CSUN ENGL 414 - FIRE IN THE HOUSE (9 pages)

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FIRE IN THE HOUSE



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FIRE IN THE HOUSE

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Pages:
9
School:
California State University, Northridge
Course:
Engl 414 - Chaucer
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02 37 1 2nd PROOF 9 17 02 10 53 PM Page 86 FIRE IN THE HOUSE RALPH WALDO EMERSON S MISREADING OF LINES 1139 45 IN CHAUCER S WIFE OF BATH S TALE by Peter G Beidler If I were a professor I should make all young people with a poetic talent read Chaucer Herrick and Shakspeare Ralph Waldo Emerson1 The rich poets as Homer Chaucer Shakspeare and Raphael have obviously no limits to their works except the limits of their lifetime and resemble a mirror carried through the street ready to render an image of every created thing Ralph Waldo Emerson2 There is no question that Emerson knew and admired the works of Chaucer though his references to Chaucer tend mostly to be general as in my two epigraphs above Only once does he make a more extended allusion to Chaucer That allusion comes in his 1844 essay The Poet In 1925 Caroline Spurgeon briefly mentioned this allusion to Chaucer 3 but so far as I have been able to determine virtually no one among either Emerson scholars or Chaucer scholars has discussed the allusion Indeed most editions of Emerson s essay The Poet do not bother to give the reference for Emerson s allusion Although Spurgeon did not tell what incident Emerson is alluding to it is not hard to discover that the reference is to the old wife s pillow lecture in the Wife of Bath s Tale My central point in this essay is that in his brief allusion to the Wife of Bath s Tale in The Poet Emerson quite misreads the Chaucerian passage that he refers to I shall begin by discussing what Chaucer was about in the passage then show in what ways Emerson misreads that passage then suggest some reaTHE CHAUCER REVIEW Vol 37 No 1 2002 Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania State University University Park PA 02 37 1 2nd PROOF 9 17 02 10 53 PM Page 87 PETER G BEIDLER 87 sons why Emerson may have misread it and finally and perhaps most interestingly indicate why I believe Emerson may well have known that he was misreading the passage and may indeed have done so willfully Emerson does not give us the context for the lines he cites and the paraphrases in The Poet but they appear in the pillow lecture of the new old bride to her reluctant young husband on their wedding night in the Wife of Bath s Tale In the passage below I quote from Chaucer s Canterbury Tales and Other Poems published in London between 1823 and 1832 4 I use this edition which reproduces almost exactly Tyrwhitt s late eighteenth century text because this is the one that Emerson almost certainly read in the 1840s 5 In these difficult lines the bride is responding to her new husband s unchivalrous complaint that she is loathly old and low born She answers his charge by pointing out to him that true gentility or gentillesse is not something we are born with not something we inherit from our ancestors not something that comes with wealth or possessions Part of her argument is that if gentility were an inherited characteristic it would be like fire true to its own quality consistent in its own elemental nature no matter what the consequences The specific lines that Emerson alludes to in my boldface below are spoken by the new old wife to her new young husband Eke every wight wot this as wel as I If gentillesse were planted naturelly Unto a certain linage doun the line Prive and apert than wol they never fine To don of gentillesse the faire office They mighten do no vilanie or vice Take fire and bere it into the derkest hous Betwix this and the mount of Caucasus And let men shette the dores and go thenne Yet wol the fire as faire lie and brenne As twenty thousand men might it behold His office naturel ay wol it hold Up peril of my lif til that it die Cumberland 194 cf III 1133 45 Tyrwhitt 6715 27 We can read Chaucer s passage roughly thus if men took fire and carried it to the darkest house between here and the far off Caucasus Mountains then left that fire in the house and shut the door and went away the fire would still burn with the same qualities it would have if 20 000 men were watching it So long as it burned it would maintain its natural office as fire whether or not anyone were there to see it So called 02 37 1 2nd PROOF 88 9 17 02 10 53 PM Page 88 THE CHAUCER REVIEW gentle men in contrast those who claim their gentility from their ancestry or their wealth rather than from their virtuous actions or the grace of God do gentle deeds only when they are watched When no one is watching they do churlish or vicious deeds Such gentility is not an invariable or elemental quality like that of fire consistent whenever it is found but is variable depending on whether someone is watching The old wife is defending herself against her new husband s accusation that because she is low born she is not worthy of a gentle born man like him Her point is that so called gentle men behave one way when they are in public but when they are alone they are capable of all manner of viciousness True gentility then comes not from birth or wealth but from God s grace and is demonstrated in consistency of virtuous action For her husband then to criticize her because she is of so lough a kynde III 1101 is wrong since her birth is irrelevant to her gentility Implied in her statement of course is the fact that her husband because of his rapacious actions when he is alone with the young maiden and his unchivalrous words when he is alone with his new old wife lacks gentility despite his more aristocratic birth To understand Emerson s quite explicit allusion to this passage we need to understand the context for his allusion In The Poet Emerson speaks of poets as liberating gods who by their use of stunning symbols emancipate men by bringing them out of a cave or cellar of their own ignorance Emerson gives many examples of the wonderful freedom that results when a reader is struck by the brilliance of poetic metaphor He mentions Vitruvius s analogy between a house and a human body Plato s calling the world a heavenly tree growing with its root which is its head upward and so on One of Emerson s many examples of a liberating use of symbolic poetry is Chaucer s use of the fire image in the passage we are considering Here is the way Emerson puts it with my boldface indicating all that he says about Chaucer The use of symbols has a power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men We seem to be touched by a wand which makes us dance and run about happily like children We are like persons who come out of …


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