Medieval English Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer: The House of Fame
14th century, Middle English. Several 15th century manuscripts, numerous printed copies.
When Geoffrey entered the House of Fame, he found Orpheus, the Greek legendary poet Orpheus, whose greatest claim to fame was that he travelled to the underworld in search of his dead wife Euridice, and returned.
Geoffrey Chaucer found himself privileged, if a little perplexed, to see within the House of Fame a goddess whose feet touched the Earth and whose head reached into heaven. But she was not the first goddess to excite his poetic need. And before arriving at the entrance to this marvellous building made of solid crystal sitting upon a mountain of ice, he had dreamed that he was in a temple made of glass, a temple of the Roman goddess Venus, upon whose walls were inscribed Virgil’s story of Aeneas – including therefore, one must presume, the episode of Aeneas's descent into the underworld, the fields of Elysium, and the rebirth of souls into the world above.
From this Temple of Venus, Chaucer was snatched up by an eagle and carried far above the Earth to a region where he felt he could almost touch the stars, a region where sounds gather and everything spoken on Earth can be heard. This image is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Ovid describes a House of Rumour lying
between Earth, the sky and the sea, at the point where the three realms of the universe meet.
When they reached the House of Fame, the eagle told Geoffrey that everything spoken on Earth comes to this place where it miraculously takes on the form of the person who has uttered it. Here may a name live on, and a person also, in this realm of the heavens. So Geoffrey climbed the hill of ice, entered the crystal building and found Orpheus, the Greek legendary poet Orpheus, whose greatest claim to fame was that he travelled to the underworld in search of his dead wife Euridice, and returned. Chaucer sees the goddess whose feet are on earth and whose head is in the heavens, he encounters Circe – the goddess Circe, whom Odysseus found on an island in a mysterious sea out of which Odysseus could not escape; one of two weaving and immortal goddesses upon whose shores he was washed up on and who offered him immortality in return for his love. Geoffrey then sees a revolving wicker house, a house full of people but one which flies through the air like the stone from a siege catapult. Geoffrey asks the eagle to take him there.
Before speculating further on this impossible building, it must be said that, in one way, Geoffrey Chaucer's evocation of a journey upwards from the Earth is startlingly up-to-date. The crystal mountain on which stands the House of Fame is made of ice; in the same way, for example, that the moon is a frozen body. The depths of space are cold. And then there is this curious rotating house. It is made of 'twigges', of osier or wickerwork, 'shapen lyk a cage', and is sixty miles in length. But, most intriguingly, it makes a noise 'as does the whizzing of a stone ball that is released from a siege engine.' This is astounding, and it takes a little reflection to realise that the ever-cautious Geoffrey Chaucer might mean it to represent the Earth. In fact, if this is so, by describing the sound it makes as that of a whirling rock flying in an arc through the air, he comes as close as he can to depicting the Earth as an orbiting planet without being mentioned in the same breath as Copernicus! This whirling object's sounds ascend towards the House of Fame, we are told, where everything from the Earth is heard. The sound it makes is of a stone whirling through the air, but the intrinsic nature of this house is biological. It is made of 'twigges', and it contains, Geoffrey tells us, every person whom Nature has ever conceived. Because of its rapid motion it is impossible for the poet to enter without the eagle's help; but when the eagle does take him in through a window, suddenly – all is still and there is no feeling of motion at all. Just like the surface of the Earth.
But Geoffrey Chaucer was not an astronomer – although he wrote a tretise on the astrolabe for his young son – and nor could he see into the future. He was a reader of old books: –
And if that olde bokes were a-weye, y-loren were of remembraunce the keye. Wel oghte us than honouren and beleve these bokes... In one or more of these 'olde bokes' he may have come across the high point of the old Pythagorean teachings regarding the universe. Aristarchus was the last of the Pythagorean astronomers. Born in 310 BC, he produced a model of the universe in which the sun lay at the centre; a heliocentric system that was not seriously considered again until Copernicus in the sixteenth century and not refined into a working model of a 'solar system' until Johan Kepler and Galileo early in the seventeenth century and finally Sir Isaac Newton just before the beginning of the eighteenth.
The planetary model of Aristarchus, however, in which a spinning Earth orbits around a stationary sun, had survived in the fragmentary references of classical authors throughout the Middle Ages and Chaucer, being so widely read, might well have come across it. And if he did choose to allude at the end of The House of Fame to such a model of the universe, it is surely significant.
Perhaps he saw himself as a Pythagorean.