The Man of Law in Chauser's Poetic Judgment
For many recent writers, Chaucer's poetic relationship to his Man of Law, even in the context of the poet's ironic and dramatic method of exposition, is somewhat unusual: in the Introduction to the tale, we may note the characteristic tone of humorous detachment from the teller, but, as the story of Constance advances, we witness the poet's marked concern to satirize the other's learning,(1) his shrill rhetoric,(2) his apparent obsession with his heroine,(3) and, not least, his concern with moral judgments, which would somehow illustrate the workings of providence. The theme of providence (or fate) in one of Chaucer's major sources, Ovid's Metamorphoses, is often linked to the question of poetic judgment, whereby the ability of a speaker to represent the meaning of a traditional legend is scrutinized in Ovid's penetrating irony. I shall attempt, therefore, to identify analogous modes of poetic procedure between Ovid and Chaucer that dramatize the problem of a better poetic rendering of a traditional legend. Moreover, the theme of judgment is explicit in Chaucer's concern with the theme of incest in the Introduction to the tale, where the Man of Law fears that he will be likened to the Pierides, who lost their poetic competition with the Muses. But the theme of a judgment involves a poetic procedure somewhat different from the concerns illustrated in Trivet and Gower, though an assessment of Chaucer's poetic purpose is facilitated by the very proximity of these medieval sources, as they allow us to remark on the poet's most original emphases: the astrological invocations are part of his original additions, and the teller's insistence that providence protect Constance's purity and innocence in the face of her numerous trials differs from the theme of her beneficent evangelizing influence in Nicolas Trivet's Cronicle, where God's "purveance" allows her to win "honor e amur" over the whole earth (SA, 181).(4) It is obvious that Trivet, like Gower, wishes to draw a moral point from the story of his heroine's constancy, whereas in Ovid the emphasis is on the poetic quality of the speaker's rendering of a traditional story. Thus, Trivet's theme of virtue rewarded is congruent with the presumed point of Gower's exemplum, which is, at least according to his Genius, Constance's ability to overcome detraction and envy and thus to serve as an example of moral teaching for Amans, who professes to be troubled by his jealousy of his lady's other admirers ("Min herte is Envious withal," 11. 478). Genius's view is that Amans's detraction of his lady's admirers simply dirties his own hands ("For who so wole his handes lime, / Thei mosten be the more unclene..." [11. 574-75]), that the story of Constance should reveal envy and detraction to be self-destructive, and that these can be overcome by virtuous conduct.
We may expect that Chaucer would share with his immediate sources something of their moral tenor in an exemplary story of virtue and constancy rewarded,(5) but the lack of an overt moral is the paradoxical feature of Chaucer's mode of narrative that most clearly distinguishes it from its models: the Man of Law's interest in the relationship of human virtue to God's providential order is of course fully addressed in the tale, since he repeatedly intervenes to elicit our sympathy for Constance's trials and to condemn her antagonists as instruments of Satan. His major concern seems to be with his understanding of how providence will reward the virtue of his heroine, and he fears he cannot tell a thrifty tale (11. 46) that his creator has not already told. His contribution, however, will afford a contrast with the stories of a poet who has, apparently, produced many tales of women abused or mistreated. But the paradox here is that the Man of Law's catalogue refers also to the theme of poetic judgment, which does not address solely the question of content but also the manner of telling. There is a precedent for this in the House of Fame (11. 620-25) as the Eagle comments on the accomplishments of "Geffrey's" career as a poet of love:
And never-the-lesse hast set thy wit - Although that in thy hed ful lyte is - To make bookys, songes, dytees, In ryme or elles in cadence, As thou best canst, in reverence Of Love and of hys servantes eke...
and, more obviously, in the charge of the God of Love (Prologue to the Legend of Good Women F. 32040 / G. 246-316) as he accuses the dreamer of writing heresy against the law of love in his translation of the Roman de la Rose and in his handling of Cressida's inconstancy in the Troilus.
Irrespective of the comic ambiguities of these earlier judgments as to Chaucer's poetic service to the theme of love, the Man of Law's search for, or fear of, a poetic or moral judgment has a distinctive texture: 1) he is concerned to find an original story that will illustrate the theme of womanly virtue rewarded; and 2) he seems to acknowledge that Chaucer, who may have maligned a woman's constancy in love in some of his stories, never went so far as to depict the extreme degradation of incest:
But certeinly no word ne writeth he Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee, That loved hir owene brother synfully - Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy! - Or ellis of Tyro Appollonius, How that the cursed kyng Antiochus Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede ... (77-83)
Both of these "poetic judgments" invoked by the Man of Law obviously address the content of a poetic narrative, yet, interestingly enough, his third criterion of judgment has a novel component, for it raises the question of a poetic decision at the outcome of a competition. This involves, of course, the contest between the Muses and the Pierides in Ovid's Metamorphoses V. 294-678, where the theme of a woman's constancy in love is not an issue:(6)
But of my tale how shal I doon this day? Me were looth be likned, doutelees, To Muses that men clepe Pierides - Methamorphosios woot what I mene; But nathelees, I recche noght a bene Though I come after hym with hawebake. I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make. (90-96)
The judgment rendered by the nymphs at the close of Book V of Ovid's text certifies that the Pierides have been defeated in their use of the theme of the Gigantomanchia, whereby the gods have reduced themselves to bestial forms as they are temporarily overthrown by natural forces. The Muses, on the other hand, are victors not because they celebrate a story of incest but rather because they depict the triumph of marriage between Pluto and Proserpina in the Fates' decree which jupiter cannot rescind, and which Nature (represented by Ceres, the anxious mother) cannot oppose. At the heart of Ovid's contest is the question of the right, or true, expression of a legend - as opposed to a judgment of its content, or apparent moral teaching - a point that is not lost on Chaucer in his attitude toward his speaker's handling of his story. Moreover, the Man of Law's reference to the case of "Canacee" probably acknowledges as much the argument of Heroides 11 as it does Gower's own exemplum (CA III. 134-360). And, in the case of the Latin Epistle, we may argue, as have many Ovidians, that the overt subject of incest between the girl and her brother Macareus is oddly expressed by her acquiescence in the relationship, which is in any event dominated by the violent reaction of the father Aeolus, further dramatized in Gower. In both versions of the legend it will appear that the apparent subject of incest is overwhelmed by a special thematic emphasis which introduces other motives, in particular that of an ambiguous paternal obsession. In fact, Aeolus's role in the girl's death may have encouraged Chaucer to make the connection of her plight with the story of Gower's Apollonius (CA VIII. 271-2008), in which the explicit and implicit incest motives involve not only the riddle of Antiochus concerning his …