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Chaucer Reading Langland: The House ofFame Frank Grady University ofMissouri, St. Louis T=ay begins not,ru; it prob,bly ought to,with , dnmn,but with a series of voices. 1 They are the voices of critics discussing a late­ fourteenth-century Middle English poem,an allegorical dream vision­ although one critic has called the poem an "apocalypse " by virtue of its mixing of other genres,and another has called attention to how these various genres are constantly "undercut " and found lacking,especially in the early part of the poem.The structure of this visio has often been cause for criticism; divided into "irregular parts and discontinuous sequences," the poem's "narrative movement tends to be abrupt and spasmodic rather than smoothly flowing as the poem moves from one self-contained unit to the next." To one reader the "poem is all process." Such observations,unsurprisingly,are mirrored on the level of interpre­ tation.Thus one critic claims that the "pervasive presence of skepticism, irony,and parody renders the meaning of narrated events uncertain and makes the fictional narrative subject to a continuous project ofevaluation." "Too many tantalizing motifs ...recur,but do not add up," claims one reader,and another observes that the poet responsible for this text "repeat­ edly builds up the standard devices for assuring the truth of a medieval narrative,only to draw back from them,leaving the issue of truth for his readers to judge." On the other hand,certain readers find this indetermi­ nacy the poem's most engaging feature: "Much of its fun is in its contradic­ tions,its sudden shifts of focus,and its creation of significant tensions,and part of its peculiar pleasure lies in the fact that it ends ...with these tensions intact and unresolved." At the center of this poem stands the figure of the narrator,"oscillating 1 In my own voice I'd like to thank Anne Middleton, Steven Justice, David Wallace, George Kane, and Ralph Hanna III for their valuable comments on this essay, and Mark Scapicchio for technical assistance. 3 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER between roles, now the autonomous, self-conscious maker of fictions, now the limited, fictive persona made by the author." This persona sometimes finds himself in disputation with the other characters in the poem; in the words of one critic they "confront one another as embodiments of two apparently incompatible ways of knowing." Although occasionally given to self-doubt, the narrator remains resolute: "Disappointment after disap­ pointment has not daunted him: he has pressed on despite our growing surety that his search for stability amid contingency will be a failure." Curiously this male dreamer-who at one point is described as being like a hermit of insufficiently ascetic habits-is known by his first name, which happens also to be the first name of the poet. Early on in the poem the dreamer is caught up in, even ravished by, the story of a woman­ a queen-and her ultimately unsuccessful marriage plans. Later the dreamer's progress comes to a halt that threatens to derail the narrative (in so far as it can be said to exist): unable to learn the necessary tidings, he is rescued and put back on track only by the sudden, unexpected arrival ofan apparently authoritative guide specifically suited to the next phase of progress. In this poem the narrator is sharply if comically rebuked by his guide for his intellectual incapacity and misguided aims; in this poem the dreamer finds himself the observer of a large, busy crowd of pilgrims, pardoners, and others, bustling about on the world's business; and finally, in this poem the geography of a tower on a hilltop and a considerably less attractive building in a valley below figure prominently in the representa­ tion of crucial epistemological concepts. This poem is Chaucer's House of Fame.2 But it could just as easily have been another great allegorical dream vision of fourteenth-century English 2 The quotations at the beginning of the essay are drawn from the following criticism: "apocalypse": Lisa Kiser, Truth andTextuality in Chaucer's Poetry(Hanover,N.H.: University Press of New England, 1991), pp. 25-26; genres...


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