As I noted in Chapter 3, the tale of Philomela differs from the others in its lack of obscenity, wordplay, or other evidently ironic devices. It does omit from this already horrendous story of incestuous adultery, rape, and mutilation the further horrors of infanticide and cannibalism that are part of the complete version (in Ovid's Metamorphoses 6 and the Ovide moralisé ), as well as the metamorphosis of the main characters into birds. Robert Frank remarks that the piece "suffers from overcutting": again, as I remarked of Donald Howard and Robert Burlin in Chapter 1, the critic seems to have contracted a tendency to wordplay from his material! Frank attributes the aesthetic failure of this legend to Chaucer's attempt to transform the material into "a tale of the pathetic." But it is really Chrétien de Troyes who rendered the tale pathetic by opening it up as fully as he did to detail, dialogue, internal monologue, family dynamics, and motivation. (Chrétien's lai of Philomela is incorporated into the Ovide moralisé , 6.2217ff.) Chrétien gives a remarkable portrait of the two sisters, Philomela and Procne, as independent, well-educated women, discreet, ingenious, capable of anger and force. His villainous Tereus is also very fully portrayed. Both the prelude to the rape and the mutilation scene are rendered in virtually novelistic amplification; both the rescue scene and the reunion of the two sisters are deeply moving. Chaucer does none of this, rendering the literary corpus as mutilated and as mute, in the affective sense noted by Frank, as its heroine. I believe that Chaucer had other fish to fry than pathos, and I see the legend as possessing an intellectual power and a creative energy of its own.
The tale is not unique in opening with an invocation—the lives of Ariadne, Hypsipyle, and Dido do the same—but this invocation is a prayer to a deity recognizably Platonic and Christian in its eternity and creativity.
Thow yevere of the formes, that hast wrought
This fayre world and bar it in thy thought
Eternaly er thow thy werk began,
Why madest thow, unto the slaunder of man,
Or, al be that it was nat thy doing,
As for that fyn, to make swich a thyng,
Whi sufferest thow that Tereus was bore ¼ ?
The content of the prayer is a request for theodicy, for a justification of the ways of God to man, so that the passage resembles Dorigen's prayer in the Franklin's Tale (865–93). Whereas Dorigen challenges God's creation of "grisly feendly rokkes blake" (868) and their ability to destroy mankind, the Narrator of the Legend questions God's willingness to tolerate the existence of such a monster as Tereus, so vile that the utterance of his very name corrupts "this world up to the firste hevene" (2234). Why does evil exist?
It is not in either case a merely rhetorical question, but one with answers amply provided over the centuries by Catholic theology. In Chaucer's more leisurely exploration of this problem in the Franklin's Tale , Dorigen learns the answer experientially through her attempt to revise the postlapsarian institution of marriage. She learns that nature is such, and human nature is such, that some coercive authority—including husbandly marital authority—is required. That is the human condition, and by reminding us of it here, Chaucer deftly reintroduces the orthodox Augustinian perspective, which, as I have argued in Chapters 1 and 2, provides the backdrop to the Legend as a whole.
The opening prayer also restates the theme of narratorial subjectivity. The Narrator asserts that Tereus
is in love so fals and so forswore,
That fro this world up to the firste hevene
Corrumpeth, whan that folk his name nevene[.]
Yet this is clearly incorrect. We know full well that nothing changes in the world because of the existence of false lovers or even monstrously criminal individuals; still less is anything changed by the naming of such individuals. The Narrator's assertion contains a vastly inflated notion, not only of the power of evil, but also of the
power of utterance, for nature is simply not so responsive to our behavior or our words. Why, then, would the Narrator think it is? Clearly because his own reaction to this horrifying material is so strong:
And, as to me, so grisely was his dede
That, whan that I his foule storye rede,
Myne eyen wexe foule and sore also.
Yit last the venom of so longe ago,
That it enfecteth hym that wolde beholde
The storye of Tereus, of which I tolde. (2238–43)
It is perhaps tempting to give an autobiographical-confessional cast to this passionate denunciation, connecting it (and also the untypical seriousness of tone in the tale as a whole) with the notorious episode of Cecily Chaumpaigne's raptus , from legal responsibility for which the lady released the poet in 1380.
But the passage probably elaborates the first line of Heroides 17, where Helen says that her eyes are already violated by reading Paris's letter, so that she might as well reply ("Nunc oculos tua cum violarit epistula nostros," etc.; I note for the sheer pleasure of doing so that the concentric structure of this clause mimes its content, "oculos ¼ nostros" containing "tua ¼ epistula" containing violation). Helen's choice of verb, of course, anticipates the greater raptus to come, the one that will result in the Trojan War. It also suggests a moral passivity to which Chaucer, or any Christian rigorist, could only retort with Jesus's remonstrance to the Pharisees that "not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of it" (Matt. 15:11)—or with Augustine's remarks on rape (cf. above, in "Lucrece"). Indeed, such a rejoinder might have been made to Philomela herself, whose Ovidian post-raptus invective against Tereus includes the suicidal wish that he had killed her before he wronged her, for then her shade would have been devoid of crime (Met. 6.539–41).
The existence of a likely (though hitherto unnoticed) literary source for the conceit about tainted eyes should give us some pause in the question of Chaucerian sincerity, much as Rosalie Colie's observation that Sidney's famous "Foole ¼ look in thy heart and write" comes from Ronsard, emphasizes "the conventional nature
of poetic honesty." Whether its source be experience, authority, or both, the Chaucerian passage cited above is surely the ultimate in reader-response criticism: a story so disgusting that its poison, despite its age, putrefies the Narrator's eyes and infects every reader. But we know that this too is incorrect, for our eyes are not befouled by reading the Chaucerian (or any other) version of the story, and as to whether our will is infected by it, that is a moral choice. We would do ill to allow fiction such power. Once again, then, the Narrator's subjectivity is brought into play, to the point where he is compelled to make both theological and aesthetic errors. If we take the point here, we must apply it to the work at hand. The Narrator is (only) a poet; his work is necessarily the expression of a (particular and tainted) subjectivity; literature possesses neither the power the Narrator ascribes to it here, nor the power Eros ascribes to it in the Prologue; interpretation is a function of will.
Philomela is a woman without utterance, literally without a tongue. I find it curious that Chaucer should efface this tongue from his story, except for the bare mention of its removal (2334). It is curious, first, because in the Manciple's Tale (314–42), Chaucer would give (or had already given, depending on chronology) such close attention to that organ; second, because one would think the tongue important to a story about dismembering and remembering; third, because in the sources the tongue becomes virtually another character in the narrative, almost a separate entity from its possessor, even after being severed. In Ovid's account, Tereus's wrath and fear are provoked by Philomela's threats to tell the world about the rape. He whips out his sword (vagina liberat: frees it from its sheath [Met. 6.551]); then
he seized her tongue with pincers, as it protested against the outrage, calling ever on the name of her father and struggling to speak, and cut it off with his merciless blade. The mangled root quivers, while
the severed tongue lies palpitating on the dark earth, faintly murmuring; and, as the severed tail of a mangled snake is wont to writhe, it twitches convulsively, and with its last dying movement it seeks its mistress's feet. (Loeb trans.)
Later, when Procne receives the tapestry, she says nothing—"mirum potuisse," remarks Ovid: a wonder that she could—and words sufficiently indignant are absent to her seeking (or inquiring) tongue (584). When the sisters are reunited, Procne threatens to cut out Tereus's tongue and eyes and castrate him (616–17). Chrétien's version omits the grotesquerie of the severed-but-animate tongue, as well as Procne's threats, but adds a number of further developments of the tongue image such as
ne poist, ce croi, sofire
A totes ses granz biautez dire
Li sans ne la langue Platon
Ne la Omer ne la Caton.
( OM 6.2345–48)
I believe that to tell all her great beauty
the judgment and the tongue/language of Plato
or of Homer or of Cato
could not suffice.
He also includes wordplay on the theme of silence and speech using Tereus / se taire (e.g., 2992–93).
In French, the missing langue denotes language as well as tongue. Philomela does not, however, lack ability to communicate, indeed with powerfully effective consequences. This is not because, as Roman Jakobson (12–13) observes, tonguelessness does not necessarily prevent speech (in any case, the classical and medieval authors thought it did), but because Philomela finds other means of expression. As Lisa Kiser observes, Philomela herself "enacts the role of the giver of forms" (112) already adumbrated in the opening lines of the legend. In this sense she is emblematic of women generally who, although excluded from the means of cultural production—in the Middle Ages this meant from university education or teaching; from taking orders and preaching; and from employment in law, government, and diplomacy—nonetheless managed to express themselves through other channels: whether with the ready answer conferred by Proserpina in the Merchant's Tale, by
writing (like Marie de France or Christine de Pizan, both of them known to Chaucer), or in other professional arts, such as illumination or textiles, in which women worked. Indeed, for Chrétien, Philomela is already an artist, and not merely metaphorically: among her many talents, she is able to
ovrer une porpre vermoille
Qu'an tot le mont n'ot sa paroille.
Un diaspre ou un baudequin
Nes la Mesniee Hellequin
Seüst ele an un drap portreire.
Des autors sot et de gramaire
Et sot bien feire vers et letre ¼ (2405–11)
work [embroider] a scarlet cloth
So that no one ever saw its like.
On a silk brocade or wool cloth
She could portray
Even hell's assembly.
She knew the auctores and grammar
And could write and compose verses ¼
The importance of artistic and expressive media in this tale has led some recent critics to see it as exemplary of textual production, as noted above under "Ariadne." The question of media is prominent here, as it was in the House of Fame (see Chapter 1) and with similar confusion. Chaucer's Philomela knows how to weave tapestry as women usually do ("As it of wemen hath be woned yore" ). She is able to read and also to compose poetry: "She coude eek rede, and wel ynow endyte" (2356)—a rather grudging concession, unlike Chrétien's glowing endorsement. Presumably her compositions are meant for oral delivery or dictation to a scribe, for unlike Chrétien's highly literate heroine, Chaucer's cannot write, even though she can weave letters as well as images into her tapestry, so that the story is both shown and told: "She waf it wel, and wrot the storye above" (2364). It is difficult for us to comprehend how someone might be able to read but not write, or to form letters in weaving but not with a pen. Historians of education inform us, however, that these distinctions were far more common in the Middle Ages than they are now: the Paston women, for example, could read but
perhaps not write, and the same has been suggested about Juliana of Norwich. M. T. Clanchy confirms that writing with a pen was a very specialized skill, often limited to copying of characters and not necessarily coupled with the ability to read (88, 218, 227). Although this situation does not apply to Philomela, who was not copying an already written text, it does provide social analogues. What remains a puzzle, though, is why Chaucer goes through all this: why not simply let the woman be thoroughly literate?
One reason is dramatic: were she able to write a letter, doubtless she would do so early on, sparing herself the year of waiting and the toil required to produce the tapestry that is so essential an object in the tradition. Another reason is source-related, for while Ovid is fairly clear that the story is written in letters (notas : signs/characters [Met. 6.577]), Chrétien has both portreite (33 38) and escrit (33 47) so that, as Lowes long ago observed, Chaucer's work agrees with the French in combining written and visual representation. In doing so it would be consistent not merely with a source but with a tradition, for the blurring and blending of media boundaries seems fairly common in medieval art. Jean Frappier, for instance (cited in Freeman, 880 n. 20), notes that escrire (to write) may also mean to draw, paint, or design, so that the phrase brudé et escrit predicated of a piece of fabric "constitutes a synonymous redundancy, considered moreover in the twelfth century as stylistically elegant," as when the lady in Marie de France's Laustic sends a dead bird to her lover wrapped "En une piece de samit / A or brusdé e tut escrit" ("in a piece of gold-embroidered samite scrolled [lit. 'written'] all over" [135–36]). Some churches of the period displayed paintings of fauxtapis in which an elaborately patterned and draped hanging is painted on the wall behind the altar; above it are painted niched statues of saints; above that the real ribbing proceeds to the crown of the vault. In the Wife of Bath's Tale, the old hag "rowned ¼ a pistel" (literally, "whispered an epistle") in the young knight's ear (III.1021). There seems, in short, to be a certain equivalency among the various arts and crafts, so that any of them might be equivalent to literacy or substitute for it. None is epistemologically superior;
they can be used as metaphors for one another (e.g., the Anglo-Saxon and later "web of words," the "entrelacement" in Celtic visual arts and in Old French romance).
Lastly, the Chaucerian Philomela's semi-literacy and lack of other accomplishments serves to intensify what Patricia Joplin calls "the power she discovered in exile" (47). Her weaving is not one of many forms of communication available to her, but a real transcendence of silence. Her effort is all the more heroic, and here I think we do have a concession to pathos, one recognizable from Chaucer's method elsewhere. Constance, too, had an elaborate education in Chaucer's French-language source for the Man of Law's Tale (the Anglo-Norman Chronicle of Nicholas Trevet), and Chaucer deprives her of it to render her the more helpless, the more dependent on no other resource than faith. Whereas the French authors seem to believe that a wronged heroine should start with as much as possible, to render her misfortune the more extreme, Chaucer on the contrary seems to aim at an image of depletion as extreme as possible, which means starting with fewer resources. For his particular purpose, "less is more"—or "the worse the better."
The ending of the story is lame, mutilated by its amputation of the tragic consequences. These are dismissed with:
The remenaunt is no charge for to telle,
For this is al and som: thus was she served,
That nevere harm agilte ne deserved
Unto this crewel man, that she of wiste.
But the evasion need not be heard as ironic trivialization in the vein of the Medea story. Its resemblance is rather to the Man of Law's Prologue with its rejection of such abominations as are recounted in the story of Canace (incest, infanticide, suicide; cf. Heroides 11): a distancing of seriously distasteful material. And in fact the terse summary is correct, for the heaping of horror upon horror can become sensationalistic after a point, and the point has been adequately made by the material already narrated. The real lameness occurs with the "moralization" that attempts to jam this narrative into the conceptual framework established by Eros and Alceste, that of the erotic battle of sexes:
Ye may be war of men, if that yow liste.
For al be it that he wol nat, for shame,
Don as Tereus, to lese his name,
Ne serve yow as a morderour or a knave,
Ful lytel while shal ye trewe hym have—
That wol I seyn, al were he now my brother—
But it so be that he may have non other.
The cynicism and inadequacy of this framework stand exposed in contrast with the real evil just portrayed.