Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Chaucer's Version of the Myth of a Golden Age

Chaucer's short poem “The Former Age” states a commonplace theme, that of a golden age from which mankind has fallen, and it recognizes its own dependence on tradition by recalling classical precedents with references to Jupiter and Diogenes. Moreover, the poem is directly derivative of several works (the most important being Chaucer’s own Boethius). But the use of literary convention is often a highly dynamic process, and this particular restatement is fully effective in both exploiting the potent resources of the archetype and freely yet harmoniously creating new details, new tones. The poem’s implications are enriched not only by its sources, but also by analogous stories whose images parallel its own.

Golden age myths are, of course, current world-wide. The Hindu concept of the satya yuga and the Daoist vision of a primal utopia are two essentially similar variations. The most fundamental import of such stories is to complain against suffering, mortality, and wickedness. Lamenting the fall provides an etiology and a type for any specific lament of the limitations of this life.

But in Chaucer's poem moral corruption associated with the fall is not unspecified. He defines it largely in economic terms. The coming of technological innovation and a cash economy has poisoned relations between men and created an undesirable selfish “delicacye” within individuals. The prior perfection represents a reminiscence comparable to Engels’ primitive communists, [1] or their more modern incarnation -- Gary Snyder’s neolithic communard ecstatics. [2] The present-day failing is described in terms similar to those of “Lak of Stedfastnesse” as the duplicity resulting when men prey upon men prompted by “the anguysschous love of havyinge.”

The second system of corruption the poet suggests is sexual. Though punishment for sexuality is heavily suggested in the Biblical story of Eden it is not explicit here. The ambiguity of line 28 is heightened by line 29. Though the explicit topic is the covetous pursuit of jewels and precious metals, the combination of “swety bysinesse,” “lurkinge,” and “derkesse” in a story of the fall cannot fail to have sexual meaning. (The term “swety” alone is often used by Chaucer in a sexual context — in the Miller's Tale and. in Troilus and Criseyde, for instance. ) ln addition, the sexual associations of caves are explicated not only by Freud but also by countless others (e.g. the Memphis Jug Band in their “Cave Man Blues”). Finally, the second stanza’s description of the crime of wounding the earth with a plow to sow seed more efficiently (objectifying and exploiting the earth) is suggestive enough to drag half The Golden Bough behind it.

Thus, Chaucer attributes to deranged or unhealthy, “fallen,” economic and sexual relations the aggressive content in human society. While the primary stream of meaning in “The Former Age,” this is not the only one. I believe a contrary value system also resonates within the same narrative images. Frequently in fairy tales underground caves are said to contain a treasure guarded by a powerful and malevolent being. The hero proves himself by gaining a victory over the guardian (as in Beowulf). One might generalize such a successful quest as representing adaptation to the world and characterize the dreamer after a golden age as solipsistic and infantile. Further, the very wealth of detail in Chaucer's poem's picture of our degenerate age, the piling up of parallel phrases suggests a delight in the plenitude of the world. Just as Christians speak of that felix culpa that made movement and action possible, that made oneself possible, so here the fall has “thickened the plot.” The final list of crimes (“poyson, manslautre, mordre”) is so extreme as to remove the application from one”s every day to the realm of moralizing about others, as when suburbanites speak of “crime in the cities.”

Finally, one must regard the author himself as to some extent dwelling in the golden age since his values are those of the original creation. As a virtuous man he partakes of the nature of that earlier world and proves that it is not wholly lost. All these factors combine with the rather spartan character of life in the golden age as it is portrayed to generate a sort of ambivalent complexity of a sort that would, have been foreign to those who had, as Chaucer says, “no fantasye to debate.” Poignant and vigorous though the lament is, it contains currents of meaning running contrary to the explicit content, which, by their opposition, render the poetry more accurate and more effective.

1. From Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: There can be no poor and needy – the communistic household and the gens know their responsibility towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war. All are free and equal, including the women. There is as yet no room for slaves nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of alien tribes.

2. from Snyder “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”: In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

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