Monday, April 23, 2018


When you meet the Wife of Bath, she sticks with you. She stands out as a Canterbury pilgrim. In fact, she stands out in all of literature. No doubt it was Chaucer’s intention. One detail will prove it. The individual Tales generally have a prologue—a little intro to the story, a little getting acquainted with the teller of the Tale. They average about 50 lines. And then there is the Wife of Bath with 828 lines of often intimate particulars! (The General Prologue to the whole of the Canterbury Tales is only 30 lines longer—858 lines.) We become, though completely unanticipated, her confidantes.

A “Wife’s” introduction in the General Prologue, we expect would begin with the uncommon fact of her 5 husbands—but NO! Instead we’re told “she was somewhat deaf, and that was a pity.” Is this just a poet’s quirk? Hardly. She mentions her deafness herself several times in her Prologue. Deafness provides a continuing thread until the closing scene, the denouement, of her lengthy preamble.

The Wife, whose name is Alison, gained wealth and property from her husbands. Three of them, she simply tells us, were “good and rich and old.” When she’s in the market for her 5th husband, she’s captivated by a young man of little status, but very attractive legs! After a month’s growing attraction, with a grand wedding, he became husband number 5. She generously shared her wealth with him. Ah, but she came to regret it!
      He often read aloud from old books about wicked wives. He’d repeat proverbs condemning women like, “It’s better to live with a dragon than with a woman who scolds!” Listening was painful for her.  On a particular night, as he sat by the fire, he began with a reading about Eve who brought misery to all mankind. Then he spoke of wives who found various means of disposing of their husbands.
     When she realized he wouldn’t stop, she’d had enough. “I suddenly tore 3 pages from his book and hit him so hard with my fist that he fell backwards toward the fireplace.” That was just the beginning of the fracas. He got up in a rage, hit her head with his fist and she fell to the floor.
     He was aghast at how still she lay! When she finally came to, she said, “You’ve killed me—but before I die I want to kiss you.” He came
near and knelt beside her. “Dear Alison,” he said, “so help me God, I shall never smite thee again. I beg you to forgive me.” And what did Alison do? “I hit him with my fist again and said, ‘I have that much revenge. Now I shall die. I can no longer speak.’" Her narrative comes to an unexpected, but rather harmonious, conclusion. “At last, with much care and woe, we came to an agreement—and I made him burn his books. After that we had no more strife.”

She was left a little deaf from the blow to her head, but otherwise it’s a happy ending.

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Anything can happen in a dream. Dreams are Chaucer’s favorite setting because there are no limits to his imagination. In his poem The Parlement of the Foules he begins by reading a book written by Macrobius, about a famous ancient African, who appeared in a dream. And, if you don’t pay close attention, Chaucer will trick you in his dream sequence.

     When our poet falls asleep that night he is visited by an African, who is standing by his bed and wearing the same clothes as the man in the dream he’d read about. Why mention the clothes? Why not just say it was the same African—if it is? Because it’s trickery. The saying goes that “clothes makes the man,” but in this case “clothes fakes the man”! The African visiting Chaucer is a calculated replacement with an important part to play.
     The poet interjects a list of various dreamers and their dreams: a judge dreams of winning cases; a rich man dreams of gold, and so on. You dream about what pleases you. The African says Chaucer had read “an old book” of his, and makes it clear that the book is not the one by Macrobius. He says Macrobius “wrote not a little” of this book. In other words, Chaucer knew another old book well that was written by a different African author.
     Now we’re going to pluck an African name out of history. It’s a legendary name and Chaucer will confirm the plucking: Augustine of Hippo. He was a famous theologian when he lived (354-450 AD), famous and influential in Chaucer’s day—and is still famous and influential today!
     Chaucer confirms the identity by cleverly dramatizing Augustine’s well-known recommendation for educating or persuading: docere, delectare, movere. That is, inform, delight, move. When the African takes the dreaming Chaucer by the hand, it brings him comfort, delight.  The poet is led to an elaborate garden gate. An inscription over the gate describes on one side how to achieve a happy life and on the other side how to be doomed to a life of frustration and sorrow. As Chaucer stands fearfully contemplating both the possibilities, to his complete surprise—and ours—the African shoves him through the gate and into the garden.  That’s Augustine’s delight, inform, and definitely move!

We’ll have more to say about the garden later.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


In a poem called The  House of Fame, Chaucer exercises his imagination in another dream. This time he takes us—or rather he is taken--on a trip through space! A splendid golden eagle swoops down, grasps the poet with his talons and off they go. Eventually, they arrive at a place called The House of Fame, but, in the meantime, Chaucer makes an up close acquaintance with celestial figures he knows well.

The poet is amazed and fearful as he is whisked through the air, and surprised when the Eagle addresses him by name! He assures Chaucer, “Have no fear. No harm will come to you. I am your friend.” This gifted bird then provides a scientific digression comparing properties of water and air: the result of a pebble being tossed into water generates ever-widening circles; the sound of speech generates ever- widening circles in the air!  
     Then, continuing to soar, the attentive Eagle again inquires of Chaucer, “How are you?” When Chaucer replies “I’m well,” he’s instructed to, “Look down and see the forests, cities, rivers and ships.” As they climb steadily upward, the Earth becomes a distant speck.
     “Now look up,” Chaucer is told. “Here dwell the Milky Way and the celestial beasts (constellations).” Ascending still further, the zodiac, the clouds, and winds are now below them. And, as they near the House of Fame, a loud roar, like the sound of waves crashing on rocks, is heard as a result of the ever-widening circles of sound!
     The Eagle flies near to the House of Fame, gently sets Chaucer on his feet and leaves him to investigate the structure of the House. After the poet wanders a while, he sees the golden bird perched on a nearby stone and approaches him. The Eagle lifts him with his talons again and transports him to the center of the House where a great throng of people is gathered. About 125 lines later, just as a famous man is about to be introduced, the poem breaks off. Chaucer never finished the dream.

The House itself is quite remarkable with Chaucer’s considerations of the meaning and acquiring of “fame.” Perhaps we’ll make that a subject later.