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Chaucer's Works (ed. Skeat) Vol. III/House of Fame Introduction

[ vii ]

INTRODUCTION TO THE HOUSE OF FAME


§ 1. It is needless to say that this Poem is genuine, as Chaucer himself claims it twice over; once in his Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, l. 417, and again by the insertion in the poem itself of the name Geffrey (l. 729)[1].

§ 2. Influence of Dante. The influence of Dante is here very marked, and has been thoroughly discussed by Rambeau in Englische Studien, iii. 209, in an article far too important to be neglected. I can only say here that the author points out both general and particular likenesses between the two poems. In general, both are visions; both are in three books; in both, the authors seek abstraction from surrounding troubles by venturing into the realm of imagination. As Dante is led by Vergil, so Chaucer is upborne by an eagle. Dante begins his third book, Il Paradiso, with an invocation to Apollo, and Chaucer likewise begins his third book with the same; moreover, Chaucer's invocation is little more than a translation of Dante's.

Among the particular resemblances, we may notice the method of commencing each division of the Poem with an invocation[2]. Again, both poets mark the exact date of commencing their poems; Dante descended into the Inferno on Good Friday, 1300 [ viii ](Inf. xxi. 112); Chaucer began his work on the 10th of December, the year being, probably, 1383 (see note to l. 111).

Chaucer sees the desert of Lybia (l. 488), corresponding to similar waste spaces mentioned by Dante; see note to l. 482. Chaucer's eagle is also Dante's eagle; see note to l. 500. Chaucer gives an account of Phaethon (l. 942) and of Icarus (l. 920), much like those given by Dante (Inf. xvii. 107, 109); both accounts, however, may have been taken from Ovid[3]. Chaucer's account of the eagle's lecture to him (l. 729) resembles Dante's Paradiso, i. 109-117. Chaucer's steep rock of ice (l. 1130) corresponds to Dante's steep rock (Purg. iii. 47). If Chaucer cannot describe all the beauty of the House of Fame (l. 1168), Dante is equally unable to describe Paradise (Par. i. 6). Chaucer copies from Dante his description of Statius, and follows his mistake in saying that he was born at Toulouse; see note to l. 1460. The description of the house of Rumour is also imitated from Dante; see note to l. 2034. Chaucer's error of making Marsyas a female arose from his misunderstanding the Italian form Marsia in Dante; see note to l. 1229.

These are but some of the points discussed in Rambeau's article; it is difficult to give, in a summary, a just idea of the careful way in which the resemblances between these two great poets are pointed out. I am quite aware that many of the alleged parallel passages are too trivial to be relied upon, and that the author's case would have been strengthened, rather than weakened, by several judicious omissions; but we may fairly accept the conclusion, that Chaucer is more indebted to Dante in this poem than in any other; perhaps more than in all his other works put together.

It is no longer possible to question Chaucer's knowledge of Italian; and it is useless to search for the original of The House of Fame in Provençal literature, as Warton vaguely suggests that we should do (see note to l. 1928). At the same time, I can see no help to be obtained from a perusal of Petrarch's Trionfo della Fama, to which some refer us.

§ 3. Testimony of Lydgate. It is remarkable that Lydgate [ ix ]does not expressly mention The House of Fame by name, in his list of Chaucer's works. I have already discussed this point in the Introduction to vol. i. pp. 23, 24, where I shew that Lydgate, nevertheless, refers to this work at least thrice in the course of the poem in which his list occurs; and, at the same time, he speaks of a poem by Chaucer which he calls 'Dant in English,' to which there is nothing to correspond, unless it can be identified with The House of Fame[4]. We know, however, that Lydgate's testimony as to this point is wholly immaterial; so that the discussion as to the true interpretation of his words is a mere matter of curiosity.

§ 4. Influence of Ovid. It must, on the other hand, be obvious to all readers, that the general notion of a House of Fame was adopted from a passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses, xii. 39-63. The proof of this appears from the great care with which Chaucer works in all the details occurring in that passage. He also keeps an eye on the celebrated description of Fame in Vergil's Æneid, iv. 173-183; even to the unlucky rendering of 'pernicibus alis' by 'partriches winges,' in l. 1392[5].

I here quote the passage from Ovid at length, as it is very useful for frequent reference (cf. Ho. Fame, 711-24, 672-99, 1025-41, 1951-76, 2034-77):—

'Orbe locus medio est inter terrasque, fretumque,
Caelestesque plagas, triplicis confinia mundi;
[ x ]Unde quod est usquam, quamuis regionibus absit,
Inspicitur penetratque cauas uox omnis ad aures.
Fama tenet, summaque domum sibi legit in arce;
Innumerosque aditus, ac mille foramina tectis
Addidit, et nullis inclusit limina portis.
Nocte dieque patent. Tota est ex aere sonanti;
Tota fremit, uocesque refert, iteratque quod audit.
Nulla quies intus, nullaque silentia parte.
Nec tamen est clamor, sed paruae murmura uocis;
Qualia de pelagi, si quis procul audiat, undis
Esse solent; qualemue sonum, cum Iupiter atras
Increpuit nubes, extrema tonitrua reddunt.
Atria turba tenet; ueniunt leue uulgus, euntque;
Mixtaque cum ueris passim commenta uagantur
Millia rumorum, confusaque uerba uolutant.
E quibus hi uacuas implent sermonibus aures;
Hi narrata ferunt alio; mensuraque ficti
Crescit, et auditis aliquid nouus adicit auctor.
Illic Credulitas, illic temerarius Error,
Vanaque Laetitia est, consternatique Timores,
Seditioque repens, dubioque auctore Susurri.
Ipsa quid in caelo rerum, pelagoque geratur,
Et tellure uidet, totumque inquirit in orbem.'

A few other references to Ovid are pointed out in the Notes.

By way of further illustration, I here quote the whole of Golding's translation of the above passage from Ovid:—

'Amid the world tweene heauen and earth, and sea, there is a place,
Set from the bounds of each of them indifferently in space,
From whence is seene what-euer thing is practizde any-where,
Although the Realme be neere so farre: and roundly to the eare
Commes whatsoeuer spoken is; Fame hath his dwelling there,
Who in the top of all the house is lodged in a towre.
A thousand entries, glades, and holes are framed in this bowre.
There are no doores to shut. The doores stand open night and day.
The house is all of sounding brasse, and roreth euery way,
Reporting double euery word it heareth people say.
There is no rest within, there is no silence any-where.
Yet is there not a yelling out: but humming, as it were
The sound of surges being heard farre off, or like the sound
That at the end of thunderclaps long after doth redound
When Ioue doth make the clouds to crack. Within the courts is preace
Of common people, which to come and go do neuer ceace.
And millions both of troths and lies run gadding euery-where,
And wordes confuselie flie in heapes, of which some fill the eare
That heard not of them erst, and some cole-cariers part do play,
To spread abroade the things they heard, and euer by the way
The thing that was inuented growes much greater than before,
And euery one that gets it by the end addes somewhat more.
[ xi ]Light credit dwelleth there, there dwells rash error, there doth dwell
Vaine ioy: there dwelleth hartlesse feare, and brute that loues to tell
Uncertaine newes vpon report, whereof he doth not knowe
The author, and sedition who fresh rumors loues to sowe.
This Fame beholdeth what is done in heauen, on sea, and land,
And what is wrought in all the world he layes to vnderstand.'

§ 5. Date of the Poem. Ten Brink, in his Chaucer Studien, pp. 120, 121, concludes that The House of Fame was, in all probability, composed shortly after Troilus, as the opening lines reproduce, in effect, a passage concerning dreams which appears in the last Book of Troilus, ll. 358-385. We may also observe the following lines in Troilus, from Book I, 517-8:—

'Now, thonked be god, he may goon in the daunce
Of hem that Love list febly for to avaunce.'

These lines, jestingly applied to Troilus by Pandarus, are in the House of Fame, 639, 640, applied by Chaucer to himself:—

'Although thou mayst go in the daunce
Of hem that him list not avaunce.'

Again, the House of Fame preceded the Legend of Good Women, because he here complains of the hardship of his official duties (652-660); whereas, in the Prologue to the Legend, he rejoices at obtaining some release from them. We may also note the quotation from Boethius (note to l. 972). As Boethius and Troilus seem to have been written together, somewhere about 1380, and took up a considerable time, and the apparent date of the Legend is 1385, the probable date of the House of Fame is about 1383 or 1384. Ten Brink further remarks that the references to Jupiter suggest to the reader that the 10th of December was a Thursday (see note to 111). This would give 1383 for beginning the poem; and perhaps no fitter date than the end of 1383 and the spring of 1384 can be found.

§ 6. Metre. Many of Chaucer's metres were introduced by him from the French; but the four-accent metre, with rime as here employed, was commonly known before Chaucer's time. It was used by Robert of Brunne in 1303, in the Cursor Mundi, and in Havelok. It is, however, of French origin, and occurs in the very lengthy poem of Le Roman de la Rose. Chaucer only employed it thrice: (1) in translating the Roman de la Rose; (2) in the Book of the Duchesse; and (3) in the present poem.

For normal lines, with masculine rimes, see 7, 8, 13, 14, 29, [ xii ]33, &c. For normal lines, with feminine rimes, see 1, 2, 9, 15, 18, &c. Elision is common, as of e in turne (1), in somme (6), in Devyne (14); &c. Sometimes there is a middle pause, where a final syllable need not always be elided. Thus we may read:—

'By abstinencë—or by seknesse' (25):
'In studie—or melancolious' (30):
'And fro unhappë—and ech disese' (89):
'In his substáuncë—is but air' (768).

Two short syllables, rapidly pronounced, may take the place of one:—

'I noot; but who-so of these mirácles' (12):
'By avisiouns, or bý figúres' (47).

The first foot frequently consists of a single syllable; see 26, 35, 40, 44; so also in l. 3, where, in modern English, we should prefer Unto.

The final e, followed by a consonant, is usually sounded, and has its usual grammatical values. Thus we have think-e, infin. (15); bot-e, old accus. of a fem. sb. (32); swich-e, plural (35); oft-e, adverbial (35); soft-e, with essential final e (A.S. sōfte); find-e, pres. pl. indic. (43); com-e, gerund (45): gret-e, pl. (53); mak-e, infin. (56); rod-e, dat. form used as a new nom., of which there are many examples in Chaucer (57); blind-e, def. adj. (138). The endings -ed, -en, -es, usually form a distinct syllable; so also -eth, which, however, occasionally becomes 'th; cf. comth (71). A few common words, written with final e, are monosyllabic; as thise (these); also shulde (should), and the like, occasionally. Remember that the old accent is frequently different from the modern; as in orácles, mirácles (11, 12): distaúnc-e (18), aventúres, figúres (47, 48): povért (88): málicióus (93): &c. The endings -i-al, -i-oun, -i-ous, usually form two distinct syllables.

For further remarks on Metre and Grammar, see vol. v.

§ 7. Imitations. The chief imitations of the House of Fame are The Temple of Glas, by Lydgate[6]; The Palice of Honour, by Gawain Douglas; The Garland of Laurell, by John Skelton; and [ xiii ]The Temple of Fame, by Pope. Pope's poem should not be compared with Chaucer's; it is very different in character, and is best appreciated by forgetting its origin.

§ 8. Authorities. The authorities for the text are few and poor; hence it is hardly possible to produce a thoroughly satisfactory text. There are three MSS. of the fifteenth century, viz. F. (Fairfax MS. 16, in the Bodleian Library); B. (MS. Bodley, 638, in the same); P. (MS. Pepys 2006, in Magdalene College, Cambridge). The last of these is imperfect, ending at l. 1843. There are two early printed editions of some value, viz. Cx. (Caxton's edition, undated); and Th. (Thynne's edition, 1532). None of the later editions are of much value, except the critical edition by Hans Willert (Berlin, 1883). Of these, F. and B., which are much alike, form a first group; P. and Cx. form a second group; whilst Th. partly agrees with Cx., and partly with F. The text is chiefly from F., with collations of the other sources, as given in the footnotes, which record only the more important variations.

§ 9. Some emendations. In constructing the text, a good deal of emendation has been necessary; and I have adopted many hints from Willert's edition above mentioned; though perhaps I may be allowed to add that, in many cases, I had arrived at the same emendations independently, especially where they were obvious. Among the emendations in spelling, I may particularise misdemen (92), where all the authorities have mysdeme or misdeme; Dispyt, in place of Dispyte (96); barfoot, for barefoot or barefote (98); proces (as in P.) for processe, as in the rest (251); delyt, profyt, for delyte, profyte (309, 310); sleighte for sleight (462); brighte[7], sighte, for bright, sight (503, 504); wighte, highte, for wight, hight (739, 740); fyn, Delphyn (as in Cx.), for fyne, Delphyne (1005, 1006); magyk, syk, for magyke, syke (1269, 1270); losenges, for losynges (1317), and frenges (as in F.) for frynges, as in the rest (1318); dispyt for dispite (1716); laughe for laugh (Cx. lawhe, 1809); delyt for delyte (P. delit, 1831); thengyn (as in Th.) for thengyne (1934); othere for other (2151, footnote). [ xiv ]These are only a few of the instances where nearly all the authorities are at fault.

The above instances merely relate to questions of spelling. Still more serious are the defects in the MSS. and printed texts as regards the sense; but all instances of emendation are duly specified in the footnotes, and are frequently further discussed in the Notes at the end. Thus, in l. 329, it is necessary to supply I. In 370, allas should be Eneas. In 513, Willert rightly puts selly, i.e. wonderful, for sely, blessed. In 557, the metre is easily restored, by reading so agast for agast so. In 621, we must read lyte is, not lytel is, if we want a rime to dytees. In 827, I restore the word mansioun; the usual readings are tautological. In 911, I restore toun for token, and adopt the only reading of l. 912 that gives any sense. In 1007, the only possible reading is Atlantes. In 1044, Morris's edition has biten, correctly; though MS. F. has beten, and there is no indication that a correction has been made. In 1114, the right word is site; cf. the Treatise on the Astrolabe (see Note). In 1135, read bilt (i.e. buildeth); bilte gives neither sense nor rhythm. In 1173, supply be. Ll. 1177, 1178 have been set right by Willert. In 1189, the right word is Babewinnes[8]. In 1208, read Bret (as in B.). In 1233, read famous. In 1236, read Reyes[9]. In 1303, read hatte, i.e. are named. In 1351, read Fulle, not Fyne. In 1372, adopt the reading of Cx. Th. P., or there is no nominative to streighte; and in 1373, read wonderliche. In 1411, read tharmes (= the armes). In 1425, I supply and hy, to fill out the line. In 1483, I supply dan; if, however, poete is made trisyllabic, then l. 1499 should not contain daun. In 1494, for high the, read highte (as in l. 744). In 1527, for into read in. In 1570, read Up peyne. In 1666, 1701, and 1720, for werkes read werk. In 1702, read clew (see note)[10]. In 1717, lyen is an error for lyuen, i.e. live. In 1750, read To, not The. In 1775, supply ye; or there is no sense. In 1793, supply they for a like reason. In 1804, 5, supply the, and al; for the scansion. In 1897, read [ xv ]wiste, not wot. In 1940, hattes should be hottes; this emendation has been accepted by several scholars. In 1936, the right word is falwe, not salwe (as in Morris). In 1960, there should be no comma at the end of the line, as in most editions; and in 1961, 2 read werre, reste (not werres, restes). In 1975, mis and governement are distinct words. In 2017, frot[11] is an error for froyt; it is better to read fruit at once; this correction is due to Koch. In 2021, suppress in after yaf. In 2049, for he read the other (Willert). In 2059, wondermost is all one word. In 2076, I read word; Morris reads mothe, but does not explain it, and it gives no sense. In 2156, I supply nevene.

I mention these as examples of necessary emendations of which the usual editions take no notice.

I also take occasion to draw attention to the careful articles on this poem by Dr. J. Koch, in Anglia, vol. vii. App. 24-30, and Englische Studien, xv. 409-415; and the remarks by Willert in Anglia, vii. App. 203-7. The best general account of the poem is that in Ten Brink's History of English Literature.



In conclusion, I add a few 'last words.'

L. 399. We learn, from Troil. i. 654, that Chaucer actually supposed 'Oënone' to have four syllables. This restores the metre. Read:—And Paris to Oënone.

503. Read 'brighte,' with final e; 'bright' is a misprint.

859. Compare Cant. Tales, F 726.

1119. 'To climbe hit,' i.e. to climb the rock; still a common idiom.

2115. Compare Cant. Tales, A 2078. Perhaps read 'wanie.'




  1. It is also mentioned as 'the book of Fame' at the end of the Persones Tale, I 1086. I accept this passage as genuine.
  2. In Dante's Inferno, this invocation begins Canto II.; for Canto I. forms a general introduction to the whole.
  3. Where Chaucer says 'leet the reynes goon' (l. 951), and Dante has 'abbandonò li freni' (Inf. xvii. 107), we find in Ovid 'equi ... colla iugo eripiunt, abruptaque lora relinquunt' (Met. ii. 315). Chaucer's words seem closer to Dante than to the Latin original.
  4. On which Prof. Lounsbury remarks (Studies in Chaucer, ii. 243)—'More extreme indeed than that of any one else is the position of Professor Skeat. He asserts in all seriousness that the "House of Fame" is the translation to which reference is made by Lydgate, when he said that Chaucer wrote "Dante in English." Beyond this utterance it is hardly possible to go.' This is mere banter, and entirely misrepresents my view. Lydgate does not say that 'Dant in English' was a translation; this is a pure assumption, for a strategical purpose in argument. Lydgate was ignorant of Italian, and has used a stupid phrase, the correctness of which I by no means admit. But he certainly meant something; and the prominence which he gives to "Dant in English," when he comes to speak of Chaucer's Minor Poems, naturally suggests The House of Fame, which he otherwise omits! My challenge to 'some competent critic' to tell me what other poem is here referred to, remains unanswered.
  5. When Chaucer consulted Dante, his thoughts were naturally directed to Vergil. We find, accordingly, that he begins by quoting (in ll. 143-8) the opening lines of the Æneid; and a large portion of Book I (ll. 143-467) is entirely taken up with a general sketch of the contents of that poem. It is clear that, at the time of writing, Vergil was, in the main, a new book to him, whilst Ovid was certainly an old acquaintance.
  6. By this, I only mean that Lydgate seems to have been indebted to Chaucer for the general idea of his poem, and even for the title of it (cf. Ho. Fame, 120). For a full account of all its sources, see the admirable edition of Lydgate's Temple of Glas by Dr. J. Schick, p. cxv. (Early Eng. Text Society).
  7. Misprinted 'bright,' as the final e has 'dropped out' at press; of course it should be the adverbial form, with final e. In l. 507, the form is 'brighte' again, where it is the plural adjective. And, owing to this repetition, MSS. F. and B. actually omit lines 504-7.
  8. Morris has rabewyures, from MS. F.; but there is no such word in his Glossary. See the New E. Dictionary, s.v. Baboon.
  9. Morris has Reues; but his Glossary has: 'Reues, or reyes, sb. a kind of dance.' Of course it is plural.
  10. Morris has clywe; and his Glossary has 'Clywe, v. to turn or twist'; but no such verb is known. See Claw, v. § 3, in the New E. Dict.
  11. Morris has frot; but it does not appear in the Glossary.