Chaucer’s House of Fame Satirizes the Poets in Dante’s Inferno

Geoffrey Chaucer Funny

In his poem, the House of Fame, Geoffrey Chaucer adopts several scenes from other poems of renowned poets and reworks them in his own text. One example of such adaptation occurs in Book III when the narrator encounters the first group of known poets; this scene resembles a similar one in canto IV of Dante’s Inferno. Yet, in spite of the noticeable semblances, Chaucer’s design and meaning in his own passage are completely different from Dante’s and even entirely antithetical in regard to the premise of fame and who earns it.

It is first important to identify the known poets whom the narrators meet in each work and mark their essential differences. In Dante’s Inferno, the narrator meets four highly acclaimed classical poets: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan (lines 88-90). In the House of Fame, the narrator faces four poetical figures as well: Orpheus, Orion, Chiron and Bret Glascurion (lines 1203-1208). While Dante introduces four classical poets who actually lived in reality and obtained their honorable stature, Chaucer mentions three fanciful figures from Greek mythology and one, Bret Glascurion, whose reputation and prestige are significantly inferior to the poets in the Inferno.

This first selection of poets by Chaucer, whom the narrator discerns, conveys a jocularly disordered sense: initially, there is a fantastical element to the first three mythical poets he presents, but then the choice of Bret Glascurion reveals the anarchic collection of supposedly famed characters in the House of Fame. This becomes much more conspicuous in comparison with Dante’s stellar ensemble of glorified real-life poets.

Thus, Chaucer borrows Dante’s scene and ridicules it in order to demonstrate how he believes that fame is much more mythically haphazard rather than orderly and methodical.

Chaucer continues to humorously rework Dante’s Inferno after the aforementioned presentation of the poets. In the Inferno, the narrator has a discussion with the four poets and his companion (the venerable poet himself, Virgil) as their equal whilst being invited to join their distinguished group (lines 97-103). In the House of Fame, after the narrator presents the poets, he states that “smale harpers” sit below them and “countrefete hem as an ape / Or as craft counterfeteth kinde” (lines 1209-1213); Chaucer hints that even lesser artists, possibly referring to himself, can successfully mimic the work of great poets, possibly referring to Dante, just as those superior poets attempt to imitate nature in their art.

Again, Chaucer mocks the premise that fame is the result of simply great talent and ascribes much more significance to plain randomness.

From this passage, it seems that Chaucer has a complicated relationship with Dante. On the one hand, he obviously respects him and admires his work, if only for the mere fact that he chooses to rework the Inferno; on the other hand, Chaucer disputes Dante’s more organized notion of fame and tries to show that fame has a very chaotic aspect. Alternatively, perhaps Chaucer simply disagrees with the predominant social notion of fame and uses Dante, as an admired poet, to display his own belief. Whatever the case may be, the result is thought-provoking and profoundly entertaining.