Chaucer's Anxiety of Poetic Craft: The Squire's Tale

By Jones, Lindsey M. | Style, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Chaucer's Anxiety of Poetic Craft: The Squire's Tale


Jones, Lindsey M., Style


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). …

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