Teaching Chaucer’s “House of Fame” in High School

Icame to the House of Fame by arranging some of its lines in translation for composers and musical performance. As I worked, it occurred to me that this book is a fantasy for adolescents, and that, with its great energy and musicality, it deserves a wider audience. This book, I believe, can be taught to both mainstream and advanced-placement (AP) students. Scholars have given increased attention to this book in the past two decades. It stands to reason that both students and teachers at the high school level could do the same.Drawing on the work of other passionate Chaucerians, this essay will take examples from my newly-published book, Imagining Fame, in order to demonstrate the beauty and joy of Middle English, and the timelessness of Chaucer’s thoughts. {1}

I know little about electronic media, so it is reassuring to me that there are still scholars doing fine work with pencil and lined yellow pad. G.K Chesterton said in his book, Chaucer, that he was writing for those who knew even less about Chaucer than he; I am writing for those who know less about the computer than I.{2}

There are certainly more than a handful of reasons for using the computer to teach Chaucer. To cite but a few examples: students are familiar with the medium, they can go further with discussions on their own, and they can explore and practice research without burdening the school library.

As a graduate student in English Education at Boston University, I became excited about the teaching machine, which was expected to provide feedback on all subjects and reduce the role of the teacher. During that time I met Dean Erwin Griswold of the Harvard Law School at a dinner; he was horrified both by my enthusiasm and the teaching machine. “Nothing can take the place of the teacher/student relationship,” he said. He was right. I would add the following: nor would anyone want computer skills to replace human exchange. But now we have a new machine that is not going away, one which can enhance the teacher’s relationship to students; it sharpens the focus while increasing the scope of the readings. The computer both gives and allows more time for interaction between students and between student and teacher.

In July 2002, I attended the annual meeting of the New Chaucer Society (this time in Boulder, Colorado), where there was an enlightened emphasis in both the plenary talks and scheduled sessions on teaching Chaucer at various levels.{3} An exciting development is the growing interest in closing the gap between secondary schools and universities, which is due in part to computer access to texts and ideas. The overall theme of the conference was “Chaucer and After,” asking where have we come and where are we going with Chaucerian studies.

One panel entitled “Teaching Chaucer” was organized and chaired by Dee Dyas of Christianity and Culture, the new area of the Centre for Medieval Studies of the University of York, and also by Tom Hanks of Baylor University. This panel opened with secondary teacher Donna Dermond asking, “Why teach Chaucer today?” The answer to this common and necessary question bears repeating: because he is immediate and relevant, and can tell us everything about human nature as well as our own language. Chaucer places ideas on imagery and point of view, on character and voice, in the largest context. Adolescents love his jokes. Dermond said that teaching Chaucer is the essence of “educare” in the sense of leading students into a wider world.

On this same panel, teacher Michael Cervas of Westminster School (CT) stated that he teaches not only the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, but all of the tales, a statement that drew startled admiration from the audience. Cervas said that there is never a better time than today; it is not just that our times resemble Chaucer’s, but that he is so vital and alive–he is intensely personal. Chaucer speaks directly to students.

Cervas uses a variety of approaches and angles in his teaching. Chaucer responds to all of these angles: for example, “What you see is never what you get;” or “When Chaucer is most serious, he is the funniest and vice versa;” or “Try the three C’s of character, complexity and comedy.”
Thematic study of English language and literature, as well as world literature, are also areas where Chaucer fits very well. The questions at the end of this essay are designed to help students perceive the variety in Chaucer. Michael reminds us that Chaucer had one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot in “the now.” I recall a remark made by Professor B.J.Whiting in his Chaucer class at Harvard, “If you would understand Chaucer, read the daily newspaper.” Chaucer is easy to teach because he is so alive to connections and can capture enormous change. High school students like the big ideas of poetry, virtuosity, games, and story telling. Chaucer’s generous spirit and humanity are needed badly today; that is why it is important that we teach Chaucer.

Michael Calabrese from the California State University at Los Angeles followed up by saying that students from other cultures identify with Chaucer. They see how many languages converged to make English. Hispanic students come from a publicly religious culture not unlike that of the fourteenth century and have a linguistic affinity to Middle English. Chaucer, then, belongs to the very students who are supposed to find him adversarial and alien.

Chaucer is writing about judgment and doubt, and never more so than in the House of Fame: he saw that Dante was so sure of himself and had so much judgment in the Divine Comedy. Calabrese pointed out that students today do not want to judge — unless it is that people should not smoke! Julian Wasserman, another member of the panel, commented that Chaucer shows the dangers of being too absolute, or of being absolutely unsure. Chaucer invites us to ask the question of how we deal with people by showing how his pilgrims deal with each other. Chaucer is writing about human failure and sin, not to mention human flaws. It is time to teach more Chaucer because he explains our times to us, makes us better able to survive in the world, and enables us to make sound judgments. Adolescents, particularly, need to learn balance, and not be too absolute or too absolutely unsure.

These comments on Chaucer testify that we need to be familiar with the history of our language; not only because many languages converged to make it, but I believe it matters that we know our ancestral tongue. Not only is English the dominant language of the world today, but if we explore its development in Chaucer, we can see how beautiful and funny it can be. Thematic study of English language and literature, as well as world literature, are all areas where Chaucer’s ideas fit in well.

Chaucer, too, was — and is — a great communicator. In San Rafael, California, composer John Geist and actress Becky Parker Geist have formed a small theatre company of young actors who sing and present Chaucer’s tales in theatres and on campuses across the county. They show better than I can tell why Chaucer does not go away. We need to pay closer attention to this performative aspect of medieval literature, especially as it relates to Chaucer’s House of Fame.

The House of Fame is an unusual tour de force. The poet’s tour, as in medieval culture, is vertical as well as round. He wanders back in history looking for love and for the truth of poetry, and with no time restraints, appears to get lost for 2,158 lines. From seeing Dido’s sad tale, which he observes from a feminist viewpoint, he ends up in a desert where a golden eagle rescues him, seizing the hapless poet and carrying him halfway to heaven to the house of Lady Fame. Unconscious with fear, the eagle assures him that Jove does not intend to ‘stellify’ him. The dazzling palace with the capricious Lady in charge confuses the poet — Geffrey — even more, and he stumbles out to meet a stranger who asks him if he has come for fame. In a moment of clarity he declares, “I wot myself best how y stond.” (I know best where I stand.) He is then guided to the House of Rumor where the ever-eager travel agent, the eagle, assures him that he will finally find what he is looking for. Instead, there is chaos in the labyrinth, and at its end, a pile of people resembling a soccer riot. The poet glimpses a ‘man of great authority,’ and the poem ends abruptly.
For centuries readers have viewed the House of Fame as ending unfinished, right in the middle of a sentence: a charming dissertation on dreams, perhaps, but a book that wanders aimlessly. Disappointing, in other words. In recent decades, however, scholars have discovered in the House of Fame a richer mine for future students of Chaucer, especially as far as language is concerned. If we explore its development in Chaucer, we can see how beautiful and funny language can be.

The following lines are from the Riverside Chaucer (Third Edition, 1987) with translations from Imagining Fame.

–The poet leaves the temple of Love:

Ne where I am, nor in what countree.
But now wol I goo out and see,
Yf I can see owhere any stirying man
That may tell me wher I am. (ll.475-78)Whan I out at the dores cam,
I faste aboute me beheld,
Then sawgh I but a large feld,
Withouten toun, or hous, or tree. (ll.480-83)
I know neither where I am, nor in what country.
I shall go out and see
If anyone is stirring
Who can tell me where I am.When I came out the temple door,
I quickly looked about
and saw but a large field,
without town or house or tree.

He will cry out in fright in line 494:

O Crist, fro fantome and illustion me save! O Christ, from phantom and illusion save me!

Later, the eagle discourses on sound as the basis for fame, parodying both science and the superiority of professors. And yet, the science is accurate:

Soun ys noght but eyr ybroken,
and every speche that ys spoken
lowd or privee, foul or fair,
in his substaunce ys but air. (ll.765-68)Every speche or noyse or soun,
Thorgh hys multiplicacioun,
Mot ned com to Fame’s Hous. (ll.783-85)throwe on water now a stoon
hyt wol make a litel roundel
as a sercle,
paraunter brod as a covercle;
whel wol cause another whel
ech aboute other goynge
and muyltiplying ever moo,
til hyt be ate Hous of Fame.(ll.789-96)
Speech is sound and sound is but broken air,
and every speech that is spoken,
loud or private, foul or fair,
is but air.Every speech or noise or sound,
through its multiplication,
must come to Fame’s House.throw a stone upon the water,
it will make a little ring
as in a circle,
soon it broadens as a cover,
one wheel will cause another,
each about the other going,
multiplying evermore,
until it be at the House of Fame.

The plays on words in Chaucer are many; in one passage there can be music, image, poem, and philosophy. Fame means sound–and the function of music in Chaucer’s time was to spread fame. There will be many musicians in the palace of Fame, but not much music aside from the blasts from the trumpets of Aeolus, giving praise and blame.

When the poet finally reaches the throne of the Lady Fame, the ninth group of petitioners are terrorists. The Lady asks the leader what he had done. He replies:

I am that ylke shrewe,
that brende the temple of Ysidis
in Athenes
I wolde fayn han hadde fame. (ll.1843-46)
I am that ilk shrew
Who burned the temple of Isis
in Athens
I would fain have had fame.

In the labyrinth, the House of Rumor, the poet sees increasing wildness; within this place truth and lies are mixed together:

Saugh I a lesyng and a sad soth saw,
and when they metten in that place
they were achekked both two,
and neyther o hem moste out goo;
so they gone crowde
til ech of hem gan crien lowed,
“Lat me go first!” “Nay, let me.”(ll.2088-94)
I saw a lie and a sad truth,
And when they met in the window
Both were checked,
Crowding each other
So neither could go out;
Til each of them began to cry,
“Let me go first!” “No, let me!”
Tho behynde begunne up lepe
And clamben up on other faste,
And up the nose and yen kaste,
And trodden fast on others heles,
And stempen, as men doon aftir eles.
Atte last y saugh a man,
he semed for to be
a man of gret auctorite (ll.2151-58)
Those behind began to leap
And climb upon each other,
And casting eyes and noses upward,
They trod upon each others heels,
And stamped as men do after eels.
At last I saw a man,
he seemed to be
a man of great authority

The questions below ask students to join Chaucer’s search for truth. As readers come to see that this poet describes himself as somewhat confused, they will also recognize that he is the author of this poem. With this understanding, it may be necessary to question who the less perceptive people are those in the Middle Ages or those in the modern age. Chaucer is always in control of himself, his work, and his audience. Some of questions can be tied to personal experience, and lines taken from the text may suggest answers. Encourage students to read aloud, memorize and recite. Read him aloud, and Chaucer sells himself; declaim his poetry, and the understanding of poetry manifests itself.

Questions

  1. Compare the eagle’s definition with a scientific definition of sound. Sound was a meaning for fame in Chaucer’s time. Why? Why might sound be so important? In what ways has sound influenced your own life?
  2. The poet comes out upon a desert. Can his loneliness be compared to that of T.S.Eliot’s Prufrock or J.D.Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, or perhaps to the characters in Samuel Beckett’s plays?
  3. Lady Fame is unpredictable, just as life can be unpredictable. Do you know any unpredictable people?
  4. Symbolic language can help with communication. Cite an example from this book and from your own life.
  5. Sometimes change and confusion can lead to something better. Can you provide such an example? How can a journey into chaos be a journey into truth?
  6. Have you ever walked a labyrinth or maze? Describe it.
  7. What is your definition of famous or infamous, fame or infamy? What is the attraction of fame?
  8. The House of Fame has been described as stationary, standing still, and filled with nouns, while the House of Rumor is a labyrinth of verbs. In the latter, people are rushing about hoping to fly to Fame. Why?
  9. How might Chaucer’s House of Fame have been performed? Indeed, why might it have been performed?

Notes:

  1. Anne Worthington Prescott. Imagining Fame. Illustrated by Kathryn Finter. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 2002. [back]
  2. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Chaucer. London: Faber & Faber, 1932. [back]
  3. For more information on the New Chaucer Society, see Susan Arvay, “A Brief History of the NCS” The Chaucer Newsletter 24.1 (2002). The original Chaucer Society, founded in 1851, was disbanded in l912 after the death of its most famous member, Dr.F.J.Furnivall. The New Chaucer Society was founded in 1977 with Paul Ruggiers of the University of Oklahoma as director. There are now over 700 members from l9 different countries. [back]

–Anne Worthington Prescott


Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume 1, Issue 1, September 2002
http://www.teamsmedieval.org/scientia_scholae/0209/chaucer.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies