Chaucer’s Visions: When the God of Love Reveals the Love of God
In Love Visions, Chaucer uses the medieval tradition of dream exposition to comment on the societal draw toward the love idealized in a subset of medieval literature. Throughout the first three poems, Chaucer deftly parodies societal norms: his exaggerated descriptions and overly dramatic characters provide subtle hints to the ultimate goal of the poems. The last poem, The Legend of Good Women, takes Chaucer’s admonition of the superficial love presented in many books of his time even further. In this final poem, Chaucer not only rejects that the love praised in legends is truly love, but asserts that the only true love comes from God. Through his meticulously crafted love vision, Chaucer asks readers to turn from their worldly perceptions of love and look to God for authentic, satisfying, and perfect love.
The Legend of Good Women begins much like Chaucer’s other poems in Love Visions: a lovesick Chaucer falls asleep and has a dream. When he awakens in the dream world, the God of Love and Alcestis, his queen, approach him. The God of Love is furious with Chaucer because he “[lied] about [the God of Love’s] devotees/Misrepresenting them in [his] translation” (lines 249-250). The God of Love feels cheated out of his followers and goes as far as to call Chaucer’s work in the earlier poems “heresy” (256). This backdrop provides the foundation for Chaucer’s commentary on this false love.
Beginning with his initial encounter with the God of Love, Chaucer the poet establishes a distinct parallel between the God of Love in the vision and God the Father in reality. He utilizes religious terms when discussing the God of Love, who describes his followers as having a “love of purity and righteousness” (297). Alcestis even refers to the ballads Chaucer has written as “hymns to [the God of Love] for holy days” (410). The language used in the conversation between the God of Love, Alcestis, and Chaucer closely resembles the language used in accounts of the Christian God and his relationship with his followers.
Furthermore, the entire situation is reminiscent of the traditional Christian belief about the Judgement Day. Chaucer is set before the God of Love and must listen as his sinful actions performed on earth are recounted before a host of witnesses (230-231). This allusion is meant to be ironic, however. The God of Love, in this poem, is the dream-world equivalent to God the Father, while Alcestis takes on the role of Jesus Christ. Beyond the environment and rhetoric of the god and his queen, though, the nature of the God of Love and Alcestis are imperfect attempts to achieve the standard of deity set by the Christian God.
The God of Love seems to lack all of the qualities that God the Father embodies: omniscience, justice, and patience are notably absent from the God of Love’s character. He is known for his blindness in judgement, and is quick to anger when he meets Chaucer (169). The disparity between the God of Love and God the Father widens further when Alcestis chastises the God of Love for dealing so harshly with Chaucer. Alcestis reminds the God of Love that he “hears many a tale that’s feigned,” and tells him to consider that “perhaps this man has been wrongly accused” (327, 338). This reveals some of the God of Love’s unsettling characteristics. Chiefly, Alcestis’ statement shows that the God of Love cannot discriminate between truth and lie. If he has been fooled by lies before, then it is not inconceivable that he has judged incorrectly in the past. Her admonition itself also implies that the God of Love is inept. An omniscient and perfect god should not need a reeducation in how he should act. In the same speech, Alcestis advises the God of Love to give Chaucer grace at the expense of his righteousness. She proposes that the God of Love “show some grace/Dismiss [his] rage and show a kindly face” (396-397). The God of Love then gives his duty of executing judgement to Alcestis (439-443). Within a few lines, the God of Love’s credibility is significantly diminished. The God of Love is neither just nor righteous in his decisions, and he shirks his own responsibility when the decision becomes difficult. In the initial pages of the poem, Chaucer shows that the God of Love is not to be trusted.
Although Alcestis intercedes on Chaucer’s behalf, she too falls short of the expectations set by the God of reality. The events involving Christ and Alcestis are comparable: out of love, Alcestis took her spouse’s place and “chose to die,” and she was ultimately elevated to a glorified position beside the God of Love (500-505). However, the comparison ends there. Alcestis gives the God of Love poor advice and offers grace that comes with a price. She warns Chaucer: “You’ve won your favor; closely hold thereto,” before explaining Chaucer’s penance for his sin (468). In her warning, Alcestis makes clear that the grace given to Chaucer is dependent on his ability to fulfill her request, not on her own nature or some superordinate power. Like the God of Love, Alcestis achieves less than what her title warrants of her.
Though he praises Alcestis for her virtues, the God of Love demands that Chaucer “write the legend of this perfect wife/First writing others of a lesser brand” (539-540). It is odd that in order to accomplish the God of Love’s goal of obtaining followers and showing the people on earth the nature of love, the God of Love does not want Chaucer to write about the exemplifier of this love, Alcestis, who he claims “taught what perfect love should always do” (534). Instead, he tells Chaucer to write about women who have imitated but not quite reached Alcestis’ maturity in love. Because of this, the God of Love effectively sets Chaucer on a mission with inadequate evidence of his version of love. It is no wonder, then, that Chaucer’s stories of the martyrs for love leave much to be desired.
The manner with which Chaucer recounts the stories of the martyrs is hollow and lacks resonance. Chaucer simply retells the stories of these women in a way that will satisfy the God of Love. He alters some of the stories to paint the women in a better light, although he claims that “this is no yarn or fable” (702). When discussing Dido and Aeneas, he fails to mention that Dido broke her vow to her late husband by entering into a relationship with Aeneas, and he glosses over the fact the Cupid tricked Dido into falling in love, saying: “be that as it may/I do not care what those old writings say” (1145-1146). The legends seem hurried in their conclusions, with Chaucer either telling the reader to refer to another text for the rest of the story or briefly cautioning against the falsity of men. These endings make Chaucer seem uninterested, as if he did not have a true change in heart after his encounter with the God of Love. Rather, it appears as if Chaucer is using these stories to further destroy the ethos of the God of Love.
In these legends, Chaucer writes representing the God of Love, yet he adds details that suggest the contrary. Within the stories, he makes comments about the Christian God that are odd and interprets biblical verses out of context. When speaking of Dido’s beauty, Chaucer claims: “should our God, creator of heaven and earth/Desire a love…whom should he choose but that sweet lady bright” (1039-1042)? Additionally, at the end of Lucrece’s tale, he says: “For I assure you, Christ himself well says…He never found great faith maintained so well/As in a woman: this is not a lie” (1879-1882). Chaucer manipulates Jesus’ statement about the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28. While Jesus uses it to refer to trust in God, Chaucer uses the word faith to refer to devotion to love. He seems to be exploiting the reputation of the Christian God to endorse the God of Love’s ideology. The effect of this, however, is a rejection of the God of Love. The reader identifies the incongruity between what Chaucer declares and what is believed to be true about the Christian God. Because it is apparent that what Chaucer asserts about the Christian God is in fact false, these additions lead the reader to conclude that the glorification of the love martyrs described in the legends is also wrong.
The constant mention of the Christian God within the legends also acts as a reminder of the inferiority of the God of Love. With the Christian God in the forefront of the reader’s mind, everything claimed about the God of Love and his version of love is viewed through a Christian lens. Because of this, Chaucer allows the reader to see this dream-world love for what it is: an all-consuming idol with the inability to satisfy man’s needs. Love “burn[s] with passion violent” and is “so vehement” that the lovers are brought to “a piteous end” (731, 599, 904). Although both the Christian martyrs and the martyrs for love die at the end of their tales, there is a sense of unrest that remains at the conclusion of the lovers’ legends. There is no peace at the end of the stories: this love overcomes and overwhelms the women, who place all of their hope in it. Love then proves to be fickle, and their hope is destroyed when their lovers are unfaithful, leaving the women empty and hopeless. Though the tales that are meant to praise these women devoted to the idol of love, Chaucer actually highlights the true, unfailing love of the Christian God.
Unlike the love that the God of Love represents, the love of the Christian God enables faith and hope, sustaining man through the trials of life. This love, as it is described in 1 Corinthians 13, directly contrasts the idolatrous love. While the God of Love sent legends of women with imperfect love to draw the world back to him, God revealed himself to his creatures through Jesus Christ, the exemplification of perfect love. As an act of true love, God maintained his righteousness while providing mankind with a way to be reconciled to him through a grace freely given, while the God of Love forfeited his righteous sense of justice in order to provide Chaucer with a grace that could be lost based on his subsequent actions. In all of these ways, Chaucer demonstrates the extent and depth of God’s love.
When he first speaks with the God of Love, Chaucer tries to explain himself, saying: “It was my wish completely, as God knows/To further faith in love and cherish it/And warn against betrayal and deceit” (461-463). This statement, though located at the beginning of the poem, summarizes Chaucer’s intent for The Legend of Good Women: he desires for this poem to be a testimony of God’s love, so that the people who read it understand more deeply the love of God and are strengthen against the allure of the idols of this world. Through his thorough consideration of the subject matter, Chaucer is able to subtly express the nature of love and reveal the faults of replacing God with an idolatrous love. At first glance, Love Visions, particularly The Legend of Good Women, appears to be a satirical look at the dramatic medieval love stories, but Chaucer uses this appeal to convey a matter of exceedingly greater importance.
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