Fame And Her House (Chaucer's House Of Fame)
Length: 1728 words (4.9 double-spaced pages)
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Ruggiers begins his argument with the story of Dido and Aeneas, the focus of Book I of The House of Fame. Having learned that Aeneas plans to abandon her to move onto Italy, the reader finds Dido in turmoil. However, instead of cursing Fortune or cursing Love on account of Aeneas’ unrequited love, Chaucer portrays Dido railing against Fame. Ruggiers believes this to be important because her outcry is an accurate “blend of the two phases of Fame’s functions, rumor and reputation (Ruggiers, p.19). This can best be seen when Dido exclaims:
O wel-awey that I was born! For thorgh yow is my name lorn, and alle myn actes red and
Songe iver al thys lond, on every tonge. O wikke Fame!—for ther nys nothing so swift, lo,
as she is! O, soth ys, every thing ys wyst, though hit be kevered with the myst. Eke, though
I myghte duren ever, that I have don rekever I never, that I ne shal be seyd, allas, yshamed
Be thourgh Eneas and that I shal thus juged be: ‘loo, right as she hath don, no she wol doo
Eft-sones, hardely’—thus seyth the peple prively (Chaucer, Lines 345-360).”
The narrator then goes on to say that all of Dido’s cries can’t help her one straw. Within the confines of this passage, Chaucer has Fame punish Dido by smearing her name in spite of her innocence, as she was wronged by Aeneas and his broken promises, and in spite of the intense sorrow it generated. In so doing, the passage serves as a perfect portrayal of the Fame that the reader sees in Book III. All of the traits that Geoffrey describes of the Fame that sits in her house can be found here in the same Fame that afflicts Dido. Ruggiers suggests that Chaucer’s purpose of dedicating so much text to the retelling of the story of Dido and Aeneas is to illustrate how Fame can influence and afflict love, as seen with Dido. One can’t help but to agree with that claim and to further suggest that Chaucer uses the example of Dido in Book I to accustom the reader to the way Fame functions and operates in Book III.
When Geoffrey finally enters the House of Fame in Book III, he witnesses firsthand the characteristics and physical features of Fame. As suppliants enter her house asking for glory and repute, Fame either grants, refuses, or inverts their requests based on her whims (Chaucer, Lines 1520-1676). Here Chaucer further illustrates the ties between the three sisters, Love, Fortune, and Fame by showing how fortune plays a direct role in one’s personal fame just as he showed fame’s stake in love in the example of Dido. More importantly, Geoffrey, as well as the reader, is granted a view of how fame, or infamy, is established. When Geoffrey recounts the physical description of Fame, Chaucer also relays a pertinent point. Geoffrey describes Fame as being covered in eyes, ears, and tongues but also clothed in garments covered in the coat of arms of the greatest classical heroes (Chaucer, Lines1356-1418). One can see that here, Chaucer portrays Fame as both hideous and beautiful at the same time. The body of any woman covered in eyes, ears, and tongues, the physical vehicles used to spread fame, can not be imagined to be anything other than hideous and unnatural. However, Geoffrey also describes the absolute beauty of Fame’s clothing. This blending of beauty and the unsightly serves as an accurate and subtle representation of the capabilities of Fame, namely the ability to bless and the ability to ruin.
Fame’s immediate surroundings emulate her ornate nature. Every part of the House of Fame is plated in gold. Geoffrey goes so far as to describe the house as such “that al the menthat ben on lyve ne han the kunnynge to descrive the beaute of that ylke place (Chaucer, Lines 1167-1169).” He also describes all of the contents of the house to seem to be made of beryl, a gem makes things seem larger than they appear when the eye sees through its lens (Chaucer, Line 1184). All of this excessive gaudiness shows Geoffrey the types of things that Fame attracts and at times, even requires. Even more important than the material possessions that the House of Fame held were its inhabitants. The greatest legends of all history were there plying there trades, namely musicians, magicians, and story tellers (Chaucer 1201-1281). The idea of such company would be a certain draw for anyone aspiring to fame. However, this ideal company also drew lesser talent to it—imitators and would-be students who sought to learn and create their own success and fame as they sat at the feet of the masters. The lavish decorations and the excellent, as well as the poor, company serve to illustrate the complete price of Fame in Chaucer’s perspective. Such an illustration would enthrall a lesser-minded person, but certainly make a wiser person, such as an accomplished writer or thinker who is entirely deserving, wary of Fame and her cost.
Conversely, Chaucer’s description of the outside of the House of Fame is bleak and barren; essentially the complete opposite of its inside. Geoffrey describes the house to be atop a very high surface and describes the ascent to the house as laborious. Here again, Chaucer uses apt representations for Fame. Her house is in a high and prominent position that can easily be seen--something worthy of her stature. Also, the path to Fame is not an easy one, as seen by the description of Geoffrey’s climb. More importantly, Geoffrey realizes that the foundation of the House of Fame is rock-like ice, which can be easily melted. In fact, he also notices the names of prominent figures etched into the ice, with those that are of passing fancy already beginning to melt, while the more lasting figures are etched into a side of the foundation that is protected by the shadow of the house (Chaucer, Lines 1116-1160). This illustration serves to show the time and cultural sensitivity of fame. A change of time and/or cultural perspective can melt away one’s fame just as a change in the position of the sun could melt away the very foundation of fame in Chaucer’s text. Also, Ruggiers draws attention to the separation between the opulent House of Fame and the House of Rumor, which is made of twigs (Chaucer, Line 1941). Ruggiers suggests that the distinction between the two houses “is Chaucer’s method of disassociating his enlarged and more grandiose conception of Fame or reputation from the meaner view of her as mere rumor or report, as she had been in classical literature (Ruggiers, p.28).” This point is extremely important to note because the fulfillments of each of the eagle’s promises (i.e. that seen in lines 672-679 and 578-559) take place in the two different houses. The fulfillment of the eagle’s first promise, that Geoffrey would learn and profit, took place within the House of Fame, while the fulfillment of the eagle’s second promise, that Geoffrey would hear of Love’s tidings, hurriedly took place in the House of Rumor (Chaucer, Lines 2141-2142). This facet of the text speaks volumes as to which promise Chaucer himself believed to be more important, and in light of this Chaucer makes it clear that the intent of Geoffrey’s journey was to learn and profit from his time spent in the House of Fame.
Such a clarification calls into question the true purpose of Geoffrey’s journey, and in turn, what was the true reward that Jupiter gave to Geoffrey. It’s clear that the “love tidings” Geoffrey received at the end of the poem were worthless, so the true profit of the journey must have come from the House of Fame. However, all Geoffrey saw in the house were examples of the unparalleled excessiveness and the fickle nature of fame. Considering this, one can rightly conclude that the true gift that Jupiter provided Geoffrey with after his journey ended was a warning, a clear portrayal of Fame and her enthrallments and a strong admonition for Geoffrey, and the reader, to avoid Fame and her house.
The House of Fame by Geoffrey Chaucer
“The Unity of Chaucer's ‘House of Fame’”
By Paul G. Ruggiers
Studies in Philology, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 16-29
Published by: University of North Carolina Press