Emilia Di Rocco                                                                                                                                                                   # 2

  “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”:

Weltzeiz and Lebenszeit in Chaucer’s House of Fame

 Abstract: The essay deals with the relation between the Latin maxim “vita brevis, ars longa” – a variation of the ancient aphorism from the Corpus Hippocraticum – which Seneca discusses in his De brevitate vitae, and Chaucer’s House of Fame. It focuses in particular on the application of this idea on Chaucer’s view of time and life and the time of the world with reference to Hans Blumenberg’s book Lebenszeit und Weltzeit.

 Key words: Seneca; time; life; art; optium; Chaucer.

    The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” (Chaucer, 1987, p. 385, v. 1) the first verse of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, is a variation of the ancient aphorism of the Corpus Hippocraticum which in Latin translation reads: “vita brevis, ars longa”. The sentence establishes a relationship between the time of art and that of life and, to a wider extent, between the time of the world and that of life, what Hans Blumenberg (1986) calls “Weltzeit” and “Lebenszeit” (in his Lebenszeit und Weltzeit). The word used for art in the Greek original – tekhne – is to be understood as a way of knowing, that is knowledge established as a set of rules based on experience and advices which can be easily learned and taught. Art is long, then, because it requires considerable time to be apprehended, compared to which human life is quite short.

The most famous and significant discussion of the Greek aphorism in antiquity appears in Seneca’s De brevitate vitae, where the author addresses the problem raised by Hippocrates by asking himself how man has to live his life, considering that it is short. According to Seneca, human life can be long enough, provided that man, by following the teachings of reason and the philosophers, learns to live his life protinus, that is thinking to the future and with the intention to live every day as if it were the last one. In order to be happy in life, man has to moderately work for the res publica, follow virtue and save some time – tempus suum – for his own private life. This part of time is to be devoted to otium, to studying fine arts (bonae artes) and philosophy (sapientia).

The ideas implied in the ancient aphorism according to Seneca’s interpretation are particularly relevant for the dialogue between Geffrey and the eagle in the second book of The House of Fame. The bird informs the dreamer that his visit to Fame’s house is a reward for his having served the god of love and his mother Venus, and having praised their art, although he was not a member of their fellowship. The eagle describes Geffrey’s life and how he spends his spare time, after he has finished his work at the customs: “[…] when thy labour doon al ys, / And hast mad alle thy rekenynges, / In stede of reste and newe thynges / Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon, / And, also domb as any stoon, / Thou sittest at another book / Tyl fully daswed ys thy look” (Chaucer 1997: vv. 652-8). Geffrey spends his tempus suum studying and writing love poetry, that is devoting himself to the bonae artes, a situation which recalls that in which Seneca’s De brevitate vitae was conceived. The occasion for this work, as a matter of fact, recalls that of Geffrey, since Paolinus, to whom it is dedicated, being responsible for food management in Rome and, therefore, an expert in finance and administration, is engaged in activities quite similar to those of the dreamer in The House of Fame, who is busy all day at work with account-keeping.

The Latin treatise is a discussion on how man can make the best of his life, considering that life is time and a human being has, therefore, to be careful not to waste it. Some of the ideas set forth in De brevitate vitae are appropriate to the description of Geffrey’s life by the eagle: the dreamer has managed his time well until now, he has not been a slave to his work and has found time for studying and writing poetry. This makes him a great and wise man, whose life is longer than that of anyone else, because he has always mastered it. Geffrey appears to have been a good organizer of his own time, he has not wasted it but has controlled it; he has observed a sort of “chronoeconomy”, according to which the most important is the time devoted to doing something. A human being has to spend his day laboriously and following a plan, so that he can put his own time to the best use. From the eagle’s description, the dreamer’s day seems to be organized on the basis of a more or less fixed schedule, as if he had his eyes fixed on a watch showing the passing of time, thus revealing a modern, humanist view of time quite similar to the sort of attitude Leon Battista Alberti reveals in his I libri della famiglia (The Family in Renaissance Florence). Geffrey has undoubtedly been successful in this, if Jupiter decided to reward him with a journey to Fame’s palace, and later on the dreamer will reveal his awareness of the importance of time in life. When he sees the crowd of musicians outside Fame’s palace, he says that he would name them all, but he will not “[…] for los of tyme. / For tyme ylost, this knowen ye, / Be no way may recovered be” (Chaucer 1997: vv. 1256-8).

The dreamer shuns the crowd – “hys verray neyghebores” – and lives like a hermit. He seems to follow the «new rule of life» which Seneca sets forth for Paolinus: to devote himself to noble activities, love and virtue, the science of living a good life and a good death, peace. This idea emerges also from Geffrey’s answer to the unknown man whom he meets in Fame’s palace. When this character asks him whether he has come there to obtain fame, he answers: “Nay, for sothe, frend” […]; / “I cam noght hyder, graunt mercy, / For no such cause, by my hed! / Sufficeth me, as I were ded, / That no wight have my name in honde. / I wot myself best how y stonde; / For what I drye or what I thynke, / I wil myselven al hyt drynke, / Certein for the more part, / As fer forth as I kan myn art” (Chaucer 1997: vv. 1873-82). Here, once again, Seneca gives a hint for interpreting Geffrey’s words. Like Emperor Augustus in De brevitate vitae (4.2), he wishes to live for himself one day, to be his own master like a wise man who is not subject to Fortune (5.3). His only wish seems to be to capitalize on his life by having it in his own hands and not in those of Fortune: however short it is, the time allotted to life is more than enough for the wise man, and when the moment comes, Geffrey – like Seneca’s wise man – shall be ready to face death without faltering (11.2).

The dreamer’s answer can be read as a possible comment to the problem of the difference between the time of the world and that of life discussed by Blumenberg. According to the German philosopher, one of the possible interpretations of Weltzeit is to consider it as an open horizon, a surface where humans can project their own desires and try to quench their own thirst for knowledge. But humans cannot participate in the time of the world, there is no way for them to bridge the distance between Weltzeit and Lebenszeit. Therefore Blumenberg’s central idea, that the world needs time, could be understood only from the point of view of resignation. There is no solution for those who have innumerable desires, but a set span of life. What can man do, when he realises that he has not enough time to fulfil his desires? Geffrey’s words to the unknown man in The House of Fame can be read as a possible answer to this question; he is an artist of life in the world as it is – as Weinrich (2004: 174-5) commenting upon Blumenberg puts it – and makes his best to be satisfied with what he can have from life within the limits of his conditio temporalis. From the dreamer’s point of view art, understood as tekhne, “craft” – as Chaucer writes in The Parliament of Fowls – can be of help in such a situation: the only hope to bridge the gap between Weltzeit and Lebenszeit is to live a full life, to drink the full cup of it – “I wil myselven al hyt drynke” (Chaucer 1997: v. 1880), as the dreamer says – and to minimize what Blumenberg calls “the time of duty” (Musszeit) to the advantage of “the time of action” (Kannzeit). The latter can be read as a modern version of Seneca’s tempus suum, private time, which Chaucer’s dreamer has decided to devote to art, namely poetry. This seems to be the only way thanks to which man can try to enrich his life, however short it may be, by sticking to reality and improving Seneca’s qualitas vitae.

Geffrey is perfectly aware that his is a “short-term life”, that his existence is a “being-toward-death”, but he refuses fame as one of the possible ways to achieve immortality, chooses anonymity instead, and fully accepts the limits set to human life. Art, and poetry in particular, is not a means through which death can be defeated and the span of life extended: Chaucer’s dreamer knows he must die and wants to remain in full control of his name, his life. Fame achieved through poetry doesn’t give that “second life” which Pope, though acknowledging its vanity, mentions in his rewriting of The House of Fame. Fame can instead be a “morir secondo” (second death), as Petrarch writes in his Triumph of Time (Petrarch 2007: v. 143), and as Geffrey seems to imply in his refusal to achieve it. From the point of view of the dreamer – and Chaucer behind him – poetry does not extend the term of life, does not promise a second life to the poet. Poetry, the actions carried out on earth or people’s behaviour while still living, can become famous, as the ancient poets carrying their works on their shoulders on the pillars demonstrate, and as Geffrey himself can see on observing the crowd outside and inside the palace as well as Fame’s judgment of the petitioners’ requests. Glory does not cancel the limits set to human life, time allotted to man is short in any case, and he has to do his best to put it to good use.

Geffrey’s answer to the unknown man, then, can be read also as a comment on the Greek aphorism and on Seneca’s De brevitate vitae. The ancient sentence, however, can be relevant to The House of Fame and its poet also from another perspective, the one opened by Marcel Proust in the last section of his In Search of Lost TimeTime Regained. Approaching the end of his novel, the French writer is anxious because he realizes that time is tight and might not be enough to finish his work, to achieve his goal. All he can do is not to waste time, he must not hesitate. Given this situation, the narrator is inevitably led to compare the shortness of life with the length of art: his life presumably will be short, while his novel will be long, it will require much more time than that allotted to him by life. The novel, therefore, shall remain unfinished, like the big cathedrals which man is never able to end.

 Proust’s thoughts open up a new perspective which suggests a possible explanation for the end of The House of Fame. Considered from the point of view of Geffrey’s ideas on the relationship between a short life and a long art, as they emerge in the dialogue with the eagle and that with the unknown man, the fact that the poem is unfinished might be a further implicit comment on the Greek aphorism: compared to art, human life is not long enough for the poet to accomplish his project, to finish the poem. Interestingly, The House of Fame breaks off just after the dreamer has visited the house of Rumour where he has witnessed the birth of the tidings which are the raw material of future literary works. The vision, then, ends on the threshold of the future, immediately before the man of great authority starts speaking, as if there were no time for the poet to write down his stories, his words. In the end all the poet is left with are the tidings flying out of Rumour’s house to Fame’s palace, where the goddess gives them a name and allots them a fixed time before they fly to the world. The poem, then, remains unfinished just like the cathedrals mentioned by Proust: man’s life is too short compared to art.

So far I have been discussing one aspect of time in The House of Fame, that related to Geffrey’s life as a man and as a poet. Time, however, can be approached from another perspective which has to do directly with fame and its evolution. The three places the dreamer visits have all of them to do with time: the past in the temple of Venus, the present in the house of fame and the future in the house of rumour. His adventure, then, can be interpreted as a journey through time, a journey that, as it is clear from the conversation with the eagle in the second Book of the poem, never goes beyond the realm of time, the house of Fame being located in the sublunar universe.

The visit starts in the temple of Venus, a temple to the past, enshrining the old facts of the Aeneid and, in particular, the story of Aeneas and Dido. Here again Seneca’s De brevitate vitae can give a hint to interpretation when the Latin author writes that human life is divided into three periods: the past, the present, and the future; the second is short, the third is dubious, and the first is certain. The past is the period on which Fortune has no sway and which is subject to nobody; this time of life is the one to which a serene mind reverts when tracing back the steps of life; it is like a sacred thing, free from any human contingency, and it is something that can be possessed forever. The present, on the contrary, is very short, always in a hurry, ends before it reaches us and never stops at a fixed point.

These ideas set forth by Seneca can help us to interpret the temple of Venus, the palace of Fame, and the house of Rumour. The temple in the desert is indeed free from time and the influence of Fortune – Fame here in Chaucer, who is her sister. It is like a shrine where the dreamer beholds a story on its walls and remembers it in his memory: the fame of the Aeneid is consolidated and nothing can ruin it. There can be different versions of the same event, as the story of Dido and Aeneas recounted by Ovid in the Heroides and quoted by Chaucer at this point.

When we move to Fame’s palace, we are suddenly plunged in the present: here everybody is engaged in doing something (except for the poets standing on the pillars) and their fame or some of the petitioners’ requests for it are one of the ways in which people try to fulfil their desire for a longer life. On the contrary, Geffrey is like those who according to Seneca (11.2) shun public commitments and have full control of their life – have their life “in honde”. Like this men, Geffrey does not allow Fortune/Fame to have sway on his life; he is satisfied with its length, however short it is. Here, in the palace, the present and the past seem to live together side by side, the former appearing as a decayed version of the latter: Glascurion and the other modern harpists ape the ancient, mythical ones, Orpheus, Orion, Eacides and Chiron. Fame’s house is the place where the past and the present meet, and all the environment, including the house of Rumour – where the future is created – can be interpreted also as a temple of Time.

Fame and Time seem to be linked, and indeed they share some attributes. As Dido says in the first book of the poem, there is nothing swifter than Fame (Chaucer, 1997: vv. 349-50), and swiftness is undoubtedly one of the traditional features of Time. Moreover in the description of the goddess Chaucer includes an element which can be read as an allusion to a specific aspect of time. The partridge’s wings at her feet are, as a matter of fact, reminiscent of the Greek Kairos, the personification of the fleeting nature of Opportunity, who in literature also encompasses a specific quality of time (as distinguished from Chronos) and the seasons (Oxford Classical Dictionary 2003: s.v.). Kairos is the short and decisive moment, the turning point in man’s life. It survived until the 11th century, when there emerged a tendency to merge this character with Fortune, Fame’s sister, because the Latin word for Kairos, Occasio, has the same genre as fortuna (Panofsky 1999: 91-2). Like Kairos, Fame has a fleeting nature, as for instance the names melting on the sunny side of the rock of ice show, and she represents a short and decisive moment in man’s life – a turning point – as she can glorify or ruin him, as it is clear from her judgments of the petitioner’s requests. But the link between the goddess and time is even stronger: Fame, as Chaucer tells us, is the supreme judge of the tidings and of all those approaching her throne. When the tidings flying out of the house of Rumour come to her palace, the goddess of Renown gives them a place and a certain period of time; this means, then, that she masters time, she has it at her own disposal. She is not only the sovereign of her house, and therefore of the past and the present, but she has some kind of authority also over the future. On the other hand, however, she and her realm are subject to time: the castle is built on a rock of ice, a clear allusion to the transience of wordly fame, but also to its stability if we think of icebergs. The rock in itself, therefore, can be read as an image of time: its fleeting nature on one side – the sunny one with the melting names – and its eternity, the shadowy side and the names of famous people perfectly preserved by the shadow. Fame’s palace, then, is founded on time in its double aspect; but, moreover, it is also a shrine of time, since here the present, the past, and the future (the tidings leaving the House of Rumour come to Fame, the first ideas of literary works) meet together.

In Fame’s house the ancients and the moderns of the cultural tradition live together and the future, to which another house is reserved, falls in any case under her authority. This brings us back to Blumenberg and to his Weltzeit and Lebenszeit. The relationship between the time of the world and that of life can be read also in terms of the relationship between the ancients and the moderns, between the past, the present and the future, as Blumemberg does with reference to the stars and the sky. From this point of view, time is not only the dimension in which reality unfolds itself, but it is also the condition creating future opportunities: the orientation of a wider totality requires the passing of time as a basis for different experiences, which sooner or later will emphasise man’s inadequacy to understand the world. In this way the divergence between the time of life and that of the world becomes clear, especially with regard to astronomy, the point under discussion in Blumenberg.

The stars, as a matter of fact, are the subject of the lecture offered to Geffrey by the eagle. In his refusal to listen to the lesson the dreamer reveals his awareness of the dissociation between Weltzeit and Lebenszeit, and thus shows that he understands the relationship between the time of the world and the knowledge of the world. Unlike the medieval man whose mind, according to Blumenberg, is not opened to the future, who does not have a wide temporal horizon, for the end of the world might coincide with his death, Geffrey’s answer to the eagle reveals the modernity of his views. He knows that the time of life cannot follow that of the world as the reason for his refusal seems to imply: he doesn’t want to learn anything new about the stars because he is too old. But in his words there emerges the medieval mind as well: the dreamer is satisfied with what he has learned from old books. Thus he chooses what Blumenberg, with reference to Fontenelle (Blumenberg 1986: 215-6 (it. ed.), classifies as the subjects of the Lebenszeit (rhetoric, poetics, architecture and painting) as opposed to those of the Weltzeit, that is mathematics and physics. Geffrey is happy with his books and those subjects which are appropriate to the time of life, that is, he is satisfied with words.

According to Blumenberg’s views with reference to modernity, the divergence between the time of the world and that of life can be counterbalanced with the acceleration of the future, given that the second – Lebenszeit – cannot follow the first. The only solution is to put in the time of life more reality by accelerating the future. The house of Rumour and what Geffrey observes inside it can be considered the visual medieval image of this idea. What the dreamer meets in this place is reality, is people telling tidings, the raw material of future literary works. The last place visited then is opened to the future, is actually at the origin of the future. The poem ends with the appearance of a man of great authority who is about to tell something, but will never speak. One of the possible reasons for The House of Fame being unfinished, then, is that it is not for Geffrey, and for Chaucer, to reveal what the man of great authority is about to say. That’s the future, the dreamer knows that life is short and life is long, that Weltzeit and Lebenszeit cannot coincide, therefore there will be somebody else in the future who will let the man of great authority speak.



 Blumenberg, 1986: H. Blumenberg, Lebenszeit und Weltzeit, Frankfurt am Main, 1986.

Chaucer, 1987: L. D. Benson (ed.), The Riverside Chaucer, Oxford, New York, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Oxford Classical Dictionary: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Panofsky, 1999: E. Panofsky, Studi di iconologia, Torino, Einaudi, 1999

F. Petrarch, 2007: F. Petrarch, The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch, Gloucester, Dodo Press, 2007.

Seneca, 2003: G. D. Williams (ed.), Seneca: The Otio. De Brevitate Vitae, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Weinrich, 2004: H. Weinrich, Knappe Zeit. Kunst und ökonomie des befristeten Lebens, München, Beck, 2004.



Volume 5, Issue1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature