WHITECROW BORDERLAND

Chapter 4: Compositional Finalization in the Canterbury Tales.

In a recent study of the relationship between the frame structure of the Canterbury Tales and the Tales themselves, David Weisberg has argued that the whole work of art, if viewed in this way, "might then be described not only as a collection of interrelated stories surrounded and held in place by a contextualizing, story-generating frame, but . . . [also] as a long and complex narrative whose central subject is, in fact, the frame itself" (64). Weisberg's stated purpose in approaching the work in this way is twofold in that he wants to initiate a "preliminary 'discourse on the frame'," in the first place, which he then hopes will lead to a productive discussion about Chaucer's use of an "inner/outer, frame/tale structure" in the Canterbury project (49). One way to approach the subject of differentiating the frame structure from the tales, apart from the distinction between chronotopic perspectives, is to examine the possibility that Chaucer used the frame structure to generate not only a series of stories but also a theme distinct from the one he developed in the story-telling contest itself. To put this more precisely, Chaucer developed two distinct themes in his Canterbury project. The first is limited to elements in the General Prologue and to the compositional links between connected stories. The second is developed in, and contained by, the series of 24 tales he wrote for his pilgrim-narrators. The theme in the frame is directly relevant to the issue of compositional finalization and will be examined first.

Donald R. Howard has provided us with the most logical assumption from which to begin an examination of Chaucer's theme in the frame structure of the work. He draws attention to what is most obviously true--that Harry Bailly is the character responsible for the plan that the journey was supposed to move in two directions, to Canterbury and back, and that each pilgrim was to tell two stories on each leg of that journey. Chaucer's role in articulating that plan is restricted by the fact that his pilgrim-narrator is the one who reports it to the audience, as Howard points out, and because of that we should be both willing and able to make it, as he suggests, "a feature of the story, not a fact about the author's life." To put this another way, there is no reason to believe that Harry Bailly, in this or any other instance, has been given leave by his creator to express the intentions of Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. In fact, there is every reason to believe the opposite; that Harry speaks only for Harry, not for Chaucer, when he, as Chaucer's created governor of the story-telling contest, sets the limits and defines the criteria of the journey's entertainment, which surely includes the number of tales each person can be expected to tell. This is Harry's prerogative as governor and judge of the context. Chaucer, standing outside of the represented world of his own fiction, as poet, makes this clear when he includes himself, as pilgrim-narrator, in the company of story-tellers. He agrees to Harry's terms just like everyone else in the company and that action directs responsibility for the plan of 120 tales away from Chaucer, the poet, and redirects it instead to one of Chaucer's creatures, to himself as pilgrim-narrator, when he agrees to Harry's plan and reports it, and to Harry Bailly, since he is the one who invents and articulates it in the first place. One problem with Howard's position is that he never explains exactly how Chaucer's actual intention may differ significantly from Harry Bailly's plan. In other words, he does not tell us how Harry's plan, and the failure of its realization, is, in fact, "a feature of the story."

One approach to this problem can be taken through the solid ground of Bakhtin's perception of the "author-creator" of novelistic styles in literary production. He notes that every author exists "outside the work as a human being living his own biographical life" but that critics meet him (her) "most of all in the composition of the work: it is he [her] who segments the work into parts . . . that assume, of course, a kind of external expression" (254). Bakhtin differentiates four kinds of authorial discourse when he notes that the author


represents the world either from the point of view of the hero participating in the represented event, or from the point of view of the narrator, or from that of an assumed author or--finally--without utilizing any intermediary at all he can deliver the story directly from himself as the author pure and simple (in direct authorial discourse). But even in the last instance he can represent the temporal-spatial world and its events only as if he had seen and observed them himself, only as if he were an omnipresent witness to them. (256)


Chaucer, as everyone knows, has chosen to blend the first two narrative types in the voice that articulates the Canterbury Tales. He is a simple narrator telling or writing the "history" of a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. At the same time, however, he has also chosen to insert himself, as a speaking character in the form of an "image of the author," in the company of the pilgrims making the fictional journey. This decision of Chaucer's to enter the actual created or represented world of his project profoundly complicates his narrative activity.

Bakhtin argues that the "image of the author," whether it is generated by the listener or the reader of the work (something all of us do), or whether it is fabricated by the author himself (as Chaucer has done), is wholly inadequate as an evaluative tool because


everything that becomes an image in a literary work, and consequently enters its chronotopes [time-space continuum], is a created thing and not a force that itself creates. The "image of the author"--if we are to understand by that the author- creator--is a contradiction in terms; every image is a created, and not a creating, thing. (256)


The point of this distinction, of course, is to suggest that Chaucer, the pilgrim, in whatever way that image is perceived or described by critics, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the composition of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. The fact that he can be seen by us in the act of accepting Harry Bailly's formulas for the story-telling journey never means that Chaucer, the author-creator of the production, ever accepted those conditions as a determining factor in his own actual creative process.

Making an absolute statement about this issue creates several problems in a different context. Harry Bailly articulates certain conditions for the type of story to be told along the road--the one that has the "best sentence" and the "moost solaas" will be judged the most effective and will win the contest. Every story in Canterbury seems to aspire to fulfill these conditions. Some, of course, are judged by critics, including Harry, to be more successful than others in achieving the ideal but every story is evaluated on that fundamental rhetorical principle. The fact that Chaucer, the pilgrim, accepts those conditions does not mean that Chaucer, the poet, eschews them.

The question this analysis begs, of course, is how we should take Harry Bailly's assertion that the journey will reach completion after 120 stories are told. Evaluating this issue in the same way, that is, how well or badly does Chaucer, the author-creator of the production, fulfill that expectation, we are confronted with the fact that he only wrote one-fifth (5 X 24 = 120) of the total number of stories Harry Bailly projects for the journey. In short, Chaucer fails miserably to live up to Harry's expectations in terms of quantity but seems to have performed admirably in terms of quality. Most formal approaches to this problem suggest that the disparity between Harry's projection of 120 tales and Chaucer's accomplishment of only 24 is the direct and unequivocal result of the fact that he died before he could complete the production. Attributing that fact to Chaucer's premature death leaves us with little or no ground whatsoever upon which to build a coherent explanation for any aspect of his creative activity. That argument even effectively removes any serious motive for finding such a ground. If death is allowed to become a determining factor in how we perceive Chaucer's work, with respect to our collective "image of the author," then every poet's work must also be judged fragmentary and unfinished simply because every other poet also died--whether "prematurely," or not.

Bakhtin goes on to argue in this context that the "image of the author" created by every listener or reader of the text


enables him [or her] to make use of autobiographical or biographical material, to study the appropriate era in which the author lived or worked . . . . But in so doing he (the listener or reader) is merely creating an artistic or historical image of the author that may be, to a greater or lesser extent, truthful or profound--that is, this image is subject to all those criteria that usually apply to these types of images. And the image of the author cannot, of course, itself enter into the fabric of images that makes up the literary work. (257)


Bakhtin also suggests that the image of the author, if it is "deep and truthful," can be of help to the listener or reader in understanding the work of any given writer. The obvious problem here with those points of view that tend to see Canterbury as fragmentary, especially when it is based on the notion that Chaucer died prematurely, is that the image of the author has been transformed from an external fact about the author's life into an internal feature that determines the formal characteristics of the literary production itself. That simply violates every principle of formal criticism that has ever been articulated.

Going back to the primary distinction between Harry Bailly's plan and Chaucer's actual accomplishment in the number of tales recited, we can argue that the issue itself turns, in its ultimate articulation, on a necessary difference between compositional and thematic concerns as they exist partly in contradistinction to each other in one way but in a strict literary cohesion with one another in a different sense. The fact is that an author must compose his theme, an act which binds the two artistic motivations in an inseparable lock with each other; but, because compositional and thematic finalization have separate priorities in artistic production, they can also be analyzed apart from each other in an artificial division between cause and effect. In other words, the composition causes an effect, which is the theme of the literary production. Precisely how far an author takes his compositional activity depends upon how much, or how little, composition seems necessary to him or her in finalizing the theme of the production. When a critic argues that a literary production is incomplete, unfinished, and fragmentary, but does not distinguish between compositional and thematic concerns, there is a very real possibility that the assessment falls far short of making any valid contribution to our perception of the actual state of the work in hand.

P. N. Medvedev, in his evaluation of formalistic theory, argues that artistic production, because of its connection to and dependence upon genre, is the only "sphere of ideological creativity [which] knows finalization in the strict sense of the word" (129). In making that determination, he states that other forms of ideological expression, like science, "cannot be broken down into a series of finished and self-sufficient works" because each successive stage in the development of any science depends upon previous observations and discoveries (129). Pursuing the subject of artistic finalization, Medvedev notes that


compositional finalization is possible in all spheres of ideological creation, but real thematic finalization is impossible. Only a few philosophical systems, such as that of Hegel, pretend to thematic finalization in epistemology. In other spheres of ideology, only religion has such pretensions.

But the essence of literature is in substantial, objective, thematic finalization, as opposed to the superficial finalization of the utterance in speech. Compositional finalization, confined to the literary periphery, can at times even be absent. (130)


Medvedev's argument here postulates a radical distinction between compositional finalization, which he assigns to a superficial role in literary production, and which he sees as a possibility in every kind of ideological creation, and genuine thematic finalization, which he perceives as existing only in art. Thematic unity or finalization is non-existent in every ideological field because all of them depend upon the pursuit of actual, historically grounded, systems of knowledge which transcend the present moment of any utterance that attempts to finalize them. Historically speaking, for instance, if one were writing a contemporary history of the Great Schism from the standpoint of 1400, it could not achieve a thematic finalization because the resolution of the problem did not occur until after 1417. Giving that historical work the appearance of a compositional unity, however, would be entirely possible. The one exception to this very general "rule" is artistic creation, precisely because it is intentionally limited to specific genres which carry with them their "own types and modes of finalization" (130).

In assessing the formalists articulation of this problem, Medvedev argues that they only "touched upon questions of compositional ending" and that the problem of "genuine thematic finalization was unknown to them" (130). He goes on to note that in place of "the problem of the three-dimensional constructive whole, they always dealt with the surface problem of composition as the distribution of literary themes and masses" (130). In a work like the Canterbury Tales, of course, a formalistic approach always reveals the "fact" that the work is not complete from a compositional point of view. This perception may, or may not, be true, depending upon whether or not the thematic unity of the work as a whole, a problem formalist criticism is not prepared to address, provides as part of its articulation a valid reason for the work failing to achieve the appearance of compositional finalization. A second possibility is that Chaucer believed his work was finished, as it stands in the Ellesmere manuscript, from a compositional point of view because he had composed everything he needed, in his own mind, to fulfill the work's thematic unity. That we are not satisfied in every way with the shape the Canterbury project achieves, as it has come down to us, says nothing at all about the issue of whether or not Chaucer finished his work on the project. To make this argument hold up, one needs only demonstrate that the literary production does indeed possess a thematic unity and finalization.

Stopping here, however, does little more than prove again what Howard has already demonstrated: that the disparity between Harry Bailly's plan and Chaucer's accomplishment in producing 24 tales for his Canterbury project is part of the story itself and not a fact about the poet's life. What the direction of this argument presupposes, of course, is that Chaucer had a plan of his own which is radically different than the one Harry Bailly articulates in the General Prologue. Geoffrey of Vinsauf, as Robert M. Jordan points out, "admonishes the poet to learn from the builder how best to dispose the parts of his work" (42). Jordan notes that Chaucer apparently quotes the relevant passage in the Troilus (I.1065-1071). As Jordan has it, the poet,


Like a builder, . . . should work out his plans beforehand. He should not embark on his composition before he has carefully considered each of its parts, assigned appropriate qualities to each, and balanced all in relation to one another and in relation to the whole. (42)


Taking this rhetorical advice seriously, believing that Chaucer did so as well, makes it possible to argue, for instance, that he never intended to create anything other than what has come down to us in the Ellesmere manuscript. This is true, in part, because no one has ever demonstrated the existence of anything else that can be called Chaucerian and part of the Canterbury sequence too. What this is meant to suggest is that Chaucer always intended to create only 24 tales recited by 23 distinctly drawn narrators, where he gives us a clear enough view of the Nun's Priest and the Second Nun in their individual Prologues but not in the General Prologue itself, and that these 24 tales were meant to be told on a one-way journey that never quite reaches Canterbury proper.

One way to assess Chaucer's commitment to the idea that poets, like builders, face the necessity of planning their compositions before they actually begin to write is to examine the elements of that concept Chaucer inscribes into the Summoner's Tale. In that story, Chaucer gives us a problem in "ars-metrike" that bears a striking similarity to the underlying structural reality of the Canterbury Tales as it is preserved in the Ellesmere manuscript. This is true because Fragments I-V contain a series of compositionally linked Tales that make up precisely half the total number told during the pilgrimage (4 + 1 + 3 +2 + 2 = 12); whereas, Fragments VI-X contain the same total but in a significantly different combination (2 + 6 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 12). The mathematical problem Chaucer creates in the Summoner's story concerns the difficulty of dividing a donated fart equally among the twelve members of a friar's convent. In Canterbury's structure, the difficulty concerns finding a way to divide the 24 Tales into equal halves which contain both the same number of Fragments (5) and the same number of Tales (12) on either side of the split between halves. Ellesmere, of course, accomplishes this task and one must recognize the fact that Chaucer himself is responsible for the arrangement because he is the one who linked the majority of the Tales together in the fragment-sequences preserved by the Ellesmere scribe's order.

Pursuing this idea, we note that Thomas, who donates the fart, insists, before he gives it to the friar, that his gift be equally divided among the twelve members of the convent with the "first fruit" of his donation going to the head of the order. Thomas demands that the friar swear


On this condicion, and oother noon,

That thou departe it so, my deere brother,

That every frere have also muche as oother.

This shaltou swere on thy professioun,

Withouten fraude or cavillacioun (III.2132-2136)


The gift itself so enrages the friar that he "up stirte as dooth a wood leoun" (III.2152) and becomes essentially speechless in his anger. In recounting his misadventure to the lord and lady of the town where the "false churl" Thomas lives, the friar tells them he will defame Thomas to everyone he meets. His primary reason for being angry is that he has been given an impossible task, since "This false blasphemour . . . charged me/ To parte that wol nat departed be/ To every man yliche" (III.2213-2215). In other words, Thomas has forced him to swear an oath he cannot keep because there does not seem to be a way to divide the gift equally among the other members of his convent. The solution to the "ars-metrike" problem occupies the remainder of the Summoner's Tale and creates for Chaucer a multifaceted ground upon which he stages a significant range of sociohistorical commentary.

From a biblical point of view, for instance, Alan Levitan points to the fact that solution to the mathematical problem creates a "Pentecost-parody" in the Tale. Levitan notes that the "traditional number of friars in a convent was twelve, with their superior as thirteenth" (238). He goes on to suggest that the arrangement "was a consciously devised parallelism to Jesus and the twelve apostles" (238). In the context of the Tale, Thomas's gift is divided through a suggestion make by the squire, Jankyn, who serves the lord and lady of the town where the donation was made. Jankyn argues that a twelve-spoked cartwheel, with hollow spokes, can be used to distribute the fart equally among the members of the convent if the superior positions himself at the wheel's hub ("nave") and each friar takes his place at the end of a spoke. If the fart is then released at the hub on a windless day, the gift will be properly disseminated. Levitan and Levy argue that the cartwheel resembles several iconographic depictions of the means by which the Holy Ghost visited the apostles, giving them the gift of tongues so that they could spread the Gospel, at the feast of Pentecost. Chaucer's ironic parody of that biblical event is the Summoner's way of embarrassing the Friar, who has just finished insulting the intelligence of summoners in his Tale. J. Huizinga's observation that the people of the Middle Ages had managed to objectify most church ritual, especially through iconographic representation of purely spiritual events, allows Chaucer to employ a simple everyday object, a cartwheel, to subvert something that is holy, mysterious, unseen, and unseeable.

M. M. Bakhtin argues that common everyday objects often become the focus of, and occasion for, parody when they are used to represent, or take the place of, concepts that are normally associated with the official voice of the dominant, if not hegemonic, discourse in a social milieu. Chaucer's use of the cartwheel to divide a fart precisely fits this practice. Bakhtin notes, for instance, that


Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides . . . examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world (23)


Chaucer uses this technique of parody here to expose and examine the nature of the Pentecost story in its capacity as an official church doctrine by connecting it to the problem of disseminating a fart to the members of a corrupt convent of friars. With clear intention on the one hand, but perhaps without any on the other, he manages to mock both fraternalism and Pentecost with his image of the wheel. Bakhtin argues in a similar way that this kind of parodic impulse also extends to the way the human body was perceived by being subjected to parodic laughter. He notes that works which employed it "began to investigate man freely and familiarly, to turn him inside out, expose the disparity between his surface and his center, between his potential and his reality" (35). Chaucer's insistence on foregrounding the friar's probing of Thomas's body in search of the promised gift, where he clearly believes it will turn out to be what he desires (gold) because that is what he is seeking, turns Thomas "inside out" and exposes the "disparity between his surface," which promises a gift of apparent value to the convent, and "his center," which contains instead, as his actual intention, a gift that is much more than just worthless, since it is so vividly insulting. Thomas's anger breaks through the surface, like an ill-wind, and infects the friar, who is simultaneously exposed in his mindless greed and complete lack of Christian charity.

In discussing Rabelias's use of parody in association with the concrete reality of the human body, Bakhtin argues that his


new picture of the world is polemically opposed to the medieval world, in whose ideology the human body is perceived solely under the sign of decay and strife, where in real-life practice there reigned a crude and dirty physical licentiousness. The reigning ideology served neither to enlighten nor to make sense out of the life of the body, rather it rejected such life; therefore, denied both words and sense, the life of the body could only be licentious, crude, dirty and self-destructive. Between the word and the body there was an immeasurable abyss. (171)


Chaucer, in his fabliaux, and especially in the Summoner's Tale, clearly breaks the distance between the word and the body down to a zone of crude familiarity which works against the dominant, official word of the church in its tendency to deny any space whatsoever for the kind of analysis Chaucer engenders in his parodic thrust at the abuses associated with the antifraternal tradition. At the same time, he also implicates the message of Pentecost in his parody, with its dissemination of tongues to the apostles, when he places Thomas's gift on an exalted plane of association with the coming of the Holy Ghost to Christ's closest associates.

Roy Peter Clark, in his study of the Tale, emphasizes the fact that St. Thomas, the apostle, was depicted in patristic tradition as being a builder of churches (167-169). Chaucer exploits that iconographic identity by having the friar in the story beg money from Thomas in order to finance the construction of "Cristes owene chirche" (III.1975), which in reality is nothing more than a house to be used by the friar's convent. The friar complains that the convent of his fellows "owen fourty pound for stones" (III.2106) and they desperately need Thomas's donation of gold to continue work on their "cloystre" (III.2099). Penn R. Szittya argues that Chaucer's use of the "conventions of antifraternalism" (19), which color the Summoner's Tale, elevates his humorous intent from the merely obscene and scatological to the level of "learned" as well as "theological" discourse (19). Szittya also emphasizes the Pentecost-parody and draws added attention to the friar's tendency to associate "his way of life with that of the apostles" (30). As an official voice of the church, especially in his lengthy digression on anger, the friar is totally removed from any action meant to correct the abuses he embodies.

At least three additional observations can be fixed to the ones already in hand here. The cartwheel itself can be associated with two other concepts known to interest Chaucer in his Canterbury project, neither of which ought to be ignored. The wheel is a well-known, if not universal, symbol for the endless turns of human fortune and the fact that Chaucer uses it here as a way of distributing Thomas's obscene gift to a convent of friars, who are already destined to spend eternity under Satan's tail in the depths of Hell, as the Summoner notes in his Prologue (III.1691-1698), emphatically reemphasizes the inevitability of their collective fate. At the same time, the wheel is zodiacal, since there are twelve signs in the heavens that were thought to influence human activity, which is a point of obvious knowledge on Chaucer's part because of his interest in astronomy and astrology. Here again one can see the connection between the frame's real-time chronotope and the material substance of the Summoner's story. The implications of a zodiacal wheel that reaches as far as the sphere of the fixed stars, to the Empyrean, is that it distributes the "stynkynge ordure of synne," as the Parson calls it (X.156), at least as far out into the universe and into the heavens as the dwelling place of God and the angels. Not even Pentecost, and the other gifts of God's grace which flow from it, can obviate the inescapable pollution of man's sin and part of Chaucer's intent in using the image of the zodiacal wheel is to inscribe that message into the fabric of his work. His original audience would not have missed that inscription. The Summoner's wheel may be Chaucer's blackest and bleakest assessment of the human condition found anywhere in his major work. Assessments prior to Chaucer's tended to confine the corruption of man's sin to the sublunary sphere; Chaucer makes that the hub ("nave") of his wheel and thus allows the "ordure" to penetrate throughout infinity itself, running along the spokes of the wheel until it reaches directly to God.

The fact that Chaucer also clearly alludes to the concept of building in the Summoner's Tale by having the donator of the gift named for and after St. Thomas, the apostle-architect of churches during the earliest days of Christianity, and by having the friar beg for gold to be used to construct a house for his convent, recalls to mind the passage in Geoffrey of Vinsauf in which he compares the poet to a builder and an architect, as we saw earlier. The point here, of course, reflects the possibility that Chaucer has used elements in the Summoner's Tale to comment directly on his own plan for constructing the Canterbury Tales. The third point being added to the existing critical evaluations of the Tale is that the Summoner's wheel, with its twelve spokes, is a figural representation of Chaucer's plan to produce 24 Tales of Canterbury during the course of his pilgrimage. There are, after all, two halves to Canterbury and each has twelve distinct parts. That some of them "sownen into synne," as he notes in the Retractions (X.1085), is perfectly consistent with the concept of the wheel as a symbol of a Pentecostal dissemination of the "fartlike" stories he retracts in the final address of the author to his audience. The issue of "speaking in tongues" is also a prominent element in Chaucer's story of the donated fart which only reinforces his "need" to retract his own stories, since his personal activity of "speaking in tongues," his gift of poetic expression, by his own admission spirals downward into sin. In short the Summoner's reference to a Pentecostal wheel, one which disseminates the ability to speak in tongues, can be taken to suggest that Chaucer perceived his work in the Tales of Canterbury as adhering to a formal structure broken into two parts of twelve stories each which did not escape the onus of being sinful, as Chaucer clearly states in his Retractions.

The numerous and periodic references in Chaucer's work to the fact that each Tale is an orally delivered and spoken discourse might be better understood as a salient feature of his artistic design than as a fact about his biological life as a performing member of Richard II's court. To say that the Knight "spoke" a tale about Palamon and Arcite, the Miller "spoke" a tale about Nicholas and Alison, the Reeve "spoke" a tale about Aleyn and John, the Cook "spoke" a tale about Perkyn Revelour, and so on, does as much to describe Chaucer's compositional strategy in creating two twelve-spoked wheels of discourse in Canterbury as it does to function as a comment about the possibility that he read his work before members of Richard's court. That each Tale is a spoke[n] part of the whole project, each one its own specific genre of living utterance, is as inescapably a fact of Chaucer's design as is his intention to distribute them among various members of fourteenth century social status and degree. The two twelve-spoked, and spoken, wheels of Canterbury are framed, axle to cart, so to speak, by the frame-structure of the General Prologue and the links he wrote to connect Tales in the so-called Fragments that survive in the Ellesmere manuscript. To look at Canterbury in some other way, while it might serve a methodological purpose of its own, fails to do justice to a design that binds Chaucer's speech performances together in a structure as rigidly sequential and interreactive as spokes are in a wheel fixed from hub to rim in a rolling motion meant to carry us from London to Canterbury. The two-wheeled cart is a metaphor which describes the actual structure of Chaucer's pilgrimage. Each Tale, as it is spoke[n], turns the wheel and carries us one more spoke closer to Canterbury.

A foregrounding context for this view of Chaucer's design in Canterbury, mentioned here in order to avoid the appearance that the concept sprang out of nothing and came to him "overnight," as it were, can be traced clearly through the rhetorical discourse Chaucer wrote for his "windy" eagle in Book II of the House of Fame. In that earlier work, dated by most scholars in 1379 or 1380, which places it just after the beginning of the Great Schism, Chaucer's eagle explains how words and speech performances move through the air. He employs an image of ever-expanding ripples in water that result from a stone being dropped on the smooth surface of a pond or a river. After the rock's impact, the eagle tells Geffrey


And ryght anoon thow shalt see wel

That whel wol cause another whel,

And that the thridde, and so forth, brother,

Every sercle causynge other

Wydder than hymselve was (793-797)


Words, which "break" the air in the same way a stone disturbs water, move upward in ever-expanding wheels till they come to rest in the House of Fame.

John Leyerle has pointed out that the reference to the expanding wheels in the eagle's description of sound traveling through the air was reenacted in the Summoner's Tale. He also suggests that Chaucer may have continued the House of Fame in the Canterbury Tales, which creates a "much finer House of Rumour where 'love-tydynges' are related under a 'man of gret auctorite', Herry Bailly, the Host" (260). The point to be taken here is not that Chaucer necessarily continued the House of Fame in his Canterbury project but that many of the essential concepts that inform and shape the later work are clearly grounded in the earlier effort. If both were written during the Schism, which seems likely, it is reasonable to argue that Chaucer's concern with issues related to schismatic heresy did not spring from nothing in 1387 but existed as an aspect of his creative thinking for nearly ten years before finding their essential form in his pilgrims' journey to St. Thomas's shrine. His use of a wheel-like structure in Canterbury, and the spinning motion of the House of Rumour, both carry us along his road from Southwerk to Canterbury. Sheila Delany, in her discussion of the House of Fame, notes that a supposed flaw in its execution results from a "sense of unresolved conflict that characterizes" the poem and that there is also a noticeable "absence from that work of a fixed narrative point of view." She goes on to suggest that the source of these features "is the poet's perception that tradition, or fame, offers no certain truth: he is reluctant to commit himself to a traditional role or to any single traditional point of view" (67). In Canterbury, of course, Chaucer makes this supposed flaw in the House of Fame his ultimate design motif in the pilgrimage by having his 24 tales told by 23 different narrators and therefore from 23 different narrative points of view. Since there does seem to be evidence in Chaucer's text that he intended to write only 24 Tales for the Canterbury project, where Ellesmere preserves exactly that number in a rationally ordered sequence, we have credible grounds upon which to pursue the idea that the work displays a reasonable unity and completion.

The gaps between fragments, at the same time, cease to be a sign of incompleteness and become instead a sign that Chaucer believed his work was unified and finished. Since any artist composes only as much poetry or prose as he believes necessary to accomplish his task, one can argue that Chaucer did not see any need to create links between the groups of finished tales that he did connect to one another internally with compositional links. Instead, Chaucer relied on his original audience to recognize the connecting principles that linked the groups of tales across the gaps he left in the composition. That essentially is what the Ellesmere scribe has always been accused of doing, as if that response to Chaucer's poetry were somehow illegitimate. The Ellesmere scribe simply did what Chaucer's poetry demands. He recognized the rationale behind the gaps that link the groups together in the sequence he copied in his manuscript. We are left with essentially the same task now as interpreters of Chaucer's poetry, to repeat the work of the Ellesmere scribe, if we are ever to comprehend what Chaucer created, precisely because the scribe's sequence is considered to be non-authoritative. We would have essentially the same task anyway were the sequence considered legitimate.

The underlying assumption here, to make it perfectly clear, is that Chaucer did precisely what Geoffrey of Vinsauf recommends. He planned his work completely before he began composing it. He chose his list of narrators, giving us seven more potential speakers than he actually intended to employ, leaving out the Knight's Yeoman, the Plowman, and the five Guildsmen. He planned the appearance of the Canon and his Yeoman from the very beginning of his work. One can even argue that the Canon's Yeoman was meant to replace the Knight's servant in the story-telling sequence. The Cook, being a Guildsman himself, and functioning as an employee of the five who never speak, may in fact be speaking for them. By implication, of course, that reading of the circumstances of the Cook's performances in Fragment I and Fragment IX suggests Chaucer may not have held Guildsmen in very high regard. Chaucer also collected the source material for each of his pilgrims and preassigned each story to its intended narrator. He never changed his assignments after he began writing the actual tales. He never changed the order of the tellers. He never altered the sequence of the groups. In short, he always knew exactly what he was doing.

In terms of Chaucer's plan for the work as a whole, apart from the question of its compositional finalization, it is possible to argue that the Canterbury Tales, as Chaucer composed it, articulates two separate, distinct, but interreactive, themes. Canterbury clearly exists as a whole in two distinct parts. Chaucer created a frame structure that exists apart from the sequence of tales it introduces and contains, but that frame structure works on an interreactive level with those stories in various ways. The sequence of tales itself is the second part of Chaucer's plan, where the frame is recognized as the first, and develops a theme of its own that is distinct from the one he executed in the frame structure. The problem with Chaucer's plan is its complexity. He uses the frame to control the development of the theme he articulates in the tales at the same time he is about the business of creating the theme of the frame structure. The two themes are distinct, therefore, but also interrelated and, indeed, interreactive, since one plays from the force of the other.

Chaucer's thematic concern in the frame structure is centered primarily on the philosophical issue of Providence versus Free Will in the course of humanity's journey (pilgrimage) from the secular world (Tabard Inn) to the holy city, "highte Jerusalem celestial," as the Parson puts it (X.51). In order to accommodate that issue, Chaucer needed two plans for the journey. The first plan is conceived in purely human terms. The plan articulated by Harry Bailly in the General Prologue, which stipulates that the journey will be made in two directions, to Canterbury and back again to the Tabard, with each pilgrim telling two tales on each leg of the journey, producing a total of 120 tales, is clearly at odds with the notion that Chaucer intended his journey to go in only one direction, from the Tabard Inn to Jerusalem celestial, with 24 tales told by 23 narrators. Chaucer's plan, because he is the creator, represents Providence, God's foreknowledge of man's estate and fortune. Harry Bailly's plan, because he is a creature, represents Free Will, man's essential ignorance of God's divine intention.

As John Livingston Lowes points out, Chaucer exhibits a "profound and lifelong interest in the problem of foreknowledge, foreordination and free-will," even if there is no evidence to suggests he read all the way through "the huge work on predestination of Thomas Bradwardine, Fellow of Merton and Archbishop of Canterbury" (111), who is mentioned in company with Boethius and Augustine in the Nun's Priest's Tale as an authority on the subject (VII.3215-3266). Chaucer's mention of the terms of "simple" and "conditional" necessity in what amounts to a narrative intrusion by the Nun's Priest against the flow of his tale can be found in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (Book 5, Prosa 6, 178-183). The poet's insertion of that theme in Chauntecleer's story is the only place in the Tales proper where he does discuss the issue directly. One can, of course, argue that the Clerk's Tale, in Walter's excessive testing of Grisilda, touches on the subject of God's foreknowledge and man's free will. In the Troilus, Chaucer has his hero rehearse a long argument over the issue of why he has been deprived of Criseyde's company (IV.953-1078), all of which hinges on the concept of God's foreknowledge and man's free will. The point here is that it seems odd for a subject such as this one to be relegated to a single direct appearance in Canterbury in a context which concerns the fate of a chicken confronted by a fox. What one can argue from this, by way of indirection, is that Chaucer chose to deal with the issue in another, more appropriate, way: in the frame structure of the pilgrimage itself but not so much in the Tales proper.

That decision is wholly appropriate because a journey like the one Chaucer invents is conditioned in every way imaginable by the problems associated with Providence and Free Will. Life itself, from a fourteenth century perspective, is determined by the conflict between what God knows, by what He holds in foreknowledge, and what individual human beings choose to do in their daily lives. By coupling one commonplace to another, firstly that "This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,/ And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro" (I.2847-2848), as old Egeus puts the medieval convention in the Knight's Tale, and secondly that poets are like God in their mastery and control through foreknowledge of the poetic worlds they create, Chaucer is able to bind perfectly the theme of Providence versus Free Will to the frame structure of the Canterbury Tales. Robert M. Jordan establishes the ground for this view of Chaucer's work in the frame. In analyzing the aesthetic impact of Plato's Timaeus on fourteenth century thought, he notes that it was not at all uncommon for people to see "human life, both physical and moral" in terms consistent with a microcosmic expression of "the macrocosmic order" (15). He goes on to argue that the "close association of poetry and theology in humanist thought of the time, and the wide currency of the metaphor, antique in origin, of the Deus artifex made clear [the idea] of the poet as an artificer analogous in his limited field to Plato's Artificer of the world" (35). Donald R. Howard makes essentially the same point when he compares Chaucer to an architect who, at the time, "traditionally symbolized God himself, the builder of the universe, as the architect was the builder of the house of God" (330). Both Jordan and Howard connect this idea to Geoffrey of Vinsauf's notion of the poet as an artificer, a builder. The perception, then, that Chaucer could play with the concept of poets being like God, especially in terms of their foreknowledge of the shape and outcome of a literary production, based on the existence of a plan for the work before construction began, is solidly grounded on major tenets of fourteenth century aesthetic theory and practice.

The first indication that Chaucer intends to pursue this issue in the frame occurs in the General Prologue when Harry Bailly chooses the contest's first narrator:


Anon to drawen every wight bigan,

And shortly for to tellen as it was,

Were it by aventure, or sort, or cas,

The sothe is this: the cut fil to the Knyght,

Of which ful blithe and glad was every wight, (I.842-846)


The fact that the Knight is the first one chosen, by chance or accident ("aventure"), or luck ("sort"), or destiny ("cas"), makes it obvious that the journey will be conducted under all the terms that apply in situations governed by Providence and Free Will. There is even some suggestion that Harry Bailly manipulates the draw in order to bring the highest ranking member of the company to the speaker's stage first. That impression is reinforced when Harry Bailly calls the Monk forward after the Knight finishes his tale (I.3118-3119). The Host's gesture in doing so suggests he has a preconceived notion of how the story-telling is going to move forward. His plan, however, is immediately overruled when the drunken Miller, who is also a churl, thrusts himself ahead of the Monk and demands to speak next (I.3120-3135). Harry planned to pursue a tale-telling scheme that followed some aspects of the conventional structure of social class stratification prevalent at the time but that plan was overturned by the intervention of the Miller, an act which combines an accident, that the Miller is drunk, a certain necessity, that he is a churl, and an expression of Free Will on his part when he refuses to accept the judgment of his betters--he countermands Harry Bailly, the governor, and pushes aside the Monk in doing so.

Chaucer's decision to disrupt a class system that was both " 'natural' and God-ordained," as D. S. Brewer points out, from the very beginning of the pilgrimage demonstrates his commitment to a number of innovations one might not expect to find in a medieval literary production. Harry's disrupted plan was meant to create and reinforce a traditional social order that has the Knight, as a defender of the Christian society to which he belongs, speak first. That satisfies the demands of his social rank but also implies the journey may need protection against the traditional enemies of the church he has sworn to oppose, by force of arms if necessary. He was then to be followed by the Monk, the highest ranking member of the ecclesiastical estate traveling with the company on the road to Canterbury. That scheme is both logical and appropriate on a journey that is supposed to carry the company from the secular realm of the Tabard Inn to the holy city of Jerusalem. The ranking, by degree, of Knight and Monk would have created a proper sequence for moving the pilgrims along the road toward their goal but chance, luck, and destiny, all bad, intervene to disrupt the smooth execution of Harry's governorship. The Miller does that to the company and Harry is powerless to prevent it.

On another level, but not allegorically speaking, Harry's plan fails because Chaucer, the poet, and acting as the "divine" creator of the pilgrims' world, knows, holds in the divine foreknowledge of his Providence and Grace, that the Monk will not speak in the second place as Harry Bailly, his creature, desires, even if that means a "God-ordained" social structure will be disrupted. Chaucer, the poet, in accordance with his plan, the one he made before he composed any part of the frame or any of the tales, knows that the Monk will not speak until Fragment VII and knows too that the Monk's Tale not only will, but also must, fall between the Tale of Melibee and the Nun's Priest's Tale. Harry Bailly is acting out of Free Will, and in complete ignorance of his creator's plan, God's Providence, when he calls on the Monk to tell the second tale in Fragment I. God does not thwart Harry's desire. God does not interfere in the exercise of man's Free Will. The Miller is the one who disrupts Harry Bailly's plan and by doing so institutes and accomplishes Chaucer's will. The Miller, of course, does not act out of any insight into the will of his creator. That is why he is drunk. His act is willful, self-serving, socially disruptive, discourteous, contentious, and churlish. It does, however, coincidentally fulfill God's plan, Chaucer's intention as the poet-creator of the pilgrimage.

A final instance of the conflict between Providence and Free Will in Chaucer's frame structure is also the most dramatically executed, the one that draws the most attention to itself. As the pilgrimage approaches "Boghtoun under Blee" (VIII.556) in the middle of Fragment VIII, a rather strange man, accompanied by his Yeoman, who has ridden "lik as he were wood" (VIII.576), overtakes and seeks to join the pilgrims. By questioning the man's servant, Harry determines that the stranger is a canon who practices alchemy. The Canon flees the company "for verray sorwe and shame" (VIII.702) when it becomes obvious that his Yeoman is going to tell the pilgrims too much of his "pryvetee" (VIII.701). Chaucer's depiction of these two men places them firmly outside the more socially acceptable realms shared by most of the other pilgrims. The Yeoman reveals, for instance, that they live


In the suburbes of a toun, . . .

Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde,

Whereas thise robbours and thise theves by kynde

Holden hir pryvee fereful residence,

As they that dar nat showen hir presence;

So faren we, if I shal seye the sothe. (VIII.657-662)


Truth to tell then, Chaucer's Canon is a mysterious fellow indeed, riding along behind the pilgrimage for some five miles before he catches up with the party, apparently acting on the suggestion of his Yeoman, but who then hardly says a word before leaving again for parts unknown, almost, as it were, before he fully arrives. Every aspect of his behavior is inexplicable and bizarre. The Yeoman stays behind, ending, so it seems, a seven year apprenticeship during which he has attempted to learn the curious trade of alchemy, which is not exactly one of the traditional guilds, of course.

The idea that Harry Bailly could not have anticipated the late arrival of a supplemental, and therefore, alien story-teller, one who had sworn no oath to the other members of the party and so had no fundamental right to join the contest, is often confused with the notion that Chaucer did not anticipate his arrival either. Several recent critics have expressed concern, primarily because the story is absent from the Hengwrt manuscript, that Chaucer may not have written the Canon's Yeoman's Tale at all. Walter W. Skeat took a more moderate view, arguing that "the idea of the Canon's Yeoman was an afterthought" and that "the idea of inserting him among the rest did not occur to the author till he had made considerable progress with his work." The point here that stands out as being most significant is not so much one of when Chaucer decided to include the Tale, no evidence exists to answer such a question, but is rather one of recognizing the fact that the Yeoman's inclusion as a story-teller, a decision made by Harry Bailly, tends to violate the terms of the agreement made among the pilgrims at the beginning of the journey. No one objects to his inclusion, of course, so the added tale and its teller are allowed a space of time in which to exist. Chaucer again, and on the other hand, is fully aware of the Yeoman's existence in the foreknowledge of his plan and Harry Bailly's exercise of Free Will actually coincides with his creator's intention--for once. The number of tales told increases from 23, without the Yeoman, to 24 with his contribution. To round off, and finalize, the theme of Providence versus Free Will in the frame structure Chaucer prevents the Cook in Fragment IX, immediately after the Yeoman finishes his tale, from completing his second opportunity to speak. Not to do so would have given us an extra 25th tale.

Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas performs a necessary function in the development of the theme of Providence and Free Will in the frame structure of the Canterbury project as well. In the act of assigning what is arguably the worst poetic performance in Chaucer's canon to the persona that best represents his own point of view, his own voice, Chaucer makes it perfectly obvious that his pretense of being God, or even anything like God, in order to fully explore his theme, should not be taken seriously by anyone who reads his intent in the frame structure of the work as a whole. If Thopas is the "beste rym I kan," then no one is likely to confuse Geoffrey Chaucer with anything like a divinely inspired poet. The Summoner's wheel, as we have already seen, suggests precisely the same thing in its figural representation as a Pentecost-parody. Even the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook can do better than Chaucer has managed. His point is to prevent anyone from confusing earnest and game, since he clearly only plays at being God and thus avoids the terrible sin of superbia.

What seems most clear in this evaluation of Chaucer's theme in the frame structure of his work, as it relates to a sense of compositional finalization, is that there is very little else he could have added to make the theme more obvious or more complete. He has demonstrated in virtually every way possible that his own pre-ordained plan for the story-telling contest never much accords with the plan Harry Bailly announces in the General Prologue and attempts to execute along the road to Canterbury. Since Harry is one of Chaucer's creatures, no one should expect him to know much about the poet's intention. Man does not know God's will; neither does Harry know Chaucer's. The gaps Chaucer left between groups of compositionally linked tales are subsumed under the finalization of his theme in the frame structure. To have said more about that theme would have been to say too much. Comprehending the internal linkages between the unlinked groups of Tales is a function of analyzing, in much the same way the Ellesmere scribe did before us, how Chaucer bound them together in the development of his theme in the Tales themselves. That is all, and everything, that remains to be seen.


References:


1