Apollo exterminans: The God of poetry in Chaucer's Manciple's Tale
Michael Kensak. Studies in Philology. Chapel Hill: Spring 2001.Vol. 98, Iss. 2; pg. 143, 15 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
Though Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Manciple's Tale" contradicts most medieval conceptions of Apollo, it nevertheless has two important precedents--a counter-trend in medieval mythography which depicts a violent Apollo, and a tradition in Christian poetry which depicts an inept Apollo. The Manciple's tale of Phebus reflects the literary tradition of Apollonian ineptitude and prepares the way for the Parson's Christian reinvocation.
Full Text (5444 words)
Copyright University of North Carolina Press Spring 2001
Lo here, of payens corsed olde rites, Lo here, what alle hire goddes may availle; Lo here, thise wretched worldes appetites; Lo here, the fyn and guerdoun for travaille, Of jove, Appollo, of Mars, of swich rascaille!
(Troilus and Criseyde 5.1849-53)
APOLLO, the classical god of music and medicine, art and eloquence, captured the imagination of medieval thinkers. Artists depict him wearing a golden crown and presiding over the nine Muses. Mythographers usher the classical sun god into the Christian Middle Ages by allegorizing him as illumination, healing, and truth. Poets continue the classical tradition of invoking Apollo at the beginning of great enterprises. In his House of Fame, for instance, Geoffrey Chaucer calls on the "God of science and of lyght" to inspire the poem through his "grete myght" (1091-92).1
Elsewhere, however, Chaucer depicts an Apollo who bears little resemblance to this luminous deity. The Phebus of The Manciple's Tale resembles, rather, the jealous husband of the fabliaux who keeps a young wife under lock and key. When she betrays him with another man, Phebus kills his wife and silences the talking crow who witnessed his cuckoldry. Phebus then smashes his musical instruments, breaks his bow and arrows, and pauses ridiculously to soliloquize on the folly of "ire recchelees." This Phebus brings darkness rather than light, lies rather than truth, and silence rather than music.
Though Chaucer's tale contradicts most medieval conceptions of Apollo, it nevertheless has two important precedents. The first is a counter-trend in medieval mythography which depicts a violent Apollo. Chaucer likely read allegorizations of Phoebus in malo as a despotic prince, destructive like the sun's rays on a hot summer day.2 The second is a tradition in Christian poetry which depicts an inept Apollo. Dante Alighieri and Alain de Lille, two authors Chaucer knew well, call on Apollo as they narrate voyages from earth to heaven. Dante invokes Apollo at the beginning of the Paradiso as the pilgrim ascends from the Earthly Paradise to the first heavenly sphere. Alain invokes Apollo at the beginning of the Anticlaudianus in which Phronesis journeys to heaven in a chariot built by the seven liberal arts. In both texts, Apollo proves unable to narrate the pilgrim's entrance into heaven. Each author must abandon Apollo and invoke the Christian God before poet and pilgrim can reach their destinations.
Like Dante and Phronesis, Chaucer's company of pilgrims is on a journey. Their path from London to Canterbury, as pious Christians knew and as the Parson reminds them, symbolized the "glorious pilgrymage" from earth to "Jerusalem celestial," heaven. On this path, the Manciple tells his tale of Phebus just as the pilgrims catch their first glimpse of Canterbury.' Chaucer chooses to humble his Apollo, in other words, at the same point in his pilgrimage as Dante and Alain de Lille had in theirs. The Manciple's tale of Phebus, these parallels suggest, reflects the literary tradition of Apollonian inteptitude and prepares the way for the Parson's Christian reinvocation.
I. APOLLO IN THE MANCIPLE'S TALE
In the opening lines of his tale, the Manciple assigns Phebus most of Apollo's traditional virtues. When he dwelled on earth, Phebus was "the mooste lusty bachiler," "the semelieste man," and "the beste archer"; he played marvelously on every instrument and sang twice as well as Amphion. Like Chaucer's Knight, this superlative nobleman was "fulfild of gentillesse, / Of honour, and of parfit worthynesse." To substantiate these claims, the Manciple cites "olde bookes" and "the storie" which "men may rede," and he recounts one martial exploit: "He slow Phitoun, the serpent, as he lay / Slepynge agayn the sonne upon a day" (IX.109-10). This certainly was, the Manciple claims, a "noble worthy dede."
The tale's opening lines evoke all that glimmers in Apollo's medieval reputation. This is Apollo the sun god of mythographical tradition. The third Vatican mythographer calls Apollo the patron of musicians just as the sun moderates the harmony of the spheres, and he calls Apollo the god of divination "because the sun reveals everything dark in its light ... land] exhibits the significance of many things" (8.5); the healing arts belong to Apollo because medicinal herbs grow in his light and bodily humors vary with his seasons (8.15).4 When Apollo kills his unfaithful lover Coronis, the mythographers exonerate him by allegorizing her death as a rhetorical defeat. Coronis' infidelity, writes Arnulf of Orleans, signifies her deviance from true wisdom; her death signifies wisdom's triumph over folly. The mythographers also praise Apollo for slaying the serpent Python. As glossed by Arnulf, the arrows which pierce Python's skin become sunbeams of wisdom dispersing the darkness of false belief (1.8)? Pierre Bersuire calls the bow a sign of Apollo's "insuperable constancy" and refers the image to Esdras 4: "Truth overcomes all." Apollo's favorable interpretations culminate in his association with Christ, the sol iustitiae. According to Bersuire, Apollo's victory over the Python foreshadows Christian redemption: "Apollo is Christ, the sun of justice ... Python (that is Lucifer) he brought down by the arrow of the cross" (XV).6
As the Manciple tells it, however, the Python story sounds less glorious. According to the Manciple, this paragon of knighthood ambushed the serpent as it napped in the midday sun. Chaucer's reference to the sun diminishes Phebus' accomplishment, while the opposite is true in Chaucer's source, the Metamorphoses.' In the passage preceding the battle, Ovid explains how the sun's rays acting upon the primordial mud "nova monstra creavit" [created new monsters] including "te quoque, maxime Python" ["you, huge Python"] (1.422-45). Ovid's Apollo battles the Python, furthermore, to demonstrate his prowess, to establish civilized games, and to conquer the autochthonous regime of darkness (1.438ff). Chaucer's Phebus dispatched the sunning serpent, the Manciple suggests, merely for the joy of killing. Phebus carried the unchivalric bow henceforth "in signe eek of victorie," yet the weapon plays more than this dubious semiotic role in the tale. Phebus will soon aim it at his defenseless wife.8
In his house Phebus jealously guards two prized possessions, his musical crow and his nameless wife:
Now hadde this Phebus in his hous a crowe Which in a cage he fostred many a day ...
Now hadde this Phebus in his hour a wyf What that he lovede moore than his lyf.
(Canterbury Tales IX.130-31, 139-40)
The parallel structure of these lines suggests that the wife, like the crow, is "kept" in a cage. Before launching the plot of his story, the Manciple lectures Phebus on the folly of attempting to constrain a wife (IX.14854, 160-95). The digression suggests that the virile, young nobleman will, in fact, play the role of the fabliaux's repulsive, aged husband.
Through a series of animal similes, the Manciple attempts to exalt Phebus by degrading his wife. A constrained wife, the Manciple explains, is like a bird escaping a gilded cage to "goon ete wormes and swich wrecchednesse," a cat leaving his silk couch to chase a mouse, and a she-wolf taking an ignoble mate (IX.163-86). The terms of the Manciple's comparison portray Phebus as innocent and exalted-he is the gilded cage, the silk couch, the noble mate -yet the comparison is ill conceived. An animal's naturally low tastes do not denigrate its owner, but a wife's adultery with "oon of litel reputacioun" both cuckolds and dishonors the husband.
For reasons which have remained unclear, the Manciple insists that his fables of the bird, cat, and "she-wolf" apply to men rather than women. One can imagine a dramatic explanation for this twist (the Manciple realizes, as perhaps the Nun's Priest did, that he has insulted important women on the pilgrimage); or a psychological explanation (realizing that he is giving away too much of his story, he hastily retracts his digression in a feeble attempt to preserve suspense); or, one may take the Manciple at his word. Preposterous as it sounds, the Manciple's reattribution contains some truth. Though Phebus does not stray from his wife sexually, he undermines his own gentility by dispatching her suddenly on the advice of a bird. Phebus himself demonstrates the Manciple's moral that "men han evere a likerous appetit / On lower thyng to parfourne hire delit" (IX.189-90). The Manciple's animal fables cut both ways, indicting Phebus as well as his spouse.
When the inevitable cuckoldry occurs, the eye-witness crow emphasizes the discrepancy between his master's reputation and reality:
"Phebus," quod he, "for al thy worthynesse, For al thy beautee and thy gentilesse, For al thy song and al thy mynstralcye, For al thy waityng, blered is thyn ye With oon of litel reputacioun."
The crow's repetitio of "For al" ("in spite of") hammers away at Phebus, demolishing everything the Manciple's introduction erected. If Phebus could be cuckolded by "oon of litel reputacioun," one suspects that his reputation rested on words only distantly cousined to things. Celeste Patton observes that The Manciple's Tale is "about adultery" not just in the sexual sense, for it depicts the "adulteration and devaluation of language and texts."9
Far from the healing and moderation he represents elsewhere, Chaucer's Phebus comes to embody reckless violence. Enraged by the news of the affair, Phebus turns from the crow to his bow. The Manciple narrates the event in the present perfect tense-"his wyf thanne hath he slayn" (IX.265)-as if the deed is performed before Phebus realizes what he has done.10 Phebus then lays violent hands on his "mynstralcie," smashing harp, lute, gyterne, and psaltery, along with his bow and arrows. The episode includes a subtle dig, Richard Hazleton points out, for among the instruments Phebus destroys "are those appropriate to the tavern minstrel."' Ignoring his own warning about the dangers of wrath, Phebus declares, "I wol myselven slee," though we never learn if he does or not."
Phebus concludes his rampage illogically by wreaking vengeance on the crow. In an unwarranted reversal, Phebus proclaims his crow "Traitour" and his wife "ful giltelees." He then plucks out the crow's white feathers and "refte hym al his song, / And eek his speche." As Peter Herman and others have pointed out, Phebus punishes the crow not to demonstrate how men "shal ... on a traytour been awreke," but "to deny the truth and make reality subject to his will.""3 Having silenced all witnesses to his humiliation, a delusional Phebus restores his own reputation by fiat. In Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, Apollo facilitates the wedding of word and thing; in The Manciple ' Tale, Phebus drives a wedge between language and reality, repeatedly violating the platonic dictum that "The word moot nede accorde with the dede" (IX.2o8).
Whether Phebus literally kills himself at the end of the tale is of less significance than his iconicide. Chaucer's audience knew Apollo by his bow, lyre, and crow, all of which Phebus destroys in The Manciple ' Tale. By smashing his instruments and silencing the musical bird, moreover, Phebus effectively renounces his patronage of musicians and destroys the laurel prize for poets. By the time Phebus wishes that he were dead, he has already destroyed the symbols that represent him in medieval iconography.
Critics have long noted ironies in the Manciple's depiction of Phebus. Hazleton argued in 1963 that the tale parodies courtly romance, its main character like Sir Thopas hilariously unfit for his role." In 1979, James Dean called Chaucer's Phebus a "euhemerized avatar of Apollo" and described the tale as "demythologizing with a vengeance: self-demythologizing."15 These readings support Jane Chance's theory about how Chaucer uses mythography: "Chaucer often inverts typically allegorical signification for psychological or political and ironic purposes in developing characterization. In so doing, he rewrites-vernacularizes -the Latin and patristic tradition from an English and medieval perspective: his is an antimythography."16 Indeed, the Manciple inverts many of Phebus' traditional associations, but Apollo's devaluation began long before Chaucer.
II. THE VIOLENT APOLLO
The sun both engenders and scorches, some mythographers argued, and likewise the sun god both inspires and destroys. Following his positive interpretations, the third Vatican mythographer terms Apollo perdens or exterminans because the heat of the sun burns up vegetation in the summer. The mythographer derives Apollo's name from the Greek word for "destroyer," noting that Homer calls him the author of both pestilence and health: "Hence we assign bow and arrows to an angry Apollo, and to a placid Apollo a zither" (8.16). A destroyer's character depends, of course, on what he chooses to destroy. Allegorizing in malo, Bersuire depicts Apollo as an evil prince or prelate who subjugates the poor and exterminates the innocent (XV).
The medieval tradition of a violent Apollo may derive ultimately from Ovid. Throughout the Metamorphoses, Apollo exhibits a violent temper, most graphically in the contest with Marsyas. According to Ovid, the satyr of Phrygia challenges Phoebus to a fluting competition, loses, and is flayed for his presumption. Ovid passes over the details of the contest to dwell on Marsyas' gruesome punishment:
"quid me mini detrahis?" inquit; "a! piget, a! non est," clamabat "tibia tanti." clamanti cutis est summos direpta per artus, nec quicquam nisi vulnus erat; cruor undique manat, detectique patent nervi, trepidaeque sine ulla pelle micant venae; salientia viscera possis et perlucentes numerare in pectore fibras.
["Why do you tear me from myself?" he cried. "Oh, I repent! Oh, a flute is not worth such price!" As he screams, his skin is stripped off the surface of his body, and he is all one wound: blood flows down on every side, the sinews lie bare, his veins throb and quiver with no skin to cover them: you could not count the entrails as they palpitate, and the vitals showing clearly in his breast.]
In The Manciple's Tale, Phebus similarly overcomes and then flays a musical challenger. The crow, whom Phebus taught to sing better than a nightingale, fashions his expose of his master's cuckoldry into an abrasive ditty: "Cukkow! Cukkow! Cukkow!" When Phebus asks, "what song is this?" the crow protests, "I synge nat amys" (IX.247-48). An enraged Phebus responds by plucking out the crow's white feathers:
And to the crowe he stirte, and that anon, And pulled his white fetheres everychon, And made hym blak, and refte hym al his song, And eek his speche, and out at dore hym slong Unto the devel.
Marsyas lives on as a river running silently into the sea, and the crow lives on deprived of his beautiful voice. Arnulf of Orleans interprets Apollo's victory over Marsyas as wisdom confronting foolishness (6.16), but no mythographer could interpret Phebus' flaying of the crow as truth vanquishing falsehood.
III. THE INSUFFICIENT APOLLO
In addition to Apollo's violent tendencies, Chaucer knew of Apollo's failure as patron to Christian poets. In the prose preface to the Anticlaudianus, Alain de Lille invokes Apollo in his dual aspect as sun god and god of poetry:
Scribendi nouitate uetus iuuenescere carta Gaudet, et antiquas cupiens exire latebras Bidet, et in tenui lasciuit harundine musa. Fonte tuo sic, Phebe, tuum perfunde poetam, Vt compluta tuo mens arida flumine, germen Donet, et in fructus concludat germinis usum.
[The aged parchment rejoices to renew its youth with fresh writing, smiles in its desire to leave its ancient hiding place, and the Muse plays on a slender reed. Drench your poet, Apollo, with the waters of your fountain that the parched mind, watered by your stream, may favor us with new growths and bring the tender growths to their final fruit.]
In Alain's bucolic metaphor, the water of Apollo's fountain revives the aged parchment (a dead animal's skin) with fresh writing. Like the fruit of the harvest, Alain's text promises to become a living organism bearing sacred truths for the subtle mind.
Despite the author's lofty claims, Apollo is unable to narrate the culmination of Phronesis' voyage. On the edge of the Empyrean, Phronesis stumbles and Alain's verse falters:
Hactenus insonuit tenui mea Musa susurro, Hactenus in fragili lusit mea pagina uersu, Phebea resonante cheli; sed parua resignans, Maiorem nunc tendo liram totumque poetam Deponens, usurpo michi noua uerba prophete. Celesti Muse terrenus cedet Apollo, Musa loui, uerbisque poli parencia cedent Verba soli, tellusque locum concedet Olimpo.
[Thus far my Muse has sung in gentle whisper; thus far my page has sported in fragile verse to the accompaniment of Phoebus' lyre of tortoise shell. But abandoning things petty, I now pluck a mightier chord, and, laying aside entirely the role of poet, I appropriate a new speaking part, that of the prophet. The earthly Apollo will yield to the heavenly Muse; the Muse will give place to Jupiter; the language of earth will yield to and wait on the language of heaven, and Earth will give place to Olympus.]
Just as human reason cannot guide Phronesis to God, Phoebus cannot guide Alain's poem to its conclusion. Alain's reinvocation does not abandon Apollo so much as transform him into the Christian deity. In the following lines, Alain restores to God terms borrowed by mythographers to modify Phoebus." While Apollo represents the sun, the Christian God most deserves the title sol iusticie.19 Alain prays,
Tu mihi preradia diuina luce meamque Plenius irrorans diuino nectare mentem, Complue, terge notas animi, tenebrasque recindens Discute meque tue lucis splendore serena. Tu repara calamum, purga rubigine linguam, Da bleso tua uerba loqui mutoque loquelam Prebe, da fontem sicienti.
[Direct first on me a ray of divine light; send your rain upon me to bedew still further my mind with heavenly nectar, cleanse me of blemishes of mind, wipe out and dispel the darkness, grant me the clear calm splendour of your light. Refresh my pen, cleanse my mouth of mold, grant the stutterer power to utter your words, supply the dumb with speech, give a spring of water to the parched.]
The organic images of mold, water, growth, and, by implication, light and speech, are borrowed from the verse prologue and imbued with new significance. Apollo's failure represents the inability of classical wisdom to comprehend Christian mystery and the incapacity of human language to represent the divine, but it nevertheless points typologically to the fulfillment of Alain's poetic endeavor.
Dante composes the Inferno and Purgatorio guided by the Muses alone but turns to Apollo at the beginning of the Paradiso.20 Thus far one peak of Parnassus has sufficed, but to inspire his final task of depicting heaven's ineffable mysteries Dante requires "buono Apollo." "Mere skill in verse," John Sinclair explains in his edition of the Comedy, "will not serve him now, for this 'last labour' he must be filled with a divine breath" (27). Though his subject lies beyond the Gibraltar of human inspiration, Dante confidently expects to crown himself with Apollo's laurels at the poem's completion.
From all the stories of Apollo, Dante selects the contest with Marsyas for his third and final invocation. Dante's account, like Ovid's, passes over details of the competition and focuses on Apollo's vengeance:
Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue si come quando Marsia traesti della vagina della membra sue
[Come into my breast and breathe there as when thou frewest marsyas from the scabbard of his limbs.]
In an image that out-Ovids Ovid, Dante has Apollo draw Marsyas from the scabbard of his limbs, brandishing his flayed victim like a sword. The point of the invocation is certainly this: Dante prays that Apollo might inspire him to sing as well as the god when he vanquished Marsyas in a musical competition. In the ethereal spheres of Dante's heaven, however, the invocation's gory imagery seems out of place. One might have expected, "come into my breast and breathe there as when you overcame Marsyas in the musical contest" or "as when you outsang the satyr." Instead, Dante takes Apollo's vengeance as a synecdoche for the entire story, emphasizing the god's violence to the exclusion of his musicianship?' Dante's analogy of poetic power, furthermore, does not hold up to close inspection. Logically, Apollo's brandished sword should be the force of his tongue-the Proverbs, Psalms, and countless medieval sermons describe the tongue as a sharp sword. In Dante's twisted simile, however, the sword is Marsyas' flayed body. Should Dante borrow this sword, he would find himself holding a quivering mass of bloody wounds, throbbing veins, and palpitating entrails. Perhaps Dante intended the image to be illogical at the core, a gruesome foreshadowing of Apollo's ultimate inability to express transcendent subjects in human language.
Dante receives the first indication that he has unwisely bestowed his trust as he witnesses the concentric dance of two blazing constellations. The starry spectacle so transcends human experience, he relates, that the participants sing "non Bacco, non Paena, / ma tre persone in divina natura, / ed in una persona essa e l'umana" ["not Bacchus and no Paean, but three persons in the divine nature, and in one person that nature and the human"] (Paradiso 13.25-27). Piloted by Apollo, Dante arrives in the second circle of the sun where the inhabitants sing not classical deities but the highest Christian truths. Even if the pilgrim comprehends the song, the poet is unable to record in Apollonian verse a song which transcends Apollo.
By the time Dante enters the starry sphere, heaven's music reaches his ears but not his pen. Apollo and the Muses fail completely in the rhetorical canons of memorization and delivery, for Dante can neither imprint the songs on his memory nor communicate them in his verse. The Muse of sacred poetry, along with her sisters and a thousand poets, he laments, could not describe the thousandth part of Beatrice's smile:
[Though all those tongues which Polyhymnia and her sisters have nourished with their sweetest milk should sound now to aid me, it would not come to a thousandth part of the truth, in singing the holy smile and how it lit up the holy aspect; and so, picturing Paradise, the sacred poem must make a leap like one that finds his path cut off. But he that considers the weighty theme and the mortal shoulder that is burdened with it will not blame it if it tremble beneath the load. It is no passage for a little bark, this which the daring prow goes cleaving, nor for a pilot that would spare himself.]
The last lines of this confession form a palinode to the Apollonian invocation of canto 1. While Dante previously traveled in a ship with his bewildered listeners following behind in a little bark, now Dante himself travels in a "picciola barca" which trembles as it sails. Once confident in his pilot Apollo, Dante now fears that his captain may not survive the voyage. The Muses, too, fall through the gap the poem leaves in trying to picture Paradise. Though visions diviner still await the pilgrim, the poet chooses this point to cast overboard the useless Muses and Apollo the god of poetry.'
IV. APOLLO AND THE PARSON'S TALE
Just as Apollo yields to God near the end of Alain's and Dante's pilgrimages, the Manciple's Phebus yields to the Parson's Christ at the culmination of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. After smashing his instruments and silencing the crow, Phebus himself falls mute. The last voice heard in The Manciple's Tale is not that of Phebus but of the Manciple. He concludes the tale with an extended attack on human speech in the guise of traditional aphorisms on jangling. Advice on holding the tongue was ubiquitous in medieval culture, but the Manciple goes a step further: "be noon auctour newe / Of tidynges," he advises, "wheither they been false or trewe" (IX.359-60). By proscribing the authorship of new tidings, this principle would still the voices of The Canterbury Tales and bring an end to human poetry. Chaucer's poem, in other words, finds itself in the same predicament as Alain's and Dante's poems when an impotent Apollo falls silent before the mysteries of heaven.
Following Phebus' downfall in The Manciple Tale, the Parson instigates a new Christian poetics in the prologue to his tale. To the Host's request for a fable to "knytte up" the tale competition, the Parson replies,
Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me, For Paul, that writeth unto Thymothee, Repreveth hem that weyven soothfastnesse And tellen fables and swich wrecchednesse. Why sholde I sowen draf out of my fest, Whan I may sowen whete, if that me lest?
The Parson agrees to "make an ende," but with a penitential sermon in prose rather "tidynges" in verse. To inspire this final effort, the Parson calls not on Apollo but on Christ:
And Jhesu, for his grace, me wit sende To shewe yow the wey, in this viage, Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage That highte Jerusalem celestial.
To narrate his company's approach to the holy city-the "Jerusalem celestial" represented by Canterbury-the Parson must renounce the "rum, ram, ruf" of human poetics in favor of a Christian semiotics.
Chaucer's pilgrimage exhibits a remarkable homology of structure with the pilgrimages of Dante and Alain de Lille, but there is one significant and instructive difference. Apollo's inspiration suffices for Dante and Alain to narrate their pilgrimages all the way up to the vision of beatitude. Human poetics, in other words, adequately governs the natural world but falls silent before the supernatural mysteries of heaven. Within the fiction of The Manciple's Tale, however, Phebus falls silent not before the gates of heaven but before the spectacle of his own cuckoldry. Words are divorced from things not by the supernatural mysteries of Christian theology, but by the foibles and vices of everyday life. By translating Alain and Dante's ineffable arrival topos into his epistemologically skeptical Manciple's Tale, Chaucer replies that the Apollonian poetry of natural man fails to adequately represent not only the highest Christian mysteries, but also the basest mundane reality.'