The Proem to “The House of Fame” begins with a prayer to God, asking that only dreams with good results be sent to humans. The poet muses on what may cause dreams and why some are fulfilled but some are not. He wonders if they are caused by the personality of the dreamer, external factors, or Heaven. He professes no knowledge, only the hope that each dream will be turned to good.
The Christian beginning (which mentions the "holy cross") yields to an Invocation (line 66) made to the pagan god of sleep. A rush of classical allusions follows, interspersed with a reference to the Christian God and Jesus Christ again, asking him to send only good dreams to human beings.
The Story (line 111) begins as the poet relates that on the tenth of December, he fell asleep and dreamed that he was within a temple of glass. In this temple is wonderful artwork and statuary, and the dreamer perceives that the temple is dedicated to Venus. As the dreamer walks about the temple, he comes upon a brass tablet on a wall. This tablet tells the story of Virgil's Aeneid, including an English approximation of the first words of the Aeneid—"I wol now syng, yif I kan/The armes and also the man" (lines 143-144)—for Virgil's "Arma virumque cano" (Aeneid, line 1).
The tablet also gives a full explanation of the main points of the story in the ancient poem. These include the destruction of Troy, as recounted by Virgil, and the escape from the burning city by Aeneas, his father Anchises, and his son Iulius. They leave with ships full of other Trojan people and head toward the land of Italy. Juno, the queen of the gods, has a grudge against all Trojans, so she blows Aeneas off course to the land of Carthage, a North African city ruled by Queen Dido.
Through Venus’s (Aeneas's goddess-mother’s) intercession with Jupiter, king of the gods, the company of refugee Trojans are not destroyed, merely delayed. While staying in Carthage, Aeneas has an affair with Dido the queen, and he makes her some false promises. He finally decides to leave Carthage, for this was never the Trojans' ultimate destination, and he goes to Italy as directed by Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Dido does not take his decision to leave Carthage well, for she has grown to love Aeneas obsessively, and she cannot bear his betrayal. Nevertheless, Aeneas leaves with all his people, and once Dido discovers that he has abandoned her, she dramatically stabs herself to death.
Here Chaucer pauses for sermonizing about how women should not be taken in by men's looks or false promises—woe to she who enters into a relationship with a man whose character she does not know well.
Later, on an island on the way to Italy, Aeneas is taken on a trip to the underworld by a Sibyl, who shows him his now-dead father Anchises and the suicide Dido, among others, and he sees the torments of hell. He finally arrives in Italy, where he wins battles, kills a rival, marries Lavinia (daughter of the king of the local tribe, the Latins), and establishes his group of Trojans.
The dreamer ends his description of what he saw on the walls and the plaque in the temple. He leaves the temple and goes to the gate to ask someone where this temple is situated. When he goes outside, he finds that he is on an open plain of sand with no houses, trees, or inhabitants. He prays to heaven and, casting his eyes to the sky, sees a large golden eagle descending toward him.
It is important to note that the word "fame" had several meanings in Chaucer's time. It was not simply notoriety but also Fama, the goddess of Fame in the Roman myth. Other meanings included references to reputation and gossip.
The moralization circa lines 260-290 is a standard medieval response to illicit or extra-marital love. Though Dido and Aeneas were both unmarried at the time (Aeneas was widowed), their sexual relationship was considered a "scandal," primarily for Dido. Though Aeneas is condemned by Chaucer for his falsity in love, it is clear that Chaucer, as was typical, blamed Dido for her error in judgment in engaging in a love affair before marriage. Chaucer's society often held women, especially in the case of sexual continence, to a much higher moral standard than men. It is telling that Aeneas is condemned for his falsity, but not necessarily for engaging in the affair in the first place. Chaucer brings up other famously false-in-love men from classical history (Demophon, Achilles, Paris, Jason, and Hercules) in order to compare Aeneas with many others. Introducing a great many classical analogues for the story at hand is characteristic of Chaucer’s dream-vision poems.
Chaucer also encompasses some of the lofty subject that Dante had treated, noting Aeneas's trip through the infernal regions. Chaucer makes direct reference to Dante.
The description of the temple of glass is beautiful, and the summary of the Aeneid is accurate and concise. The commentary by Chaucer is a typical medieval exercise. Writing marginalia was considered an art, and original storytelling was accorded a lower status than it is today.
The extraordinary combination of pleas and prayers to pagan gods alongside sincere Christian prayer and invocation to God does not necessarily produce a contradiction. This, again, was a common medieval device, and it was not considered to be in any way heretical. Invocation of pagan gods was assumed by a Christian audience to be only allegory or a literary device. It was entirely acceptable to write poems praising the idea of the pagan "goddess of love" or "god of sleep." Direct challenges to Catholic theology, however, would have been taken as heresy. This is an important reason why poets used their license to pay homage to the classical tradition in their poetry; paradoxically, it was safer.
This poem, written after The Book of the Duchess—possibly some seven to eight years later, though the date is unclear—shows Chaucer's growth as a poet. Though this poem is in the same form as The Book of the Duchess, using octosyllabic rhyming couplets, the style is considerably more polished and the rhymes smoother and more flexible (such as unkydely/utterly, lines 295 and 296). In The Book of the Duchess the rhymes were sometimes more forced in order to make them exact, such as evermore/tresor (lines 853 and 854). The overall tone, though lighthearted, is not as frivolous as that of The Book of the Duchess.