House of Fame, The

House of Fame, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1379)
   A DREAM VISION by CHAUCER, The House of Fame is a poem of three books in octosyllabic couplets. Most scholars believe that it was written after The BOOK OF THE DUCHESS but before The PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS. The verse form and focus on love put the poem, like The Book of the Duchess, in the tradition of French love visions that begins with the ROMAN DE LA ROSE. Like the Parliament, though, The House of Fame shows the strong influence of the major Italian writers, particularly DANTE, but also, to a lesser extent, BOCCACCIO. In book 2 of the poem, Chaucer refers to his work as customs officer, which indicates that the poem must have been written after his appointment to that post in 1374. But the influence of BOETHIUS in book 3 of The House of Fame suggests a date of 1378–80, when Chaucer was likely working on his translation of The CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY. Thus a date around 1379 seems most likely for the poem. Like Dante in the DIVINE COMEDY, Chaucer divides his poem into three parts. The poem begins with allusions to Virgil, describes a fabulous journey, and utilizes a guide ordained by heaven. But Chaucer’s comic tone contrasts with Dante’s high seriousness, even to the point of including mockheroic invocations to the gods and the muses. Like Chaucer’s other dream visions, The House of Fame begins with allusions to classical literature, but instead of reading a text that puts him to sleep (as he does in the Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowls), this time the Dreamer sees the text of Virgil’s Aeneid reenacted within his dream, as paintings on the wall of a temple in which his dream begins. It is the story of Aeneas’s desertion of Dido, presented as an illustration of a false lover. After viewing the frescoes, the Dreamer leaves the temple to find himself standing in a desert wasteland, wondering what to do next, when suddenly a huge golden eagle swoops down and snatches him up, carrying him into the heavens. The desert may suggest the wasteland in which Dante finds himself at the beginning of the Comedy, while the eagle almost certainly is drawn from canto 9 of the Purgatorio, where an eagle carries Dante to the first ledge on the mountain of Purgatory. Book 2 of The House of Fame is justly the most admired and popular part of the poem. Certainly it is the most humorous. The Eagle,we learn, has been sent from Jupiter, who has taken pity on the Dreamer’s long and fruitless service of Cupid and Venus. The bird has been sent as a guide to teach the Dreamer about love, and he is to bring the Dreamer to the House of Fame, where he will hear tidings of love, both true and false. The humor in the vision lies partly in the Eagle, who comes across as a pedantic and irrelevant lecturer, and partly in the characterization of the Dreamer: The Eagle calls him “Geffrey,” and paints a picture of him as a bureaucrat buried in his books at the office, and at home holed up in his study writing, a hermit with no sense of what goes on out in the world. It is an amusing self-caricature, and the most detailed autobiographical passage in Chaucer’s poetry.
   In book 3, the Eagle deposits Geffrey at the castle of Fame. He finds great classical poets as well as popular entertainers at the castle. Suddenly a great crowd bursts in, and much of the third book is taken up by seven groups of petitioners who approach the throne of the goddess Fame to make requests. The goddess grants or denies their requests for no apparent reason, demonstrating, apparently, how completely random is her distribution of respectable or dishonorable reputations—as such, she is reminiscent of the fickle goddess Fortune in Boethius, and indeed, in that work, fame is one of the areas within the control of Fortune. Ultimately a stranger approaches Geffrey to ask him if he has come seeking fame himself.When Geffrey denies the suggestion, the stranger leads him into another house, the house of Rumor, telling him he will hear what he desires here. From this spinning house, truth and falsehood are emitted, all mingled together. Geffrey is told that a man “of gret auctoritee” is about to make an announcement. At this point, the poem breaks off. Just what this announcement would have been has been the object of a good deal of conjecture by critics, in particular those trying to date the poem by internal evidence. Some have held that the announcement pertained to the marriage of King RICHARD II to ANNE OF BOHEMIA. Others have proposed it may have been intended as a greeting for Queen Anne when she arrived in England. Still others have suggested it concerned the pending betrothal of John of Gaunt’s daughter Philippa. All of these might be appropriate if the date of the poem were 1379. Some who believe the poem is earlier have suggested the announcement may concern Richard’s anticipated engagement in 1377 to Marie, the young princess of France. Twice the poem specifies the date of December 10, but no one has satisfactorily explained the significance of this date. If the poem was intended to commemorate some important occasion, there is no consensus as to what that occasion was.
   Nor is it clear whether the ending of the poem has been lost or the poem was simply left unfinished. Since only three manuscripts of the poem are extant, it seems unlikely the poem was well known in its own time (although Thomas USK may allude to it in his Testament of Love). It may be that whatever anticipated event was to be announced by the man of “great authority” never occurred. Beyond the occasion for the poem, it has been suggested that Chaucer may be facing in The House of Fame a turning point in his own development as a poet. Certainly after this poem he turned to Italian influences in his poetry far more than French. Perhaps, for himself, he saw that as the route to lasting fame.
   ■ Amtower, Laurel. “Authorizing the Reader in Chaucer’s House of Fame,” Philological Quarterly 79 (2000): 273–291.
   ■ Bennett, J. A. W. Chaucer’s Book of Fame. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
   ■ Boitani, Piero. Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984.
   ■ Delany, Sheila. Chaucer’s House of Fame: The Poetics of Skeptical Fideism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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