Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Kathryn McKinley, Chaucer’s House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts

Kathryn McKinley, Chaucer’s House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts: Image, Vision, and the Vernacular (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016), xvi + 228 pp. ISBN 978-0-88844-206-2. €85/$85.

In this enjoyable volume Kathryn McKinley seeks to examine the House of Fame and its sources, arguing in particular that a greater prominence be given to Boccaccio’s Amorosa visione (AV). This early dream-vision is written in terza rima, under the influence of Dante, and divided into a modest ‘half-Comedy’ of fifty ‘cantos’, kissing the steps of the great poem but not emulating it. Chaucerians, she rightly points out, have been quick to dismiss the AV as having offered the English poet no more than a passing detail here and there. McKinley re-examines the AV and suggests that its rich and insistent recourse to ekphrasis, its flawed and unauthoritative guide-figure, and its complex representation of Fame, all provided Chaucer with an opportunity to reflect upon those key concerns of the House of Fame: poetics, literary self-representation, and the aleatory nature of one’s literary future. One of the core polemics of the book is that in the AV Boccaccio was resisting Dante, offering an alternative to the sublime, divine poem, in something more earthly and human. Boccaccio, then, in such a reading, become a very important point of reference for a Chaucer coming under the influence of Italian poetics. It is through Boccaccio that Chaucer’s poetry is not burned up like Semele in response to the genius of Dante.

After a detailed summary of the AV in Chapter One, ‘Boccaccio’s Narrative Arts: Text, Ekphrasis, Image’, and some brief remarks on the manuscript tradition and its second redaction written late in Boccaccio’s life, McKinley looks at some of the wider visual contexts in which to consider the poem, especially large-scale fresco cycles that were in demand in Italy in the fourteenth century. This serves to focus attention on Boccaccio’s acute interest in the visual, in ekphrasis, in the life of artists, discernible in the AV, the Teseida, and the Decameron.

The rest of the book might be described as a close-reading of the House of Fame, with its Books 1 and 2 being analyzed in chapters 2 and 3, and the long final book of the poem given over to two chapters, 4 and 5. The generous space for such a reading makes for an unhurried journey through the poem, and the opportunity to become acquainted or reacquainted with Chaucer’s extroardinary dream-vision is one to be relished. McKinley pays especial attention to parallels, analogues, and lexical echoes in the AV, with a series of tables setting out comparative passages for the reader’s convenience. Boccaccio’s technique of synthesizing his sources is highlighted. For example, in his treatment of Dido in AV cantos 28-29, Boccaccio combines lines from both the Heroides and the Aeneid, joining Ovid and Virgil together; McKinley suggests that this may have ‘helped shape Chaucer choice to feature alternating Virgilian and Ovidian depictions of the heroine in House of Fame, Book 1’ (p. 86). The eagle in HF Book 2 provokes a series of reflections on wing imagery in Boethius, Dante and Boccaccio, focussing especially on a passage opening Book 6 of the De casibus in which the narrator explains he does not have the wings to bring him sufficiently high to access arcane knowledge nor does he have the language to describe such elevated material. The passage echoes Dante’s warning in De vulgari eloquentia (II iv 11) about matching style and subject-matter, and tempering one’s ambitions so as not to be like the ‘star-seaking eagle’ (astripetam aquilam). This trope of declaring oneself not entirely up to the task is echoed in Chaucer’s worrying about his verse being ‘lyght and lewed’, metrically failing ‘in a sillable’ (1096-1098), and ‘embodied’ in the figure of the talkative, comic eagle; the only ‘gravitas’ Geffrey can boast of is literal rather than stylistic, as the eagle complains about how the effort required to carry his (over) weighty body. The final chapter reflects upon the figure of Fame and how Boccaccio represents Wordly Glory in the AV, proposing that the densely packed gallery in canto 6 provided Chaucer with a source for his own list of petitioners before the goddess.

Many of the parallels and echoes between the AV and the HF are based around catalogues of names and are not quite as clear-cut as to constitute a firm source; naturally, these echoes sound a bit different every time one revisits them. That said: McKinley’s assertion that Chaucer’s reference to ‘cruel Achilles’ (HF 1463) is close Boccaccio’s line del teban mal, d’Achille ’l vigor raro (AV canto 5, line 36), which is only found in the hypothesized second redaction, does not sound close, especially given that in Purgatory 21, where Dante calls Statius a ‘Tholosaun’, we find the name Achilles given the prominence of rhyme position (line 92), a prominence it has in HF. The kind of reworking Chaucer does with Boccaccio is often not conducive to definitive statements about sources. While the Decameron seems an obvious analogue for the Canterbury Tales, there are no very clear verbal echoes to suggest Chaucer worked from it directly. And when he clearly was reading Boccaccio, and translating the Filostrato line-by-line in Troilus and Criseyde, he attributed the work to someone else, almost seeming to refuse to name Boccaccio.

A few typos do creep in but none is misleading. One curious moment of inattention in the book (p. 120) leads McKinley to suggest that Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Chig. L. V. 176 (a celebrated manuscript in the hand of Boccaccio, compiling a number of works by Dante and Petrarch) was in fact sent to Petrarch “some time…after 1351”, citing Martin Eisner’s 2013 monograph. The construction of this manuscript is very complex, and it is certainly in some sort of ideological dialogue with Petrarch, but it was never sent to him.

Kathryn McKinley in this book ensures that work on Boccaccio remains crucial to understanding what Italy meant to Chaucer.

[A shorter version of this review appeared in Medium Ævum LXXXVIII.1 (2019), pp. 167-168] 

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