The ability for poetry to possess a variety of underlying themes while retaining a simplistic and elegant style of writing is unmatched in any other form of literary work. This stands true regardless of the time period of the poem, from ancient and medieval works, to early modern and modern poetry.
Geoffrey Chaucer is widely regarded as one of the great poets of the Middle Ages, and his poems are certainly no exception to this; in fact, it can be said that his works elevated the stage of poetry during this period, as he was revolutionary regarding his usage for both the Middle English language and establishing a wide array of themes in his poems.
Chaucer’s work The House of Fame is a classic example of one of his Middle English poems which retains both a consistent, elegant style, while telling the tale of diverse characters who work to establish an overall theme, or in many instances, multiple themes. In the case of The House of Fame, Chaucer establishes the primary theme of memory and connects it to poetry itself, contemplating the concept that the truth of poetry is a matter of memory.
With reference to the contexts of the poem’s own creation, the poem itself was created with memory being a crucial element. As Chaucer’s poems contain plenty of allegory, with The House of Fame being no exception, it is understood that Chaucer used a variety of sources and references while crafting his poems, but did not reference these sources directly; rather, he referenced them via his memory. According to Ruth Evans, Chair of English at St. Louis University, the time period played a role in this.
“The existence of numerous medieval artificial memory systems signals that Chaucer’s access to knowledge is different from out own, since Chaucer, like many other medieval writers, tends to remember his quotations rather than check them accurately against standardized texts.”
Essentially, Chaucer wrote The House of Fame based on memory, with Chaucer’s memory of quotations being relied upon during the duration of his writing of the poem, and for a poem whose primary theme is memory, this is quite appropriate and offers a sliver into the context of the poem’s creation. The fact that the poem is made out of memory is a direct relation between poetry and memory itself, and this very substance is made clear when the context of the poem’s creation is analyzed.
Chaucer’s The House of Fame is a fantasy story, taking place in a dream world, a fantasy world. It is thus a figment of Chaucer’s imagination, and of course, the crux of the story takes place in the dreamer’s dream, so essentially, the story takes place in the dreamer’s imagination. This is crucial as dreams are mere figments of one’s imagination, brought alive by the subconscious, and then fade away into memory when one wakes up.
Dreams thus become figments of memory once the person wakes up, which is key as pretty much the entire story, which takes place in the dreamer’s mind as a dream, will quickly become a mere memory when he arises, and a distant one at that, as dreams are commonly forgotten shortly after one wakes up. However, there is an irony to this as the entire dream of the dreamer is documented in the story, so it is evident that the entire dream he had will be remembered, or at the very least, referenced.
With this, it is evident that the dreamer’s dream itself is a representation of memory. When the dreamer falls asleep, he awakens inside a magical glass temple filled with beautiful works and images of wealth. The vast temple, which contains a multitude of rooms, is slowly navigated by the dreamer.
The layout of the temple is a clear indication to the memory palace, which is a common medieval classification comparing the human memory to a large series of rooms. According to Florida Atlantic University professor T.S. Miller, Chaucer used this as inspiration.
“The classical conceit of the memory palace — an ancient rhetorical technique for the organization of the memory as an internalized series of rooms — provided medieval authors with a practical tool for mnemonic enhancement as well as an imaginative means by which to link mental and physical interiors within the spaces of narrative.”
It is implied here that Chaucer used this as inspiration, and this is yet another direct link between the poem and memory itself; while the poem tackles the theme of memory, the poem itself is reliant on memory and visibly reflects the human memory, as the temple is a representation of the organization of the human memory.
The contents of the temple are also elements which play a role in representing memory. In lines 119–126 of The House of Fame, the dreamer vaguely describes the contents of the temple which he can see, stating that:
“ther were moo ymages Of gold / stondynge in sondry stages / And moo ryche tabernacles / And with perre moo pynacles / And moo curiouse portreytures / And queynte maner of figures Of olde werk / then I saugh ever.”
He states there that the temple contained more ‘curious portraiture’ and ‘intricate kinds of figure craftsmanship’ than he ever saw in his life. The lavish, striking nature of the artifacts and decals of the temple make them easier to remember, such that, according to Elizabeth Buckmaster in her book Meditation and Memory in Chaucer’s ’House of Fame’, the fact that the temple contained such elegant craftsmanship makes them easier to describe and stick around in the dreamer’s memory. Of this, she states:
“The images here are of the general type recommended in memory treatises-human in form, decorated with gold and jewels, set in niches so that they stand out from their settings, strikingly beautiful or grotesque.”
The dreamer himself is yet another example of the relation of memory to the poem. The poem is told from the first-person perspective of the dreamer, a man who finds himself in an epic fantasy world of his own subconscious, his own memory. The dreamer is in awe when he wakes up in the temple and struggles to document it due to the sheer awe he finds himself in, as well as the beauty and intensity of the temple.
The dreamer states “For certeynly, I nyste never Wher that I was, but wel wyste I”, indicating that he knew only of what he could see and was unable to decipher or even understand what he was seeing at that point. Again according to T.S. Miller:
“[The dreamer’s inability to effectively understand the temple] reflects the confusion of the narrator’s perceiving mind as it attempts to organize the contents of the room into a form communicable in narrative and able to be preserved in memory.”
Principally, the dreamer is having a tough time perceiving memory itself, the temple, into his own memory, and his failure to understand the room is indicative of our inability to categorize, or even understand, our own memory.
A certain portion of irony exists in The House of Fame, which of course relates to memory. The dreamer finds himself inside a temple which has come to represent memory, either his own or the human memory in general, which has already been established; however he struggles with the concept of memory, announcing his indifference towards being remembered in a temple of memory, and wishing to be forgotten. Ironically, the dreamer wishes to forget about memory, a concept that relies on the opposite of forgetting, which is a true paradox. Miller states of this:
“Chaucer’s narrator struggles to organize, remember, and communicate his memories…he also wishes that the arts of memory could teach him how to forget, or at least to forget that so much exists beyond his power to master in memory.”
The House of Fame also contains aspects which mirror memory in a literal sense, and one of these components can be identified as the abrupt ending of the poem. The poem arguably is unfinished and in fact ends with no true ending, leaving the ending up to the interpretation of the reader.
This in turn can reflect the unfinished nature of memory, as one’s memory is never complete, always expanding as new information comes in and old information which can no longer be retained exits. The House of Fame’s unfinished ending, as well as the unknown intentions of Chaucer to leave it unfinished, reflect this.
“…the poem itself stands as a truncated catalogue of sorts, an incomplete edifice standing in as the memorial record of some impossible whole.”
The poem’s unfinished nature directly relates poetry to memory as the poem is unfinished, like the human memory will always be, and a comparison can be drawn between the intentions behind the unfinished nature of the poem and the unfinished nature of human memory.
The truth of poetry can be considered a matter of memory as the true intentions of a poem, the truth of a poem, can only be known by the author, and likewise, the truth of memory can only be known by the recipient or member of that memory. In essence, the truth of poetry is merely interpreted by readers, and the true intentions of the poem, which were only known by Chaucer, are gone, like faded memories.
The House of Fame beautifully represents memory and portrays memory as a never-ending labyrinth of beautifully-decorated and vibrant experiences, while introducing paradoxes centering around the dreamer: the dreamer is living in a dream, which is an element of memory, yet struggles with understanding his own dream and wants to be forgotten.
Chaucer excellently paints a picture which allows The House of Fame to straddle the line with memory, directly relating the poem to memory and deeming the truth of poetry a mere matter of memory. And that, my friends, is hard to forget.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.