Monday, September 26, 2011

Prepared for the challenge

We know now that Chaucer's daily life dealt with sudden death (natural or inflicted), and persecution of dissidents (whether at odds with the Church or the monarchy).
     He lived surrounded by challenges at a time ripe for hidden protests, such as allegory. All forms of literature--poetry, drama, sermons, or prose--were steeped in the form, and his English contemporaries took him to be the finest author of his age. Therefore, he had to be the greatest creator of allegory.
      Using the form, a writer would say one thing, but mean another: sowing seeds meant developing faith; choosing between two mares could refer to having two mistresses; journeying to "celestial Jerusalem" corresponded to one's life. Saying one thing and meaning another still functions today in cultural codes understood only by a particular group. Codes during wartime also serve the same purpose: speaking of puppies or cigarettes or weather forecasts but meaning something entirely different. Hidden messages are not at all strange or a new idea.
     Getting back to Chaucer, he portrayed all aspects of human nature with astonishing tolerance, not condemning even the most publicly sinful individuals. Knowing what he had experienced, I find it impossible to see the poet without compassion for the oppressed. I also find it impossible to think he was unaffected by the tragic loss of one after the other of his friends to sudden cruel ends.
     I believe he could not help but register a sense of horror and injustice toward authority. If horrors have not been understood from his words, it is because the aim of allegory is to be obscure. Fletcher's book on the subject, mentioned earlier, emphasizes that intention. Allegory had served as a veiled protest for centuries before Chaucer, and can be found today where dictators rule with iron fists, or where corruption runs rampant.
      Chaucer's translating of the most famous French allegory of his day--The Romance of the Rose--gave him good practice. But it took great determination, besides, for his message to be preserved. If the wrong people had recognized the hidden meaning, he would have been at personal hazard, and his works would have been destroyed. (Book burning had already been resorted to, if content offended authority.) His no-less-than-heroic dedication, in that case, would have been futile.
     So what would he hide so cleverly? We've already mentioned the bawdy Sir Thopas and his enemy--an Arab named "Elephant." What is being described is what was perceived as "venereal disease." My friend, Virginia Adair, caught on to that.
     She also foresaw another of the poet's intentions. This time it was essential that his secret message be concealed with the utmost skill; Chaucer would not have survived discovery by hostile opposition. The plan is remarkable and courageous. It has to do with the Host--and still makes me shudder.

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