Among the various undercurrents in The House of Fame, time is probably not the first that comes to mind. Fame is, of course, the poem’s major theme, but without time perennial praise becomes a mere passing trend. But there is a much more subtle function that time performs in Chaucer’s work by informing the narrator’s ideal of the poet’s role.
Of the three phases of time (past, present, and future) “Geffrey” (729) only explicitly mentions the last. When asked by a bystander whether he, too, has come to Fame’s house as a suppliant of her favor, he replies:
‘Nay, forsooth, frend,’ quod I.
Taken alone, the narrator here appears somewhere between apathy and arrogance; on the one hand, listless concerning his future reputation and on the other, with a sense of self-possession that borders on the blasphemous (since he is after all denying divine aid). But when we consider this passage in the context of time, could Chaucer be trying to tell us something about the future? Could Geffrey’s words reflect less his confidence in his own poesy and more his ambivalence toward an unseen fate?
Consider also the form of the poem, a dream vision. Writing in fourteenth-century England, in the midst of the plague, Chaucer’s daily life is anything but hopeful. The only other living person he even alludes to in “The House” is his wife, and even then, not positively (see 562, 652-660). When he writes, there is no clear sense of the present. Instead, his dream is more real and valuable to him than his concrete earthly experience. The vision (either literal or literary) affords the poet an escape from the nightmarish existence of everyday life. Escape, however, does not necessarily provide meaning. While taken as a guest to Fame’s abode, Geffrey witnesses a goddess as capricious as she is influential. Just as he cannot see meaning in the suffering around him, he cannot trust his fate to the arbitrary power of Fame. Neither the future nor the present therefore provide any sense of purpose for the poet.
It would be easy to point out the degree of skepticism inherent to Chaucer’s views thus far. Geffrey, however, neither stops writing nor ceases to find enjoyment in doing so. Though he finds no comfort in the present and no hope in the future, he develops a greater sense of understanding and meaning by drawing on the writers and thinkers of the past. Consider Chaucer’s sources. He draws extensively on Dante, Ovid, Virgil and the various Trojan myths while also alluding to the writings of Macrobius, Ptolemy, Horace, Statius, medieval French romances, the Bible. For both the poet and the reader, these influences are clear and as intimately familiar to him as old friends. The past is closer and more accessible to us than we think.
The House of Fame, then, does not present the poet as a prophet of the future, a reformer of the present, or a skeptical humanist, but as a conservator of our collective memory. Life is difficult, the future is uncertain, but the past is immutable. By learning from it, we gain a glimpse of human existence that is, in a way, more true than what we see here and now. Time therefore teaches us that the role of the poet is to convey a view of the human condition that is both timeless and timely, by bringing the wisdom of the ages to bear upon the strains of our earthly endeavors.