There is no doubt that Sir Geoffrey Chaucer placed immense value upon the integrity and accuracy of his work. This is clearly evident in the poem, ‘Chaucers Wordes Unto Adam, his Owne Scriveyn’, where he reprimands his scribe Adam for his negligence and over zealousness in copying texts he has given him.
‘But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe,
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correct and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’ (Chaucer, ‘Adam’ 4-7)
It is a short, yet passionate poem as it succinctly illustrates the intense ferocity Chaucer felt toward Adam for altering his creations; as demonstrated when he calls down a plague upon poor Adam’s head! Chaucer’s preoccupation with the transmission of texts that are of quality and ‘trewe’ spills over into another of his works, prologue to Legend of Good Women [G Text], in which he examines the whole concept of his responsibility as an author in a more holistic fashion. This essay seeks to discuss how Chaucer felt about his accountability as an author, translator and mediator of texts and the influences that fashioned his subjectivity as a writer. It also seeks to explore the anxiety that Chaucer displays in the prologue as to his justification as an author and his realisation of the influence that his subjectivity would have in the future on his readership.
It is clear that about the time Chaucer commenced to write the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, that he was beginning to feel very self-aware of his impact upon his readers and his responsibility as an author. In a time when illiteracy rates were high and his works were scantly distributed among a privileged coterie, Chaucer began to awaken to his accountability to adequately transmit the truth of a text. Chaucer saw himself as the saviour of these tales, which only for his penning would be lost to the world forever. ‘And if that olde bokes were aweye/ Yloren were of rememberance the keye’ (LGW 25-26). A most interesting metaphor that he uses to convey this in the prologue is the image of himself as the reaper of left over ears of corn thereby salvaging the tales and legends of old by committing them to the written word.
‘For wel I wot that folk han here-beforn
Of makyng ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glenynge here and there,
And am ful glad if I may fynde an ere
Of any goodly word that they han left’ (LGW 61-65).
Chaucer saw himself as undertaking the ‘labour’ of collecting, recording and translating these stories, at times even reconstituting them using his own discretion ‘As of the lef again the flour to make’ (LGW 71-72). Chaucer’s labour of love was to remember these stories and in doing so form a bedrock upon which to establish English as a literary language – his flowers will become the bread upon which English literature will be sustained. It is also interesting to note that Chaucer uses a specific flower as the metaphor for his works – the daisy. This is a simple, humble, unpretentious flower – perhaps a metaphor for the English vernacular: numerous but unadorned. Chaucer blatantly announced in the prologue, his ultimate objective in the compilation of these tales was, ‘The naked text in English to declare’ (LGW 86). Using the English vernacular, over French and Latin, Chaucer wanted to establish the artistic integrity of the English language and he did this with fabulous success. Less than a century later, Thomas Hoccleve ‘canonised’ Chaucer ‘as a literary progenitor, as a quasi-religious icon, as a model of authoritative advice, and as the founder of a national poetic tradition’ (Perkins, 103), in the immortal lines:
‘My deere maistir, God his soule qwyte,
And fadir, Chaucer, fayn wolde han me taght,
But I was dul and lerned lyte or naght.’ (Hoccleve, 2077-2079)
It is possible that Chaucer projected that his name would be draped with the mantle of a title so weighted with reverence and respect as the father and creator of a literary tradition and it is evident a certain anxiety about his role as the author is manifested in the prologue to Legend. It is unusual that a 14th century author would be concerned about his bearing over a text as this view to the writing and development of an author’s work is commonly associated with the Modernist approach to literary theory which was first brought into vogue during the 20th century. In practical terms, Chaucer understood that in each text he wrote, there was a part of him in it – it was subjective. Chaucer was the vital and central ingredient to the flower that he had reconstructed. In the prologue Chaucer thoroughly considered his credibility as an author and translator of these stories, contemplating the influences and modes of authorship, which had constructed and influenced his own style. He examined himself critically when during his dream vision, he happens upon the God of Love and his entourage. The God of Love severely condemns him and questions his legitimacy as an author,
‘”For thow”, quod he, “art therto nothyng able.
My servants ben alle wyse and honourable.
Thow are my mortal fo and me werreyest,
And of myne-olde servantes thow mysseyest,
And hynderest hem with thy translacyoun.
…Thow mayst it not denye,
For in pleyn text, it nedeth nat to glose,
Thow hast translated the Romauns of the Rose;
That is an heresye ageyns my lawe,
And makest wise folk fro me withdrawe’. (LGW 246 – 257).
Through the image of the God of Love, Chaucer questions and criticises his own influence as author and translator, his interpretations of other people’s work and the effect his interpretation has on his audience. For as he states in the opening of the prologue, ‘But as he hath herd seyd or founde it written; For by assay there may no man it preve.’ (LGW 8-9). The original authors of these tales are leaving their works in the hands of Chaucer to consign to pen, they are not able to amend his words to their own, what gives Chaucer the ‘swich credence’ (LGW 32) to not alone write these but entrust his name at the end as the author. What he is doing is a form of plagiarism, but it is plagiarism he is willing to collaborate with, as he is committed to recording these tales and also to demonstrating the artistic viability of the English vernacular. Chaucer looked to the ‘olde bokes’ (LGW 25) that he has read and these classical authoritative writings to ‘yeve credence’ (LGW 81) to his labour as their substance imbuded him as a bonafide scholar.
‘But wherefore that I spak, to yeve credence
To bokes olde and don hem reverance,
Is for men shulde authorities beleve,
There as there lyth non other assay by preve.’ (LGW 81-83).
Chaucer alludes to classical authors including Boethius, Ovid, Virgil, Titus and Dante and the pastoral images that he evokes during his dream vision and the exemplary description of the beauty of Alceste are heavily borrowed from classical literature. The comparison of poetry to flowers in the opening of the prologue to Legend is reminiscent of many works in Greek classical writings; even the word ‘anthology’ comes from Greek meaning, ‘a gathering of flowers’, which is essentially what Chaucer strives to do in the Legend of Good Women. Chaucer makes constant references to these ‘olde bookes’ in the prologue as if to show that his transparent parroting of these old works gives him authority as an author. In The Parliament of Fowles, Chaucer again gives a testimonial to these ‘olde bookes’, in a manner exceedingly similar to that in the prologue:
‘For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
Cometh al this newe corn fro yer to yere;
And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere.’ (Chaucer, PF 22-25)
The Parliament of Fowles possess a parallel dream vision sequence to the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, in which the speaker experiences a fantastical dream and when awakes proceeds to document the story, and also again uses this metaphor of the book as something out of which nourishment grows. This resonates strongly with the image of Chaucer’s stories as ears of corn in the prologue, what appears transparently is that Chaucer sees his work as the product of his new ideas of these ‘bokes olde’; this process will now continue as new readers and authors will grow their new ideas from the ‘olde feldes’ that he has helped plough and sustain.
Chaucer bases his writing steadfastly upon classical stories, the Legend of Good Women itself is ‘explicitly presented as a translation or adaptation’ of classical stories (Desmond, 63), in which he unequivocally cites Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘Glory and honour, Virgil Mantoan.’ (924). In this way, Chaucer ‘instrusively comments on the relationship between the text he produces and the one he imitates.’ (Desmond, 62). Using this classical text of old, he is constructing some newborn and using a new tradition, his work becomes an ‘intertextual construct…sequences which have meaning in relation to other texts which they take up, cite, parody, refute or generally transform.’ (Culler, 38). Like the image of the old field in the Parliament of Fowles, Chaucer is sprouting new ideas from old books – he is transforming this classical text with a medieval makeover, expounding the stories using a new recipe.
Another example of Chaucer’s imitation of these ‘olde bokes’ is the writing of the prologue itself. For Chaucer’s audience, some of the material contained in the Legend of Good Women may have been controversial as the stories tell of virtuous women subject to the tyranny of men (Davenport 17). The prologue’s structure makes the stories more palatable for the audience and Chaucer’s act of writing it alludes to works of old masters, in this case Gottfried, an example of ‘”insinuatio” a piece of oblique, persuasive rhetoric designed to overcome the audience’s resistance and make them receptive.’ (Davenport 17).
Chaucer’s intended readership for the Legend of Good Women, would have been a privileged coterie of the inner court sanctum of King Richard II and Queen Anne (under whose patronage, Chaucer wrote this work. Alceste is commonly seen to represent Queen Anne while the God of Love is seen to represent King Richard). These would have been an elite group of highly educated courtiers and aristocrats, multi-lingual and products of a classical education. For Chaucer to align himself with respected, classical authors was not only imperative to justify himself as an author but was also a matter of ‘courtly taste and political decorum’. (Lerer 64). It is an interesting parallel that Hoccleve tried to align himself with Chaucer for similar reasons less than a century later. He not only wrote passages inferring a personal familiarity with Chaucer in his Regiment of Princes, but also included a ‘true portraiture of Geffrey Chaucer’ (Carlson 283) in a number of copies of the text. It was in Hoccleve’s interest to strive to suggest an artistic relationship between the two, as the publication’s purpose was to elicit patronage – the type of courtly patronage that Chaucer had succeeded in acquiring. Hoccleve was eagerly trying to link ‘himself with a poet who stood high in the esteem of his targeted audience.’ (Carlson 283-284).
Hoccleve continues Chaucers model of imitation, he draws classical references into the Regiment of Princes and then overtly conjures the name of his chief influence, his ‘maistir’: ‘Hoccleve, sone?…Thow were aqweyntid with Chaucer, pardee.’ (Hoccleve, 1865, 1867). Hoccleve wanted to create an image of himself as the inheritor of Chaucer and the inclusion of a portrait emphasises its ‘representational fidelity and symbolic power.’ (Perkins 103). Hoccleve was allying himself with an author who had a strong status amongst his readership.
In broad terms, the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, can be seen as Chaucer’s retrospective on his long career as author, compilator, imitator and translator. It is clear to see that he is satirising the tradition of authorial humility, declaring that his ‘wit be lite’ (LGW 29), as at this point in his career he had attained the highest patronage an author could acquire in the land. Chaucer is confident of his literary abilities and instead is looking at his legacy from a fresh perspective. Alceste examines retrospectively on the work that his has done:
He hath in prose translated Boece…
Hym oughte now to have the lesse peyne;
He hath mad many a lay and many a thyng. (LGW 413, 420-421)
The labour that he carries out is not merely story telling but is something meaningful and beneficial to the English corpus as a whole. His work is to plough the fields using his knowledge of the books ‘I me delyte, And in myn herte have hem in reverance’ (LGW 30-31) to make them fertile for new thoughts and contemporary ideas to be grown. Chaucer’s mission is to sift through these old books and using his discretion as ‘lectoris arbitrium’ which is ‘the freedom of the reader to pick and choose among a compilations contents’ (Lerer 63) to produce a work which is the embodiment of quality and artistic integrity – an embodiment of the ‘pleyn text’ and the ‘naked text’ that he endeavours to expose. Chaucer is fully self-conscious of the different roles that he has served to play and defends himself through the voice of Alceste in the prologue:
‘He may translate a thing in no malice,
But for he useth bokes for to make,
And taketh non hed of what matere he take…
He ne hath don so grevously amys
To translate that old clerkes wryte,
As thogh that he of maleys wolde endyte.’ (LGW 341-343, 349-351)
Chaucer here understands his subjectivity as an author, translator and general mediator of stories. He is somehow apologetic to the reader for this subjectivity; it is impossible for him to reveal the naked text, because he will always be intricately bound into it. Chaucer simultaneously affirms and queries the distinct roles played by “auctor”, “compliator”, and “lector” in the construction of literary meaning, and in the process he invites later poets, scribes, and imitators to participate in the creation of that meaning (Lerer 64). Chaucer sees himself in a servile role, doing an honoury duty to elevate the English vernacular, as Alceste states it: ‘To serven yow, in preysynge of youre name.’ (LGW 403-404). He intrusively comments on his functions and ultimately his main objective is in praise of the English vernacular itself; to reveal it and proliferate its literary use.
By the end of the prologue, Chaucer seems to have reached a resolution on his anxieties over his influences and responsibilities as an author. Disparaged by the God of Love, and defended by Alceste, in an act of unintentional parroting the speaker in the poem awakes to immediately pen the dream vision that he has just had, thereby continuing the tradition of imitation and unwitting plagiarism.
And with that word, of slep I gan awake,
And right thus on my Legende gan I make. (LGW 544-545)
There is a tone of urgency in the final lines – he is obligated to commit these tales to pen and immediately sets about to execute this work. It is as if he feels that this task has been specifically set out for him to complete and he must do this ‘labour’ as he refers to it. Chaucer is comfortable as an author who mediates between texts, and ‘is at once a reader, a translator, a critic and a producer of texts.’ (Desmond 62). Using the physical image of the book, Chaucer is authorised as a writer; for he has read and digested them and is now ready to sow the grain of their contents for his readership to ingest. Chaucer’s fear and anxiety of misrepresenting this information that he has gained is nullified by the end of the prologue as he realises that he is preserving old thinking and in doing so sustaining literature.
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