Providence and Incest Reconsidered: Chaucer's Poetic Judgement of His Man of Law

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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. …