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PLACES  AND POETIC CREATIVITY IN CHAUCER’S
"THE HOUSE OF FAME AND THE PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS"
 
Huriye Reis
 

In traditional dream poetry, the dreamer is a wanderer in an often delightingly beautiful place. It is the dreamer’s sense of appreciation, his sense of wonder at this dream granted place cooperating and participating in the dream experience that  creates the dream narrative. The dreamer’s reaction to the dream experience is constructive so that the dream narrative is in fact  the product of the change of place effected by the dream. If places lend the narrator poet a sense of identity coterminus with the importance of place for poetic creativity,  the case is quite the contrary for Chaucer’s narrator in the House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls. His response to the often reading-induced dream is one of reluctance and fear. In the House of Fame, even his presence in the palace of fame is one of a disinterested visitor. In the Parliament of  Fowls, his guide, Africanus, has to assure the narrator of the irrelevance of the place to him personally.  The narrator resists the change of place, and, though not verbalised to the dream guides, he insists on the inspirational and creative role of the old  books  in attaining his poetic goals. This paper examines the narrator’s attitude to the role of the place in his narrative productivity and suggests that in  the House of Fame and Parliament of Fowles  it is,  through the narrator’s reluctant cooperation, the places that make the poetry possible.

In Chaucer’s poetry place is often  negotiated and mediated through a re-told story. Places feature in the stories of the Canterbury pilgrims, nevertheless they are places of and in stories. In the dream poems that precede the Canterbury Tales, the only exception to the storicised places is the opening spring landscape where the narrator has his bed made in order to enjoy the company of his beloved daisy in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. In the House of Fame and the Parliament of Fowls, the narrative is of the places visited. However, the narrator feels a sense of displacement  at the prospect of  seeing different places to advance his writing and fails to acknowledge the role of the places in his poetic creativity. He clings to his repeatedly stated poetic formula that his inspiration and his material for poetry come from books and not from the experience of different places. The House of Fame and the Parliament of Fowls reveal that reading in fact is instrumental in initiating his dream experience which consists largely of visiting places. This rather controversial situation is attested by the narrator’s reading-induced visists to the the Garden of Love and the Places of Fame and Rumour.

The narrator’s resistance to the change of place is closely related to his concept of poetry. R.Robert Edwards states for Chaucer “thinking about poetry is inseparable from writing poetry: reflection is incribed in creation.” Reflection on his art is a characteristic function of the narrator’s writing. The narrator in Chaucer’s dream poems is a reader and a poet. Each dream that he dreams is induced by his habitual book reading, and each is turned into a book. The creative atmosphere and the matter for creating the dream narrative, the narrator claims, come from the books that he reads.  The poetry he writes is persistently derivative in the sense that its source is not the first-hand experience of the poet but the old books. The narrator turns the dream poem into a means of inquring, reflecting and negotiating the conditions of its own creation. What is related is less important than how it comes to be the subject of  poetry. Preoccupied with the source and continuity of literature, the narrator is an overly self-conscious writer whose confidence in the functionality and use of old books as unchallengeable sources of poetry is challenged and tested through the introduction of places into his poetic landscape. In the Parliament of Fowls, his poetic manifesto is “out of old fields comes the new corn”. Likewise, out of old books comes the new science, i.e. art, that we learn. The assertions in favour of book reading as a profitable source of poetic creativity nevertheless reveals a narrator deeply concerned about  his writing. The narrator who introduces himself as the writer of the narratives in the House of Fame and  the Parliament of Fowls is concerned about the literary quality of his poems. He is also concerned about the suitability of himself to the subject matter of his writing. His poems involve love but the love he knows is love in books. The quality of his writing likewise suffers because he has no contact with the world outside his books. His dreams enable him to confront the source of the lack that he feels in his writing, they also present him with an alternative solution.  As dream accounts of the narrator the House of Fame consists of three books which tell of the temple of Venus with the story of Troy engraved on the walls, the palace of Fame and the plalace of Rumour respectively. In the Parliament of Fowls, the predream reading of Somnium Scipionis is followed by the dream which relates the garden of Love where the narrator once again visits the temple of Venus and the place of Nature consequtively. Evidently both poems are poems of places and not poems of books.

The garden of Love in the Parliament of Fowls and the Palace of Fame in the House of Fame are places offered to the narrator as rewards for his diligent reading:
 

However, though presented in the form of rewards they serve a second and even more important end. The authorities acknowledge the narrator’s efforts to produce good poetry, but nevertheless they are compelled to concede the point that the incentive is not satisfactorily realised by the eager narrator/poet. The aim is to improve the poetry the narrator produces. And Jove as a reader of the narrator’s poems identifies the problem as
 

The diagnosis of the narrator’s problem as one of a bookish person who has no contact with the outside world opens the way for the places to be used as poetic material. For it is also clear to the authorities that the narrator writes what he knows or learns from the books. His poetic failure is due to his limited experience and knowledge. Visiting  different places will  function as cure to his prolific but meritless writing. In other words, coming from his in-text critics, the problem with the narrator’s writing is that it needs to be spiced up. It needs the excitement and action that new places offer even to the most disinterested visitor.

What the authorities concede in the House of Fame is acknowledged by the narrator himself in the Parliament of Fowles. The opening is the opening of a reader who resorts to books  to learn certain things. As in the House of Fame, in the Parliament of Fowls too, the narrator has no real experience of love. He admits “For al be that I knowe nat Love in deed/….Yit happeth me ful ofte in bokes reede/ Of his myrakles and his crewel yre” (8;10-11). Accordingly, his poem opens with a recounting of Somnium Scipionis that he has recently read. The book tells of love but of love of common profit, in which Scipio is instructed by his grandfather Africanus. The relevance of the book to the narrator’s  own book is that it initiates another adventure, a visit to the Garden of Love. Africanus, conjured from the book read appears at his bedside in his dream and is determined to thank him properly for reading the book. To this end, the narrator is dropped at a gate. A gate which at first is just a gate to the narrator. But as soon as he reads the inscription on the gate and finds out that it is the gate to the garden of love where one experiences paradoxical effects of pain and joy of love, he is frightened out of his wits so much so that Africanus has to assure him that the inscription does not apply to him.
 

 

As the quotation illustrates the visit to the place signifies no active involvement for the narrator. Going into the garden of love will not undermine his stronghold that “I know not love in deed”. Thinking that entering the place will subject him to the paradoxical power of love is frightening. Still, it is not only the fear of experience but also the fear that if he enters the garden of love, he will be deprived of the security that he derives from the book authorities.Evidently, the garden of love is a place, an actual place, (as actual as the dream allows) and will require an adequately matching response. The narrator’s implied poetic manifesto and his overtly stated attitude to writing clash with what the place purports to offer. As a writer, the dreamer is convinced that reading books and writing his own versions of the stories based on his reading is what a poet does. Prior to his dream he reads Somnium Scipionis and part of his own poem is a summary of that book. He realises that his reading is the cause of his dream. His own response, ýn fact his initiative in reading the said book is to learn a certain thing that he is unable to identify. The search for that certain thing will go on even after finishing writing his dream that essentially provides him with the material that he needs. Changing his habitual location is changing his mental location too.Yet, that knowledge does not require seeing or observing. Whereas the insription on the gate warns the reader to enter at their own risk. The risk involved for the narrator is to risk his position as a reading and recording detached writer. Africanus’ treat is again a challenge to the narrator’s poetic premises in this context. His ambition to serve Love he tries to realise by reading about love and his lore in books.  However, as the House of Fame attests that ambition is never likely to be realised unless the narrator takes more initiative towards seeing different places. At the center of the suggestions, offers and impositions made by his understanding dream guides is the implication that places are more functional and useful means for poetry.

The narrator’s dilemma in fact is only seemingly a dilemma. Ultimately, the poetry he writes is the poetry of place, and not of books. He is duly satisfied with his dream and he proudly presents it as the best of its kind. It is as if writing the places is subverting his poetic enterprise. But at the same time the dream experience that takes him away from his books and introduces him to a world of action and event that he can observe without having to understand and interpret salvages his poetry from becoming dull and bookish.

Hence, though he writes of the places in The House of Fame and the Parliament of Fowls, writing of the places instead of writing what he reads in books becomes paradoxically a resigned activity, an act of obedience to the demands of the reader. The narrator has no power not to oblige with the visits for poetic advancement. Moreover, he does not contradict the judgment of the authorities, either. However, the means of improvement clashes not only with the narrator’s sense of identity as a poet but also with his understanding of poetry. Changing place is a necessity, an improvement on his present writing. But the obliging narrator makes a record of it and soon after the dream he returns to his books again. Visiting places is an imposition that gives him poetic material for his writing and that ultimately makes the poems possible. But the narrator is not to acknowledge the importance of his visits to the garden of Love and the places of fame and Rumour as productive experiences. Place has no place in the narrator’s poetic manifesto.

By resisting the change of place he is also responding to the criticism on his concept of writing. When the narrator himself reflects on his art, he seems to have found the right formula. Books and books it is that guides the true poet to his objectives.  On the other hand, changing place is something frightening. It is also a distruption. The dream authorities with their offers of visits to places are intruding on the narrator’s confined but safe world of books. The places that he eventually turns into poems alternately confuse, baffle, shock and delight him. Whereas, with his books, he can make sense of his world.  When he finds himself in the temple of Venus, for instance, he is in the familiar world of his books. Reading the Dido and Aeneas story, he claims to be the only reliable authority for the story. Reading the story, he is at home. He can confidently refer the reader to Virgil and Ovid to know the details of Dido’s plight. He can also offer his own reading and create his own intertextual version of  the Dido story. His attitude is one of a commentator on a well known story, with the confidence that the reader will be able to follow the leads that his own version opens. When he finishes reading the story, however, he becomes aware of the fact that though the riches and images the temple offers to the visitor are fascinating, he has no sense of  where he is: “But not wot I whoo did hem wirche,/ ne where I am , ne in what contree.” (474-75”. Outside the temple, he sees “a large feld,/ …Withouten toun, or hous, or tree, / or bush , or grass, or eryd lond/…Ne no maner creature/ That ys yformed be Nature.”  Outside the temple, he suffers a total loss of contact with what is familiar. His confidence gone, fear takes over. And he turns to God and prays “Fro fantome and illusion/ Me save”. The help that he receives comes in the form of a pedantic eagle who is less than happy to be burdened with the relatively light weight narrator in his talons. The dream world and the places it offers continually undermines the narrator’s search for security. In one of the most humorous passages in Chaucer’s writing, the narrator is swept off into the giddy heights of the sky where he shakes like a leaf for fear. The eagle: “Awak!/ And be not agast so, for shame”. When the eagle feels that the narrator has recovered from  his shock, he teases him for his fear but at the same time comforts him that he will receive no harm from the experience “ Seynte Marye, /Thou art noyous for to carrye!” The light insult he receives for his body, is followed by a belittleing remark on his capacity as a poet: “And nothyng nedeth it, pardee”. Yet, all is well, and is meant well; the eagle assures the narrator that he is a friend, but the narrator’s fear is too great and his suspicions too grave. The Eagle has to tell him precisely “ what I am,/And whither thou shalt, and why I cam/ To do thys, so that thou take/ Good herte, and not for fere quake.”

The entire speech of the Eagle to the narrator is worth quoting for it presents  the narrator’s poetic endeavour in its entirety. It points out the working poetic premises of the narrator and displays its limitations. It is in consideration of the narrator’s devotion  of his studies to Jove and his lore that Joves decides that the narrator should be rewarded. Out of undeserved pity for the narrator and interest in the advancement of his writing that the God appoints the eagle to take the narrator to a place called the Hous of fame to have some fun and experience of a more active kind. The place will show the narrator more of  what he has been reading in his books, and will yield useful supplementary  material. On their way to the house of Fame, the narrator is shown the earth from above and is able to see the earth from a different perspective. The higher they climb towards the stars the smaller becomes the great earth below. The aim is to make everything visually accessible and the Eagle makes an elaborate show of it. Meantime, the narrator is not enjoying but enduring the trip. His eager guide is anxious to give his uninitiated  and reluctant student as much as he can. But the student is disinterested. He turns down the offer for a closer look at the stars for “ I am too old,” though at the same time his journey through the sky proves to him that  the books are reliable, that  “sooth was her descripsion/ As fer as that y sey the prove/ Therfore y kan hem now beleve” (987-90). On the other hand, the proof that the books give accurate description of what he now is seeing for himself further diminishes his interest in the new places. The star names and other signs in the sky are of no more interest to him because “hyt is no nede/ I leve as wel…/Hem that write of  this matere/As though I knew her places here” (1011-13). The Eagle’s farewell remarks at the Fame’s place “…heven send the grace/ Some good to lernen in this place” (1087-88) are almost redundant and certainly inapplicable. Yet, the narrator has no choice but to proceed with his designated visit to the palace. Once at the place of Fame, though, what he sees and observes  take precedence over his reservations about the necessity of the journey. The place becomes an object of observation and reflection. The narration proceeds through expressions such as “There I saw…when had I al this folk beholde…I gan forth romen”. The visit to the palace of fame then becomes one of  exploration and discovery.  The narrator now finds out that his books and his writers that he diligently peruses have a place in this crowded place. His journey to the place of  fame is a journey to the center of literature. It presents the possibility of distinguishing his writers according to their matters and their standing in the eyes of the reading public. The significant part of the journey is to introduce the narrator to the power that preserves literature. The narrator’s shocking realisation is that the power that assigns the fame is not a reliable power. Lady fame is dear and much sought after. But she does not meet the expectations of just reward. The nine groups of people who seek good or bad name from Lady fame are served randomly and capriciously. There is no logical explanation as to why those who deserve good fame leave with bad name and those who deserve and wish oblivion are granted the opposite of what they merit. The only explanation comes from Lady fame herself, to which the narrator is an astounded observer “hyt were a vice./Al be ther in me no justice/ Me lyste not to doo hyt now”

In the Parliament of Fowles, the place that he finally enters fills him with joy. He is eager to discover more and to record it with camera-like exactness. The parliament of birds ends in harmony when Nature grants freedom of choice. The disengaged but diligent narrator admittedly turns this experience into a poem. In other words he is consciously poeticising the place and taking out of it what he needs as a writer.

However, since the narrator is never a lover and since he never is an adventurer, changing place for the purposes of collecting poetic material is always a difficult experience that he has to suffer. It is only in his dreams and that with the insistence of his patrons to whom he dedicates all that he writes that he moves from his desk. Reading leads to change of place and first-hand experience of places, but reading is his motto for poetic productivity. He always goes back to his reading until perhaps another authority appears and  imposes on him yet another visit. Places do not fit comfortably in his bookish world. Place in fact makes him sufferthe agony of writing with the intense tension that lends him creative power as a poet.