The Celestial Venus in Lucretius’ De rerum natura…
Lucretian Echoes in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…
The Earthly Pilgrimage and the Choice of Love…
Inevitably, we meet the two Aphrodites again and again throughout the history of philosophy, literature, and art.
The Venus who is invoked by Lucretius, for example, at the beginning of his first-century B.C. philosophical poem, De rerum natura, and the Venus we meet later on in the fourth book, symbolize two very different cosmological influences and functions.
The goddess upon whom Lucretius calls for inspiration in his invocation is the
Mother of Aeneas and his race, delight of men and gods, life-giving Venus,
whose doing it is
that under the wheeling constellations of the sky all nature teems with life…Through you all living creatures are conceived and come forth to look upon the sunlight. Before you the winds flee, and at your coming the clouds forsake the sky. For you the inventive earth flings up sweet flowers. For you the ocean smiles, the sky is calmed and glows with diffused radiance. When first the day puts on the aspect of spring, when in all its force the fertilizing breath of Zephyr is unleashed, then, great goddess, the birds of air give the first intimation of your entry; for yours is the power that has pierced them to the heart. Next the cattle run wild, frisk through the rough lush pastures and swim the swift flowing streams…So throughout seas and uplands, rising torrents, verdurous meadows and the leafy shelters of the birds, into the breasts of one and all you instill alluring love, so that with passionate longing they reproduce their several kinds. Since you alone are the guiding power of the universe…, yours is the partnership I seek in striving to compose these lines…
The goddess who pacifies the commotions of sky and sea, orders the courses of the “wheeling constellations”, and modulates the seasons, ensures thereby that, during that great annual vernal festival of rebirth in which she is celebrated, the seasonal vegetation revives, and all of God’s creatures breed according to their kind.
We might well wonder how it is that the rutting of bulls might be included under the influence of this divine and heavenly force. But inasmuch as it belongs to the universal natural order of things, this too is a reflection of the Creator’s guiding love for his creation, and is thus the result of the benignant influence of the celestial, rather than the vulgar, Venus.
With the passage from Lucretius in mind, and before we look at his description of the other Venus in book four of the De rerum natura, let me might skip ahead some fourteen centuries to the famous opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the ancient Lucretian echoes are palpable and deliberate:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of Mach hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smalle fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…
I’ve rendered some of the explicit echoes of Lucretius in italics; but, more important, everything in the passage makes it clear once again that it is the heavenly Venus who is being hymned, and that the contrast with her earthly counterpart is everywhere implied and crucially present.
It is April, which is the month of Venus, the mother of the god of Love; the sun is in the constellation of Taurus, which is Venus’ house; the world is reviving from its winter sleep; the tender shoots of the new crops are pushing upward; the birds, stimulated by primordial instincts, like all animals at this time of year, are seeking their mates, singing and doing those other things which Chaucer habitually implies by the phrase “maken melodye”.
But, at this point in the proem, there is a magnificently ironic anticlimax: “Thanne”, says the poet, “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”.
In the spring, our conventional expectation is that (as the proverb has it) a young man’s fancy turns to love; indeed, all of the first eleven lines of the Canterbury Tales seem to lead inexorably to some human romantic culmination. Going on a religious pilgrimage is about the last thing the reader expects.
But again, the sacred pilgrimage is all about love, albeit not of the romantic kind. The love of God and the invisibilia dei, which temporarily detaches the Christian adherent from the gravity of the world and puts him on the road to Canterbury or St. James of Compostella (to architectural loci, as we have seen, that are earthly symbols of the Heavenly Jerusalem) is the same love as that which holds the planets and the seasons in their courses and inspires the fecundity of all nature.
Of course, that this is not always the love that motivates Chaucer’s pilgrims is the source of his satire. The Canterbury Tales thereby poses the fundamental moral problem of the choice that every earthly pilgrim has to make as to which of the two loves he will prosecute: whether his thoughts are fixed on the vulgar Venus’ carnal delights or on a love of a higher kind; whether he sees in all this vernal rebirth and fecundity the regeneration and rebirth of the soul, as betokened by Christ’s springtime resurrection, or the re-invigoration of his merely biological energies; whether he recognizes in the resurgent spring vegetation an image of the celestial paradise or an invitation to create paradise on earth (as the followers of Sir Pleasure try to do in his Garden of Earthly Delights in the early 13th centuryRoman de la Rose, or as January affects to do with May in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale).
This choice of love will determine if the pilgrim’s progress is toward the earthly City of Babylon or the Heavenly Jerusalem: whether his destination–symbolically speaking, once again–is this world or the next; and whether the melodye he makes is that of the harmony of the spheres or the sort of beautiful music that the world’s most romantic skunk, Pepe le Pew, yearns to make with his Looney Tune paramours.
The springtime imagery with which the Canterbury Tales so famously opens is thus neither merely decorative and conventional, as some critics have insisted, nor merely ironic. It declares the moral beginning and end-points between which the pilgrims’ journey will be undertaken. As Petrus Berchorius (fourteenth-century commentator on Ovid’s Metamorphoses) explains, spring is the season of Lent, and thus the “time of penitence for sin”. Accordingly, the Parson’s sermon on penance with which the Tales close is of the greatest relevance to Chaucer’s introductory proem; the Parson’s Tale reminds the pilgrims of the proper spirit in which they ought to have embarked on their journey.