Chaucer's Models of Authorship and his Anxiety of Influence in the Prologue to the 'Legend of Good Women.

Authors Avatar

Siobhan Higgins

Chaucer’s Models of Authorship and his Anxiety of Influence in the Prologue to the ‘Legend of Good Women.

There is no doubt that Sir Geoffrey Chaucer placed immense value upon the integrity and accuracy of his work.  This is clearly evident in the poem, ‘Chaucers Wordes Unto Adam, his Owne Scriveyn’, where he reprimands his scribe Adam for his negligence and over zealousness in copying texts he has given him.          

‘But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe,

So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,

It to correct and eke to rubbe and scrape,

 And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’ (Chaucer, ‘Adam’ 4-7)

It is a short, yet passionate poem as it succinctly illustrates the intense ferocity Chaucer felt toward Adam for altering his creations; as demonstrated when he calls down a plague upon poor Adam’s head!  Chaucer’s preoccupation with the transmission of texts that are of quality and ‘trewe’ spills over into another of his works, prologue to Legend of Good Women [G Text], in which he examines the whole concept of his responsibility as an author in a more holistic fashion.  This essay seeks to discuss how Chaucer felt about his accountability as an author, translator and mediator of texts and the influences that fashioned his subjectivity as a writer.  It also seeks to explore the anxiety that Chaucer displays in the prologue as to his justification as an author and his realisation of the influence that his subjectivity would have in the future on his readership.

It is clear that about the time Chaucer commenced to write the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, that he was beginning to feel very self-aware of his impact upon his readers and his responsibility as an author.  In a time when illiteracy rates were high and his works were scantly distributed among a privileged coterie, Chaucer began to awaken to his accountability to adequately transmit the truth of a text.  Chaucer saw himself as the saviour of these tales, which only for his penning would be lost to the world forever.  ‘And if that olde bokes were aweye/ Yloren were of rememberance the keye’ (LGW 25-26).  A most interesting metaphor that he uses to convey this in the prologue is the image of himself as the reaper of left over ears of corn thereby salvaging the tales and legends of old by committing them to the written word.

‘For wel I wot that folk han here-beforn

Of makyng ropen, and lad awey the corn;

And I come after, glenynge here and there,

And am ful glad if I may fynde an ere

Of any goodly word that they han left’ (LGW 61-65).

Chaucer saw himself as undertaking the ‘labour’ of collecting, recording and translating these stories, at times even reconstituting them using his own discretion ‘As of the lef again the flour to make’ (LGW 71-72).  Chaucer’s labour of love was to remember these stories and in doing so form a bedrock upon which to establish English as a literary language – his flowers will become the bread upon which English literature will be sustained.  It is also interesting to note that Chaucer uses a specific flower as the metaphor for his works – the daisy.  This is a simple, humble, unpretentious flower – perhaps a metaphor for the English vernacular: numerous but unadorned.  Chaucer blatantly announced in the prologue, his ultimate objective in the compilation of these tales was, ‘The naked text in English to declare’ (LGW 86).  Using the English vernacular, over French and Latin, Chaucer wanted to establish the artistic integrity of the English language and he did this with fabulous success.  Less than a century later, Thomas Hoccleve ‘canonised’ Chaucer ‘as a literary progenitor, as a quasi-religious icon, as a model of authoritative advice, and as the founder of a national poetic tradition’ (Perkins, 103), in the immortal lines:

Join now!

        ‘My deere maistir, God his soule qwyte,

And fadir, Chaucer, fayn wolde han me taght,

But I was dul and lerned lyte or naght.’ (Hoccleve, 2077-2079)

It is possible that Chaucer projected that his name would be draped with the mantle of a title so weighted with reverence and respect as the father and creator of a literary tradition and it is evident a certain anxiety about his role as the author is manifested in the prologue to Legend.  It is unusual that a 14th century author would be concerned about his bearing over a text as this view to ...

This is a preview of the whole essay