Among the pleasures of writing is that of discovery, and to the extent that interpretation is a kind of allegorical projection upon the text, to that extent it is self-discovery. To borrow E. M. Forster's epigram, how do I know what I think till I see what I say? Or, more contemporaneously, this from Foucault: "If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think you would have the courage to write it?¼ The game is worthwhile in so far as we don't know what will be the end" (Technologies, 9). The conclusions of this study were far from foregone, even though some portions of it were published separately. One might say this was the case precisely because some portions were published separately, and even though I think of it as a long-deferred sequel to my 1972 book on the House of Fame, which includes some observations about the Legend. I do not regret this deferral, because it has enabled me to write the book I wanted to: my own work and that of others during the interval has permitted me to translate intuition into scholarship. This is why the eclecticism deployed here is not inappropriate but, on the contrary, well serves a densely layered and intensely meaningful Middle English poem. This too is why I have chosen for my title Chaucer's own phrase "the naked text"; for its polysemous reference to body and gender, tradition and rhetorical play, interpretation and translation seems perfectly suited to the critical versatility demanded by the poem. I trust that the elucidation of meanings and separation of layers—with the surprises that sometimes accompany these processes—is not mistaken for incoherence at one extreme or; at the other, for an attempt to impose a phantasmic unity.
One such surprise was the Englishness that pervades this classically derived and French-influenced poem. Some of it is quite deliberately tactical; in other respects, it is simply (or not so simply) part of the sensibility created by immersion in a specific environment.
There is the presence of Wycliffism helping to focus Chaucer's concern for translation and interpretation: a presence that brings, as a side effect, as strong an argument for the priority of the G text as has yet been proposed. There is the continuing relevance of the distinctively English philosophical project to the poet's epistemological anxieties, already vented in the House of Fame. There are the assimilated or naturalized English queens whose names crown the historical progression in stanza 1 of the balade; the detail from Geoffrey of Monmouth in "Thisbe" revealing the poet's attention to others' efforts to reconcile English and classical histories; the striking similarity between some of Chaucer's formulations on tradition and those of the monk of Chester, Ranulf Higden. There is the Englishness not only of daisies but of relics, of women weavers and of voyages to the Orient and other, closer, territories.
The "Orientalism" theme doubtless represents a generally European attitude, but its Chaucerian manifestation, I have argued, points to distinctively English uses. Moreover, it suggests another important aspect of the Chaucerian frame of mind: not only a national-patriotic but a conservative slant. For it is not the rationalist-scholarly tradition about Islam that Chaucer chose to incorporate into his own work. Rather, he availed himself, for reasons doctrinal, political, and poetic, of the much older patristic/popular mythos of the ever-threatening Orient—much as he chose an old-fashioned patristic historical scheme as the structural skeleton for part of his balade. For Augustine, Platonism was the most difficult enemy of all, because of its similarities to Christianity (City of God 8.1–13); for the high Middle Ages, Islam filled that role.
The effort represented in the Legend, then, is both to medievalize the ancient and the foreign and to anglicize them: to domesticate them locally as well as temporally. No one will quarrel with Elizabeth Salter's claims about "Chaucer and internationalism," for the paradox is that if Chaucer became what generations of masculinist critics have metaphorized as "the father of English poesy," it was only and precisely by being open to the power of continental and classical literatures. Nor is this situation entirely paradoxical when we recall Beryl Smalley's reminder that "Antiquity¼ came to Englishmen as part of their own history" (English Friars, 23–24): the legendary history of Britain.
Hence it seems to me that the only way the paternal image can
possibly make sense is for it to recognize the existence of numerous "fathers" of English poetry—all of them Italian and French. Their names are Virgil, Ovid, Boccaccio, Deschamps, and Machaut (to name only the most obvious candidates for paternity). Indeed, the critic who insists on parental-originary imagery might more suitably represent Chaucer as the "mother" of English poetry: the receptive vessel or linguistic matrix in which developed the seminal influence of earlier authors. To be sure, the maternal matrix was not without its own distinct inseminating contribution, as medieval and Renaissance medical lore allowed. Perhaps this is why Sir Philip Sidney was so often pleased to represent himself in prose and verse in the maternal-authorial role.
However, recent concern for the politics of critical language may be expected to render obsolete the notion of paternal and paternalistic absolute origins, surely one of the hardest-dying metaphysical constructs still informing some literary scholarship. The bureaucrat-poet Thomas Hoccleve, who launched this tradition within a few years of Chaucer's death, had an agenda at once semiotic and political, as Joseph Hornsby has perceptively argued. John Fisher has enabled us to see Hoccleve's effort as one prong in a royal campaign both political and linguistic. Chaucer became, conveniently, "the cynosure for this movement" ("A Language Policy," 1174), whose aims were to stir nationalist feeling in time of war, to mobilize popular opinion against the threat of Wycliffism, and to legitimate a usurper's dynasty. The last becomes particularly relevant to our paternal metaphor when we recall that the Lancastrian claim to the throne relied on an entirely male descent from Edward III, while the claim of its strongest rival, the House of York, was transmitted at more than one point through a female. The paternal image of Chaucer was thus meant to codify—and not merely metaphorically—an interrelated set of values and positions we are well able to do without.
The poet's general conservatism was not a surprise, for I have always seen Pauline-Augustinian orthodoxy as fundamental to the Chaucerian sensibility. Its depth and extent, particularly around the woman question, were new, although confirming the larger pattern. What I noticed about the poet's attitude toward marriage (in "Dido"), about the structure of the balade in the Prologue, and especially about the ambiguous role of Alceste reinforced once
again my sense of the limits to Chaucerian ideological openness or "friendliness" to women. If one takes the hortatory ending of Troilus at face value (as I do), then the Legend makes sense as an extension of its otherworldly "sentence" by other means. Nature is the key concept here: nature in its orthodox plenitude of meaning as the site of complexity rather than simplicity, nature as that which we constantly struggle to overcome.
This is why, as some readers will have noticed, the name of Dante is so infrequently invoked in these pages. Dante's work is committed to the redemptive possibility of human love, and for that reason it is, I believe, deeply incompatible with the Chaucerian sensibility on the ideological level. I would maintain this to be the case despite certain specific verbal echoes or borrowings in various of Chaucer's works as documented by numerous scholars. Even Lisa Kiser, whose new book is devoted to showing the Dantean influence on Chaucer, constantly stresses that Chaucer must inevitably reject Dante's ideas, must use his great predecessor as contrast or foil (Truth and Textuality, 36, 112, etc.). Ideologically, Troilus could well be read as an anti-Vita nuova. There is for Chaucer no Beatrice—not even, as Chapter 2 aims to show, Alceste. For Chaucer there is a clear distinction between nature and eternity: therefore it seems to me that the title of Donald Rowe's recent study of the Legend —Through Nature to Eternity —gets the relationship exactly wrong. "The goal of Chaucer's poetry is to undo the fall," Rowe writes (140), but as I have argued at several points, this would be, in Chaucerian terms, a utopian and potentially heretical program. Nature may exemplify principles of divine order, but those principles are constantly and necessarily subverted by fallen human perceptions and behavior. In communication, we have confusion; in love, cupiditas; in society and in sexual relations, power.
It is a deeply Augustinian agenda, nowhere more so than in its staging of that distinctively Augustinian contribution to Christian theology, Original Sin (cf. Pagels). This ideological stance does not lie, as D. W. Robertson, Jr., argued over thirty years ago, in reducing all meaning to the notion of caritas; rather it infuses the work at a far deeper level. The Legend's real links in the Tales are not, therefore, to episodes of courtly love or lament such as narrated by Knight or Squire but rather to the theodicy of the Franklin's Tale, the historical patterns of the Monk's Tale, the Merchant's Tale's investiga-
tion of perception and subjectivity, and the East-West polarities of the Man of Law's Tale. When the Legend's allusions and structures are explored, what emerges is an agenda that is surprisingly serious and profoundly historical.
The extent of Ovidian influence can be no surprise to anyone who has studied the Legend, but the multiplicity of formats constituting "Chaucer's Ovid" might be. The Ovide moralisé is a work whose rich potential usefulness to Chaucer—along with scholastic Ovid commentaries and the work of Pierre Bersuire—has not yet been fully explored. In looking at the history of Chaucer criticism, one senses a certain reluctance to do so among scholars of a previous generation, despite the early work of Lowes arguing Chaucer's indebtedness to the French text for details in his version of Philomela. When Sanford Meech extended Lowes's research to include "Ariadne," he assured his audience that these two legends "are the only productions of Chaucer's pen in which the impress of the moralized Ovid can be positively established," and further that "there is no satisfactory evidence of an employment of the Ovide moralisé in other legends or in any production of Chaucer before the Legend of Good Women." This premature closing off of possibility was odd and inaccurate, but even odder is the strenuous resistance to the French text displayed in a slightly earlier study of Chaucer and the classics. E. F. Shannon attempted to refute Lowes's hypothesis, but not very convincingly. His tenacity seems somewhat perverse until one understands what view of the classics, and of Chaucer, it advances:
Chaucer's mood and spirit as well as methods of narration are more closely akin to the Latin with its unity of thought and precision of expression than to the psychologizing habits of the Old French writers. His interest is in human relationships realistically and dramatically portrayed. It is apparent that the Old French translations and allegorizations of the Classics weighed virtually nothing either in the extent of Chaucer's knowledge or the shaping of his art¼ . Chaucer's [verse] evinces simplicity and manly vigor. (283, 372)
Here, Chaucer and the classics are linked by standards of unity, simplicity, and virility that the Ovide moralisé lacks, for it is a quirky, bizarre, grotesque sort of text. It is, in short, too Gothic and too Gallic; indeed, were one to pursue the implications of "manly
vigor," it is seen as effeminate or even feminine because of its "psychologizing habits" and its allegorizations, its fantasy and multiplicity of interpretation. As for the feminine, when we read Shannon's opinion that the Wife of Bath is "frankly animal in her nature" (373), we may wonder whether there is indeed any place for femininity at all in his scheme of things.
"Vigorous, manly and English": from the mid nineteenth century on, this formula was, as Philip Dodd points out, the conventional collocation of qualities defining the national character and the national style. Repeated in educational and ecclesiastical institutions, it participated in the construction of masculinity (and therefore, by exclusion, of feminity). Much like their medieval or ancient predecessors, generations of English-speaking scholars—I do not intend to exclude Americans here—have "licensed to other groups and to other nationalities those 'female' qualities which [they] did not acknowledge [themselves] to possess" (Dodd, 6), although in this particular modern instance the target is French rather than, as in earlier times, Oriental.
In this connection I am reminded of Frederick Ahl's recent analysis of still-prevalent attitudes toward Latin literature, attitudes that continue to define classicism in exactly the same terms Shannon used: unity and simplicity. Ahl's work, with that of other classicists cited in this study (and many I regret being unable to cite for reasons of space), helps to correct this distortion, which is after all not merely the personal taste of particular classically educated scholars but rather a deep-rooted cultural premise or even prejudice, the kind for which, in Chapter 2, I have used the Bakhtinian term "ideologeme." This one affects not only a critic's approach to the question of Chaucer's French versus Latin sources, nor indeed only the question of Chaucer's latinity in general (on this last I am in agreement with Götz Schmitz's assertion of the "limited and secondhand" knowledge of the classics on the part of many late medieval authors and the consequent importance of florilegia and commentaries ["Gower, Chaucer, and the Classics," 95]). The same notion of classicism as unity and simplicity has also blinded many literary scholars to the perception of wordplay, an important dimension in my study of Chaucerian rhetoric in the Legend, and one that has yet to be fully restored to medieval poetry.
The Ovide moralisé is no longer under quite the shadow it once
was, although it receives grudgingly scant attention in the Riverside Chaucer, and many scholars continue to want to see it as a source for a few details or a handy trot. It was both of these—and more; for beside verbal borrowing it evoked, I believe, a profound response from the English poet because of its interpretive tactics. In this sense the exploration of what Charles Muscatine called "Chaucer and the French tradition" has not been exhausted; but the tradition I mean is not that of romance and fabliau but that of ecclesiastical and scholarly compendia.
Given the changes that Chaucer is able to ring on the "abandoned woman" theme—to make it a vehicle for positions on sex, gender, religion, politics, history, interpretation, and writing—I think we need to be skeptical about any approach to the Legend that takes for granted some simplistic "lack of ambiguity" or "the conclusive purpose of speaking well of women" or "the single-minded didactic impulse that propels the legends." These are the phrases of Larry Sklute, who compares the poem to "a set of Hail Marys¼ : it mesmerizes others who hear it but who are not caught in the same state of feeling" (86, 88). In the same vein, Carolyn Dinshaw dismisses the poem as "downright boring ¼ dull, a formula ¼ insisting on reducing complexity to produce a whole, monolithic structure" (74, 86, 87). I hope to have shown that the Legend is not about feeling per se—that it is not a sentimental work mainly—but rather about structures of feeling, a very different thing: ways to understand feeling, to place it systematically and therefore to develop a perspective on it. The narrative model may be repetitive, but within it the rest, the writing, is unsettling, playful, subversive of easy assumptions. Surely recent developments in art—the work of John Cage, say, or Philip Glass or Steve Reich—have something to tell us about boredom being in the eye or ear of the beholder, and about the paradoxically rich possibilities of minimalism and repetition. The Indonesian gamelan ensemble makes the same point. These kinds of music are not the same as a Beethoven symphony, but they are not trying to be: they are premised on a different aesthetic. Or—by analogy to another art—one might as well call abstract expressionism or constructivism boring because they offer sheer form, depriving us of representations that we can quickly cathect. They simply do not employ an aesthetic of realism. Neither does the Legend of Good Women, a writerly poem, a poet's poem
offering little comfort to cling to (such as narrative, character, or dialogue) and requiring a good deal of work to excavate. Far from being "a colossal blunder" that "may already have seemed so in the poet's lifetime" (Burlin, 34), the Legend is a document of serious moral-instructional value and sophisticated poetic craft, acknowledged as such by discriminating readers of Chaucer's own and the next generations. The earnest Lydgate echoed it often: not only in the lines I have quoted in Chapter 1, but in his long, royally commissioned Life of Our Lady (1421–22), where the "Absolon" balade is twice imitated (1.302–9 and 5.407–13) in praising the Virgin Mary; clearly Lydgate had the book before him.
If the Legend is "conclusive"—if, as Sklute writes, it "resolves the problems it raises" (85)—this is not, I suggest, because of the seduced-and-abandoned plot, but because its interest is doctrinal, and doctrine is closed. It might be said that Chaucer is always doctrinal; nonetheless we notice a movement of advance and recession in the proportional emphasis. The Book of the Duchess is closed: it offers a fairly specific and "correct" sort of comfort in urging moderation of sorrow. The Parliament and the House of Fame are open: open, that is, to alternatives to a rigorous orthodox line, open to pluralism. Boece is closed. Troilus is open (to multiplicity of experience and of language), but with a closed ending. The Legend —as if to extend the import of that ending—is doctrinally closed despite its verbal play. The Tales is open but again with a closed ending: the Parson's Tale and Retraction. Chaucer thus plays with open structures, with their attractive but potentially dangerous and misleading pluralisms and ambiguities, but he retains and returns to the safety net of reassuring Augustinian certainties.
The sorts of aesthetic comment I have made here and throughout must necessarily broach the question of audience. For whom can a work of such intellectual depth and formal play have been intended? It is, after all, a poem that looks very much like a charming courtly-classical divertissement, and that in one of its two extant versions commends itself to Queen Anne. "Goo now thy wey," says Alceste,
"this penaunce ys but lyte.
And whan this book ys maad, yive it the quene,
On my byhalf, at Eltham or at Sheene."
How might we reconcile the recondite themes I have noticed in the Legend with this audience: royal, courtly, female—and, for that matter, foreign (for Anne was from Bohemia)?
The most responsible answer I can give to this entirely legitimate concern is that it does not seem to me that the question of audience was posed in the late Middle Ages identically to the way we pose it now. Let me illustrate what I mean with the example of an art form that receives little attention today despite its importance in the medieval period: the roof bosses found on church, priory, and abbey ceilings throughout England (and elsewhere) dating from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries.
These decorative medallions—a foot or more across—provided a channel for free artistic expression; what surprises is the variety of subject matter and treatment. Besides the expected narrative or emblematic material from Old and New Testaments, hagiography, liturgy, and doctrine, there is a wealth of imagery that seems to express the sheer joy of form and invention as well as the darker side of the human personality. We find, for instance, portraits (including one of a black man, at Ely); naturalistic social, athletic, or work scenes; a variety of animals (bat, owl, elephant, caterpillar, ape, pig, etc.); formal designs in foliage and in pure line; fantastic or mythical creatures (mermaid, centaur); astrological signs; grotesques, including deformed or phallic creatures and the "sheila-nagig," an Irish-derived female fertility image; and Picasso-esque double heads with shared middle eye or quadruple head with shared mouth. At the church of St. Mary in Redcliffe, Bristol (which has over 1,100 roof bosses, surpassing even the 1,000 or so in Norwich Cathedral), one finds a quite astonishing level of formal and representational play, including a maze, a mise-en-abîme that is actually a model of the church's transept roof, and a man at stool. Some motifs are drawn from secular literature such as the Roman de Renard and the Gesta Romanorum. There are coats of arms and name-rebuses (e.g., for Bishops Walter Lyhart and William Goldwell at Norwich Cathedral: a hart lying on wa(l)ter; a golden well).
Besides the motifs, the detail in execution is often astoundingly minute. C. J. P. Cave observes:
In the transepts at Norwich there are several compositions in which figures are represented with books in their hands, and on the pages of the books lines and dots represent writing.
In the south transept of St Mary, Redcliffe, the Three Persons are represented¼ The head of an aged man with long hair and beard in the centre of the third bay can only be meant for the Holy Ghost¼ In the long hair at the side and on the beard below the face are four small figures¼ It is difficult to know why such figures, one of them definitely grotesque, should be thus represented hidden in the hair and beard of the figure of the Holy Ghost¼ I almost feel that they were put there by some craftsman in a spirit of mischief, if not even in a spirit of actual disrespect for images. (3, 25)
The point of all this is that roof bosses were not meant to be seen, at least not by many and not up close. Indeed, this is why, as Cave points out (1), so many of them survived periods of iconoclasm (such as the Reformation and the Civil War). They are carved and painted in all their superb variety fifty or eighty feet above the church floor, and even today can only be fully appreciated by telephoto lens.
What can have been the conception of audience at work here? I can think of four possibilities, not mutually exclusive. The artist's love of formal play and experimentation is one: it proceeds independent of audience, as many a medieval artist's sketchbook or manuscript margin reveals. Another is the medieval notion of art as a form of tribute, or even analogue, to divine creativity as manifested in the world's multifariousness. To this form of worship no human audience is necessary: God sees all. On the other hand, my third possibility, a few people do perambulate the heights of a church clerestory; they are the ecclesiastical personnel who staff the establishment and who would derive edification and amusement from the designs. Lastly, there might well be individuals willing to risk a sprained neck in order to see and perhaps even enjoy the art over their heads. The distance was not only a challenge but an obstacle to screen out those who lack "eyes to see or ears to hear" (Deut. 29:4): a fairly common exclusivist position in medieval aesthetics.
Coming back to Chaucer, then, I do not see that a dedication to Queen Anne, or the possibility of a female readership, or any other considerations of audience, need affect my (or any other) interpretation. On one level the Legend of Good Women is a charming courtly tribute to female fidelity. On other levels, depending on what one brings to it, it yields other meanings. It is, in this, fairly typically Chaucerian.
By sheer serendipity, I am able to end with Virginia Woolf, whose last work, Between the Acts (1941), I read while completing this book. I read it in part because one of the feminist essays I had used in connection with this study (a piece by Jane Marcus) suggested that the novel was a reworking of the Philomela motif, and I wanted to pursue this for obvious reasons. I differ from Marcus's hypothesis, but what I found in Woolf's novel was even more relevant to the present project: a massive deployment of classical myth in service of a vision of British history. Woolf asks us to see recognizable individuals—our neighbors, acquaintances, spouses, relatives—in their archetypal dimensions; and, conversely, classical legendary and mythic figures as, at some level, real individuals with the same passions as our own (albeit expressed in action—incest, murder, rape, etc.—where ours are likely to be suppressed). Her playwright is a Sappho; her heroine Isa a Medea manquée; the ancestress in a portrait is a Diana, "silver arrow in her hand and a feather in her hair"; even the butler Candish, who "loved flowers¼ . Queerly, he loved them," might be Ganymede in another time. Woolf's two-level work of art—a play within a novel—shows us art in the making, with the fictional artist, the playwright Miss La Trobe, confronting mixed reactions from an imperfectly comprehending audience to which, nonetheless, she remains (as La Trobe's manuscript note confesses) "always enslaved." What binds it together down the ages, for Woolf, is poetry, monument of feelings recurrent and transmitted, poetry as shaped by and as shaper of both individual psyche and national sensibility. The novel is a valiant effort at national and political and cultural self-definition, set "between the acts" of the two world wars, between the acts of a neighborhood pageant at a manorial house, between the acts of love and of violence that punctuate a difficult marriage. And it ends—or could end—with a colon: "Then the curtain rose. They spoke."
Most of these general statements could be made of the Legend as well. I find it interesting that two great English literary artists confronting the same strategy—to relate the disturbing English present to the supposedly glorious cultural/mythic/classical past—should come up with so many of the same tactics despite their difference in gender, religious attitude, politics, genre, and historical epoch. Both were trying to develop the sense of what it means to be English. Chaucer did so somewhat furtively, because he wrote at the start of the period when that concept began to mean something
important internationally; Woolf did it perfectly overtly, writing near the end of the period when that concept could mean something important internationally. World War II, which Virginia so deeply feared, would give the idea of Englishness a new lease on life, for the English at least, but a short-lived one. There is an apothegm among social historians that all the oldest English traditions were invented in the last quarter of the nineteenth century—except, I would add, the habit of inventing traditions, which is as old as ideology itself and indeed probably the oldest form of ideology.
Was William Heale right, then—or, for that matter, Gavin Douglas in asserting that Chaucer was always woman's friend? Or, on the other hand, was Osbern Bokenham justified in correcting Chaucer's classical-courtly Legend with his own real hagiography? I hope to show in a work now in progress that Bokenham's more conventional legendary makes a statement finally quite similar to Chaucer's, albeit in very different generic and rhetorical clothing. Not to beat about the bush, though, I think that Bokenham mistook Chaucer's rhetoric for his "sentence." Perhaps he needed to do so in order to clear a space for himself as what Harold Bloom would call belated ephebe to a great and recent precursor.
My Prolocutory suggested that this study would clarify the ambivalence of Chaucer's attitude toward women, not resolve or eliminate it. It remains an ambivalent attitude: egalitarian sub specie aeternitatis, but by the same token recognizing and accepting the extent to which everything here falls short of that perspective. I cannot think of another writer of the period, of whatever politics—the republican Boccaccio, the conservative courtier Christine de Pizan, the Yorkist Austin friar Bokenham—who goes further than that. Our discomfort with such ambivalence is all to the good, provided we do not attempt to dispel it by rewriting the past, as they did. Better, as they were not able to do, to rewrite the future: not a merely literary task.