In medieval commentaries upon the Heroides, Phyllis "serves as the canonical example of 'amor stultus'" (Hexter, 174), or foolish love. One of them explains that Phyllis's foolishness lay in her impatience, for Demophon had not betrayed her with another woman, and had she but waited, he would have returned. An alternate account is that she was foolish to love a man who was certain to leave her (en route either to or from the Trojan War). Another offers the rather cynically dismissive explanation that "quia viro indigebat ipsum adamavit. Unde, quia concumbere ei concessit, reprehenditur" ("because she lacked a man she fell for him. So, because she was willing to sleep with him, she is to be blamed" [Hexter, 223, 235]). Although there is no clear proof that Chaucer used or knew these commentaries, his Phyllis seems to echo this last idea in her self-reproachful "But I wot why ye come nat¼ . For I was of my love to yow to fre" (2520–21). To be sure, the concept is not so specialized as to require a particular source, but Chaucer's formulation is closer to the commentary than to Ovid's vague "non sapienter amavi" ("I didn't love wisely" [Her .2. 27]).
At the end of her tale, Phyllis expresses the wish (a curse, really) that her lover may go down in history as a proverbial flattering traitor:
And whan thyne olde auncestres peynted be,
In which men may here worthynesse se,
Thanne preye I God thow peynted be also
That folk may rede forby as they go,
"Lo! this is he that with his flaterye
Bytraised hath and don hire vilenye
That was his trewe love in thought and dede!"
But, as with Ariadne, history turns the tables on Phyllis and her intention for the future: it is she who remains the more widely known, and less for a true than for a foolish love.
I have begun with an ending; now for the beginning. The tale opens with a line—"By preve as wel as by autorite"—that invokes both the Wife of Bath's Prologue, and the opening of the Prologue to the Legend with its meditation on empiricism. Here, however, the lesson of experience and authority is "That wiked fruit cometh of a wiked tre" (2395), an image recalling not contemporary interest in philosophical matters but the Christian myth of humanity's creation and fall: the Original Sin that was a consequence of Adam's and Eve's partaking of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3). This is not to suggest that the scriptural tree was wicked, or its fruit; simply that the juxtaposition of tree, fruit, wickedness, and generational transmission of the disposition to evil can only, for a Christian audience, call to mind the story of Original Sin. Insofar as it does so, it also reminds its audience that such is the inheritance of every man, and of every woman as well.
Chaucer would have found inspiration for this theme in his Ovidian source (Her. 2.75–78); yet the enthusiasm with which he expanded it is distinctly his own, for the Christian motif continues to surface through the tale. In the next lines occurs a prayer for God's grace:
"God, for his grace, fro swich oon kepe us!"
Thus may these women preyen that it [the story] here.
The point about sinful nature is restated a few lines further on when Demophon is said to be like his father in looks and height and infidelity: "it com hym of nature" (2447). And, if we have lost sight of the subtle Christian reference of the opening movement, it too is restated here:
As doth the fox Renard, the foxes sone,
Of kynde he coude his olde faders wone¼ . (2448–49)
The fox is a common medieval emblem of Satan, whose influence is in the realm "of kynde" (nature). In this context, the adjective "olde" evokes the old law / new law dichotomy: the contrast between pre-Christian or non-Christian doctrines (old law) and Christianity (new law) that structures the relation of nature and diabolical influence. There follows another prayer for God's grace, this time on behalf of the Narrator himself ("Which to performe God me grace sende" ), then the natural sin motif again with another reference to the devil, this one explicit:
Me lyste nat vouche-sauf on hym to swynke,
Ne spende on hym a penne ful of inke,
For fals in love was he, ryght as his syre.
The devil sette here soules bothe afyre!
The notion of sin is kept before our eyes (and ears) in the syllabic wordplay in line 2550 ("But syn thus synfully ¼ "). In six lines in this section (2545–50), the word "begile" occurs twice and "subtilte" once, words very commonly used in a doctrinal context in connection with the temptations of world, flesh, and devil. Finally, Phyllis is said to commit suicide out of despair—"She for dispeyr fordide hyreself, allas" (2557)—the worst of all sins in a Christian context, because it denies the hope of salvation. Although she is certainly not the only heroine—or hero—in the Legend to commit suidde, she is the only one whose motive is specified as despair.
What is one to make of this orthodox doctrinal subtext supporting an Ovidian tale? In no way do I wish to propose that Chaucer intends an allegory as such, notwithstanding that the allegorical habit was deeply familiar to him from his reading of the Ovide moralise and many other exegetical texts. What I would propose is something closer to what Erich Auerbach has called a figural approach: one that, while maintaining the historicity of an event, sees it as representing or figuring (whether before or after) another event, also historical, but with spiritual significance as well. One convenience of this approach is that it eliminates anachronism, for the repetitive, patterned figural history knows no linear-sequential
or causal absolute. This is one reason why figures from the distant past can be genuinely exemplary. Phyllis is no Christian, but she enacts patterns that only a Christian can fully comprehend. The figuralism of the classical ladies in Chaucer's Legend tends, however, to resemble that of Virgil in Dante's Commedia rather than that of Beatrice. By this I mean that, like Virgil, they—their lives—may assist the reader to approach spiritual truths, but that none of them is what Auerbach calls "an incarnation of divine truth ¼ incarnate revelation" ("Figura," 74–75). Here Chaucer draws the line.
A doctrinal perspective surfaces once again in the advice to women with which the tale approaches its conclusion:
Be war, ye wemen, of youre subtyl fo,
Syn yit this day men may ensaumple se ¼ .
Because, to this day, the examples may be seen, therefore beware of your subtle foe. The referent of "subtle foe" is not specified, and there are several choices. We might jump ahead to "men" as a gender-specific term, tempting because of its neat opposition to "wemen," even though it is not syntactically part of the previous clause. Or, taking "men" as "people" we might follow the ear rather than the eye, accept the hint offered by "Syn" and hear "sin" as the referent—an easier choice in an unpunctuated manuscript or in one read aloud. Or we might think of the traditional characterization of Satan as humanity's subtle (tricky) foe (see MED s.v. "fo") and take the doctrinal message. The choice, as usual, is ours.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that "man" in the last line does denote sex: "And trusteth, as in love, no man but me." The specification of love as the field of concern makes the denotation inevitable. The Narrator has already specified his sex in previous legends, and he has distorted the literary corpus. By this point in the Legend we can scarcely take this line as anything but authorial irony (however sincere we might believe the Narrator to be), for there seems little reason to trust either the Narrator or his sponsor Eros, who has also revised "woman" according to his masculine desire. If Eros does violence to women in assimilating them to an unrealistic concept of their nature, so does the Narrator do violence to his sources, and so may he do to the reader who, in granting the Narrator's plea for trust, assumes a passive, "feminized" position. To carry the analogy further, though, is to see that—as Peter Allen
observes (420)—just as the women in the tales do not have to be victims, or at least do not have to despair and die because they are abandoned, or because their love is unreciprocated, so the reader does not have to believe everything he or she is told. The reader can and must assume responsibility for what "happens" to him or her while reading. We can be active in the production of meaning, certainly in the moral conclusions we draw from literary sources and in the behavior we choose to base upon exemplary literary characters. Interpretation is a necessity, for there is always more than meets the eye.