Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Notes on Chaucer's Dido and Fame

This is a quick draft of something I may rework in a later paper to reflect on Criseyde and her understanding of the power of her own speech. I think the central ideas of the House of Fame are more focussed on trouthe and its representation than speech per se, so I'm skewing it slightly to my own ends here; but it's just thoughts, for now. Given it's meant to be used later, it doesn't really have a thesis, nor any kind of shape.

All line references are to the first book of the House of Fame, in the Riverside Chaucer.


The moment in which Dido falls for Aeneas is narrated twice, ascribed once to the intervention of Venus and once to Aeneas’ stories of himself. An intervention by Venus to cause sudden love is a familiar romantic figure, but so is the woman falling in love with tales of the adventuring man. Stories of Yvain’s valour win Laudine over twice. Guenevere’s heart gradually softens as she hears of Lancelot’s adventures, and Bertilak’s wife tells Gawain that she loves him because of the stories she has heard of his valour and courtesy. But the Gawain of rumour has a questionable relationship to the Gawain we see, Yvain himself is hidden once by an invisibility ring and once by a pseudonym, and news of Lancelot is slow, erratic and rumour-coloured. In this case, the fact that Aeneas himself narrates his stories could give his first-hand account greater authority, eliminating that unreliable middleman, Fame. But of course, a man may have any number of reasons for misrepresenting the truth about himself; and Chaucer undercuts the sincerity of the proceedings here by casting a shadow of irrationality and haste over both accounts the crucial moment.
And, shortly of this thyng to pace,
She made Eneas so in grace
Of Dido, quene of that contree,
That, shortly for to tellen, she
Becam hys love, and leet him doo
Al that weddynge longeth too. (240-44)
The repetition of “shortly” emphasises the immediate effect of Venus’ work. So far, this is a story of the gods’ games with mortals, and we expect her to fall in love instantly, and do not question its rationality, psychological likelihood or the moral implications of Venus’ actions. But the ominous tone of the last line, censorious or compassionate, hints at a woman deceived or tricked into not only acting but feeling contrary to her will, to her lasting detriment. And then we see this god’s game from the other side, the actors playing out the plot twist that the producer decreed. The narrator brushes aside the tale of “the manere / How they aqueynteden in fere” (249-50) as too “long” - a word he uses twice in two lines – to return to the rapidity of the seduction:
Ther sawgh I grave how Eneas
Tolde Dido every caas,
That hym was tyd upon the see.
And after grave was, how shee
Made of him, shortly, at oo word,
Hyr lyf, hir love, hir luste, hir lord; (253-58)
We know, of course, that “every caas / that hym was tyd upon the see” does, in fact, make a very impressive story, but the dry brevity of the narration makes her response seem impossibly fervent. The breathless passion of “Hir lyf, hir love, hir luste, hir lord” belongs to the climax of a whole-hearted romantic scene, not the erratic and slightly bemused narration of this dreamer. Its very rhythm feels out of place here - even without the return of that word, “shortly”, snagging the syntax in the middle of the line before it and reminding the ear of Venus’ intervention. Dido’s sudden infatuation is unnatural, and feels so; and we know it will lead to her death. Even before the narrator casts doubt on the truth of Aeneas’ stories (“Wenynge hyt had al be so, / As he hir swor” 262-63), or reveals that “he to hir a traytour was” (267), there is a sense of unfairness about both Venus’ too-partial actions[1] and Aeneas’ too-powerful words.

Dido’s love for Aeneas, on the human level, is presented as the direct result of Aeneas’ words. The man she falls in love with is the man she hears about, not the man she sees – and it is this man “unknowen” (270) who drives her to her death. This potential discrepancy between “apparence” and “existence” (265-66) is at the heart of the House of Fame, and is usually, though not invariably, expressed in concern over words: their weight and power, and their questionable ability to represent reality. Aeneas ascribes less weight to his words than does Dido. For her, they represent reality: for him, they are a deliberate manipulation of reality, a means to an end, conjuring a man who can impress Dido (and perhaps himself), easily set aside for his departure. Dido is left to lament her misconception, that “your bond / That ye have sworn” (321-22) does not have the power she believed it had, to “holde yow stille here with me” (324).

The narrator echoes Aeneas’ actions in the more cynical story of Theseus and Ariadne. Despite everything that “he had y-swore to here, / On al that ever he myghte swere” (421-22), Theseus has no qualms about abandoning Ariadne when her usefulness (or her appeal) has passed. Like Aeneas, Theseus regards his words primarily as a tool: powerful enough to win Ariadne over while he needs her, but ultimately disposable. They have no binding effect on him, and there is no necessity for them to represent reality accurately.

Dido’s experiences alter her perception. In the world that she sees now, men have “such godlyhede / In speche”, but “never a del of trouthe” (330-31). Aeneas’ exposure of the gap between fame and reality has opened her eyes - “Now see I wel” (334) – and left her bitterly aware of fame’s contradictory nature: insubstantial, but ruinously powerful. While it may not reflect reality accurately, its effect on the lives it touches has real substance.
O, wel-awey that I was born!
For thorgh yow is my name lorn,
And alle myn actes red and songe
Over al thys lond, on every tonge.
O wikke Fame! - for ther nys
Nothing so swift, lo, as she is! (345-350)
Like Criseyde, she laments the irretrievable loss of her good name, and the injustice of the words that will memorialise her (353-60). Fame has ruined her throughout her life and beyond her death, but its uncertain nature paradoxically renders her own speech too insubstantial to recreate her in a positive image:
Al hir compleynt ne al hir moone,
Certeyn, avayleth hir not a stre. (362-63)
Uncertainty about the power and accuracy of one's own words extends beyond the characters carved on the wall, even to the narrator. Virgil's robust “Arma virumque cano” becomes a tentative “I wol now singe, if that I can, / The armes, and al-so the man”. (143-44). The narrator's reaction on leaving Venus' temple casts doubt on the poetic form itself. His prayer for protection against illusion undermines the tangibility and reliability of everything that has gone before - a poem relating and discussing the events of another oft-poesied poem - and therefore, by implication, on the validity and “auctoritee” of poetic tradition. How can poetry convey truth, after all, if the poets themselves are at odds with each other?[2] The appearance of the eagle, traditionally clear-sighted and immune to illusion, seems a promising answer to his prayer, and his feathers are the gold of purity and clarity and truth. But we've just read a whole book warning us against deceptive appearances: “Hyt is not al gold that glareth” (272).

The man Dido fell in love with was created by words, created by man, not the reality of the man created by God. There is a hook there, regarding the public and private aspects of speech – Fame vs. vice/virtue, and how each affects and effects the person – but that is for another day!

[1] From a divine perspective Venus' actions are internally consistent, but from a human level they appear as arbitrary as Fame's later judgements to her petitioners.

[2] After writing this, I read Nick Havely's introduction to HoF (Chaucer's dream poetry, eds. Helen Phillips and N. R. Havely, London: Longman, 1997), in which he makes a similar point about Chaucer problematising his own medium, the book. When the word “boke” occurs at line 426 it “refers to an authoritative witness to a woman's fidelity and trust [Ariadne's for Theseus]... Yet only three lines later “the booke” is just as emphatically invoked to justify Aeneas' betrayal of Dido”. The effect of this is to “emphasize the medium's capacity both to convey and celebrate 'truth' in love, whilst... compounding and perpetuating falsehood” (114). And of course, that takes us into the question of whether fiction is lies, and what Chaucer would have understood by “fiction”, to what extent he considered Virgil's stories as history and what ethical obligations he would have felt he had to the historical figures he himself was depicting, which is quite another tangent on the topic of fame and memory in itself.

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