Friday, March 21, 2014

What's it all about, Geoffrey?

If you have been reading this blog, you know that a moment of amazing insight changed my life. I suddenly understood that Chaucer's pilgrims had a double identity in an allegory. They were all celestial figures disguised as pilgrims. I wanted to tell the whole world. I still do.
     But why did Chaucer include himself as one of them? It took a while for me to understand his plan.
     First, guided by the clues in his words, I needed to discover all the zodiac signs and the planets that were his companions. When I'd found all of them--there was one pilgrim left over! The Clerk. He tells a story of more that 1000 lines. But his presence seemed unnecessary. Trusting Chaucer's words, however, told me who the "extra" is, and gave me the reason for Chaucer to accompany the group as observer and commentator.
     The Clerk turned out to be Petrarch, Italian poet and letter writer. More important, he is "the first humanist" and renowned for his love of studying, solitude, classic literature and books. The loss of friends and loved ones to the plague gave him a deep sense of how fragile life can be.
     His hidden identity is that of a deceased human being.
          A Clerk there was of Oxford also, 
          That according to logic had long gone.
Associating the Clerk with Oxford expresses the presence of the "long gone" Petrarch's ideas, which rapidly spread throughout Europe.
          And he was not very fat, I declare.     
          But looked hollow, and thereto solemn.
A hollow and solemn image conjures up the medieval depiction of a cadaver: a skeleton. This is the deceased Petrarch.
          Completely threadbare was his outer garment;
          For he had got himself no ecclesiastical position, 
          Nor was he as worldly as to have other employment.
This "outer garment" is a threadbare shroud. His not being "worldly" indicates one who is no longer in this world. Chaucer goes on to itemize Petrarch's well-known qualities. He'd rather have
          Twenty books clad in black or red,
          Of Aristotle and his philosophy,
          Than rich robes, or fiddle, or gay psaltery.
"Aristotle" defines the period of literature Petrarch loved. Books were his passion compared to clothing or music-making.
          He had but little gold in his "cofre" (coffer/coffin).
The Middle English word "cofre" conceals an ambiguity: no concern about riches in his coffer; and he had no need for gold in his coffin.
          But all that he might of his friends receive,
          On books and on learning he spent.
     Petrarch accepted invitations from nobility only if they didn't interfere with his studies. "Study," he said, "provides us with the fellowship of [the] most illustrious men."
          Not one word spoke he more than was needed.
His habit was often to "remain silent" while others around him conversed.
     The very last line in the Clerk's portrait is one of Chaucer's oft quoted gems.
          Resounding in moral virtue was his speech
          And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.
There is a reverence here for Petrarch. Some believe he and Chaucer met in Padua.
     As a teacher, Petrarch's "Humanists' creed" shocked the tradition-bound Middle Ages taught to dwell upon death and prepare for the blessings of the hereafter. His words, "Among mortals, the care of things mortal should come first," encouraged the development of the whole person and each person's uniqueness.  
     The Clerk states in his prologue,
          I will tell a tale that I
          Learned at Padua from a worthy clerk.
He even confirms the "worthy clerk" as Petrarch. References in the third person refer to his former earthly life.

The Clerk is not an afterthought. He arrived at the Tabard at sunset as one of the company of journeyers. By including Petrarch among the otherworldly characters, Chaucer is transforming him from an earthly body into a celestial body. It's called stellifying.
     A mythological example describes Venus' action following Caesar's murder. She caught up the passing soul of Caesar and bore it toward the stars of heaven. Higher than the moon it mounted and gleamed as a star. In the same way, Chaucer's contemporaries immortalized King Arthur's ascension to the star Arcturus, "the bright castle which Astronomers call Arthur's Constellation." Chaucer bestows the same honor upon Petrarch!
     In the House of Fame, Chaucer wonders whether "Jove will me stellify." This poetic commonplace for a journey to the afterlife, then, is the underpinning, the basic structure of the Canterbury Tales. Traveling with companions whose covert identities are cosmic figures represents the creative fulfillment of the poet's clearly expressed longing for a heavenly destiny as recorded in his Retraction, the prayer of supplication that ends Chaucer's Tales.
     The cosmic plan of the tales is the poet's ardent desire to become "one of them," one of the lights of the firmament.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Pardoner: Getting to know all about him

We've heard a description of the Pardoner from the General Prologue in the previous entry. What follows now is the picture the Pardoner paints of himself in the prologue to his Tale.
     Regarding his preaching, he says,
          My theme is alwey oon [one], and ever was
          . . . and that is avarice.
And to stir listeners to devotion, I show forth my . . . relics.
     As he displays the shoulder bone of an animal, he exhorts:
          Pay attention to what I say:
          If this bone is immersed in your well water
          All your animals will be cured.
          Your beasts and your stores shall multiply.
Beyond those wonders, the water also overcomes jealousy!
          If soup is made with this water, 
          Never more shall a husband mistrust his wife.
     In another area of his talents, he assures,
          If anyone has committed a horrible sin,
          Or a wife has cuckolded her husband,
          I'll absolve them as I've done
          Year after year for 60 pounds.
     He has only one objective.
          All my preaching is to make them generous
          To give their money, namely unto me.
          For my intent is naught but to win,
          And nothing for correction of sin.
     But beware. Do not provoke his outrage.
          If anyone offends me or my friends,
          None will escape being falsely defamed.
          . . .
         Thus I spit out my venom under pretense
          Of holiness, to seem holy and truthful.
     His reputation is built on his old stories because he knows
          Simple people love old tales
          Which they can retell and remember. 
     Asceticism has no appeal for him. He'll not live like "the apostles."
           I will have money, wool, cheese, and wheat,
          No matter if it were given by the poorest servant,
          Or the poorest widow in a village,
          Even if her children die of hunger.
     Though at times he will present an edifying story, it is always with the idea of profiting.
         For though myself be a full vicious man,
          A moral tale yet I can tell you
          Which I am wont to preach for gain. 
He directly recommends to all,
          It is an honor to everyone that is here
          That ye have a pardoner
          To absolve you, as you ride,
          In case someone falls 
          Down from his horse,
          And breaks his neck.
The worthy Pardoner will absolve you
          When the soul shall from the body pass.
      After all his expressions of depravity, it comes as a surprise when the Pardoner--in a moment of candor--admits he still believes Christ is the Savior.
          And Jesus Christ, that is our souls physician,
          So grant you his pardon to receive,
          For that is best; I will not deceive you.
     As an evil man, we detest him. But, as Pisces, the Sign of the Fish, a personification of the Church, his actions are covert accusations against the life of the Church!
     lack of concern for souls
     and Mariolatry
Chaucer has created a many-faceted portrait that recognizes and anticipates the protests that led to the Reformation.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Pardoner: Getting to know him

Chaucer cleverly depicts the Pardoner/Pisces as the image of a fish. Then he has a bit of fun with the two images combined as he transitions to the characteristics of a man. Following that, he provides a brief identification of the actual sign.
     Here he is still concentrating on the area of the "hair."
          A hood, for jollity, wore he none.
He wears no hood. That's clear. But what can we make of,
          Disheveled, save his cap, he rode all bare.
The line is generally explained to say he was bareheaded--except for his cap. But as a fish, of course, he rides all bare! (Disheveled, in this case, means unbound hair rather than unkempt. We had previously learned his appearance is neat and orderly.)
     Identifying the sign of Pisces echoes Manilius, an ancient astronomer: One half of Pisces concludes winter, the other introduces spring. How does Chaucer express this?
          Of his craft, from Berwick into Ware,
          Never was there such another pardoner.
The Pardoner/Pisces is one of a kind, but so is each of the signs. Scrutinizing the names of the specific towns as words, the most meaningful is "Ware." It means spring. For example, In ware tyme he sews his whete. If "Ware" is spring, "Berwick" must communicate winter. "Ber" as an alternate spelling of bare (without vegetation) combined with "wick" (Hardwick, Brunswick) as a land area says "a region that is bare." Transforming the bare land of winter into the new life of spring is, indeed, the province of Pisces.
     Once the identification is done with, the poet launches into a  character study. In his traveling bag, the Pardoner claims to have Our Lady's veil, a portion of the sail from St. Peter's boat, and a glass filled with pig's bones; he declares all are holy relics. He uses these items to make fools of people. He flatters and tricks poor people and other clergymen. In doing so, he succeeds in taking in more money in a day than devoted preachers do in two months.
     His performance in church, nevertheless, is outwardly exemplary. He preaches and sings expertly. His motivation, however, is greed. With a better performance, the "more silver he'd win."
     This portrait is part of the undercurrent of protests in the Tales. The reason given for his expert performance, for example, conceals the exaggerated medieval devotion to Mary.
          Therefore he sang merrier and loud. 
Even more powerful is the line that follows the attention to  his sleek surface.
          I trust he were a gelding or a mare.
Because of his utter lack of beard, he is said to be impotent. To deny the power of the pardon of the "sign of the fish"--Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven--is heresy!
     The final member of Chaucer's clique is the Pardoner. The closing prayer of the Tales expresses the poet's need of forgiveness for his sins. So the concerns demonstrated in the group are Money/ the Manciple, the Devil/ the Miller, Judgment/ the Reeve, Death/ the Summoner, and the Sign of the Fish--the Church/ the Pardoner.
     This General Prologue presentation does not end Chaucer's exposure of this pilgrim. These disclosures may repel us, but when the Pardoner speaks for himself, as he does in the prologue to his Tale, he becomes even more hateful. Chaucer want us to know him well.