Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thopas--Melibee 1-2-3

We are at the windup of Chaucer's personal centerpiece--Thopas and Melibee--the presentation of the poet's alter ego, Pilgrim Chaucer. Because the journeyers are asked to "tell of adventures that had happened," I take the events to be patterned after Chaucer's life. Thopas recounts sprinting as a young man engaged in sexual conquests surviving an ordeal resulting from his pursuits; recovering--and returning to "life as usual." His "return" finds him among royal society, living the courtly life. Then it happens. A spiritual confrontation causes him an about-face, a determination to lead a moral life. That's where we are now.

The  Pilgrim's second offering translates a popular French tale about Melibee, that is, "a man who drinks honey." The poet says he may change some of the words, but that will only serve to reinforce his subject matter.
     French Melibee has a wife, Prudence, and a nameless daughter. He leaves his wife and daughter at home and goes into the world looking for entertainment. In his absence, enemies beat Prudence and wound the daughter. The remainder of the plot deals with Melibee's deciding what vengeful action to take. Prudence counsels him at length!
     Now to Chaucer's translation. The first thing the poet adds is a pastoral setting. Melibee goes "into the fields." Prudence confirms his intent as sexual. Echoes of Thopas!
     Next, Chaucer gives the anonymous daughter a significant name--Sophie, which means wisdom. The plot gains a dual message. Now, besides learning of domestic events, we know Melibee failed to have the virtues of Prudence and Wisdom accompany him!
     In his absence, enemies beat his wife and wound his daughter, leaving her for dead. Chaucer's scenario deals with Melibee's reaction to the attack, and--of added urgency--finding the means for Sophie's recovery. Her recovery represents the restoration of Melibee's wisdom.
     Prudence tells Melibee that if he will trust her advice, she will restore Sophie's well-being. After much debate, Melibee decides in favor of Prudence. When he says, "I will do your will and put myself completely under your guidance," we know Sophie--his wisdom--will be restored.
     Chaucer also enhances the spiritual content. Where the French simply repeats Dieu, Chaucer diversifies with "Almighty God," "Jesus Christ," or "Lord God of heaven." And when the French merely alludes to "Second Corinthians," Chaucer quotes the verse: The joye of God is perdurable, that is to seyn everlastynge.
     When the French text comes to an end, Chaucer adds one more conviction.
               Doubtless, if we are sorry and repent of the sins 
              which we committed in the sight of our Lord God, 
              he is so generous and merciful that he will forgive our guilts 
              and bring us to the bliss that never ends. Amen.
This is the pilgrim poet's ultimate "reinforcement."
     Though Thopas' wrong-doing is obvious--his account more outspoken than Melibee's--both characters had sinful beginnings. Thopas endures bodily anguish for physical transgressions. In contrast, Melibee is afflicted with mental anguish over the damage to his Prudence and Wisdom.
     Eventually Meibee prudently, wiselcounsels:
               He is truly worthy to have pardon and forgiveness of his sin, 
              who does not excuse his sin, but acknowledges it and repents.
Thopas is on the right track. His tale is a straightforward acknowledgment of misdeeds without excuses. Melibee's guilt, on the other hand, is more subtle. But he too acknowledges his sinfulness (prompted by Prudence). Mercy is anticipated for both.

Pilgrim Chaucer's performance becomes a physical-spiritual dichotomy. Recall the little grotesque figures identified with Thopas as the personality "below the waist," the genital area with a mind of its own. Then Melibee is the upper or elevated portion--the portion dominated by the mind or soul--that has the mouth filled with honey. Together they are the dual nature of one man.
     Melibee who knew the honey of "temporal riches and delights, and honors" seems a proper image of the poet--trusted international servant, and entertaining performer to English kings and court. This upper honey-filled portion could portray the public life of our poet; Thopas, the lower prickster component, his private life. Together they are a personal centerpiece dramatizing Geoffrey Chaucer's transgressions, conversion, and confidence in God's mercy.