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The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems Summary and Analysis

by Geoffrey Chaucer

The House of Fame, Book III

The last book of The House of Fame, Book III, is unfinished. It begins with another short Invocation, this time to the god of light and reason, Apollo. The poet modestly asks that his poem be made pleasing to his readers, not because of any vanity on his own part but in order to accurately describe The House of Fame.

The dreamer has left the eagle. He walks towards The House of Fame. It is on a high rock, which he begins to climb. He notes that the rocks are not made of stone but of ice, and this frozen water seems to be an unstable foundation on which to build a house. The names of people recently brought to fame are etched in the rock face, and the names of the famous from ancient times are on another slope. The ancient slope is shaded by The House of Fame itself, and it is quite cold. Thus, the ancient names are protected and permanent. But the names on the forward-facing slope are already melting away.

The narrator enters the beautifully ornate House of Fame. He witnesses famous harpists (such as Orpheus), trumpeters, and pipers making music. Other musicians of lesser rank are sitting at their feet, "And countrefete hem as an ape" ("counterfeiting them as an ape," line 1212). Also, great magicians, sorcerers, and illusionists, those who were famous in their day for their performances or were infamous for their black magic, are practicing in the hall of the House.

The dreamer further describes the House. It has walls made of beryl (emerald or aquamarine, or perhaps some other precious or semi-precious stone), which magnifies the things inside. Great poets of antiquity (such as Virgil) are standing atop pillars of metal that represent the subjects of their poems (iron for war, copper for love, etc.). The poets are said to have to carry the weight of the fame of their subjects on their shoulders.

The hall of The House of Fame is filled with group after group of people clamoring to Lady Fame, a woman of many eyes and tongues, for favors. Sometimes she grants them, but sometimes she does not, deciding entirely by whim. There is not necessarily any real reason or virtue that causes people to become famous or not. Fame uses her trumpeter, Aeolus, to send out either Clear Laud or Slander, irrespective of the worth of the individuals. Finally overwhelmed, the dreamer remarks to a bystander that he knew that people desired Fame, but he had never known the true nature of Fame before this day.

He leaves the House. He sees another house below in a valley. It is made of wicker twigs and whirls around endlessly. The house is very large, sixty miles long, and is shaped like a cage. Inside and out, people are telling each other news and gossip. These reports are constantly altered and debased as they pass from one person to another, acquiring lies along with any truth there might have been. These lies and exaggerations meld together with the truth and fly out the window back to earth. This is another way that Fame sends her messages around the world.

At this point, "A man of gret auctorite" [man of great authority] appears, and the unfinished book ends.

Analysis

It is not entirely certain that Chaucer intended to finish the poem. Some critics have argued that the ending, when a "man of great authority" appears, could have been intended as a segue to a new poem—even someone else’s poem, if this one were intended to be read aloud at an event. More likely, the poem may have been intended as part of a collection or sequence of tales, as in The Canterbury Tales. Or, perhaps, once a man of true authority appears, the unfounded half-truths of rumor and fame immediately disappear. But most scholars disagree with these scenarios and argue, more simply, that this poem was left unfinished.

The House of Fame is built on rocks made of ice, not stone, plainly suggesting the mutability of fame. Fame is built on rumor and reputation, the two things the poem later skewers as being unreliable and almost completely based on human vanity rather than truth. Although any fame that has lasted since ancient times has a certain permanence, the names of all those people of old are etched in ice which, under certain conditions, could melt as well.

The quizzing-glass qualities of the beryl walls serve, predictably, to show the exaggerations of fame. Things which are famous, Chaucer suggests, may not be as great as they appear. Chaucer’s was a time before lenses of glass were widely used, but the magnifying qualities of concave transparent stones (gems or rock crystal) would have been well-known. Not only is the whole house of Fame built on a changeable, mutable substance such as ice, but it also is made of a gaudy and optically distorting material, further demonstrating Chaucer's idea of the foolishness and falsity of fame.

In this book, we learn another long string of names of musicians and poets. The musicians, in ancient and medieval times, provided a medium for circulating reports of a famous person or event. Bards (often harpists) and singers told stories and sang songs of people and deeds. How a traveling bard felt about a particular subject greatly affected the stories he told. Therefore, the conveyers of this kind of fame, as they are shown in Fame's House, are suspect by Chaucer since they are prey to human vanity and bias.

The whirling wicker cage is the clearinghouse of gossip, The House of Rumor. Not only does Chaucer show how a person or event can be distorted by many people telling it over and over, but also he points out how the addition of downright lies and human bias can make the original truth unrecognizable. The breathless description (starting at line 1951) is thick with movement and with some of the most biting satire of the poem. It is apparent that between the ludicrous favors bestowed on the supplicants to Fame and the extreme distortion due to gossip in the wicker house, Chaucer had a major bone to pick with the injustices of fame and infamy, which all too often are based on the vagaries of Fame and the viciousness of gossip.

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