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Chaucer's anxiety of poetic craft: the Squire's Tale.

The Squire's Tale is not a tale intended to tell a story; it is instead a narrative poem designed to examine the craft of poetic composition. As such, it functions as a pseudo-tale crafted by Chaucer to approximate the characteristics of a narrative tale while simultaneously dramatizing the process by which a poet may come to poetic and prosodic mastery. It does so by contrasting the poetic craftsmanship of the Squire with that of the Knight and by showing the relative unease with which the Squire handles the complexities of his poetic craft. A number of critics have focused on the representation of the relationship between the eloquent Knight and the less-than-proficient Squire; however, their readings have most often centered on the incompetence of the Squire's imitation of his father's images, themes and colors. Even those studies which highlight the verbal echoes of the Knight's Tale in the Squire's Tale eventually settle on thematic or semantic interpretations to support readings of the incompetence of the Squire as a tale-teller.

There is a strong critical heritage invested in conceiving of the Squire as anxious about his place amongst those pilgrims who represent his literary and socio-economic superiors, including but not limited to his father. For example, Robert P. Miller resorts to arguments based on the Squire's use and misuse of romantic and chivalric themes and styles to support his assertion that "In the Squire's Tale, artistic infelicities ... are Chaucer's means of representing dramatically the as-yet-unstructured mind of the narrator whose learning is still incompletely assimilated" (221). Derek Pearsall set forth this interpretation forty years ago when he characterized the Squire as "a young man among his elders. These elders are men of substance, men who have made their way in the world, merchants and lawyers, and although the Squire recognizes himself as their traditional social superior, he has a wholesome respect for them as 'operators'" (83). Pearsall argues that the representation of the Squire is carefully crafted by Chaucer, and that through the use of poetic 'tricks,' Chaucer is able "to suggest that the Squire is a good deal less proficient at telling a story than he is at 'syngynge or floytynge' or sundry other squire-like accomplishments, without allowing him to tell an incompetent story"(84). In Pearsall's reading, the Squire's Tale reveals Chaucer's creation of a tale teller who shows an acute, sometimes painful awareness of his place among more accomplished writers, most notably his father. (1)

The nervousness and self-consciousness of the Squire's Tale has more recently been identified by a number of scholars as a function of the rhetorical and thematic character of the Squire. Martin Stevens, for example, picks up on Pearsall's reading of the Squire, stating, "Chaucer wants to show the Squire as a nervous, immature and self-conscious speaker" (145). Readings of this type are often based on comparisons between the rhetoric and themes of the Squire and the Knight. Stanley J. Kahrl, for example, comments on the differences between the poetic styles of the Squire and the Knight, "The details [in the Squire's Tale] are conventional but handled without grace or a feeling of their fitness in a particular context. This is precisely the reverse of what we have been taught to see in the Knight's Tale, where virtually every description, every occupatio, is organized as carefully as are the structured elements of Theseus' lists" (207). Robert Edwards also reads the Squire in this light. He argues that this self consciousness shows itself through the Squire's rhetorical flourishes or discursive practices. He notes that "in portraying [the Squire], Chaucer goes beyond telling a bad tale ... to dramatize a poet struggling with his inability to master his materials and to convey them properly" (138). Joyce E. Peterson examines the General Prologue portraits of the Knight and the Squire in conjunction with her reading of the Squire's Tale and notes, "When he tries to use the tale as a vehicle to display his social, literary, and personal superiority, he unconsciously reveals his snobbery, his ineptness, and his essential cupidity" (68). She argues that the Squire's portrait must be seen as "tacitly negative" (67) when viewed in juxtaposition to the portrait of the knight; this leads her to conclude that the tale is trivial because it is told by a character she sees as trivial. While critics have agreed that the Squire's Tale echoes the Knight's Tale in its themes, images and colors, and that the Squire is less capable of handling the Knight's rhetorical flourishes, few critics have examined the ways in which the prosody of each tale signifies this division.

Additionally, scholars have been distracted by the fragmentary nature of the tale, leading to fruitful debates about the completeness of the tale and its place within the Canterbury Tales. William Kamowski contends that "the Squire leaves nearly everything he discusses, nearly every avenue of tale-telling and every tale he starts" (392), concluding finally that the fragmentary nature of the text is necessary in order for the tale to be finished. Peterson also sees the Squire's Tale as intentionally fragmented and thus complete, and argues that the Franklin's interruption "is as much a part of the tale as would be a more 'usual' conclusion because it is highly unlikely that any other conclusion is possible" (64). She contrasts the themes and plot(s) of the tale with other Chaucerian fragments, namely the tales of the Monk and Sir Thopas, arguing that the Squire's Tale "is, thus, intentionally a fragment in the same way that Sir Thopas is intentionally a fragment" (62). By reclaiming this fragment as a successful and possibly 'finished' fragment, critics have opened a space for closer analysis of Chaucer's supposed failures of both style and structure.

The result is that the critical conversation surrounding the Squire's Tale is now able to turn seriously towards the poetic craftsmanship of the tale as a further marker of the complex relationship between the Knight and the Squire. The poetics of the Squire's Tale, I will argue, are a conscious meditation on the craft of writing poetry. While Chaucer famously examines the weight of literary lineage and narrative in his House of Fame, it is only in the Squire's Tale that he examines what it means to craft the poetic line. As Alan Ambrisco has argued, "the tale is unified not by its narrative elements but rather by the way its linguistic anxieties are revealed and processed" (205). It is primarily in this tale that Chaucer dramatizes the process and hazards of prosodic composition. To that end, I will examine the poetics of the Squire's Tale in relation to that of the Knight's Tale in order to demonstrate how the poetics of the Squire's Tale clarify an anxiety about poetic craftsmanship and apprenticeship through Chaucer's meta-poetic commentary.

This essay picks up on a number of the topics discussed by these scholars, but looks to the poetics of the Squire "s Tale as evidence of a self-reflexive statement in which Chaucer examines the difficulty of poetic maturation and apprenticeship. It argues that, in addition to the gracelessness of the Squire's use of rhetorical figures like occupatio, which have been shown as successful failures by critics such as Shirley Sharon-Zisser, Chaucer also demonstrates a clumsiness in the Squire's use of numerous poetic devices, specifically rhyme, enjambment and caesura. The specific lens through which these tales can be read as representations of self-conscious poetics has been articulated adeptly by Robert M. Jordan. He states, "Chaucer's poetics ... invite our attention to the larger and prior question of the nature of fictional illusion itself. This it does by textual self-reflexivity, which is a property of the medium, not of the story, and reflects directly on the labor of writing, the primary relationship between the author and the formal structures into which he casts his language" (18). Although Jordan's focus is primarily on the thematic characterization of the Squire, his reading of that characterization opens the door for further examination, specifically to that of the process of poetic craft examined by Chaucer in creating the Squire. Accordingly, the Squire's Tale can be seen as a further demonstration of the system of poetic representation: a self-reflexive commentary on the development of poetic composition, as Chaucer sees and understands it.

The Squire's Tale is crafted, then, as a pseudo-tale, one which wears the trappings of a romantic narrative but which was never intended as a fully operational story. Indeed, the Squire's Tale was written with intentionally poor prosody and poetics designed to allow the signification of aspects outside of the narrative itself; we need look no further than to the Tale of Sir Thopas for precedent of this. Within the widely accepted romantic parody of Thopas, Chaucer over- and mis- uses a number of poetic and rhetorical devices to the effect of creating the most beautifully constructed example of diminutio in the Chaucer canon. C. David Benson goes so far as to describe Sir Thopas as "art at its nimblest," concluding that while the narrative and thematics of the tale are lacking, the craft of the poem is superb (31). Critics like Tigges and Peterson have noted the structural similiarities between the Squire's Tale and the Tale of Sir Thopas; these similarities extend beyond their fragmentary natures and failures in the use of rhetorical devices.

I would argue that the craft of the Squire's Tale is precisely in the vein of Sir Thopas. These two fragmentary tales clearly demonstrate that even, and perhaps especially, when Chaucer's tellers are at their thematic worst, Chaucer is at his poetic best. In this light, the Squire's Tale becomes a demonstration of Chaucer's deftness at portraying the struggles of a burgeoning author/poet, an apprentice in both his knighthood and his poetic craft. Sharon-Zisser has aptly pointed out the importance of the Squire's Tale as a representation of "meta-fictional modes in the tale's deep structure" (379). While Sharon-Zisser argues against readings of the tale as dramatizations of the character of the Squire, her attention to the ways in which the meta-fictional aspects of the tale create meaning in an otherwise superfluous tale have greatly influenced my interpretation of the tale. My reading fuses her ideas of meta-fiction with a semi-dramatic reading of the text. I argue that the poetics of the Squire's Tale are lacking in eloquence not because of a failure on Chaucer's part, but because of a skillful crafting of a pseudo-tale for the purpose of more closely examining the process of poetic development.

The most prominent poetic device Chaucer uses to demonstrate the Squire's prosodic naivete is rhyme. While there have been exhaustive studies done on Chaucer's use of rhyme in his poetry, few critics have stopped to ask how these rhymes can enhance or change our understanding of the Tales and, perhaps more importantly, Chaucer's poetic project. For my analysis of the rhyme in the tales, I have adopted a system from Marie Borroff which moves from the most simplistic to the most complicated rhymes. (2) It is primarily a generative model in which the most basic rhyme, the simple rhyme, is a final vowel rhyme which may or may not have a final rhyming consonant or consonant cluster. A sequence of consonant and vowel forms is then added onto this simple system to generate increasingly complex and infrequent rhyme forms. Thus, 'ring' and 'thing' are simple rhymes: the rhyme is based on the final vowel sound and concluding consonant cluster. 'Prison' and 'ranson' are rich rhymes in which the rhyme consists of a consonant sound followed by a vowel and then a concluding consonant sound. The more complex rhymes are generated by adding either a vowel or consonant sound. Each rhyme scheme is outlined in the table below.
Simple Rhymes: V(C)/ V(C) ryng / thyng
Rich Rhymes: CVC / CVC prisonn / raunsoun
Double Rhymes: VCVC / VCVC oother / brother
Double Rich Rhymes: CVCVC / CVCVC omnipotent/impotent
Triple Rhymes: VCVCVC / VCVCVC pronunciation / denunciation


I will use these terms (simple, rich, double, etc.) to examine the function and effect of the rhyme scheme in the Squire's Tale, the result of which will be to show that the rhyming couplets of the Squire "s Tale are meticulously constructed to enhance not only the depiction of the Squire as a novice craftsman, but also our understanding of Chaucer's ideas of the complexities and pitfalls of poetic craftsmanship.

The use of rhyme, like most of the poetic devices the Squire deploys, falls into two distinct categories: the tediously simple and exorbitantly convoluted. The majority of the Squire's rhymes fall into the first category, while others which appear at first glance to be complex, ultimately reveal themselves to be of the simplistic variety as well. Indeed, the vast majority of the polysyllabic rhymes in the Squire's Tale are merely simple rhymes which match, or nearly match each other in their non-rhyming syllable count, and are therefore easily mistaken for the more complex variety of rhyme, as in doublenesse and humblesse (V. 543-44). Here the rhyme is based in the ending cluster, '-esse,' and the similarity between the syllable count and the consonant and vowel usage tricks the ear and eye into believing this is a far more complicated rhyme than it actually is. This syllabic 'matching' combined with the number of simple rhymes employed in the Squire's Tale creates in the tale a feeling of competence but not one of mastery. While Squire's rhymes are never simply wrong (unless you count homonyms like fern / fern and been / been), they are rarely up to the standard set by the more experienced Knight. (3)

Within the Squire's Tale we find long stretches of verse which rely solely on strings of simple, monosyllabic rhymes. Indeed the majority of the end rhymes in the tale are rhymes with either one or two syllables. One such example occurs in the pars secunda of the tale. In the following passage--a passage concerned with sorrow, death, and the loss of love---one would expect to find a more eloquent use of rhyme. What we find here is, instead, a purposefully simplistic stretch of poetry.
 What is the cause | if it be for to telle
 That ye been in this furial pyne of helle
 Quod Canacee | vn to this hauk aboue
 Is this for sorwe of deeth | or los of loue
 For as I trowe | thise been causes two
 That causen moost | a gentil herte wo
 Of oother harm | it nedeth nat to speke
 For ye your self | vp on yow self yow wreke (V. 447-54) (4)


These simple rhymes continue virtually uninterrupted over the next twenty lines. The Squire rhymes drede with dede; chace with grace; Est with beest; trewe with knewe; myght with nyght; and kynde with fynde (V. 455-70). These simple, monosyllabic rhymes create in the tale a steady, plodding rhythm which detracts from what should be a moment of poetic and rhetorical eloquence. It is here that the Squire's poetics fall into the trap which Borroff warns against. She states, "In Middle English verse, the traditional words, when used again and again in the same way and for the same purpose, seem dragged in 'for the sake of the rhyme;' repetition becomes tiresome, and simplicity seems merely flatfooted"(87-8). The repetition of these simple rhymes creates the impression of a sing-song pattern which mars much of the tale. This passage, wherein Canacee inquires as to the reason for the hawk's troubling behavior, the gravity of the content coupled with these overly simplistic and fixed rhymes clearly shows that the Squire lacks the stylistic prowess necessary to complement the poetic meaning with his poetic form. (5) Ironically, at the moment when Chaucer's Squire comes closest to mirroring the content of his father's tale, he is farthest from this father's poetics.

This is not to say that Chaucer does not provide the Squire with more complex rhymes. Unfortunately, he does so at inopportune moments when they add little to the content of the tale. In a number of places, the inexperienced poet seems to have become suddenly and painfully aware of his simple rhyme patterns. In these moments Chaucer is able to manipulate the rhyme scheme in order to represent the Squire as a poet striving to make up for a lack of eloquence by randomly employing a series of rhymes which, despite their complex appearance, turn out to be simple rhymes masquerading as more complex forms. This masking of simple rhymes in place of more complex rhymes detracts further from the stylistic poetics of the tale, demonstrating the limited control a young poet can have over his use of poetic devices. Consider the description of the feast.
 Whan [??]at this tarter kyng Cambyuskan
 Roos fro his bord | ther as he sat ful hye
 Biforn hym gooth | the loude Mynstralcye
 Til he cam | to his chambre of parementz
 There as ther sownen | diuerse Instrumentz (V. 266-70)

 Who koude telle yow | the forme daunces
 So vnkouthe | and swiche fresshe contenaunces
 Swich subtil looking and dissimulynges
 For drede I of Ialous mennes aperceyuynges (V. 283-86)


On first glance these rhymes seem quite complex and intricate: the rhyming of "parementz" with "instrumentz," for example, seems quite complicated. However, upon closer examination it becomes evident that "parementz" and "instrumentz" are merely a rich rhyme pattern (CVC), only one step above the simple rhyme. The final four rhymes of this passage are all double rhymes (VCVC), dependent upon the weak, pluralizing--es ending to increase their complexity. Without this rather fragile addition, they too would qualify only as rich rhymes. Rather than demonstrating poetic mastery, the attempt to create the appearance of a complicated rhyme scheme in the Squire's Tale only makes more obvious the fact that the young poet's control over such rhymes is apt to be weak at best and faulty at worst.

The complicated rhymes employed by the Squire's Tale interrupt the flow of the tale, rather than enhance it. The Squire, as representative of an inexperienced poet, is guilty of exactly the kind of over-elaboration which Borroff identifies as intrusive, stating, "Elaborate formal linkages ... may, when contrived by a lesser poet, seem artificial and pretentious, and the hindrances to direct statement presented by the constant need for a variety of form and wording in rhyme may retard the pace of exposition, description or narration to the point of prolixity" (87). The representation of the Squire's Tale as a pseudo-tale is enhanced here by the reliance on these prosodic tricks which seem to come out of nowhere and disrupt the flow of the tale. Chaucer crafts numerous sections of poor poetry, inhibiting the narrative itself, in order to focus on the craft of poetic production. In this way, he creates the sense that these stanzas are meant to represent careful construction and to signify the difficulty a young poet can have in keeping careful control of his use of rhyme. In representing the Squire as a poet who is, as yet, unable to control and contain such complex rhymes, Chaucer identifies a pervasive anxiety which may accompany an author/poet as he learns the craft of balancing his rhyme scheme.

In contrast, Chaucer's Knight's Tale is one of his greatest successes both in terms of prosody and narrative structure. The Knight's Tale serves as a foil to the poetics of the Squire's Tale; it represents the highly stylized and competent poetics to which the Squire's Tale aspires. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the most important terms in the Squire's Tale come directly from the Knight's Tale.(6) However, the Knight--representing an older and more accomplished poet--puts them to better use. For example, when the Knight uses the term 'mynstralcye' in his line: "The Mynstralcye | the seruyce | at the feeste" (I. 2197), he employs the term "mynstralcye" but does not force it into the end rhyme position. Doing so allows him to insert the term effortlessly into the tale, without forcing a set of long and cumbersome rhymes into the section. The Knight's Tale employs the term "instrument" as well, and in the end position, but rhymes it with the monosyllabic "stent." Mixing this rhyme provides the Knight's Tale with an opportunity to demonstrate not only his understanding of the complex ways in which rhyme can be manipulated, but also the necessity for prudence in deciding when and where to employ the more complicated rhyme patterns. In both cases, therefore, the mature poet is able to avoid the pretentious contrivance of his lines, and to demonstrate both his ability to construct eloquent couplets as well as to understand the subtleties of the poetic form.

The Knight's Tale also supplies the Squire's Tale with "contenaunce" in the line: "Amyddes of the temple | sat Meschaunce / With discomfort | and sory contenaunce" (I. 2009-10). Here Chaucer provides the Knight with a more complex rich rhyme; however, the rhyme does not create the awkward feeling of the Squire's line; it is neither one in a string of overly complicated rhymes, nor is it a single polysyllabic rhyme amongst a sea of simple monosyllabic rhymes. The lines immediately surrounding these lines utilize some standard, simple rhymes, for example ther / heer (I. 2003-04), as well as more unique rhymes like a nyght / up right (I. 2007-08) and hoopesteres / beres (I. 2017-18). The variety of rhyme patterns in the Knight's Tale allows Chaucer to use these terms without giving the appearance that they are out of place or heavy handed. The variety and ease of the rhyme scheme in the Knight's Tale is the high water mark to which the Squire's Tale strives.

In criticizing Chaucer's representation of the Squire for utilizing over-complicated rhymes, I do not mean to suggest that the Knight's Tale does not employ the same type of masking. Indeed, it contains a number of couplets which appear to be more complicated than they are, in the same fashion as the Squire's Tale. The pairing of disposicion / constellacioun (I. 1087-88) or disconfitynge / tourneiynge (I. 2719-20) are excellent examples of elongated, yet simple rhymes. However, these rhymes are placed among both monosyllabic simple rhymes and genuinely polysyllabic and therefore more complex rhymes. For example, when the Knight rhymes circumstances / observaunces (I. 2263-64), he then balances those rhymes in the following couplet with such simple rhymes, for example as the subsequent shook / took (I. 2265-66). The Knight is also quite adept at creating pairings of monosyllabic and polysyllabic rhyme in order to create an enticing variety in the heroic couplet pattern, as in the pairings of we / felicitee (I. 1265-66), and trewely / I (I. 1267-68). The effect of these unmatched pairings is twofold: first, the production of an articulate and well crafted poetics which demonstrates poetic versatility, and second, the presentation of that same versatility allowing the masked rhymes to function simply as another variance in an already multifaceted poetic endeavor.

This analysis of the use of complicated and simple rhymes in the Squire's Tale and the Knight's Tale is not meant to suggest that bigger is always better. There are, indeed, a number of places where Chaucer's eloquence and poetic brilliance show themselves through his ingenious use of smaller words: words which seem insignificant at first glance, however upon closer examination, reveal themselves to be loaded with meaning. The criticism of the use of these simple rhymes in the Squire's Tale, instead, stems from his reliance on what Borroff calls "common" rhymes. These standard rhymes are extremely regular and quite predictable; and while familiar and set rhymes can and are, in fact, used to great poetic effect by Middle English poets, the Squire is not representative of these poets. In her explanation of how these standard rhymes can be used most effectively by medieval poets, Borroff states:
 The skillful poet is able to do this unobtrusively, in part by
 working the repeated words and rhymes in to the stream of narrative
 or descriptive detail in such a way that their presence at each
 point seems natural, in part by using them for a variety of purposes
 and in a variety of ways: in different meanings or collocations, or
 in different idioms or grammatical constructions. Effectively used,
 they [the rhymes] become transparent; the reader sees through the
 verbal surface to the meanings that help the narrative or
 descriptive content unfold. (86)


The goal of the poet, then, is to create rhymes which enhance the narrative, while always remaining unobtrusive. Unfortunately, this is precisely how the rhymes of the Squire do not function. Chaucer represents the Squire as exactly the kind of inexperienced poet who is not able to cast his rhyme patterns in a way which will enhance his narrative. The rhymes in the Squire's Tale are not unobtrusive, natural parts of his poetics; in fact, they often call attention to themselves as being either too forcefully elaborate, or too systematically simple. In either case, they rarely add to the 'narrative or descriptive content.' The Knight's Tale, by comparison, is able to manipulate these set patterns of rhyme by employing exactly the type of integration and variance that Borroff outlines.

In terms of poetic eloquence, or the lack thereof, the use of enjambment in the Squire's Tale is closely tied to his use of rhyme. As is characteristic for the youthful tale teller, the enjambment of lines is sporadic and momentary at best. Chaucer again represents the Squire as a poet who is aware of the use of this poetic convention but is unable to employ it to its fullest power. While the use of enjambment never seems to have been abandoned altogether, there are long stretches of poetry where the enjambment is not an essential part of the poetics of the tale. Conversely, the Squire's Tale is littered at times with sections where enjambment seems to become exceptionally important.

One such example of the over-use of enjambment in this tale is in the description of the court reaction to the mechanical horse. In this section many of the second half-lines are tied syntactically to the preceding line and enjambed to the next line. This creates a complex series of enjambments, which finally produce the effect of a run-on sentence.
 And seyde he lyeth | for it is rather lyk
 An apparence | ymaad by som magyk
 As Iogelours pleyen | at thise festes grete
 Of sundry doutes | thus they iangle and trete
 As lewed peple | demeth comunly
 Of thynges | [??]at been moore maad subtilly
 Than they kan | in hir lewednesse comprehende.
 (V. 217-22, Italics added)


In this instance we can see the overuse of enjambment characteristic in the Squire's Tale. Beginning with the sentiment that 'for it is rather lyk / an apparence,' each primary half line is both enjambed and closely linked to its secondary half-line. Thus, each hemistich must be read both forwards and backwards to gain the full sense. Take, for example, the first two lines of the passage. The enjambed half-line "an apparence" is syntactically tied to both the preceding and the subsequent half-line. In order to get the full sense of the half-line it must be read as both "for it is rather lyk / an apparence" and "an apparence | ymaad by some magyk." Subsequently, the backward and forward nature of this enjambment can be seen throughout the rest of the passage. (7)

The cumulative effect of these enjambments is a long series of syntactically complex half-line phrases. The modernized reading then becomes: it is rather like an appearance: an appearance made by some magic: magic made in the way that jugglers play: play at great feasts. Of various doubts thus they jangle and 'trete:' they jangle and 'trete' as ignorant people: ignorant people who deem commonly: they deem commonly of things: things that have been made more subtly: made more subtly than they can: can in their ignorance comprehend. Although this passage may, indeed, be read as symptomatic of the Squire's excitement or of the fear of the 'felawe' who speaks these lines--justifying the enjambment--the extravagance and complexity of these lines is not borne out in the context of the poem. While a few lines of this complex nature could add grace and import to the poetics of the tale, this over-abundance of elaborately interlaced lines goes so far beyond representing the wonder of the mechanical horse as to become absurd. The lines consequently give the impression that the poet himself has lost control over his own poetic device. Thus, the Squire's use of enjambment also demonstrates a young poet's propensity to overcompensate for simpler stretches of poetry by crafting inordinately complex sections in moments of self-conscious anxiety. In this passage, and others like it, Chaucer is able to further the impression that Squire represents a young poet who is unable to navigate the complexities of his father's poetics. These sections serve as warnings to inexperienced poets and highlight a continued concern on Chaucer's part about the art and difficulty of lyrical composition.

In comparison to the poetic enjambment in the Squire's Tale, the use of this device in the Knight's Tale is certainly more eloquent and varied. Time and again we see the Knight in control of his enjambment, and even in moments of excitement, he is not carried away by the complex structures we have seen in the Squire's Tale. Within his tale, enjambment is used for emphasis and to carry the momentum of the poetic line, when the content warrants such an emphasis. The description of Arcite is a strong example of this.
 Vp on his heed | he wered of laurer grene
 A garland fresh | and lusty for to seene
 Vp on his hand | he bar for his deduyt
 An Egle tame | as any lilie whyt
 An hundred lordes | hadde he with hym there
 Ful richely | in alle mannere thynges
 (1. 2175-2181, italics added)


Here the exciting and wondrous description is balanced by an elegant use of enjambment. This enjambment is not overdone; the general pattern is to enjamb the first half-line, but to finish his thought in the second half-line. The following line begins a new thought; thus, every other line is enjambed. This creates the feeling of momentum but stops short of the convoluted usage we see in the Squire's Tale. This section also follows a rather long section where there is a deliberate lack of enjambment as Chaucer moves characteristically downward in his description of Arcite, creating a contrast with the un-enjambed lines that further heighten the effectiveness of these lines.

A further example of the skillful articulation in the Knight's Tale is the use of enjambment in a passage which carries the reader through a rare physical description of Emelye. While the Knight initially refuses to describe the body of Emelye, the section in which he chooses to do so employs a subtle use of enjambment to effectively heighten the feeling of interest for the reader. The Knight states: "Hir yellow heer | was broyded in a tresse / Bihynde hir bak a yerde long I gexse" (I. 1048-50). The enjambment of this particular couplet depicts the Knight as momentarily caught up in this description of Emelye. It is also a very witty play with the idea of the length of her hair, and the length of the poetic line. As a representation of a master poet, the Knight enjambs this line and quickly reins in his poetics. Because of Chaucer's representation of the Knight as a mature poet, the Knight does not suffer from the over-complication that we see in the Squire's use of this same poetic device. What we gain, then, from a close look at the uses of enjambment in the Squire's and the Knight's tales is a picture--gradually becoming more clear--of the anxiety inherent in poetic composition. Chaucer crafts the Squire's Tale as a piece of inadequate poetry and in doing so calls attention to his own concerns about the difficulty of poetic maturation and the hazards which must be avoided in order to become a master poet.

Related to the complexities of Chaucer's enjambment is the question of the caesura in his pentameter line. The caesura in Chaucer's poetry can function in a number of important ways. It can further highlight or signal a semantic enjambment, create a poetic parallelism in a single line, or simply indicate a metrical break and highlight an embedded stress. While the break in Chaucer's lines is not wholly standard and there are a number of lines in each tale which have either no break or a double break, I would argue that the hemistich tradition is fundamental to Chaucer's poetics. This makes it necessary to examine the virgule--and the caesura which it marks--in order to fully understand its function in the metrics as well as to the poetics and semantics of the line.

The question of the caesura and the virgule as authoritatively Chaucerian is much debated. This is especially true since there is no definitive manuscript source for the Canterbury Tales. Because we have no record of Chaucer's original work, the reliability of the virgules as authorial rather than editorial or scribal will always be in question. Nevertheless, recent critics have established some likelihood of the virgules being authorized by Chaucer. Ian Robinson argues:
 The half-line element has in particular the function of permitting
 within meter the freedom of phrase-making we have in speech or those
 'pieces of speech' with which the alliterative poets composed.
 Hence, its use is, by shaping what is still speech, the precise
 invocation and control of tone and mood. The iambic and half-line
 elements join in a meter that conveys a precision and power of
 language one cannot get from traditional readings of Chaucer. (156)


Both Ian Robinson and James Southworth insist in qualifying the virgules as rhetorical rather than as metrical breaks. Both the Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts mark the caesura by including a larger space between words and also by the addition of a scribal slash mark (virgule). Linne Mooney's recent work has shown that both the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt manuscripts were probably written by a scribe, perhaps Adam Pynkhurst, who worked closely with Chaucer during his lifetime. Since both of these manuscripts participate in the hemistitch tradition and use the virgule to mark the breaks, we can be reasonably certain that they are authorial rather than editorial.

Although both the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt manuscripts mark the caesura, within the use of the virgule there are several differences between the primary manuscripts. Robinson, in his chapter on manuscript punctuation describes the Hengwrt manuscript as "very early, not very expensive, the most important manuscript (better punctuated than the Ellesmere, which I suspect of using the virgule as symmetrically as possible to improve the look of the page)" (140). The Hengwrt manuscript is thus as early an authoritative text as we have, and does not have the complications of the superficial ornamentation which we see in the Ellesmere. The Hengwrt provides all of the textual authority of the more popular Ellesmere, without the complications of the style and ornamentation of that text. For these reasons, I have based my readings on the Hengwrt facsimile.

The use of the caesura in the Knight's Tale is both eloquent and varied. It provides the poem with a feeling of movement within the metrical standards, while never straying far from the more comfortable half lines of early English alliterative poetry. The placement and signal of the caesura are artfully executed, with great attention paid to the necessity for variety and subtlety in the placement and signification of the caesura. The omission of the pause is also significant and often indicates momentum in the speech or description within the text. For example, when Emelye prays to Venus, her anxiety and urgency are depicted by omitting the caesura. She states, "Haue pitee | of my bitter teerys smerte / And taak myn humble prayere at thyn herte / allas I ne haue no langage to telle / th'effectes . Ne the tormentz of myn helle" (I.2225-28). Here, the three lines in which Emelye expresses her despair at the situation flow together in a way which is facilitated by the lack of the caesura. By leaving these lines whole (as well as using enjambment) the Knight uses his poetic structure to enhance his poetic meaning. Omitting the caesura creates a feeling that the lines run together and are spoken with an urgent rapidity in a moment of sheer vulnerability.

The Knight's Tale also adds an extra break to a number of lines, thus creating a more reflective moment in the text. Consider this line without the caesura: "This Palamon whan he tho wordes herde / Despitously he loked and answerede" (I. 1123-24). (8) The line without the virgule (as represented in Robinson for example), I would argue, reads that Palamon looked physically "despitous." When the breaks are marked, however, I would argue that we get a different reading of these lines. The caesurae in both the Hengwrt and the Ellesmere in the second line are marked thus: "Despitously | he loked | and answerde" (I. 1124). The "he looked" is a description of an action, not of a state of being: Palamon looked at Arcite and then answered. In this way, the 'despitously' may describe the manner of hearing from the preceding line, or the manner of the action of looking. Thus, the use of caesurae in the Knight's Tale signifies a complex manipulation of this poetic device, for both dramatic and rhetorical effect.

In contrast, the use of the caesura in the Squire's Tale, like the use of most poetic devices, oscillates between a pedantic regularity and over-exuberant misuse. There are attempts to use both the unbroken line as well as the tripartite line. The attempt at the double caesura shows only that he is aware that the additional break is possible; it does not show an aptitude for the complex uses of the break that the Knight's Tale is able to achieve. The Squire's Tale often includes the extra break to little rhetorical or poetic effect, as with the line: "For he koude with it | bothe heele and dere / Right in swich wise I as men may | with the swerd" (V. 240-241). Here the phrase "as men may" is isolated and the virgules which mark the caesura become little more than marks of light punctuation. There is none of the complexity of form and function which we see in the Knight's usage of this type of line break.

Even more frequent is the use of the caesura in the Squire's Tale to indicate a parallelism which is of little importance and already evident in the content of the line. This can be seen in examples such as: "The Vssers | and the Squyers | been ygon"(V. 293), "Hath plentee | to the meeste | and to the leeste" (V. 300), and "of lordes | and of ladyes | hym aboute" (V. 304). This concentration of the double caesura (between lines 293 and 304) shows us not only the heavy handed use of the poetic device, but also demonstrates again the propensity in this tale for the poet to become suddenly aware of poetic apparatuses and to overuse them in a move which demonstrates merely his awareness of the form and not any consideration for the semantic power they may posses. Pearsall believes that the Squire's use of rhetorical devices like occupatio and diminutio "convey very strongly the impression that the Squire has been showing what he can do, and that his tale is regarded by everyone, including himself (at first, anyway), as an experimental opportunity to show his paces" (91). In addition to a 'pacing' of poetic technique, what the Squire's Tale shows us in its clumsy handling of the caesura is the difficulty of poetic authorship.

The adolescent use of the caesura in the Squire's Tale results in a dry regularity most easily shown in the use of the word 'bat' to signal his reentry after the break. The heaviest concentration of these signal words occurs in about twenty-six lines in the first part of the tale between lines 134 and 160. The Squire's Tale relies on 'bat' to reenter the hemislich ten times in these twenty-six lines, and often uses this signal term with bilineal regularity.
 Hath swich a myght | [??]at men may in it see (V. 134)
 So openly | [??]at ther shal no thing hyde (141)
 This Mirour and this ryng | [??]at ye may see (143)
 Youre excellente doghter | [??]at is here (145)
 Is this | [??]at if hir list it for to were (147)
 Ther nys no fowel | [??]at fleeth vnder heuene (149)
 And euery gras | [??]at groweth vp on roote (153)
 This naked swerd | [??]at hangeth by my side (156)
 Swich vertu hath | [??]at what man so ye smyte (157)
 And what man | [??]at is wounded with the strook (160)


Although each '[??]at' has a different and perfectly grammatical syntactic function, the effect of this type of repetition is that the lines begin to feel plodding and forced, despite there being some variance in the placement of the break. It is also important to note that only in two of the above lines (V. 160 and 145) does the '[??]at' fall as a stressed syllable in a strictly iambic metrical pattern. (8)

This is not an isolated example of the tale's reliance on '[??]at' to signal the beginning of the second hemistich. Of the 628 lines of the Squire's Tale which are marked with strong caesura in the Hengwrt, a formidable 51 follow the break with '[??]at,' and an additional six instances use '[??]at' after a less discernable or unmarked central break, for a total of 57. This means that about ten percent of the caesura in the Squire's Tale use '[??]at' to signal his reentry after the pause. In contrast, within the first roughly 600 lines of the Knight's Tale, '[??]at' is used only 32 times (38 times counting the lesser marked breaks) which is closer to six percent of the lines. While this difference may seem slight, within the same number of lines (600) the Squire's Tale employs the use of this signal word roughly twenty more times than the Knight's Tale, suggesting the Squire's far more significant reliance on this term in comparison to the Knight. The result of this reliance is that the half-lines in the Squire's Tale become systematic and, more disappointingly, predictable.

I do not wish to claim that the Squire's Tale entirely lacks moments of eloquence and melodic integration. Indeed, there are a few places where the tale rivals the Knight's Tale in execution and ornamentation of the line; however, and unfortunately, these instances are few and far between. For the most part, the Squire's Tale is a representation of a highly sensitive and self-conscious art which ultimately produces an unsatisfactory tale. The insufficient nature of the tale, however, is carefully constructed and constantly under the control of Chaucer. Chaucer uses the Squire to demonstrate the process through which the young poet must progress if he is to become a master--just as a squire is representative of a youth who is in the process of becoming a knight. The coherence of the narrative in the Squire's Tale is thus sacrificed so that the intricacy of Chaucer's failed poetics can succeed in representing the early stages of a growing authorship. In this light, the Squire's Tale is a conscious statement on the trials and tribulations of the burgeoning author/poet. In presenting the Squire as a youthful and unskilled tale teller, Chaucer is able to ventriloquize his anxiety about the process and pitfalls of poetic craftsman- and apprentice-ship.

Works Cited

Ambrisco, Alan S. "'It Lyth Nat in my Tonge': Occupatio and Otherness in the Squire's Tale." Chaucer Review 38 (2004): 205-28.

Benson, C. David. Chaucer's Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in the Canterbury Tales. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Borroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain Poet and Beyond. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: A Facsimile and Transcription of the Hengwrt Manuscript with Variants from the Ellesmere Manuscript. Ed. Paul G. Ruggiers. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1979.

--. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987.

Edwards, Robert R. Ratio and Invention: A Study of Medieval Lyric and Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1989.

Frappier, Jean. "La Brisure du Couplet dans Erec et Enide." Romania 86 (1965): 1-21.

--. "Sur La Versification de Chretien de Troyes: L'Enjambement dans Erec et Enide" Research Studies 32 (1964): 41-9.

Heffernan, Carol. "Chaucer's Squire's Tale: The Poetics of Interlace or the 'Well of English Undefiled." Chaucer Review 32 (1997): 32-45.

Jordan, Robert M. Chaucer's Poetics and the Modern Reader. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Kahrl, Stanley J. "Chaucer's Squire's Tale and the Decline of Chivalry." Chaucer Review 7 (1970): 194-209.

Kamowski, William. "Trading the 'Knotte' for Loose Ends: The Squire's Tale and the Poetics of Chaucerian Fragments." Style 31 (1997): 391-412.

Lindvall, Lars. "Structues Syntaxiques et Structures Stylistiques dans L'OEuvre de Chretien de Troyes." Romania 102 (1981): 456-500.

Miller, Robert P. "Chaucer's Rhetorical Rendition of Mind: The Squire's Tale," Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction. Ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon. Rochester: Solaris Press, 1986.

Owen, Charles A. Jr. "The Falcon's Complaint in the Squire's Tale." Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Susanna Greer Fein, David Raybin and Peter C. Braeger. Kalamazoo MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991.

Pearsall, Derek. "The Squire as Story-Teller." University of Toronto Quarterly 34 (1964): 82-92.

Peterson, Joyce E. "The Finished Fragment: A Reassessment of The Squire's Tale." Chaucer Review 5 (1970): 62-74.

Robinson, Ian. Chaucer's Prosody: A Study of Middle English Verse Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.

Sharon-Zisser, Shirley. "The Squire's Tale and the Limits of Non-Mimetic Fiction" Chaucer Review 26 (1992): 377-394.

Southworth, James. Verses of Cadence: An Introduction to the Prosody of Chaucer and his Followers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954.

Stevens, Martin. "Chaucer's 'Bad Art': The Interrupted Tales." The Rhetorical Poetics of the Middle Ages: Reconstructive Polyphony. Eds. John M. Hill and Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2000.

Tigges, Wim. "Romance and Parody." Companion to Middle English Romance. Henk Aertsen and Alasdair MacDonald eds. Amsterdam: VU UP, 1990. 129-51.

Notes

(1) C. David Benson argues against reading the tales as an extension of the description and portrayal of the teller. I wish to recast what Benson dismisses as "dramatic theorizing" and argue that the portrait of the Squire is important, as is the 'psychology' of the Squire, but that they are only interesting and important in their place in Chaucer's representation of Chaucerian poetics. It is true that the Squire's Tale represents one of the many poetic types discussed by Benson; however, examining how Chaucer links the Squire with his poetics in the tale allows us to see more clearly Chaucer's opinions about and construction of poetic development and apprenticeship.

(2) Table adapted from Marie Borroff. She has adapted this from French romance traditions.

(3) The Knight also uses homonymic rhymes for example rhyming queynte / queynte (I. 2333-34) but his uses of their repetitive sounds is most often for dramatic or semantic effects, while the Squire's homonym rhymes rarely carry any added weight or meaning.

(4) All quotations are from the Ruggiers edition of the Hengwrt manuscript unless otherwise noted.

(5) Charles A. Owen Jr. rightly notes the eloquence of the falcon's complaint. This section is certainly the most impressive stretch of poetry, owing, I believe, to the fact that the complaint is the earliest poetic form Chaucer himself was able to master. It follows logically that the complaint form would be one which the young Squire/poet can handle most adeptly (173-88).

(6) I am grateful to Robert R. Edwards for pointing out the verbal echoes in this section.

(7) It has been suggested that Chretien de Troyes' use of the brisure du couplet is similar in back and forward syntactic structure to the Squire's use of enjambment. However, Chretien's contribution is based primarily on the breaking of the couplet and his poetry does not show this concentration of enjambment depicted in the Squire's Tale. See also Frappier and Lindvall.

(8) This quotation is from Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer. Larry D. Benson. Ed. 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987.

Lindsey M. Jones

Pennsylvania State University
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Title Annotation:Geoffrey Chaucer
Author:Jones, Lindsey M.
Publication:Style
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Sep 22, 2007
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