Tower Hill

Medieval English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer: The House of Fame

14th century, Middle English. Numerous printed copies.

I heard Orpheus playing sweetly and precisely on a harp, and lesser harpers sitting at his feet.

Geoffrey dreams that he has been taken in the claws of an eagle high into the sky to a place where all the sounds on Earth gather and that take on the form of those who have uttered them. The place is ruled over by a goddess, Lady Fame. Geoffrey is deposited by the eagle high above the Earth, near to the stars, at the foot of a hill made of ice. At the top of this hill is the House of Fame, which is made out of solid crystal. In many respects it is an Otherworld, like the islands of Irish myth that are made of glass and ruled over by a goddess.

Tho [then] gan I up the hille to goon and found upon the coppe, a woon that alle the men that ben on lyve ne han the cunning to descryve... – I set off up the hill and found at the top of it a building so beautiful that no living man could possibly summon the power to describe it properly. The great ingenuity, intricacy, beauty and workmanship I cannot convey to you, my wits are not equal to the task. It was made entirely out of beryl; there were shrines, towers, halls as full of windows as there are snow flakes in a blizzard, chambers, pinnacles, gargoyles, all made from one solid piece of beryl. And in each of the towers were various rooms filled with ballad-singers and storytellers; I heard Orpheus playing sweetly and precisely on a harp, and lesser harpers sitting at his feet. There were all sorts of musicians, many thousands, playing flutes, horns and Northumbrian pipes, teaching love serenades, merry dances and bloodcurdling calls to war.

There were more people to see than there are stars in heaven. I saw minstrels, magicians, old witches, oracular priestesses, sorceresses, and religious men who knew all this sorcery. I saw queen Medea, Circe and Simon Magus; I saw, and knew by name, all those who had achieved fame through the magic arts, but to speak of all these people would take me until doomsday!

Story fragment recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press, with reference to The Riverside Chaucer, 2008 Edition, Oxford University Press. The House of Fame, written c. 1380.

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