Teresa Kennedy

title.none: Calabrese, Chaucer's Ovidian Arts (Kennedy)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.012 97.02.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Teresa Kennedy, Mary Washington College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Calabrese, Michael A. Chaucer's Ovidian Arts of Love. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. Pp. x, 170. $34.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01301-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.12

Calabrese, Michael A. Chaucer's Ovidian Arts of Love. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. Pp. x, 170. $34.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01301-1.

Reviewed by:

Teresa Kennedy
Mary Washington College

In his first book, Michael Calabrese argues that greater emphasis should be placed on the relationship between Chaucer's literary productions and those of Ovid, especially in Troilus and Criseyde and the Wife of Bath's "Prologue" and "Tale." Calabrese suggests that Chaucer's understanding of the later Ovidian canon including the Tristia and the Ex Ponto is deeper and more complex than that of other fourteenth-century poets. Tracing both Ovid's medieval biography as it is transmitted through commentary, and direct borrowings from later Ovidian poems, Calabrese draws an direct analogy between Ovid's "poetics of exile" and Chaucer's own anxiety about his status as a poet. "Chaucer, like Ovid, saw himself as vulnerable to the misunderstanding and woe that can befall a maker of fictions. In the context of Chaucer's comprehensive knowledge and use of Ovidian material...may be a clue to the way Chaucer himself understood his poetic career." (p. 5) At bottom, Calabrese views these relationships in a playful way, as Chaucer employs his vast knowledge of Ovid in creative tension with his own works.

In the first chapter, Calabrese outlines the contradictory nature of Ovid's reputation during the medieval period. Drawing on the accessus ad auctores as well as the psuedo-biography suggested by Ovid's poems of exile, Calabrese suggests that Ovid is understood by medieval commentators both as an example of the dangers of immorality and as a model of rhetorical genius. Thus, Ovid's life story functions as a master narrative for fourteenth-century vernacular poets, especially Boccaccio and Chaucer, as they attempted to recuperate ethical paradigms into their own love poetry. That is, vernacular poets struggle with the rhetorical relationship between "game and earnest," and ultimately, Calabrese argues, this attempt at recuperation fails, leading Chaucer to his retsaction.

In the followiog two chapters Calabrese suggests that the Ovidian presence in Troilus and Criseyde, is radically different from Boccaccio's manipulation of Ovidian texts in Il Filostrato. Reading closely, Calabrese links Panadarus in close alliance with Ovidian advice, culled in paticularly from the Ars Amatoria and the Remedia. Criseyde is similarly and pragmatically involved in the Ovidian game, as Chaucer draws on what Calabrese calls "Helenic rhetoric" drawn from the Heroides. Troilus remains the victim because of his ignorance of Ovid. Calabrese argues that Chaucer evokes the Tristia in his treatment of Troilus, and accounts for the final vision in Book V as "a certain reading of Ovid, one based upon Chaucer's medieval Christian apprehension of Ovid's life and art and of the relationship between earthly love and exile." (p. 72) That is, "To comprehnd Chaucer's use of Ovid and his sensitivity to the ethical concerns that arise in Ovid's texts, we can make an extended parallel between Ov{d's political fortunes and Troilus's romantic life. Chaucer's Book V, like Ovid's Tristia, confronts the Ars Amatoria and tries to make sense of its fictive language of desire" (p. 72).

Calabrese then turns to the Wife of Bath, and considers the question of what might happen if "Ovidian art could be mastered by someone who is willing to change, has no nostalgic allegiance to "trouthe," and makes the rules of the universe herself, immune from the reality of history and war that burdens the cast of the Troilus?" (p. 80) According to Calabrese, Alys becomes the armed amazon, empowered by her readings of Ovid to liberate lovers from artifice and game. Working closely with the Roman de la Rose Calabrese explores how Alys of Bath maniuplates Ovid to respond to anti-feminist rhetoric, and argues that "Chaucer has intricately reimagined his auctores to create a voice that reimagines woman's power and speaks woman's language as it has never been spoken before." (p. 95)

In the last chapter of this book, Calabrese focuses on Chaucer's retraction, and attempts to reconcile Chaucer's exploitation of Ovid for his own amatory poetry to the Christian paradigm that informs the "Parson's Tale" and the Retraction. Chaucer created the Parson's voice as "a new kind of servant for his audience -- a Christian writer who serves 'trouthe' and the divine Word." (p. 128) Calabrese argues that Chaucer, in ways impossible for Ovid, recognized the reductive and circular trap of art, and attempted at the end of his life to escape from the consequences of writing amatory poetry: spiritual exile.

In my view the most important issue Calabrese raises in this book is one of anxiety; that is, what is the specific nature of the conflicted relationship between ethical practice and fictive production, and how might that conflict impinge on the developing vernacular poetics of the period? His answer is necessarily partial, in part perhaps because of the terms of the argument he constructs which requires a certain overdetermination of the texts he is reading. The large and extensive analogy between vernacular poets and Ovid tends to isolate writers such as Chaucer, Boccaccio, Jean de Meun, et. al. from the larger literary context in which this debate operates. This isolation tends to lead to an oversimplification of these issues in the context of fourteenth-century poetics. I find this particularly problematic with respect to Calabrese's reading of Boccaccio. Il Filostrato is represented here only as the isolated source for a Chaucerian translation, not as a part of Boccaccio's efforts to extend the longstanding debate among Italian poets and theorists about the function and nature of poetry, first suggested by Dante in Canto V of Inferno. Similarly, his treatment of the retraction fails to answer convincingly the vexed problems associated with that text.

On the whole, Calabrese's study asks some crucial questions, and represents an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the role of Ovid in the construction of fourteenth-century poetics. His style is engaging and often exuberant; his wittiness is also refreshing. I look forward to reading more of his work. His careful exposition of thew relationship between Chaucer's later poems and the Tristia and other Ovidian poems of exile should encourage scholars to acknowledge and appreciate their peculiar allusiveness in these works.