women, drawing from her fate the enlightened moral that parents ought not to interfere too rashly in their children's love. (There is evidence he too knew the lai. ) Several English poets, including Chaucer's friend John Gower, tell or refer to the story.
Later, in its best-known post-medieval incarnation, the story would become the subject of the "hempen homespuns" playlet in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Arthur Golding—"Shakespeare's Ovid" and a prolific translator of French texts—seems to have known the lai, for at one point (Met. 4.84; Golding's
line 104) he uses a word ("covenant") that appears both in the lai and in Chaucer's Legend but has no equivalent in Ovid. Shakespeare himself would have encountered the material through a verse translation published in the Elizabethan miscellany A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, as W. G. van Emden points out. The twelfth century French version is surely the most touching of these medieval and Renaissance incarnations, for its author transformed the rather dry Ovidian narrative into a high-medieval Romeo and Juliet: a rhetorically extravagant tale of hot-blooded adolescent sexuality thwarted by parental obtuseness and culminating in a pathetic double death.
Chaucer's use of the French material in his version of Thisbe offers a revealing view of the poet at work, the ways in which not only his words but his attitudes, his conceptualization of the story, might be affected by its multilayered garments. The lai appears in all but one of the nineteen extant manuscripts of the Ovide moralisé. It also exists as an autonomous work in three anthology manuscripts. But since Chaucer is known to have used the compilation elsewhere in his Legend, I shall follow the principle of Ockham's razor in arguing for it rather than an autonomous version of the lai. Besides demonstrating verbal appropriations, I shall also suggest what use Chaucer made of the French moralization of Ovid's text.
Ovid's version is nothing if not succinct. In narrative terms we might call it bare, although it is far from "naked" rhetorically, as we shall see. Ovid opens with extreme narrative economy and rapid pace.
"Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,
altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelata puellis,
contiguas tenuere domos, ubi dicitur altam
coctilibus muris cinxisse Semiramis urbem.
notitiam primosque gradus vicinia fecit,
tempore crevit amor; taedae quoque iure coissent,
sed vetuere patres: quod non potuere vetare,
ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.
conscius omnis abest; nutu signisque loquuntur,
quoque magis tegitur, tectus magis aestuat ignis." ( Met. 4–55–64)
"Pyramus and Thisbe—he the most beautiful young man,
she most desirable of girls the Orient had—
occupied adjacent houses where, it is said,
Semiramis encircled the city high with baked brick wall.
Proximity made the first steps of their acquaintance, and
in time love grew. They should have come together under the marriage torch,
but their parents forbade what cannot be forbidden:
with equally inflamed spirit both of them burned.
There was no accomplice; they spoke by nods and signs.
But the more it's covered, the more a covered fire heats up."
In ten lines the hero and heroine are named, described, located, brought to young adulthood, and placed in a complicated relationship with each other and with their parents. A great deal is left out: the city is not actually named; there is no social context; the parents do not exist except far offstage as obstacles; no motive is offered for their resistance.
By contrast, the French author is at pains to establish a convincing social and psychological context for the story, and in this Chaucer follows him. The lai characterizes the fathers as "dui home renome / Dui citeain de grant hautesce" (4.230–32); Chaucer, borrowing narrative strategy and a key word, makes them "Two lordes, which were of gret renoun" (711). The lai also motivates parental opposition and, in quite a complex scenario (307–37), gives a realistic social setting for the action. A serf or servant notices the young people's behavior and reports it to Thisbe's mother, who promptly confines her daughter indoors. Simultaneously the fathers quarrel, ending communication between their offspring. Chaucer's scenario, less elaborate, nonetheless provides other characters, a social setting, and a motive for the parents' interference:
The name of everych gan to other sprynge
By women that were neighebores aboute.
For in that contre yit, withouten doute,
Maydenes been ykept, for jelosye,
Ful streyte, lest they diden som folye.
The class thrust of the French text (pinpointing a servant as the killjoy) is modified in favor of practical common sense and conser-
vative morality. Sympathy for the lovers also begins to be modified, for the parental motive is not, by medieval standards, unreasonable. The danger of impetuosity is thus introduced as a theme in the Chaucerian text.
Ovid specifies no age for his lovers, but the French poet does, in order to deepen the pathos of his material. Love first touches his protagonists when they are only seven years old (301–4), and at the time of the action they are just fifteen. As their age increases, so increases their love: "Croist lor aiez et croist lor sens¼ / Croist lor amour, croist lor aez" (348–51). Chaucer too raises the question of age, imitating the French poet's parallel construction:
And thus by report was hire name yshove
That, as they wex in age, wex here love.
And certeyn, as by resoun of hire age,
There myghte have ben bytwixe hem maryage¼
Ovid's narrative continues with the image of the cracked wall through which the lovers can speak:
fissus erat tenui rima, quam duxerat olim,
cum fieret, paries domui communis utrique.
Split it was by a narrow crack that had formed long ago when the wall common to both houses was built.
This crack becomes the path of love, but only for voice (vocis¼ iter )—the only form of intercourse available for the moment. Whether or not Ovid intended the hint of an obscene pun in his image of the narrow crack that is the path of love, it was certainly taken this way by other classical and medieval poets. It would not be unusual for the archpoet of urbane dalliance to signal in this way the erotic urgency propelling his characters: we have already got the idea from the repeated imagery of fire and cooking in the first ten lines. Whatever Ovid's intention (and I do not doubt for a moment it was playful), Juvenal appropriated the narrow crack as a symbol for female genitalia when he described Roman mimes who impersonate women so skillfully that "Vacua et plana dicas / infra ventriculum et tenui distantia rima" (you would guess that every-
thing was empty and flat between the belly and that further narrow crack [3.97]), while Alanus de Insulis, deploring the prevalence of homosexuality, incorporated Ovid's image into a triple homophonic sexual wordplay in the De planctu naturae:
Non modo per rimas rimatur basia Thisbes Pyramus, huic Veneris rimula nulla placet. (metrum 1.53–54)
No longer does Pyramus search out Thisbe's kiss through the cracks; the little crack of Venus no longer pleases him. (My trans.)
The lai poet amplifies Ovid's economical but suggestive statement about the wall in two directions. First, the crack becomes virtually another personage in his story: synonyms for it (crevasse, pertus, creveure ) appear numerous times, it is apostrophized at length by both lovers, much is made of Thisbe's finding it and stuffing her belt through it as a signal, and the lovers salute the crack for the last time before they elope. Similarly, but with considerably more restraint, Chaucer dwells gently on the crack, giving us the word "clyfte" three times in seven lines (740–46) and once again (776).
Second, the French poet takes up the idea of sexual wordplay. This was, of course, a widely used rhetorical device in classical and medieval literature, not least in the troubadour lyric, with which this poet shares many other features of language and thought. Several examples follow. The first two are true puns, or significatio, making literal and grammatical sense on two levels of meaning. One comes from Piramus's lament of frustrated desire:
"He Diex, come est la vie [vit] dure Cui longuement tel mal endure." (586–87)
"Oh God, how hard is the life [cock]
Of one who long endures such ill."
The other, using the same pun, is in Thisbe's speech urging Piramus to meet her outside the city walls:
"Se trouverai le vostre cors.
(Amis, ta vie [vit] est mes tresors.)"
"So I will find you/your body.
(Friend, your life [cock] is my treasure.)"
The homophony of vie/vit enables another wordplay, not a true pun but nearly, when Piramus lists the symptoms of his unsatisfied desire:
"Tisbe, por vos despent ma vie [vit]
En plour¼ " (425–26)
"Thisbe, for you I waste/empty my life [cock] in tears¼ "
Here the image latent beneath that of tears is that of the weeping vit: "the expense of spirit," as Shakespeare put it. A last example again combines homophony and suggestive image, when Thisbe describes her sexual anguish:
"Ains plus ne jour ne nuit ne fui
Qui con plus dure plus s'esgaie."
"So neither night nor day have I been without a wound, which the longer it lasts the wider it spreads."
Of course, the primary referent of the wound is love. Yet the image of this ever-present wound that spreads wider with time is strongly suggestive of the female genital. This association is helped by the homophony com/con (m and n are often interchangeable in Old French manuscripts, and com plus¼plus is an idiom, but con also
means cunt). The play is also supported by the physical resemblance between a con and a wound, and by the partial homophony—certainly not lost on medieval poets schooled in Latin—of vulnus and vulva . This wound, with its multiple erotic associations, ironically counterpoints the real and fatal wound that Thisbe will later deal herself. Examples of sexual wordplay could be further multiplied, but these will suffice to indicate the French poet's sensibility.
These puns were not lost on Chaucer either, for he adopted the rhetorical tactic of sexual wordplay to his own presentation of the Thisbe material, starting with the versatile crack. Its versatility is taken even further, for the Chaucerian association is not genital but anal. In nine lines describing the wall, we find the following cluster: "clove a-two ¼ fundacioun ¼ clyfte ¼ clifte ¼ clifte" (738–46). "Clyfte" meant distinctively the crack or cleft of the buttocks (see Summoner's Tale III.2145), while "fundacioun" (founding) is partially homophonic with "fundement" (anus); in combination with "clove a-two," it is hard to avoid the suggestion of buttocks here. The same association appears in a medieval French text that anticipates our bumper-sticker lore about which occupations "do it" where and how. The miller, it says, does it where the water spurts; the leatherworker does it where the skin cracks; and "le maçon sure le fondement."
Further on in this passage appears the mini-cluster "thy lym and eke thy ston ¼ ston" (765–68), in apostrophe to the wall. The primary meaning is "your lime and also your stone": the masonry kissed by the separated lovers. Yet "lym" is homophonic with the word we now spell "limb"—a well-documented synonym for the male genital, and "stone" is a common euphemism for a testicle
(cf. Nun's Priest's Tale VII.3448). The phrase thus carries the latent meaning of "your genital and your testicle," and the kissing of stones becomes an obscene allusion to oral-genital contact. Lydgate, of all people, is able some three or four decades later to use a "lym and ston" pun to very nice theological effect, in, of all places, his Life of Our Lady . God, planning the creation of Jesus as a means of redemption for mankind, will build this palace "nother of lyme ne stone" but in a virgin (2.317). His creation, that is, will be not of masonry, and also not generated sexually.
A last cluster of possible obscene wordplay occurs in Thisbe's suicide speech:
Thanne spak she thus: "My woful hand," quod she,
"Is strong ynogh in swich a werk to me;
For love shal yeve me strengthe and hardynesse
To make my wounde large ynogh, I gesse."
I read here a latent allusion to masturbation, an activity commonly treated in penitentials, confessional manuals, and some medical treatises (Jacquart and Thomasset, 152, 176). Now at this moment in the narrative, Ovid has Thisbe refer to her hand, to love, to strength and a wound:
est et mihi fortis in unum
hoc manus, est et amor: dabit hic in vulnera vires.
I too have a hand strong for one thing, and that is love (or: I too have love). This shall give me strength for the wound.
The passage is full of possible sexual innuendo, but it says nothing about enlargement. The French does, in the passage cited above and elsewhere (463–64), and so does Chaucer, so that Chaucer's lines evidently conflate the Latin and French versions. It is interesting to note, too, that in another place Chaucer preserves the connection of Thisbe with "large woundes wyde" (MLT II. 62–63).
In the last portion of the narrative, we again find Chaucer combining his sources. Where Ovid says that the lovers statuunt ("agreed," "decided" ) to elope, the lai has "Ensi ferment lor convenant" (280), which appears in Chaucer as "This covenant was affermed" (790). In Ovid, the lovers agree to meet ad busta Nini ("at Ninus's tomb" ). The French poet rephrases this as "la ou Ninus fu enterrez" (819), a formulation that Chaucer virtually translates as "There Kyng Ninus was grave" (785). In Ovid, Thisbe wears a cloak or ample garment; the French text changes Thisbe's covering to a guimple, or small throat veil (901ff.), a detail imitated by Chaucer. In Ovid, Thisbe does not swoon on seeing her dying lover; she does in the lai (1052) and in the Legend (872).
Ovid's tale ends with the metamorphosis of pale mulberries into dark, and with the fulfillment of Thisbe's wish that the lovers' ashes rest in a shared urn. In the Ovide moralisé, though, the end of a tale is never the end of the story, for interpretation is required in order to achieve closure. The naturalistic exposition need not detain us—it is an etiological fable about why the mulberry darkens as it matures—but the moralization poses as starkly as possible the full problematic of translatio studii. It combines ethical, doctrinal, and tropological readings of the fable, taking as its point of departure the joint burial of the two corpses. This is interpreted as a figure of Jesus's dual nature (OM 4.1178–96), and there follows a long amplification of Jesus's suffering and that of martyrs, whom we must imitate if we wish to be saved at the Second Coming (1197–1246). The marauding lion who frightens Thisbe is the devil, which threatens the pure soul; God, like the lovers, without flinching suffers death to rescue his beloved mankind (1147–67). In this way, a narrative that appears ad litteram to be a cautionary exemplum about rashness and lust is ingeniously transformed into a parable of holiness. The errant young couple become a symbol, first of humanity and divinity joined in Christ, then of humanity at large redeemed in Christ.
What might such an ending have offered Chaucer? I propose that the absence of obvious verbal parallels, such as can be shown for the tale itself, does not disqualify the moralization from a position of influence upon Chaucer's treatment of the Thisbe material. The relevance of the moralization lies in the opening it creates for tone and treatment—an opening already hinted at in Ovid, and enlarged in the Old French lai. It is the possibility of comic irony, of an antisentimental approach to a sentimental story.
The Franciscan moralist who composed the Ovide moralisé was doubtless innocent of ironic intention: I have no wish to implicate him in that regard. Nonetheless, the comically painful ingenuity of his interpretation—transmogrifying a pair of lustful adolescents into the figure of the Savior—can hardly have escaped the attention of an ironist like Chaucer. The inadvertent comedy of the moralization is well exemplified in large and in small: not only in the overall interpretations, but in a passage as short as the few lines telling us that the devil, disguised as a lion,
Et coloit la vie et la guimple
De la belle jouvente simple.
and tore up the life and the wimple
of the lovely girl so simple.
This is, of course, unfaithful to the tale just narrated, for the lion does not attack Thisbe. Moreover, it is rhetorically ridiculous to link life and wimple in zeugma, as absurd an anticlimax as any to be found in The Rape of the Lock. The difference is that Pope uses zeugma masterfully, to expose the trivializing consciousness of his characters and the superficiality of their social life, while the compiler of the Ovide moralisé uses it awkwardly, to eke out his line and produce a rhyme.
The gap between text and interpretation looms so large here, the text so readily escapes its Procrustean bed, that the sophisticated reader can but smile. Are we, after all, to avoid or to imitate? And what, exactly, would we imitate? The interpretation tells us to imitate patience and chastity, but the fable shows us something else. To be sure, the compiler of the Ovide moralisé, like many other Ovid
translators and commentators before and after him, had his own agenda, his own ideological aesthetic, which governed his procedures. John P. McCall observes that although such interpretations "may seem strained and capricious, they are based on an old tradition¼ Their real kin is the exemplum or fable of late medieval homiletics in which moral or spiritual lessons were freely and ingeniously developed without any real concern for the obvious meaning of a story or text" (Chaucer, 13–14).
Yet this tradition was already on the wane in Chaucer's day, for the allegorical sensibility had come under attack from several directions, not least—for Chaucerian purposes—from the Wycliffites. Fausto Ghisalberti reminds us that such "intransigent pietism" was destined to fail as a method of interpreting the classics; indeed, it was already a lost battle in the fourteenth century, for the Church would meet the challenge of reform by co-opting humanism, asserting itself as the continuator of the Latin literary and historical tradition. A little more than a century after Chaucer's death, Erasmus wrote in a letter: "No one raises loud protests against the work of a certain Dominican"—he means Bersuire—"crassly stupid though it is, which gives a Christian adaption—distortion, rather—of all the myths in Ovid." In his well-known Prologue to Gargantua (1534), Rabelais would ridicule "the allegories squeezed out of [Homer] by Plutarch" and other scholars, "For I believe them to have been as little dreamed of by Homer as the Gospel mysteries were by Ovid in his Metamorphoses." I think it likely that the hermeneutic difficulties of the method would have been evident also to Chaucer even a century and a half before.
With its contradictions, its puns and rhetorical excess, the Ovide moralisé—lai and moralization together—strongly reinforces the subtle comic potential of the original Ovidian narrative. But if Chaucer was open to a comic interpretation of the material, it is because of his own aesthetic purpose in the Legend. As the next section of this chapter will show, the tale of Thisbe is not the only one in which irony, comedy, or wordplay appear. The general function of comic
technique in the legends is to undercut the directive of Eros and Alceste, and to prove the fallibility of any effort to portray human beings as entirely good. The idealization of women proposed by Eros requires to be deflated. Humor, particularly the humor of subtle obscenity, is an effective way to do it—not least because it can always be disavowed by an "innocent" Narrator, blamed on faithfully followed sources or even on the reader's own interpretive bent (or bent interpretation).
The God of Love's rigidity and his monomaniacal inadequacy of critical method find their duplicate in the Ovide moralisé. In the fissure between lai and moralization lies the confrontation of twelfth-century courtly poet and fourteenth-century Franciscan ideologue, of the Ovidian spirit and the Catholic Middle Ages. Complacently and with utter lack of self-consciousness, the Christian moralization of classical fable slices through the question that occupied Chaucer throughout his creative life: how can one derive truth from contradictory texts? Chaucer's retraction to the Canterbury Tales shows that he never completely resolved that dilemma: despite the fideistic stopgap, he attained no permanent sense of the full autonomy of fiction such as would have exculpated his "endytynges of worldly vanitees." Nor was he able, by way of the allegorical exegesis practised by some others, to reduce those "vanitees" to subordinate status and explain away their moral difficulties. Those difficulties, inherent in human discourse of "fals and soth compouned" (HF 2108), mean that for anyone other than a single-minded allegorist, there is no "naked text." (If I might digressively add another unverifiable subjective hypothesis to the discussion about which Prologue antedates which, I would opine that Chaucer's use of the term in G bespeaks the younger poet willing to risk a phrase later discarded because of its patent incompatibility with the legends, and indeed with any literary production.) It is not only translation that is the problem, but the original text, itself draped in rhetoric, cultural context, intention. Or if we are to imagine text as a naked body, we can only think of it as Protean, capable of infinite incarnations. But as I wrote above in commenting on Cixous, such essentialist metaphors propose some pure meaning preexisting any concrete embodiment. We can do without them, and I suspect that Chaucer too had felt their limita-
tion, although for other reasons than ours: his impulse would not be to write them off because they are metaphysical, but to defer them until the metaphysical can come properly into its own.
As the epigraph I have chosen for this chapter suggests, the problem did not disappear, although it certainly dwindled. Some scholars think the irony or ambiguity in Ariadne auf Naxos is the product only of an ill-fitting collaboration, but I see in its jarring juxtaposition of styles—heroic opera framed in commedia dell'arte—rather the problem of translatio studii in a nineteenth-century perspective. The work is an opera within an opera about the difficulties of producing serious art in a philistine age. A theater company are commissioned to perform a short classically based opera at the palace of an official, but at the last minute are required to render the opera more entertaining by mixing into it elements of their more frivolous repertoire. This specific self-referentiality strikes me as quite consistent with the stylistic mix. We know now that the conflict of ancient heroic versus modern cynical values already represents a distortion of classicism, which was far from univocally committed to the heroic outlook. Nonetheless that conflict, the perceived incompatibility of cultures, is built into the opera, which elevates irony into a compositional principle. The partners may have feuded about whether their piece should end on a serious or an ironic note, but the damage was already done.
For Chaucer, too, dissonance would register the collision of the tectonic plates of his intellectual world, and the form of dissonance I want to turn to now is sexual wordplay within the pathetic tale. This is a particularly difficult phenomenon for many modern critics to accept, particularly those reared in the German-influenced Romantic school of thought that emphasized "organic unity" and "harmony" as prime criteria for aesthetic value. The rupture of tone created by the presence of wordplay, especially sexual wordplay, in a serious moral work or an elegant romance (e.g., Chaucer's Troilus ) constitutes unacceptable tonal ambiguity for some scholars, causing them to reject the cultural and textual evidence for wordplay in works of the highest moral intention and aesthetic achievement (cf. my article "Anatomy of the Resisting Reader" on this problem). Nonetheless it has become a commonplace, particularly since Robert Jordan's contribution, that medieval aesthetics was precisely not organic and harmonious in method but rather architectural,
juxtapositional, accumulative. Moreover, our rigid separation of "high" and "low" cultures was not always valid in the Middle Ages, as has been shown by modern scholarship on the audience of the fabliaux, bawdy stories enjoyed by nobles, bourgeois, and artisans alike. Mary Carruthers points out that interlingual pun was essential to the medieval visual artes memoriae (137 and elsewhere): not only was wordplay shared by elite and vulgar, it was, as a habit of mind, especially cultivated by the elite. In short, therefore, modern standards of "consistency" ought not to be imposed on medieval texts; it means that the medieval author might expect an educated audience to operate on several cognitive levels during a reading (or listening) experience. These are some of the principles brought into play in considering the rhetorical method and ideological purposes of sexual wordplay in the Legend.