The castle of Arveragus and Dorigen stands on a cliff close by the sea and she strolls there with her friends for distraction, providing us with a credible and clear visual image as background to the emotions that follow. Ironically the sights from there cause her anxiety and this grows to a crescendo of distress. Firstly she contemplates the numerous ships sailing their courses as they wish but these become a part of her sorrow as she bemoans the fact that none of them brings her lord back to her. If one did it would cure her heart of its “bittre peynes smerte.” This connection is direct, possibly unavoidable and understandable but the next fear is more irrational and intense. She sits and ponders and so it seems almost deliberate that she focuses on the “grisly” [horrible] rocks beneath and works herself into a near hysteria of terror, portrayed largely externally.
Her heart quakes so much that she cannot stand and so sits again on the grass gazing pitifully at the sea and talking to herself, sighing, seeing it as a danger to her husband. The rocks are a natural geographical feature, graphically evoked, but have become a symbol of a threat to her happiness. The whole picture is memorable and its image will return later. She is in a distraught state of heightened emotion, dramatically presented as her soliloquy is given in full. This is a detailed account of a woman overwrought by frustrated expectancy and makes us question whether or not Arveragus should have left her alone so soon and for so long. The Franklin is successful in his portrayal of female psychology but has led himself into depicting his hero as less than ideal. Dorigen’s soliloquy turns an emotional and amorous trouble into a metaphysical debate as she questions why God made the rocks.
The God here is the Christian creator rather than a pagan deity appropriate to the rest of the Tale and the “purveiance” [providence] discussed is that of Boethius in De Consolatione Philosophiae (which Chaucer translated from the Latin) who asks why God who has ordered the non-human world has left human life to be deranged by the disorderly and arbitrary influence of Fortune. Dorigen aks why God, who leads the world with “certein governaunce” [sure control] and who is said to have made nothing in “ydel” [vain] has made these “grisly, feendly [fiendish] rokkes blake”, which seem a dark confusion rather than a fair creation of a perfect, stable and wise God. The nub of the question: “Why han ye wrought this werk unresonable?” comes at the end of her preamble as though she cannot immediately bring herself to challenge God’s purpose. Similar words of blackness and horror are used to describe the rocks each time she mentions them, suggesting her terrified fixation on a symbol of that which intervenes between her and a positive and perfect life.
Her hysteria will not allow her to accept the rocks as part of the natural state of the universe and the list of compass directions emphasises her obsession as she points out to the Almighty that the rocks have helped no-one in her opinion but cause injury. Somewhat presumptuously, she asks God if He cannot see the destruction of mankind they bring about and visualises in an exaggerated fashion the thousands of slain bodies “al be they nat in mynde” [in the memory]. This last phrase adds a note of bathos which draws attention to the fact that she has been frenzied in her thoughts. Further contesting with God in argument, she points out that He has made mankind in his own image (see Matthew xxii 20) thus making it seem irrational to have them killed by another part of creation. The fact that Dorigen refers to the Bible here only emphasises how she is boldly challenging God’s purpose because of her amorous desires.
She states that when God created mankind, He seemed to have great benevolence towards humanity but returns to her bewilderment that he also made the means for the destruction of individuals, meaning the rocks which do no good, only harm. Now she challenges scholars, “clerkes”, and uses terms of philosophy and logic in her ever-increasing wildness: “argumentz”, “causes” and “conclusion”. Believing that learned men say what pleases them, that all is for the best, she accepts that there is another point of view but admits she does not know the causes or motives behind creation. The matter swiftly returns to her main preoccupation as she asks the same God who made the winds to keep Arveragus safe. The tempo and rhythmic pace quicken as she passes on from her conclusion, leaving the arguments to the scholars and wishes that God would sink the black rocks into Hell as they trigger so much fear in her. This semi-prayer becomes a fixation but follows a daring and possibly irreverant challenge to the ways of the Almighty and his interpreters, which is a rejection of blind faith.
Her friends, who are not individualised or made graphic, see that roaming by the sea does not distract her and so move off to amuse themselves by rivers and wells and other “delitable” [pleasant] places, dance and play at chess and backgammon. Once again, the untitled Franklin seems at a loss to know what aristocrats would do in reality and unwittingly gives his listeners the sense that these women are under-occupied, possibly leading to excess emotion. Yet Dorigen’s position is distressing and frustrating particularly in someone with an active imagination and her husband could be in danger from many sources. Her obsession with the rocks as a special threat to him and therefore her is central to the plot.
Nearby is a garden to which they go one morning, specified as the sixth of May, a month appropriate for a symbolic garden of love: they take provisions and all they need for an entire day of idle enjoyment. May has, with its showers, metaphorically painted the place with leaves and flowers and it recalls the garden in the Merchant’s, Squire’s and Knight’s Tales as well as Eden, a reference made more explicit by the mention of “the verray [true] paradise” at line 204. The skill of man’s handiwork has been essential to its perfection as a secular garden of courtly love and it has its literary ancestry in the Roman de la Rose. It is not intended to be realistic but to represent an idealised backdrop, without equal with its scent of flowers and fresh sights which would lighten any heart with its admixture of beauty and pleasure, except that of a person in great sickness or sorrow.
Dorigen may be one such and we note that the delights of the man-made garden contrast with the horror of the rocks created by God and that the latter will probably prevail with her. Indeed she absents herself from the after-dinner (which could be mid-day or earlier) dancing and singing although it would seem that she has spent some time there. She continues to bewail her husband’s absence and there is a sudden moment of poignancy when she is distressed that she cannot see him go to the dance and we are reminded that he is her lover also but she hopes that her sorrow will slip away, a wording which suggests that she has little control over her emotions. In the reference to the Garden of Eden lurks a hint of the snake or some evil which will spoil the perfection and here we do not yet know if it is Dorigen’s sorrow, danger to Arveragus or some new threat.
The next personage is introduced quite suddenly into the narrative as he dances in front of Dorigen and, in the “doom” [opinion] of the Franklin is fresher and more attractive in appearnce than the month of May, a comparison which gives a symbolic rather than individual quality to the man. This squire sings and dances in a manner surpassing any other man since the beginning of the world, the hyperbole adding to his lack of reality. He is also the “best farynge” [handsomest] man alive as well as being young, strong, virtuous, rich, prudent, popular and held in great esteem. This piling on of adjectives helps to make him so idealised that the reader or listener may not believe in him and could react by thinking that his main real advantage is that he is present whereas Arveragus is not. The rhetorical technique is that of descriptio, a leisurely and formalised picture which presents the character not as a particular person but as one of a class. He is a well-liked participant in the enjoyable life of the court and the epitome of aristocratic virtues in the eyes of the Franklin.
Wholly unknown to Dorigen, this pleasant squire, a servant to the pagan goddess of love and called Aurelius, has loved her more than any other for more than two years. His fated emotion is abruptly mentioned in a not wholly skilful fashion although it is difficult to see how it could have been dealt with earlier without undermining the account of Dorigen’s sorrow. It is not quite clear if it pre-dates her wedding but seems to have started around that time (as did the affair in the Merchant’s Tale which began at the actual marriage festivities.) In the tradition of courtly love he does not dare to tell his lady of his “grevaunce” [distress] but suffers his torment “withouten coppe” [without measure]. This is also exaggerated but we note that he and Dorigen are in a similar state of grief and that there is therefore a correspondence between them. He is “despeyred” [without hope] as he fears to say anything directly but partially discloses his misery in songs as a generalised lament but not personal to him, saying that he, presumably like others, is the victim of unrequited love.
This hopeless love is the topic of many outpourings of his composition in the form of lays, songs, “compleintes” [laments], rondeaux and virelays, all fixed lyrical forms which the Franklin hopes will help his reputation as a cultivated man by his apparent knowledge of them. His behaviour is romantically conventional as he suffers in solitude and will not tell of his sorrow but is said to languish as the Furies do in hell, a possible slip on the part of the narrator as the Furies cause the suffering rather than being the targets. Another Classical comparison is with Echo who could not speak of her love for Narcissus and pined away until only her voice remained: all these references are intended to add stature to a love which could be seen as unreal.
The Franklin then repeats himself with a filler couplet which merely repeats that he dare not reveal his love in other ways than he has recounted, a confused statement viewed logically. Occasionally he may glance at her face on occasions when there are dances or similar rites as a man might ask for grace. This religious vocabulary is common in the courtly love ethic and the Franklin abandons omniscient narration by saying “It may wel be” when he could tell us the fact. This adds verisimiltude to the account as if he is an observer of reality and cannot know it all. She still knows nothing of his love. However, because he is a neighbour and has known her for some time, he can fall increasingly into conversation with her and it is stressed that he remains a man of “worshipe” [dignity] and honour even though he harbours adulterous desires, which courtly love condones. He takes advantage of this proximity for his purposes and will go on to speak of his feelings when the Franklin has said he could not. This contradiction preserves Aurelius as worthy but also furthers the plot.
Aurelius has bided his time with cunning but now speaks out to Dorigen who, in character, is passively compliant. Some commentators claim that the squire is hesitant at arriving at his main topic and uses the device of circuito before telling her directly of his feelings. Yet it is easy to see where he is heading within the first few lines and he is, if anything, quite aggressive in his approach – this from a man said to be incapable of utterance about his woe. He says he wishes he had gone elsewhere (probably died) when Arveragus left and his speech is full of amatory cliches about service, his bursting heart and his “peynes smerte” [bitter pains], telling her that she could save or kill him with her response. We note that his idea of service encompasses only the writing of a good deal of poetry. These hyperbolic statements are within the tradition of adulterous courtly love where the man pines for the heartless high-born married lady. He stresses the likelihood of his death and wishes he were buried, “grave”, at her feet. The double negatives “ne” and “no” (line 269) emphasise his claim although it is odd that he says he is in a hurry. Begging for mercy, using religious vocabulary, is part of the mode as is the woman’s power over his life or death.
Whereas Aurelius acts in a stereotyped, conventional manner according to an accepted code of behaviour, Dorigen’s response is humanly realistic. Although “gan” does not mean “began”, it is as if she suddenly perceives him and takes note of someone who has been blurred within her vision for some time. The Franklin is prone to use “fillers” and here he repeats “quod she” which brings her to life as she has been presented as soliloquising up to now, rather than speaking out. Her language is not courtly but down-to-earth as she tells him, swearing by God, that, now that she knows his intention, she will not be an “untrewe wyf” in word or deed, again using double negatives (“ne”, “nevere”) to underline her determination. However, we note that she adds “as fer as I have wit” [as far as I can manage], that her tone is not fully definite and that she does not rebuke him for his impudence. Her reference is to her promise and bond rather than her love for her husband and so we are not surprised when she qualifies her statements. The phrase “fynal answere” is followed in the next line by an offer which she says is “in pley” and which seems impossible but nevertheless removes the harshness from her refusal. After his protestations of desire and with her husband absent, this is a dangerous time for playfulness or change of mind. She is entirely human and fully dimensional compared to the cardboard figures of the men and her psychology is well depicted. Chaucer has passed on his own facility for portraying women to his invented character, the Franklin.
Apparently out of kind-heartedness but perhaps out of loneliness and attraction to this perfect man, she speaks as if she wishes she could grant him her favours. Now she uses some of the terms of courtly love when she recognises that he is lamenting piteously and shows herself open to the flattery this involves. The accuracy of the portrayal of her inner mind and heart occurs when the rocks, her obsession, intrude into her reply and cause a weakness. It is as though she cannot rid herself of the fixation and must mention them and their capacity to hinder and wreck ships and boats. She therefore sets a seemingly impossible task, the complete removal of the rocks which she fears will kill her husband and yet this is, ironically, a quest for her suitor to fulfil. This is not playful but another solemn promise, a “trouth” and one which contradicts her earlier vow as, implicit in its terms, is the fact that, if the rocks were to vanish and Arveragus to come home, she is still pledged to Aurelius. She uses the same words as earlier at line 49: “Have heer my trouthe” which draws attention to the irony and her weakness. Her sudden surge of sympathy and desire not to hurt the squire has created a situation of conflicting promises which appears highly unlikely to cause trouble but, in the realms of a fiction, will probably do so, thus creating tension in the narrative. She has swapped her role as the faithful wife, impervious to adultery, to that of the courtly mistress setting a difficult or impossible challenge for her would-be lover. He will have to do more than write poems to achive his goal.
Aurelius asks if she has any further “grace”, using the borrowed religious language of courtly love but Dorigen replies in down-to-earth terms, reverting to her earlier direct language. Now that she has slipped from decisiveness and offered him a chance, however remote, she becomes more hard-hearted and scolds him for his presumptuousness is approaching another man’s wife, calling his desires “folies.” She covers herself by saying that the removal of the rocks can never happen and they now seem a symbol of her lonely fears as well as of the immutable natural order. Her tone is that of moral indignation as she rebukes him, ignoring the element of compliance in her own behaviour, asking him what “deyntee” [pleasure] there can be in loving the wife of another man who can have her body whenever he wishes. Despite the finality of her mode of speech, we note that she is denying the central problem which is that Arveragus is not there to have sex with her at any time and that the very mention of physical love could be seen as a jealous temptation and stimulus to Aurelius. He is full of woe when he hears this and answers sorrowfully with the hyperbolic lexis of courtly love that the task is impossible and that he must die a sudden and terrible death because of her refusal. Each of them has become aware of the other’s true nature in realistic mode.
Chaucer again shows the Franklin’s ignorance of the habits of the aristocracy when the shadowy friends return, knowing nothing of this encounter, and immediately embark on unmotivated “revel newe”: he also demonstrates his teller’s lack of control over register when he firstly describes sunset in poetic terms with circuito (lines 308-9) before descending into bathos with: “This is as muche to seyne as it was nyght.” The Franklin is proud of his rhetoric and has been carried away with his own eloquence without quite knowing how to end the account of the end of the day. They then go home in joy and “solas” [comfort] except for the wretched Aurelius with his sorrowful heart as he cannot see an escape from death. We now have more of his feelings and some from an internal point of view as he feels a sudden coldness in his heart, holds up his hands to heaven as he kneels with bare knees and utters a delirious prayer: we are told that he is out of his mind with grief and does not know what he is saying.
His plea is to the pagan gods, starting with the sun, whereas, in the context of the rest of the Tale, the rocks are the creation of a Christian God. The picture of him remains largely externalised and conventional and we note that he does not rave but keeps his wits about him sufficiently to pray and give instructions. The admixture of different religions, the contrast between the demands of the courtly love mode and what actually happens and the occasional unwitting change of tone reveal a minor lack of control of material by the Franklin who appears somewhat out of his depth.
The pace and tug of the narrative overcome this flaw as we feel that somehow Aurelius will find a way. Any listener can be aware how far distant the end of a story is and adjusts expectations accordingly: clearly we have not reached closure yet.
Apollo is both pagan god and the planet Sun but also the governor of every plant, herb, tree and flower, giving them all, according to his altitude and placement, their due timing and season, all this being adjusted to the planet’s “herberwe” [lodging position in astrological terms]. Thus this god is portrayed as in charge of the same natural order as God, a contradiction of which the Franklin seems unaware. Aurelius’ prayer is egocentric as only he sees himself as “wrecche” and lost because Dorigen has sworn that he will die, although innocently. We note that he is cunning enough to ask for a way out rather than accept the will of his lady, requesting pity on his “dedly herte” [dying heart]. He overtly begs for the god’s help and intends to set out the way this could happen, since Dorigen will not yield. Both of them have shown arrogance in boldly approaching their respective deities with instructions or firm requests. Aurelius intends to manipulate the situation so that she must accept him rather than allow himself to die because of it. Structurally his prayer is symmetrical to Dorigen’s, identical in petition though opposite in motive, and not necessary to the plot as the rocks will be removed by other means.
Aurelius now invokes Lucina, the sister of Apollo/Phoebus and a complex figure, having three versions corresponding to heaven, earth and the underworld, respectively Luna (the moon, helping women in childbirth), Diana (goddess of chastity) and Proserpina or Hecate. Aurelius needs assistance but can hardly pray to the goddess of chastity to allow him sex with his beloved and so approaches the triple deity through her brother, showing crafty deviousness and resolution. Neither he nor Dorigen suffers adversity with patience: both try to find a way out of their situation. The moon controls the sea although Neptune has lesser dominion over it – Aurelius is treading carefully so as not to offend any supernatural being. It was known in the Middle Ages that the moon shines by reflected light and here is represented as desiring it and is thus humanised. There is a short but relevant digression on the fact that the moon assiduously follows the sun and the sea naturally follows the moon, flattering the god before Aurelius comes to his point. He begs for a miracle or else his heart will break and there is, in line 348, a naturalistic pause as he collects his emotions.
The sun is at its most powerful, astrologically, when in the zodiacal sign of Leo and he is willing to wait the necessary three months for this as the moon will then be in opposition in Aquarius, an appropriate sign for the sea-change miracle. He needs a tide which, even at the ebb, leaves the rocks covered and therefore apparently no longer there. His request is detailed and accurate as he demands a tide of at least thirty feet above the top of the rocks, even though he is misled by his reasoning concerning the same spring tide for two years. The point we notice is that this will be a dishonest trick and unscrupulously intended to deceive Dorigen for two years, time enough for him to take possession of her. He has gone as far as imagining himself, with direct speech, saying to her: “Holdeth youre heste [keep your promise], the rokkes been aweye.” The rocks symbolise for Dorigen a threat to the life of her husband and therefore her own happiness but to Aurelius they represent an impediment to his adulterous desires. These two significances are ironically contradictory as, once the rocks are removed, Arveragus can, in Dorigen’s eyes, return safely to find her in the arms of another man because of their vanishing.
Aurelius’ erotic passion has led into a metaphysical hypothesis, that the moon could keep pace with the sun in circling it, revolving round the earth once a year rather than every twenty-eight days. In this way he erroneously assumes that the moon, being always full,will therefore produce spring [high] tides both night and day which must convince Dorigen that the rocks have vanished – if not he begs the underworld figure of the triple deity to sink the rocks into the lower regions. This accords with Dorigen’s vision of them as dark and hellish (line 184). He fears that he will never win Dorigen and, with some self-pity, offers to go barefoot to the temple at Delphos, pointing out the tears on his cheeks. There is some confusion over Delphos and Delos where Apollo was born but his chief oracle was at Delphi. Aurelius asks for compassion before falling into a conventional swoon and lying in a trance for some time. He is irrational in his egocentric vision of the universe but we note that, like Dorigen, he wants to alter the natural order created by a deity and that this is dangerous. There is a certain passivity and cunning in his behaviour which undermines the earlier impression given of him by the Franklin, as a perfect gentleman.
The brother of Aurelius is introduced briefly and casually and the portrayal, such as it is at this point, lacks a sense of a real person. He knows the “penaunce” [suffering] of his sibling, picks him up and puts him to bed but there is an element of bathos in this after the impassioned prayers of desperate love. The brother does not seem to care whether Aurelius lives or dies and leaves it to him to choose, although this apparently casual attitude results from the narrator’s declining to be further involved with his main character. “Lete I this woful creature lye” must be the Franklin’s open declaration of change of topic appropriate to oral discourse but comes across as that of the brother also. There is a withdrawal from exaggerated emotions and the symptoms of the man in courtly love such as lack of sleep, no appetite, pallor, pining away, fainting, lamenting, weeping and wailing.
By contrast and to speed up the plot, the lively and healthy Arveragus returns, despite the presence of the rocks, which now seem relevant only to the love triangle. The view of Arveragus is one-dimensional and one-sided as only his admirable characteristics are shown whilst we may feel he is culpable and should not have left Dorigen alone. He comes with “heele” [prosperity] and great honour and is the flower of knighthood. The account is generalised as we do not know who are the “othere worthy men” and we are merely told from outside that Dorigen must be “blisful” to have her “lusty” [valiant] husband in her arms, with something of a play on words that he is a man of arms in the other sense. Also externalised is the fact that he loves her “as his owene hertes lyf” and he seems to us to love reputation more.
He is completely without mistrust: “Nothyng list hym to been ymaginatyf [suspicious]” and does not ask if any man has spoken to her of love during his absence because he has no “doute” [fear] that this might have happened. This seems naif and unduly confident but is a result of his deciding to leave her and needing to think it was the right thing to do. He pays no attention to this issue but dances, jousts and entertains her and himself but the picture is without conviction or detail and represents the Franklin’s conventional view of aristocratic life. We wonder realistically if Dorigen should have taken advantage of his trust to tell him now of Aurelius’ approach and her rejection of him along with the challenge but an essential ingredient of courtly love is secrecy. The Franklin contrasts the “joye and blisse” of the couple with the sickness of Aurelius, before abandoning them with one of his clear signals of change of direction. Contrast has been essential to the Tale with that between the idealised garden and the rocks forming a symbolic and dominant opposition.
It is also conventional for the unrequited lover to be in emotional agony for a long time and we note that many of the time spans so far have been two years but this seems almost impossible on any realistic level for a man in “langour and in torment furyus” particularly as he cannot take a step on the ground for that period. His sole comfort is his brother although we are soon told (line 401) that his suffering is entirely secret: this is contradictory but in accordance with the code of courtly love yet the plot cannot move forwards unless somebody knows. The brother is a learned scholar but is familiar with the woe and “werk” [trouble] despite the secrecy being comparable to that in the tale of Pamphilus and Galathea, the reference giving the story a classical backing and greater stature.
To outside view Aurelius breast is whole although in his heart is always the “arwe kene”, the sharp dart of love. This sudden image is poignant and we do feel more of his pain that in the externalised accounts. The Franklin goes on to remind his audience with clinical and convincing precision that a “sursanure” [wound healed only on the surface] is dangerous to cure in surgery unless the arrow can be touched or reached. The Franklin draws in his listeners by the phrase “wel ye know” and adds conviction by making the standard image of Cupid’s arrow and its wound realistically physical. In this case, despite the romantic language, the only true cure would be adulterous sex with Dorigen. Occasionally the Franklin loses control of his narrative but soon regains it and our involvement.