Academic journal article Style

Trading the 'Knotte' for Loose Ends: The 'Squire's Tale' and the Poetics of Chaucerian Fragments

Academic journal article Style

Trading the 'Knotte' for Loose Ends: The 'Squire's Tale' and the Poetics of Chaucerian Fragments

Article excerpt

The Squire's Tale belongs to that perverse realm of literature that offers critical asylum to contentious and antithetical interpretations. On the one hand, Chaucerians such as Alfred David, Jennifer R. Goodman, and David Lawton regard it as the poet's genuine attempt at romance; on the other hand, writers like Robert S. Haller, Stanley J. Kahrl, Robert P. Miller, and Joyce E. Peterson view the tale as the poet's ironic critique of inadequate social or aesthetic sensibilities represented by the Squire's flawed narration. Such contrasting assessments of the poet's tone constitute an especially formidable obstacle to critical dialogue, since the disagreement over tone is also a controversy about what genre the tale represents: is it romance, for example, or burlesque of romance? Undoubtedly the tale's incomplete state renders the argument still more difficult to resolve, as is true of debates over other Chaucerian fragments, and perhaps the controversy will remain irreconcilable. Nevertheless, such conflicting readings of the tale often share two important points of consensus that may lead to a better understanding of the tale as a fragmentary form and of Chaucerian fragments more generally - an understanding that circumvents the impasse created by critical polarities. First, a number of critics on either side of the issue concur that Chaucer left the tale intentionally incomplete (e.g., Goodman, Haller and Peterson).(1) In any case, no one has satisfactorily explained how so massive a narrative, if it were finished as the Squire projects it in his final lines, could have been embedded in its entirety into the Canterbury Tales.(2) Second, many who have written on the Squire's Tale assume, at least implicitly, that the tale has an aesthetic value as it stands, that it is in effect a successful fragment.(3)

Both points of consensus reflect a common assumption about the viability of literary fragments, and that assumption at least partly explains why the Squire's Tale, as Lawton (106-29) and Donald Baker (3, 59-74) attest, has enjoyed until recently a largely favorable reception over six centuries. The same may be said of the Chaucerian corpus, the bulk of which is in a fragmentary state. But the reception of the Squire's Tale is particularly remarkable because, as internal evidence indicates, the narrative is truncated farther from its point of textual closure than is any other Chaucerian work. Even the very brief Cook's Tale, at best a beginning, appears to leave less untold. In addition, the Squire's Tale is replete with internal fragmentation and everywhere emphasizes its incomplete nature. For these reasons, it offers enlightening perspectives for studying, more generally, the fragments of a poet who had a habit of leaving things successfully undone. Using the Squire's Tale as a representative Chaucerian fragment and as a point of focus, this essay attempts to define those perspectives as well as some of the more significant features of the poetics of Chaucerian fragments. It is not intended to offer a reading that settles standing arguments about the Squire's Tale; if anything, it rather suggests why such arguments persist. More extensively, but without formidable theorizing, it suggests the importance of an audience-oriented perspective in approaching Chaucerian fragments whether we are studying features common to literary fragments in general, features reflecting the medieval literary milieu, or those features specific to Chaucer. As Marjorie Levinson so aptly observes in her study of Romantic fragments, "The object of the [fragment] is . . . the substitution of a reading for a writing" (26).

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The Squire's Tale is not only a fragment within a fragment (V [F]) within a fragment (the Canterbury Tales); it is also internally fragmentary in many ways. To a large extent, its internal incompleteness results from the Squire's heavy use of rhetorical devices, like the modesty topos and occupatio, which have received much critical attention (e. …

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