Michael Calabrese’s Chaucer’s Ovidian Arts of Love is a welcome re-examination of Chaucer’s interest in Ovid. Calabrese contends that Ovid’s entire “oeuvre,” including the poems of exile, determined Chaucer’s attitude toward him. The thesis is significant, both in itself and for the questions it raises about medieval intertextuality.
By the fourteenth century, accounts of Ovid’s life usually prefaced his poetic texts; in academic commentaries, an “accessus” also considered the ethical utility of the poem. Calabrese combines these two aspects of the textual tradition: he argues the trajectory of Ovid’s biography established a moral framework which determined his reception. There were, in effect, two Ovids, the poet of love and the poet of exile, the latter apologizing in old age for the indiscretions of his youth.
Even as Ovid became a cornerstone of the school curriculum, however, many continued to censure him. While these anti-Ovidian comments and the academic commentaries share the same moral universe, they seem to be at odds. Calabrese explains the tension on theoretical grounds: in exile the Ovid of the commentators recanted his faith in rhetoric’s ability to create the world; his poetry now seeks to provide refuge amid the flux of a darker universe. For Christian moralists, this insight pointed to its own limitations: stability resides not in poetry but with the Word.
For Calabrese, Chaucer read Ovid within this matrix of concerns. The rest of Chaucer’s Ovidian Arts of Love consists of extended readings of the Troilus, the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” and the “Retraction” that ends the Canterbury Tales. In the Troilus, Chaucer’s characters attempt to regulate an unpredictable Ovidian universe by means of an Ovidian rhetoric of love, in which art triumphs over every circumstance. When this rhetoric proves empty, Troilus abandons it entirely, aligning himself with the unvarying verities of Christian salvation. Pandarus and Criseyde, however, merely switch Ovids: the “praeceptor amoris” becomes the instructor who teaches how to survive the vacillations of Fortune. In making the Wife of Bath, Chaucer again set different Ovids against one another. Misogynists looked to the Ars Amatoria to support their contention that women were lecherous and deceitful. But Alice empowers herself by redeploying the stratagems of the third book of the Ars to gain control of men; she counters male mastery of her body by authoring a new art of love. The Wife combats the antifeminist tradition not only by using the same texts that constituted it, but by appropriating the commentators’ prerogative of rewriting authors to suit their purposes. Finally, Calabrese argues that Chaucer, reflecting on his own life as a fiction maker, turned again to Ovid’s biography; the Tristia and Ex Ponto, Ovid’s “apologiae pro poetria sua,” provided Chaucer an admonitory model when he composed his “Retraction.” [End Page 180]
Throughout his book, Calabrese maintains a dialogue with John Fyler, who argued in Chaucer and Ovid that the English poet “took Ovid straight.” Calabrese is right to say that during the Middle Ages, “Ovid” meant both his poems and the accompanying commentary. But the fact that these materials are part of the manuscript record should not exempt them from critical scrutiny, nor does it constitute a sufficient account of their historicity. Academic strategies to rehabilitate Ovid need themselves to be interpreted, not least because Ovid anticipates their attempts to read his amatory poems as if they were some kind of “Eudam(on)ian” ethics. Granting the importance of the “vitae ovidii,” one nevertheless suspects Ovid’s fate meant something different to Chaucer in the 1380s from what it did in the 1390s.
Moreover, by itself appealing to contemporary interpretation is neither more nor less helpful than Fyler’s approach in assessing how Chaucer responded to Ovid. To my mind, Calabrese under-reads Ovid in the same way the commentaries under-read him: both compartmentalize Ovid’s irony; neither allows that the poet might subvert every premise even as he urges its adoption. Chaucer, however, strikes me as always engaged by the...