Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The House of Fame by Geoffrey Chaucer.

First page of House of Fame
The House of Fame was one of Geoffrey Chaucer's earlier works, written somewhere between 1379-80 (most certainly written after The Romaunt of the Rose, 1361-7 and The Book of the Duchess, 1369-72). It has 2158 lines, but, like The Romaunt of the Rose and Anelida and Arcite (late 1370s) it was unfinished. And, whilst I'm doing comparisons, like The Legend of Good Women, Romaunt of the Rose, Parlement of Foules, and The Book of the Duchess it is based on a dream vision.

The poem is divided into three parts and in Book I begins with the narrator Geoffrey ("Geffrey") considering dreams; why sometimes one has good dreams and other times nightmares, why sometimes dreams have a meaning and at other times they do not:
God turn us every dream to good!
For it is wonder thing, by the Rood [cross],
To my witte, what causeth swevens [dreams],
Either on morrows or on evenes;
And why theffect followeth of somme,
And of some it shall never come;
Why this is an avision
And this a revelation;
Why this a dream, why that a sweven,
And noght to every man lyche even
Why this a fantome, why these oracles,
I not; but whoso of these meracles
The causes knoweth bet than I...
He goes on to promise to describe a dream he had:
So wonderful a drem as I
The tenthe day now of Decembre,
The which, as I kan now remembre,
I wol yow tellen everydel.
In The Arms Of Morpheus by Sir William Ernest Reynolds-Stephens (1894).
But first an invocation to the god of sleep, and though he doesn't mention the god by name this surely refers to Morpheus, who Chaucer mentioned in The Book of the Duchess and who also appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book XI). The poet writes,
Prey I that he wol me spede
My sweven for to telle aryght,
Then finally he begins telling of his dream:
Of Decembre the tenthe day,
Whan hit was nyght to slepe I lay
Ryght ther as I was wont to done,
And fil on slepe wonder sone...
From there he tells of his dream in which he enters a temple of glass, which he believes to be dedicated to Venus:
But as I slepte, me mette I was
Withyn a temple ymad of glas,
In which ther were moo ymages
Of gold, stondynge in sondry stages,
And moo ryche tabernacles,
And with perre moo pynacles,
And moo curiouse portreytures,
And queynte maner of figures
Of olde werk, then I saugh as ever.
For certeynly, I nyste never
Wher that I was but wel syste I
Hyt was of Venus redely....
Virgil's Aeneid.
As he begins to explore this temple he finds a brass tablet on the wall inscribed with the story of Virgil's Aeneid -
I fond that on a wall ther was
Thus written on a table of bras:
"I wol now synge, yif I kan,
The armes and also the man
That first cam, thrugh his destinee,
Fugityf of Troy contree..."
He reads on and describes the destruction of Troy, the burning of Aeneas, and the various stories in the Aeneid. Eventually he leaves the temple to try and find out where he is however finds he is in a desert:
When I out at the doores came,
I fast aboute me beheld;
Then saw I but a large feld
As far as that I mighte see,
Withoute town, or house, or tree,
Or bush, or grass, or ered land,
For all the field was but of sand,
As small as men may see it lie
In the desert of Libye;
He looks up and he sees an eagle descending.

Warwick Goble's illustration of The House of Fame from
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Macmillan, 1912).
Book II begins with a revelation from the eagle, who has caught and flown off with the poet. He is, he says, a servant of Jupiter (an eagle is the symbol of Jupiter, or Jove as he is also known) and he takes him to the House of Fame as a reward:
In som recompensacion
Of labour and devocion
That thou hast had, loo causeles,
To Cupido the rechcheles [careless]
The eagle tells him of the location of the House of Fame in a particularly complex part of the poem:
First shalt thou heare where she duelleth,
And, so thyn oune bok hyt tellith:
Hir paleys stant, as I shal seye,
Ryght even in myddes of the weye
Betwixen hevene and erthe and see,
That what so ever in al these three
Is spoken, either privy or apert,
The way therto ys so overt,
And stant eke in so juste a place
That every soun mot to hyt pace;
Or what so cometh from any tongue,
Be hyt rounded, red, or songe,
Or spoke in seurte or in drede,
Certeyn, hyt moste thider nede.
House of Fame manuscript.
This part is rather difficult to explain, but it's based on the idea that as one drops a stone it will fall to the ground, so too when one speaks the sound will ripple to a centre, and this centre 'between heaven and earth and sea' is where the sounds gather. This is the location of the House of Fame: this is where one can hear all stories of love, life, everything that may inspire a poet. Here is a good point also to note that the word "fame" does not quite mean what it does now but more to that which has been spoken of. It is clear, then, that this House of Fame is the House of the goddess Fama, or Pheme (Φήμη); the goddess of gossip, who will spread both tales of nobility and rumour. Virgil describes her in the Aeneid:
The loud report thro' Libyan cities goes.
Fame, the great ill, from small beginnings grows:
Swift from the first; and ev'ry moment brings
New vigor to her flights, new pinions to her wings.
Soon grows the pigmy to gigantic size;
Her feet on earth, her forehead in the skies.
Inrag'd against the gods, revengeful Earth
Produc'd her last of the Titanian birth.
Swift is her walk, more swift her winged haste:
A monstrous phantom, horrible and vast.
As many plumes as raise her lofty flight,
So many piercing eyes inlarge her sight;
Millions of opening mouths to Fame belong,
And ev'ry mouth is furnish'd with a tongue,
And round with list'ning ears the flying plague is hung.
She fills the peaceful universe with cries;
No slumbers ever close her wakeful eyes;
By day, from lofty tow'rs her head she shews,
And spreads thro' trembling crowds disastrous news;
With court informers haunts, and royal spies;
Things done relates, not done she feigns, and mingles truth with lies.
The eagle and Geoffrey then go on to talk of the stars, and the poet quotes from The Consolation of Philosophy (which Chaucer translated between 1378-81) - 
"A thought may flee so hye
Wyth fetheres of Philosophye,
To passen everych element,
And whan he hath so fer ywent,
Than may be seen behynde hys bak
Book II ends as the eagle and Geoffrey approach the House of Fame which roars will all the speeches of mankind.

Apollo and Diana by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757).
Book III (the longest part) begins with an invocation to Apollo, the god of light, and then begins to describe the entry into the House of Fame. Geoffrey is alone now, and he observes the House, finding that it is built upon ice -
A roche of yse, and not of stel.
Thoughte I, "By Seynt Thomas of Kent,
This were a feble fundament
To builden on a place hye.
There are names etched in the ice, some permanent, some have melted away, and Chaucer lists the various people, some musicians, some magicians, that are listed. He then describes the house itself which made of precious jewels and held up by columns on which there are statues of poets and scholars: Virgil, for example, Ovid, Statius (author of Thebaid, AD 45-96, who also appeared as a guide in Dante's Purgatorio), Lucan, Claudian (a Roman poet), and Josephus (author of The Jewish War, AD 75 and Antiquities of the Jews, AD 94). At last encounters Fame herself sitting on throne granting wishes to some but not others depending on her whim. As he leaves the House of Fame he discovers how Fame sends her messages - simply by gossip and Chinese whispers. The truth, therefore, never quite makes it back to earth.

And so the poem ends, mid-verse - Geoffrey encounters a man, "A man of gret auctorite", but there is no more.

Though enjoyable, The House of Fame is particularly complex and relies on knowledge of ancient and medieval poets and scholars, Greek and Roman myths and legends, and some knowledge of ancient and medieval science as it draws on Aristotelian and Ptolemaic philosophy. But it is a beautiful poem nonetheless with rich and sparkling images! Chaucer's inspiration comes from Italian poets - Virgil and Ovid, and some of Boccaccio too, as well as a wealth of ancient writings from Biblical times to his present day. Difficult, but worth it!


  1. I loved your review but it's made me worry. I think now I should read Ovid's Metamorphoses before I read any Chaucer. What do you think? I knew I'd regret putting it off!! And never mind that, I should probably read The Consolation of Philosophy too. Yikes!

    1. Honestly I think you're worrying :) You could use Chaucer as a way into Ovid and Boethius, like a sort of introduction. That said, Boethius won't take long to read assuming you're reading it in English (takes a lot longer to read Chaucer's translation, but so you know Chaucer's was a good translation as far as I can tell).

      All that said, you know what I regret? Not reading Boccaccio over the summer with you. I think I'm going to have a Chaucer pause and read The Decameron before I read Canterbury Tales. I don't think I *need* to, but I do want to. Thinking I might read a 'day' a week (you know what I mean!). I'll be starting Canterbury Tales later than planned, but that's ok!

      As for Ovid - I loved Metamorphoses and I do want to re-read it.

      Oh, but I want to read everything at the minute! :D

    2. As for your last sentence ..... me, too!!! I wish I had unlimited reading time AND there were 150 hours added to each day!

      Glup! I never finished The Decameron. I should pick it up again and read it. Good grief. I'm also trying to read What is to Be Done? before reading Notes to the Underground. Why do all these books link up? Why do they do this to me? Okay, I'll have to try not to take it personally .... ;-)

      Which reminds me, are we still reading The Voyage Out this month on the 26th? Was Ruth reading it with us and, if so, I think Jason from Literature Frenzy would like to as well. Look at that! You already have a little read-along group even without any "advertising"!

    3. Blogger's eating my comments again >:( I wrote you a long comment and it's not showed!

      I think I will go for Decameron, that's one thing I said. Wealth of Nations (my big read) isn't quite happening...

      And yes to The Voyage Out - I'll post something for next week :)

  2. I can't stand reading middle-English and tend to stay far away from medieval literature in general. Nevertheless, I do appreciate your detailed and comprehensive reviews on authors like Chaucer because it provides just a little more incentive to read his works.

    1. I enjoy reading Middle English but it takes so long. That's partly why I'm thinking about reading The Decameron - I like the era, and plus I have a modern translation!

      Chaucer's great to read, and there's lots of translations to help. So far I've read everything in medieval English, although I read Boece with a translation to hand - don't think I'd have managed otherwise :)


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