Chaucer’s Love Garden: A Merchant’s Tale

Students are usually aware of the narrative form of the poem, one which blends the realistic with the fantastic and the symbolic, yet there is often room for discussion of the symbolic importance of the Love Garden which Januarie builds to allow he and May to perform the acts not done ‘abedde’. Not only does this suggest a certain freedom from societal convention, but we also learn that it is in the garden that Januarie’s love making ‘spedde’. This word has obvious 21st century connotations in terms of speed, but should also be read in the sense of reaching a successful conclusion.  In the marriage chamber he makes excuses for the slow ‘labour’ he will perform. We assume that his singing in bed suggests a successful end to the coitus, albeit with the use of ‘ypocras’ and other herbs and suggestive reading matter, and here we read of him completing the act – the speed connotation may be relevant, as well, but completion is the root meaning of the word.

So, what is it about the garden?

I want to look at both the symbolic Eden reference and also at the symbolism associated with the family and thus with Januarie’s heirs which follows from this.

The garden ‘walled with stoon’ is a clear Eden on earth. The idea of the locus amoenus (intro post) appears as a trope of Courtly love literature and was also an architectural feature of many dwellings of the wealthy and powerful through the 12 and 13 centuries. Essentially a private area in which the lovers could walk without being observed by servants or other hindrances to freedom of action, such gardens were as much a statement of wealth and degree as an attempt to create a little piece of Paradise.

Januarie’s paradise is a limited paradise.  It is bounded by stone presenting a strong and rather cold boundary which cannot be easily crossed and is locked by a ‘wicket’ and ‘clicket’ (itself suggestive of sexual penetration) with Januarie holding the clicket for himself. In the centre is a pear tree, rather than an apple, which will become the focus of the action in the garden at the end of the poem. The garden is already inhabited not by representations of the Christian Divine but by Pluto and Prosepina, the Roman Gods of the underworld.

They provide a context for this paradise. Pluto raped his wife, having lain in wait for her on the slopes of Etna, an echo of Januarie’s rather bathetic mirror in the market place and subsequent brutal and unfeeling wedding night. Potential blasphemy would prevent Chaucer writing in indelicate terms about God and Scripture, but her ewe see a symbolic allusion to this garden not as Eden, but as a kind of anti-Eden – one built on male force, lust (since Januarie is ‘Venus’ knight’) and a total mistrust of women. Here alone is there an echo of the patriarchal misogyny of Genesis.

Once Januarie is ‘soddeynly’ blinded, he has a problem.  He does not trust May and seeks never to leave her side, indeed he goes further and ‘hadde an hand upon hire everemo’.  She, on the other hand, after some months of sexual frustration finally manages to deceive him: to steal the clicket and obtain a duplicate through the offices of Damyan – ‘the lechour in the tree’. Just as in the Biblical paradise, the serpent is already in situ. All this is perfectly to clear to  a student of the Pastoral genre – even in Paradise lurks death: et in arcadia ego.  There is no need for Chaucer to digress about the state of the garden or to provide a quasi-Miltonian debate about gardening and gender roles, instead the action moves directly to the tree.

The tree stands at the centre of the garden, a garden ruled not by God, but by pagan Gods of the underworld and death whose fairies use the space as their playground. Nothing good will come of this. They ‘maken melodye’ in a garden more beautiful than even Priapus could build. Given that the conventional image of Priapus is that of a Satyr-like figure with an immense erection, the sexual connotations of the purpose of the garden seem obvious. download (2) Priapus (from a fresco in Pompeii)

Once ‘fresshe May’ has the clicket, the rest is easy. Damyan at first hides under a bush, presenting a stock Satan-as-serpent image and then climbs into the pear tree itself. The choice of tree is significant, having a clearer sense of lewdness than other fruits. Possibly due to their pendulous shape, somewhat scrotal in appearance, pears were seen as a somewhat lascivious fruit and the choice of this tree again increases the sense of the garden as a setting for lustful congress rather than for any manifestation of Courtly Love. It is Januarie who sets up the visit to the garden and is completely deceived in his blindness. May, just as Eve in the biblical model, is quick to deceive him, suggesting her innocence and her claim to be ‘no wenche’, as she says that she craves fruit. Indeed she ‘moot die’ if she does not get a pear – ‘die’ having the same orgasmic connotation that students are used to from the study of Shakespeare. She finally conquers Januarie who stoops to let her climb onto his back, thus establishing her as the dominant figure at this stage.  The action is swift and utterly without emotion -‘in he throng’- and the satirical image of Eden is now complete.

However the Tree itself can be further discussed.

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When May mounts Januarie to climb into the tree, he is quick to agree to her somewhat bizarre wish. May suggests that he ‘The pyrie inwith [his] armes for to take’ which suggests the image of Januarie embracing the trunk of the tree – the ‘stock’ – as she climbs up.

Given that the image of an apple tree was a common model for the depiction of family trees in Medieval and later painting s and documents, the image is again clear. Januarie is desperate to have an heir, a branch from his stock – to use the biblical term. Here we see him symbolically guarding his heritage from the interlopers who have already, cuckoo-like, destroyed his blood-line. Early in the tale he likens himself to a tree -a laurel – which ‘blosmeth er that fruit ywoxen be’. The link to the tree in the garden is clear. If we accept this idea, that the lovers are tainting the blood-line in this way, then we can further suggest that at the end of the tale, as he ‘hire wombe… stroketh full softe’, he is settling for a compromise. The children will not be his offspring, but he can acknowledge them, safeguard his heritage and keep May as his plaything. She has everything to lose from being uncovered as a wanton cuckolder at this time, so she will not complain.

The message of marriage is one of compromise and not forgiveness. Women will always cheat and, thanks to Proserpina, will always get away with it…  That seems a suitable attitude for a man whose wife  lived apart from him, possibly as the Mistress of John of Gaunt and from whom he was estranged for much of his later life. Chaucer could not divorce her and benefited from Gaunt’s stipend for much of his life.

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Filed under OCR A level, OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, Uncategorized

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