John M. Steadman – The House of Fame: Tripartite Structure and Occasion

The House of Fame: Tripartite Structure and Occasion

John M. Steadman

Published in Connotations Vol. 3.1 (1993/94)

Like many other allegories, Chaucer's dream−vision is an extended enigma; but (unlike the majority of such poems) it is a riddle without a key. The poem breaks off abruptly at the climax of the narrative; and the nature of its conclusion (which might have illuminated the meaning of the entire dark conceit) must itself remain conjectural. One must not only guess at the meaning underlying the allegory as it stands; one must also guess at the nature of the final key to the allegory—if indeed the missing conclusion actually provided a key. Under the circumstances it would be superfluous to apologize for indulging in conjectures; for they are, in fact, unavoidable. The facts are so few, the uncertainties so manifold, that one can at best achieve hypotheses. Though some theories may seem more plausible than others, none of them can possess demonstrative certainty. Therefore a healthy skepticism is indicated toward the best of them, not excepting one's own hypothesis.1)

Among the problems which still remain unsolved are the tripartite structure of the poem and the significance of the date of the poet's dream. In the following pages I shall examine the possibility that these problems may be interrelated and that the Dantesque associations of Chaucer's eagle may have a bearing on both problems. In the present state of our knowledge2) the solution proposed—a recitation on three successive days in association with the feast of Saint Lucy (December 13)—must necessarily remain hypothetical, and largely speculative; but one hopes that it is not altogether "fantome and illusion."3)


Chaucer's dream takes place on the tenth day of December, the tenth month. Though several explanations have been advanced for this detail, [→page 2] the reasons for his choosing this particular date have never been ascertained and will, in all probability, remain conjectural. Is the date itself symbolic, either astrologically or liturgically? Does it have a personal and autobiographical meaning for the poet, as April 6 did for Petrarch? Does it derive its significance from an historical event that is still unknown to us but that may have been the subject of the mysterious love−tidings? Or is it primarily related to the occasion of the poet's recitation?

Elsewhere Chaucer's dates are usually significant for the theme of the poem—May morning, Saint Valentine's Day, the unlucky day or dies mala (May 3) on which Pandarus feels "a teene ⁄ In love" and on which Chaunticleer encounters the fox.4) We may logically assume that the choice of date in The House of Fame was equally significant. Perhaps the simplest explanation would be that December 10 was not in itself symbolic,5) but merely denoted the night prior to the first formal recitation of the first book of the poem (or possibly the actual date of its presentation).

The underlying conceit of Chaucer's fable is (apparently) that the announcement by the man of great authority is merely part of his dream. In actuality the "tidings" that the latter presumably delivered may have been the real occasion for the narrative, and perhaps for the festivity in which the poet was himself a principal participant. The theme introduced in the Proem and artfully elaborated by numerous figures of amplification and repetition—the validity of dreams6)—would be resolved by the final annunciation of tidings that the poet has prepared his audience to expect. This is a "true" dream, accordingly, and its truth is decisively vindicated by the real events for which the dream−narrative is merely a fictive and allegorical framework. The heavy and perhaps over−laboured emphasis in the Proem on the truth of dreams serves as ironic preparation (or parasceve) for the final disclosure. The dream is indeed "true" because the occasion the poet pretends to be dreaming about is the actual festivity at which he and his audience are present in person. Nevertheless, it is also, in a sense, a "false" dream, for (as he and his audience are well aware) it is not a dream at all, but a fictional framework for the real situation. This interplay between dream and reality, fiction and fact, is (in the literal sense of the word) [→page 3] "occasional" humor, centered on the concrete social occasion in which poet and audience are alike participants.

Chaucer's dream occurs three days before the festival of Saint Lucy of Syracuse (December 13), the shortest day and longest night of the year.7) In England her day was honored as a festival of the second rank until the Reformation. She is patroness against eye−diseases, just as the eagle is traditionally the most keen−sighted of birds; and in the Purgatorio Dante brings both of these figures into close association. While he is dreaming of an ascent to the element of fire in the clutch of a golden eagle, Lucia (as he learns later) actually lifts him up to the threshold of Purgatory. Commentaries on the Commedia often identify her with illuminating grace, and her patroness (Rachel) with the vita contemplativa. The eagles of Chaucer and Dante function as contemplative symbols in dream−visions; and the scene in the Purgatorio has generally been accepted as one of Chaucer's sources. The proximity of the date of his dream to Lucia's feast suggests that he may be drawing on the eagle−Lucia association that he had encountered in the Commedia.8) As a symbol of the intellect or of illuminating grace, Lucia had been associated in medieval exegesis both with the eagle of the Ganymede and the eagle of Dante's purgatorial dream. Chaucer's exploitation of these symbolic associations would be seasonally appropriate.9) We should not exclude the possibility that his echoes of Dante's Purgatorio and its imagery are related to the date of his dream, and that both allusions are related to the date and occasion of the recitation of his poem. The vision (or at least its climax in Book 3) would conceivably have been read aloud on the eve of St. Lucy or her festal day, only three days after the ostensible date of the dream. If read aloud in successive installments, moreover, the climax of the narrative would coincide with the feast−day of the saint whom Dante and his early commentators had associated with the eagle as a symbol of the intellect.

Let us assume tentatively that on the night of December 11 Chaucer read the first book aloud—possibly to Richard's court, to the court of John of Gaunt, or (as R. J. Schoeck suggests) at an entertainment at one of the Inns of Court. In this case he pretends to be recounting a dream that he had experienced the previous night. The journey with the eagle would be recited on the eve of Saint Lucy, and the core of the poem—the [→page 4] vision of Fame's dwelling and the concluding announcement—would be delivered on the saint's festal day. On each of these days the eagle—the only character besides Chaucer himself who plays a role in all three books—is introduced; and the Dantesque associations of this image make it an indirect and symbolic tribute to the saint whose feast−day coincides with the climax of the poem. On the first day he merely makes his appearance, shining like the sun and appropriately suggesting the root−meaning of Lucia (light or lux). On the eve of Saint Lucy he carries the poet on his aerial journey, meanwhile delivering a scientific lecture, a scholastic demonstration of the nature of sound. In this passage the eagle (a traditional symbol of the intellect itself or of various intellectual virtues) rationalizes the myth of Fame's aerial dwelling in terms of the principles of natural philosophy or physics. Utilizing both deductive and inductive proofs, he employs arguments from definition and from analogy, to establish (on what appear to be logical and scientific grounds) a point that is, of course, a mythological commonplace but a scientific absurdity. The comic impact of this scene derives not only from its parody of scholastic logic (a traditional rival of poetics and rhetoric in the Middle Ages as well as in the Renaissance), but also (and more specifically) from its burlesque treatment of at least one principal mode of classical and medieval allegoresis: the explication of myths and the justification of poetic fables as symbolic statements of the truths of physics and natural philosophy. In both respects Chaucer could conceivably be making sport of the demonstrative and exegetical methods of the friars. The lecture also serves (albeit humorously and ironically) to enhance the credibility and probability of the marvels that the poet is about to relate to a potentially skeptical audience.

On Saint Lucy's day (December 13), the eagle performs his final office as guide, bringing the dreamer into the actual house of tidings, where the latter will hear in person the news that he has journeyed so far (in contemplation) to hear. At this point the dream−milieu of the vision merges into reality, into the actual festivities. The concluding revelation would thus occur on the day sacred to the patron saint of vision and the symbol of Illuminating Grace. Whether the concluding announcements are made by the great man in propria persona or in disguise as part of a mumming we cannot know. The significant point, however, [→page 5] is that the truth of the poet's dream—an issue emphasized in the Proem by extensive repetition—has been vindicated. The "causes" of his dream are now quite clear. His dream on the "double−tenth"—the tenth day of the tenth month—was a prophetic dream, divinely sent by Jove himself through the agency of his messenger. Through a clever poetic invention and an equally skilful manipulation of suspense and irony, Chaucer has made the occasion for reciting his dream the ostensible proof of its validity, and the solution to its allegorical significance.


In suggesting a possible connection between the fictional date of the poet's dream, its tripartite structure, the feast of Saint Lucy, and the Dantesque associations of Chaucer's eagle, one should not overlook other associations which may elucidate several of the major images and motifs within this work. Recent scholarship has called attention to the eagle's conventional role as a symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, to the possible significance of the Advent season, and to a potential link between The House of Fame and the Christmas revels at one of the Inns of Court.10) The pretended date of the dream−vision is exactly a fortnight before Christmas Eve, and the feast of the Evangelist (December 27) follows that of Saint Lucy by precisely the same interval. Chaucer's audience was, in all probability, already making preparations for Christmas festivities; and it is possible that certain motifs in his poem—such as the emphasis on tidings—may have involved seriocomic allusions to the imminent celebrations in honor of the Nativity and the first proclamation of the gospel "tidings of great joy." There would appear to be a certain seasonal decorum, albeit parodic, in the dreamer's quest for tidings. The contrast between the kind of love−tidings the poet expects to hear in his dream and those that he and his audience will be listening to in earnest some two weeks hence might enhance the underlying ironies of his vision. In less than two weeks after celebrating the feast of St. Lucy—the saint whom Dante had allegorized as intellect or prudence or "Illuminating Grace," in the opinion of the earliest commentators—Chaucer's audience would be rejoicing in the advent [→page 6] of the Lux Mundi, hailed as the "true Light" (John 1:9) by the evangelist whose conventional symbol was an eagle.

The analogy with the eagle of St. John the Evangelist (and of the gospel−lectern) acquires greater relevance for Chaucer's poem, moreover, through its specific associations with tidings (evangelium).11) Lessons from the gospel (i.e. "tidings") were, of course, normally read from the eagle−lectern. The symbolic eagle of St. John the Evangelist was accordingly literally a "bearer of tidings"; and in the gospel lesson for Christmas Day the tidings (not inappropriate for a keen−sighted eagle) are the tidings of the true light and the testimony of another John (the Baptist) who bears witness to the Light.12) Like the eagle, however, St. John the Evangelist was a visionary, commonly regarded as the author of Revelation—a book which seemed, in the eyes of readers like Boccaccio, to approximate the allegorical methods of poetry and which poets themselves frequently utilized as a partial model for their own dream−visions and as a source for their own allegorical symbols.13) Figuratively, as "bearer of tidings" the Evangelist is himself a speaking eagle, like the eagle of The House of Fame.

Chaucer's eagle thus possesses a variety of associations, secular and Biblical, literary and iconographical, which the poet might conveniently utilize in accomodating his allegory to time and place, occasion and season. The eagle's role in bearing the poet to the heavens at the behest of Jove derives partly from the Ganymede myth and partly from Dante's Purgatorio. Through the Purgatorio he is also linked with St. Lucy of Syracuse. Both St. Lucy and the eagle of the bestiaries are associated with keenness of sight, and (allegorically) with intellectual illumination. His association with tidings connects him with the eagle of the gospel−lectern and St. John the Evangelist. Finally, the motif of tidings14)—so intimately connected with the festivities that are the occasion of the poem—suggests a possible link between the eagle who promises to take the dreamer to a place where he will hear love−tidings and the man of great authority who (if we may judge from the context) relates them.

The conscious mystifications in the earlier books—the speculations on whether dreams are true or not, the poet's ignorance as to the meaning of his dream, his doubts as to whether Venus' temple may not be a phantom or illusion—are partly designed to arouse and maintain [→page 7] suspense, puzzling the audience and increasing their eagerness to hear the continuation of the story at the next recitation. If the poem was indeed designed for recitation on three successive days, Chaucer must somehow manage to make each episode a more or less self−contained narrative, yet at the same time arouse interest in the next installment by breaking off at a crucial point in the story. This was how Scheherezade saved her neck, how Ariosto entertained a ducal court, and how nineteenth−century serial−writers supported their families. Each of the three books of The House of Fame is virtually a unified whole—the vision of Venus' temple with the summary of the Aeneid; the flight−scene with the digression on air and sound; the visit to the palace of Fame and the house of tidings—and could accordingly provide a substantial and satisfying evening−fare in itself. The concluding lines of the first two books, however, are proleptic; they provide the preparation for the next episode and are intended to stimulate the audience's expectations. The golden eagle appears at the end of the first book, but we are not told who he is, what he signifies, or why he has come. At the end of the second book the traveller arrives at his destination and receives the preparatory instructions for his visit, but the account of Fame's dwelling and its marvels is postponed until the little last book. Chaucer's narrative art would seem to be admirably adapted to the demands of the occasion we have suggested—a series of recitations on three successive days culminating in festivities held either on St. Lucy's day or on the preceding evening. This is occasional poetry of a very high order indeed.

The apparent lack of coherence in Chaucer's plot, its tripartite structure, and the seeming lack of continuity between one episode and the next have frequently been deplored as artistic flaws. In actuality, however, these would appear to have been deliberate, the poet's conscious response to the conditions of his "performance". The poem falls into three virtually discrete parts because it was apparently intended to be read in three separate installments. The apparent discontinuity between the episodes of the temple, the flight, and the palace would surely puzzle the audience, just as it has puzzled modern readers; and, as so often in allegorical narratives, the mystery would itself enhance suspense. Their interconnection would ultimately become intelligible on the allegorical plane, if not on the literal level; and the concluding announcements [→page 8] would probably resolve much of the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in the symbols. The fourteenth−century audience could enjoy this type of allegorical mystification in the same way that sixteenth and seventeenth−century courtiers delighted in enigmas and emblems and in the "court hieroglyphics" of the masque.

The Henry E. Huntington Library
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