Chaucer, the Mother of English Poetry?

In the early eighteenth century John Dryden famously described Geoffrey Chaucer as ‘the Father of English Poetry’, although he wasn’t the first one to do so. Three centuries earlier in The Regiment of Princes the poet and bureaucrat Thomas Hoccleve offered the first recorded reference to Chaucer as literary father. This paternal image defines the literary canon and literary production more broadly as a patrilineal line of descent whose authority is founded on a patriarchal figure from whom later writers (sons-disciples such as Hoccleve) derive validation.

This patriarchal, men-to-men, paradigm has been pervasive in critical approaches to literature, so much so that in 1973 in The Anxiety of Influence Harold Bloom still conceptualised literary history in genealogical terms as a (fraught) father-son relationship. Embedded in the ‘natural’ discourse of reproduction and heterosexual relations, this paradigm has been normalised and has therefore remained dominant. Carolyn Dinshaw reads the opening lines of The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as evidence that ‘literary production itself has been construed as a heterosexual act’ (Getting Medieval). In other words, the major work of the ‘Father of English Poetry’ begins with images of penetration, generation, and fecundation (‘perced’; ‘licour’; ‘engendred’):

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
When April with its sweet-smelling showers
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
By which power the flower is created (I.1-5)

The power of creation (literary and otherwise) is here very much seen as a sexualised masculine pursuit. The grammatical gender of ‘Aprill’ sets the tone for the passage: the generative power of the spring showers (‘his shoures soote’) is configured as a male act of impregnation and penetration of an inert surface ready to receive April’s generative fertilisation. Later in the passage references to Zephirus and the Ram (Aries) augment the male dominance in acts of creation. Even Nature, feminine figure of creation in both classical and Christian traditions, is presented as phallic as she ‘priketh’ or incites those who are restless and unable to sleep. Although, as Dinshaw concedes, in the creative act the feminine is not entirely obliterated, it is however co-opted by the ubiquitous presence of the patriarch.

Are women, therefore, irrelevant, or at best marginal, in the processes of literary production? Are they simply texts to be written, or blank envelopes to be filled with meaning, as the French feminist Luce Irigaray would put it, rather than creative agents? Of course, as the previous posts on this blog demonstrate, scholarship on medieval women’s position in the literary landscape has shown their influence on the canon as patrons, readers, and authors. Notwithstanding patrilineal and heterosexual normativity, I contend that the feminine, or an entanglement of feminine and masculine, is central to the very principle of canon formation on which the construction of Chaucer as ‘Father of English Poetry’ is founded.

One of the most famous ‘portraits’ of Chaucer accompanies a passage of Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes in two manuscript copies of the poem. Chaucer’s index finger validates his disciple’s work by guiding the reader’s attention to a passage that describes his paternal authority as closely associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary:

How he thy servant was, mayden Marie,
And lat his love floure and fructifie (4990-91)

Here Chaucer’s literary authority appears subordinate, but also cognate with Mary’s maternal creativity. Images of flourishing and fertility characterise his generative agency, as his prolific literary production is sanctioned by the Virgin, the Mother of Christ and ultimate vehicle of the Incarnation. Hoccleve is not the only fifteenth-century poet whose praise of Father Chaucer is founded on a rhetoric of nourishing and flourishing, traditionally associated with femininity and maternity in particular. According to John Lydgate, Chaucer ‘made firste, to distille and rayne…/ And fonde the floures, first of Retoryke’ (‘The Life of Our Lady’). Figures of birth and ripening cast his paternal authority as semi-divine, a God-like patriarch responsible for nourishing the infant English vernacular tradition. Marian associations with flowers (the white rose and the lily), maternal functions such as nurturing may have been co-opted by literary discourse to serve Chaucer’s masculine authority, but they also appear central to its very articulation.

In Amoral Gower Diane Watt discusses Chaucer’s contemporary’s literary imagination as maternal, as one of his major works, Vox Clamatis, was likely derived from the works of a fourth-century Roman woman writer, the little known Faltonia Betitia Proba. This entangled configuration of maternal and paternal authority is echoed in a passage from Gower’s Confessio Amantis, excised from later versions of the text. Venus, the goddess of love, praises Chaucer for his abundant literary production and, most importantly, addresses him as her disciple. Perhaps this is an attempt to undermine Chaucer’s authority by feminising it, as part of a much debated alleged rivalry between the two poets. Nonetheless, a maternal line of descent replaces patrilinearity: it is a mother-son relation and not a father-son relation that configures Chaucer’s literary authority. Even if patrilinearity is the ultimate goal, its entanglement with femininity scrambles its monolithic masculinity.

Chaucer and his fifteenth-century readers (both men and women) may even have recognised echoes a theology of greening and flourishing put forward in the writings of influential female mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) and Mechtild of Hackeborn (d. 1298) for whom feminine nurturing and fertility, maternal and beyond, are principles of freedom and agency rather than markers of confinement within rigid cultural models of reproduction. In a reflection on Christian theology more broadly, Grace M. Jantzen juxtaposes the masculinist necrophilic bias of Christianity, based on death and the fundamental sinfulness of humankind, to a theology of the feminine predicted instead on flourishing.

What is remarkable, perhaps unexpectedly, is that this generative principle is consolidated in Chaucer’s manuscript portrait, the very visual narrative supposedly constructed to articulate his patriarchal status and, vicariously, to legitimise Hoccleve’s literary authority as son-disciple of the Father. By pointing his index finger towards Hoccleve’s text, Chaucer creates a visible direct line of literary descent between his work and his disciple’s; however, as I have already pointed out, he also disrupts this uninterrupted male relationship by casting the feminine (the Virgin Mary) as central to literary authority. Additionally, this very gesture, which chimes with Elizabeth Freeman’s concept of ‘finger trouble’ or ‘the possibility of manually encountering the past’ (Time Binds), troubles the notion of linear time. Through the touch of his hand, Chaucer reaches towards Hoccleve and his fifteenth-century audience, but also to a potentially infinite number of readers dispersed in multiple futurities. The manuscript page becomes therefore a generative space which is not closed down by a restrictive heterosexual narrative founded on an exclusive Father-son relation, but instead it opens up to a flourishing of temporalities (pasts, presents, and futures) and gender identities (the maternal fatherhood of Chaucer) inhabiting the same space. The touch of his finger implicates us as readers and prompts us to acts of destabilisation of the canon.

Appropriated because of their generative power, natural images of birth, fertility, and nourishing traditionally associated with femininity, become inextricably entangled in the very construction of the masculine literary power of Father Chaucer and the English canon over which he presides. Women do not just occupy the margins of medieval literary culture, but they can be found at the very heart of it. Despite dominant male-centred configurations of authority, medieval culture is a dialectic space in which boundaries between masculine and feminine are dislodged into complex, queer entanglements. As Father-Chaucer nurtures the infant English vernacular, Nature ‘priketh’ those whose desires are awaken in the spring.