The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature

By Eric Jager | Go to book overview

texts, Chaucer's book partakes of the "fallen" writing whose ultimate origin lies in the Garden.

It is true that January's garden contains not only a typological fruit tree but also a "laurer" whose leaves are "alwey grene" (2037). With this traditional emblem of poetry, Chaucer may be suggesting that the leaves of his book also embody a secular afterlife of fame, that the Fall engendered both the gift of divine Scripture and that of human poetry.Like his great Italian predecessors, Chaucer apparently sought an earthly immortality, and like Petrarch in particular he may have felt torn between Augustine's penitential fig tree and the laurel of poetic self-creation. 150. Yet the last tree mentioned in the Canterbury Tales is not the poetic laurel but the Tree of Penitence (X.110), which bears among its leaves the "fruyt of penaunce" (X.1075), and which points not to literary self-creation and self-advancement but rather back to the Garden and to the divine beginning and end of all language. Chaucer may chastise his scribe for miswriting the letter, but ultimately he recognizes his own affinity with "Adam" as one who equally labors in the shadow of the Fall.

In his literary works, Chaucer figures the condition of fallen language most fully under the sign of the "lettre." As far as we know, Chaucer, unlike other poets of his age, left no "personal" letters, no letters to posterity, but only the letters written by his characters—letters sent to us indirectly, as it were.On the other hand, more letters appear in Chaucer's literary works than in those of any earlier medieval poet.In many cases, Chaucer gives us not only their contents but also the details of their writing, transmission, and reception.Thus situated within poetic fictions as the products of imaginary personae, and as subject to the usual contingencies, these fictional letters represent Chaucer's own literary corpus as well as the written word in general, the "lettre," as a locus of a myriad problems and possibilities.Like other texts, these letters are a scene of interpretive ambiguity and of unforeseen or unrealized rhetorical effects. They are a mysterious nexus of soul and body, of spirit and matter, of the inner and the outer. They are an occasion for pleasure or pain, for joy or sorrow. They are a place to find or lose God, to sign away or redeem one's soul.And, finally, for Chaucer and for us, the author and his literary audience as separated by time, space, and much more, they are a sign of the eternal absence of writer and reader from each other.

____________________
150.
See Freccero, " The Fig Tree and the Laurel."

-298-

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