McDonald, Nicola F.

title.none: Delany, The Naked Text

identifier.other: baj9928.9509.002 95.09.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: McDonald, Nicola F., St. John's College, Oxford

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Delany, Sheila. The Naked Text: Chaucer's 'Legend of Good Women'. Berkeley Los Angeles London: University of California Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 259. ISBN: ISBN 0-520-08119-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.09.02

Delany, Sheila. The Naked Text: Chaucer's 'Legend of Good Women'. Berkeley Los Angeles London: University of California Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 259. ISBN: ISBN 0-520-08119-6.

Reviewed by:

McDonald, Nicola F.
St. John's College, Oxford

Medieval roof bosses, those small, decorative medallions which grace the ceilings of late medieval churches, abbeys and priories and which tantalize their audience with glimpses of a strangely chaotic blend of religious orthodoxy and secular burlesque, are best seen through the eye of a telephoto lens. If it were not for the postcards in the crypt souvenir shop, most visitors would leave these ecclesiastical establishments wholly oblivious to the beauty as well as the enigma of these queer little carvings. In the gothic cathedral that is, assuredly, the corpus of Chaucer's poetry, the *Legend of Good Women* has long occupied a space of dimly lit oblivion: little read, less understood. But as traffic in the main aisle (*Troilus* and the *Canterbury Tales*) becomes unbearably congested, the scholar's attention turns inevitably to the cathedral's dark recesses. *The Naked Text: Chaucer's 'Legend of Good Women'* records Sheila Delany's virtually career-long peregrination through Chaucer's most enigmatic poem. Armed with a telephoto lens, Delany pries into and illuminates the poem's most hidden corners; she finds and photographs the roof bosses, and sends back her own series of postcards.

*The Naked Text* marks the culmination of almost twenty-five years of careful reflection on a remarkably controversial text. Confronting the controversy head on, Delany offers an eclectic and irreverent reading of the *Legend* that will itself provoke yet more controversy. She refuses to trivialize the poem, to dismiss it as the tedious work of a bored poet. She preceeds from the assumption that virtually everything in Chaucer's poetry is overdetermined. Her task, as critic, is to pry beneath the seemingly minimalist, naked surface of the narrative and peel back the layers of meaning, to reveal, in the process, a coat of many colours. Her work is informed by two fundamental premises: the *Legend* is a parody and Chaucer is a conservative exponent of Augustinian doctrine. Everything else, however, (her reading of individual words, her interpretations of the 'good' women, her elucidation of various rhetorical figures ...) is offered with a remarkable ambivalence: `leveth hem if yow leste', Delany insinuates, employing Salman Rushdie's assertion "is and is not" (p.156) to characterize her own brand of critical inquiry. *The Naked Text* offers a reading of the Legend that pushes interpretation to its utmost limits. The abundant and multifaceted irony, parody and verbal play that Delany adduces is, like the roof bosses, only for those with 'eyes to see or ears to hear' (Deut 29:4). While some of Delany's readers will warmly embrace this opportunity to take a perambulation in the clerestory, others will firmly close both eyes and ears and wish that Delany herself had taken similar precautions.

The study is broadly organized around two constructive principles. Delany understands the relationship between the Prologue(s) and legends to be one of theory and practice. Chapters One and Two are thus concerned predominantly with the Prologues while Three, Four, and Five focus on the legends. Her analysis further strives to elucidate and interrogate the subtle complexity of Chaucer's exploitation of key concepts: legend, good, and women. Thus, Chapter One explores the ramifications of the poem as a legendary, Chapters Two and Three highlight the ambiguities implicit in any notion of 'good', and Chapters Four and Five take the women to task. No brief summary can do justice to the range or detail of Delany's argument. I can only hope, by surveying some of its more challenging positions, to encourage readers to confront this controversial study themselves.

Chapter One, "Reading and Writing", opens by scrutinizing the Chaucer corpus for evidence of the poet's growing assertion of his authorial identity. Delany offers a convincing reading of the *Legend*'s pivotal place in that process. Her analysis leads her to renew the debate surrounding the dating of the two Prologues. Although she insists that an "agnostic position" is the only "realistic one" (p.35), with characteristic audacity she proceeds to turn the tables on the traditionalists who argue for the priority of the F version. F is indeed the "'juicier' version" (p.36), but it reveals, she asserts, not the vigour and daring of the young man, rather the "sensibility of the maturer, more buoyantly confident poet" (p.37). Although she does not wholly resolve the question of the enigmatic reference to Queen Anne (the reference which is commonly used to 'prove' F's status as the earlier version), her interrogation of the standards by which scholars have traditionally measured Chaucer's maturation is salutary indeed.

Chapter Two, "Women, Nature and Language", explores the ambivalences inherent in these three overlapping, key concepts and points to their convergence in the figure of the daisy "which is at once flower, object of erotic devotion, female poetic muse, poetic topic, linguistic equivalent to (Saint) Margaret, and 'remembraunce' ... of Alceste" (p.86). And, as if to underscore the dominance of ambiguity and ambivalence, Delany offers a challenge to scholars' faith in the daisy queen's unassailable reputation: "How good, really, is Alceste?" Perhaps not so very good after all, is her unequivocal reply: "from a Christian perspective Alceste in her will to substitute herself for another is as sinful, albeit more subtly so, as any of the women in the legends, and as arrogant as Eros, her lord and companion" (p.113). In keeping with her reading of the poem as relentlessly parodic, Delany here initiates a process whereby the reputation of each of the 'good' women will be thoroughly blackened. The 'badness' of many of Chaucer's good women has long been a critical commonplace, but Delany is the first to make the natural, and necessary (if the parodic reading is to be sustained), extension to Alceste.

Chapter Three, "The Naked Text", takes up the issue central to all interpretations of the *Legend*: what, precisely, Chaucer meant by his promise of a 'naked text'. Identifying 'naked' as a "sliding or polysemous signifier" (p.122), Delany provides a survey of the word's semantic range in late fourteenth-century discourse, and includes a section on its significance in Wycliffite doctrine. Whatever 'naked' meant to Chaucer, she insists, he knew that it was one thing that his poetic text could never be. Freed, therefore, to read beneath the nakedness, Delany proposes that a "logic of obscenity" (p.137) runs through the *Legend*, a certain amount of "snigger and leer" (p.140) which, "slicing through the vapid formulae of courtly love with surgical astringency, dissolving the whitewashed version of womanhood that the Narrator has been ordered to produce" (p.139), serves to reestablish the proper, rounded view of woman that Chaucer knew to be more accurate. The obscenity functions on the level of sexual wordplay and, according to Delany's analysis, the text is redolent with clusters of ambiguously deployed words. The battle of Actium scene in Cleopatra's legend, for instance, echoes with the aggressive and exhausting clash of genitalia, figuring therby the lovers' carnal union (p.141-4); Dido's name, pronounced "die, do", resonates as a euphemistic call to orgasm (p.144); and the action of Thisbe's 'woful hand' in her suicide reads as a "latent allusion to masturbation" (p.131). There is no apparent consistency, or neatness of plan, evident in the deployment of these obscene wordplays, and Delany is required to do extensive excavation in her search for evidence. For the disbelieving reader, however, Delany offers, as always, the Rushdie credo "is and is not".

Chapter Four, "Different and Same", outlines the way in which the *Legend* first blurs and then reinscribes gender differences. A close analysis of the Prologue's "Absalon" balade reveals Chaucer to be a "more schematic and more ideologically conscious poet" (p.164) than is commonly conceded and witnesses his reaffirmation of authoritative hierarchies. Notions of 'different and same' are also read in light of Edward Said's *Orientalism* and, once again, Chaucer emerges as a confirmed conservative. The Orient is Chaucer's "negative pole" (p.173); it can represent both the physical East, the threat of Islam, and an "'Oriental' tendency" (p.176) in Westerners, a weakness for the sensual, erotic and exotic, which must at least be tamed, if not rooted out. Delany investigates the dynamics of the different/same dichotomy in each of the legends and concludes that while Chaucer could deconstruct gender difference 'sub specie aeternitatis', there was no redemption for the Oriental: "The Christian woman is not *eternally* Other; the conscious infidel is" (p.186).

Chapter Five, "A Gallery of Women", offers Delany's 'proof', legend by legend, that Chaucer's "sensibility tends rather toward the negative than the positive in love: toward the failure of eroticism rather than the success of stable love" (p.190). Scrutinizing each legend for evidence of Chaucer's parodic intent, she finds the legendary full of farce and comedy as well as the "eloquent, if silent, testimony" (p.210) of everything the poet "conspicuously" (p.201) omits. Cleopatra, Dido, Hypsipyle, Medea and Philomela are, as scholars have long noted, the dubious beneficiaries of Chaucer's mutilation of their received histories. Here the parody works by assuming that silence speaks louder than words and that readers supply for themselves "what every schoolboy [surely] knows" (p.205): murder, adultery, illicit passion, infanticide, cannibalism. The stories of Thisbe and Ariadne are undercut by the narrative's farcical style and by Chaucer's exploitation of his sources' comic potential. Lucrece, Phyllis and Hypermnestra are re-read as Christian paradigms of folly: Lucrece's suicide is condemned by Augustine, Phyllis' sin-laden narrative exemplifies "amor stultus" (p.221), and Hypermnestra, compromised by an incestuous marriage (between first cousins), incautiously relies on "destiny and stellar fatalism" (p.226), a position "deplorable" to a "Christian rigorist" (p.226) of Chaucer's ilk. Delany probes the hidden depths of the legendary; she subjects the private lives of Chaucer's 'saints' to the intrusive scrutiny of her telephoto lens and finds them all -- irredeemably -- wanting.

*The Naked Text* ends with a self-styled "Semi-Polemical Conclusion". Sheila Delany's analysis of the *Legend of Good Women* seeks to scrutinize the "thickness" (p.11) of what seems to be an intensely overdetermined poem. Her analysis is nothing if not polemical. *The Naked Text* will infuriate some of its readers all of the time, and all of its readers some of the time. And this is why it is so valuable. The *Legend of Good Women* can no longer be trivialized, can no longer be relegated to the margins of scholarship. Readers, scholars and critics alike will no longer be content with the dusty postcards in the crypt souvenir shop.