The construction of the house of fame is quite remarkable and a work of creative genius. First of all it’s a perversion of Dante’s Paradise in that instead of a loving, benevolent God rewarding all the faithful with eternal life, the court at the House of Fame, rather than worshiping their God only beg for recognition and favor and in turn she is totally arbitrary in whom she meets out rewards. Earlier I noticed how Chaucer might be playing with the idea of showy, intoned prayer being no better than a fart and I think this is what he sees as the result. He seems to be explaining what happens to people who are to focused on being showy than on actually doing the hard work. This makes line 1100 funny because he doesn’t want to show off his craft / skill as a poet, he just wants to make one moral point, but he doesn’t know what that point is and so he needs Apollo’s help to guide him.
One has to wonder what had happened to Chaucer to cause him to write this poem. Line 1887 says he is looking for new material to set him apart from the old masters, and line 2129 describes a scene that could be straight out of his day job counting and verifying shipments of goodness knows what. Perhaps he was wondering if this is all his life would ever be knowing full well he had the talent to be a great poet yet felt stuck in a world that only recognized the unworthy, or at best arbitrarily handed out fortunes. Perhaps he had even been caught up in some slander (which translates here to scandal) and he bemoans when in the wicker rumor mill he sees truth and lies joined together in such a way as to make them indistinguishable?
Whatever his reasons, he does make some wonderful observations on the nature of fame and how petty gossip is and how the whole idea of fame is built upon an unsteady foundation. Even the material of the castle, beryl, is interesting in that while it magnifies, it also discolors so that one never gets a true representation of the thing being examined. He’s saying that the old masters whose pillars make up this castle, when you really look at them, are not what they seem to be and they even argue and bicker among each other.
Of course we can’t ignore the sexism latent in what he’s writing by turning Dante’s male God of Paradise into a fickle female. Yet when we consider how differently romance works compared to epic, in that in romance no man is complete without a lady (in epic the woman impedes the male hero), he is making fun of this trope too. He sees not just the flaws of epic, but also of romance and he’s not shy to make fun of it.
This eagle is funny because he’s basically an idiot Virgil. Unlike in Dante’s Divine Comedy when Virgil was a helpful guide for the poet, this eagle is more of a know-it-all that Chaucer finally has to say that he’s just no longer interested in learning anything new from him.
There is more to the joke, however. As the eagle explains how the House of Fame receives its news via broken air – speech and noise break the air and that travels up to the realm of the House of Fame – then speech and sound are not really differentiated. In fact what a person says vs. them farting would be of equal importance, thus speech is basically a fart.
And while this is typical Chaucer humor, it’s deeper than it seems because he’s also alluding to the possibility that prayer, at least as it is intoned, is also about as valuable as a fart. Private prayer, silent prayer – thus (hopefully) earnest prayer – is usually thought, but public proclamations of virtue and showy prayers hold the same importance as flatulence: shitty air / shitty wind.
Another observation is who is this god of love Chaucer is referring to? Does he mean Venus? Well, no because here the god is masculine. Does he mean Cupid? Or does he actually mean Jesus. God is, after all Love thus in the 13th century evoking Jesus would give the poet the moral authority he wants to write imaginatively about love.
Chaucer makes a small, but interesting connection between line 117, “To the corseynt Leonard” – St Leonard being the patron saint of prisoners – and Dido (in fact all women) in that she is a prisoner to circumstance and the male world of virtus as well as to Rumor. Because she is pregnant by Aeneas and her honor and love is tied up with him she is forced into a situation that eventually leads her to drive a knife through her heart, whereas he is free to continue his voyage to Italy.
Chaucer seems to be paying homage to the glory and beauty of the ancient writers and stories by placing them in this beautiful temple, a vision he cannot explain why he has received it when other people are not awarded such visions / dreams. But he also seems to be playing with the old stories in that he’s very interested in how poorly Dido, and so many other women, have been treated. He feels very modern when he writes that women should be aware of men who with sweet words can get their way and then leave a storm behind them for the women to endure, be it shame from gossip of an affair and / or an illegitimate child.
Moreover, he is playing with his favorite theme of authority vs experience. Aeneas is a hero in the epic sense, but not in the romantic, yet the great writers of antiquity are considered the authority on morality and are the basis of western civilization and are central in the canon. Since this is a poem about his desire to be famous – respected – like the ancient writers, he has to figure out how to reconcile an outdated worldview (virtus) with the more modern romantic worldview where men do not behave the way Aeneas does. In epic a woman is a barrier to fame, in romance it is integral to it and Chaucer is showing his audience that he knows the difference between the 2, a fact his audience was also smart enough to recognize.
And is Aeneas to blame for his actions? The gods have a mission for him and who is he to argue against that authority, even if in he sources he chose not to interpret the wedding as being legitimate? Chaucer has it both ways then by saying that both parties had their share of guilt and innocence. She too soon loved a stranger and threw her authority away and he led her on knowing he wasn’t supposed to be there.
Thus does the education gleaned from reading the ancients actually make a person moral? If we hold the ancients to such a high standard yet all we see is them behaving badly then why do we exemplify them such? Chaucer mentions St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners, and so are we prisoner to the canon?