'Loo, lordes myne, heere is a fit!': The structure of Chaucer's Sir Thopas
E A Jones. The Review of English Studies. Oxford: May 2000.Vol. 51, Iss. 202; pg. 248, 5 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
The manner in which Geoffrey Chaucer stumbles across a fit-division in the "rym [he] lerned longe agoon"(709) and the "wide-eyed wonder" with which he greets it, is, though it has no shortage of rivals, one of the best jokes in "Sir Thopas." Jones discusses the joke, the full extent of which has remained unrecognized.
Full Text (2442 words)
Copyright Oxford University Press(England) May 2000
The manner in which Chaucer stumbles across a fit-division in the `rym [he] lerned longe agoon' (709), and the `wide-eyed wonder' with which he greets it, is, though it has no shortage of rivals, one of the best jokes in Sir Thopas.2 The full extent of the joke has, however, remained unrecognized.
In a note published in 1971, J. A. Burrow demonstrated conclusively that the apparent division of the tale into two fits in fact masks a three-fit structure.3 He argued that `Yet listeth, lordes, to my tale' (833) was, like the tale's first line, `Listeth, lordes, in good entent' (712), and the beginning of the final fit, `Now holde youre mouth, Par charitee' (891), the opening line of a new section. With support from the ordinatio of a number of good manuscripts, including Ellesmere and Hengwrt, he entered a plea that `The poem should be divided . . . into three fits: 712-832, 833-90, 891-918',4 and the editors of the Riverside Chaucer have obliged.
One could make the case that it is a better joke to have the same raconteur who so ostentatiously observes a fit-division at 887-91 pass in blissful ignorance by another equally obvious break at 832-3, although it is not immediately apparent how an editor would both recognize that there should be a fit-division and register the fact that the narrator has totally missed it. The chief purpose of the present note is, however, to develop the latter part of Burrow's argument. He observed that his three fits contain, in order, 18, 9, and 4 1/2 stanzas, the progressive halving in the form reflecting the dwindling away of narrative content. He went on to point out, following Macrobius (though the observation goes back to Plato and the Pythagoreans) that the ratio 2:1 is that which in music produces an octave or diapason, and is therefore productive of harmony. Thus, he concludes:
Even the fragmentary Third Fit of 'Sir Thopas' is concordant in so far as it stands an 'octave above' the Second, just as the Second stands an octave above the First. Harry Bailey unwittingly interrupts Chaucer at a point, almost exactly halfway through the fifth stanza of his Third Fit, which allows the Tale, despite its apparent raggedness, to achieve a harmonious resolution.5 Burrow conceded that this harmony applied only to stanza- and not to linetotals; the present note discerns a complementary harmony in the number of lines in the tale.6
First it may be observed that the final fit numbers twenty-eight lines, and that 28 is one of the Perfect numbers. A Perfect number was defined in the Neoplatonic arithmetical tradition, mediated to the Middle Ages by such ubiquitous school-texts as Boethius's De Arithmetica and Isidore's Etymologiae, as a number whose value was equal to the sum of its proper divisors (thus 28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14); the others known to the Middle Ages were 6, 496, and 8,128.(7) Most commentators draw the inevitable parallel between arithmetical and ethical perfection. Augustine treats the theory of Perfect numbers in his comments on Genesis 2: 1-3, giving the examples of 28 and 6, and makes a further connection with the divine creation. Creation took six days: `Perfecte ergo numero dierum . . . perfecit dens opera sua, quae fecit' (`In a perfect number of days, therefore, God perfected/brought to completion the works he had made').8
My second observation depends on dividing the tale as the pilgrim Chaucer so intrusively divides it (and as Robinson divided it in his edition), into two sections separated by the interjection
Such a division requires little justification, and is not significantly at odds with the Burrow/Riverside arrangement, from which it differs in leaving the first fit-division unnoticed and in setting lines 888-90 outside the scheme of fits.10 This accords well with the internal logic of the tale: Chaucer recites what he thinks is one fit (but which should really be two); surprised by a fit-division he turns aside from his `mateere' for the interjection of lines 888-90, before resuming with what is to be the final fit. Burrow/Riverside represent the `deep structure' of the tale, Robinson the `surface structure'. The first section contains 176 lines, the second twenty-eight. The ratio of longer to shorter is (to three decimal places) 6.286, which approximates very closely 27pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius.11 Chaucer could have derived the ratio 176: 28 geometrically with little difficulty; probably, however, he used the approximation of pi as 22/7 to calculate it arithmetically. The method is described by Macrobius, though whether Chaucer would have needed recourse to his `olde boke totorn' (Parliament of Fowls, 110) for such an elementary calculation must be extremely doubtful:
The diameter of every circle, when tripled with the addition of a seventh part, gives the measurement of the circumference in which it is inclosed; for example, if a diameter is seven inches long and you desire to know the length of the circumference, you triple seven, making twenty-one, and add a seventh part or one, and the circumference of a circle whose diameter is seven inches is twenty-two inches.12
Thus 28 x 2 x 22/7 = 176.
If we believe that little Lewis inherited his `abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns' (Astrolabe, Prol. 2-3) from his father, we should not be surprised that such ratios as the diapason or octave (2: 1) and pi feature in the architectonics of some of Chaucer's works.13 J. D. North has discerned the importance of pi in another of his apparently more haphazard creations, the House of Fame, describing a dream which occurred on the night of 910 December:
Assuming . . . that we are to begin with 1 January, and taking twenty-two couplets as corresponding to a week, then in an ordinary year we should expect 9 December to end after exactly 2156 lines . . . This is just two lines short of the actual length of the work as we have it. The result is a rather pleasing one, in view of the subject-matter of the poem, namely the celestial spheres; for what is the ratio of 22 to 7, if it is not that of the circumference of a circle to its diameter? We might look at the question in reverse. If we consider the poem to have begun at noon of 1 January and to have ended at midnight beginning 10 December in an ordinary year, that is, 343.5 days later, then the 2158 lines of the poem, understood in this way, give a very plausible value for this mathematical ratio (pi) of 3.14111.14
If the twenty-eight lines of the final fit were significant for their numerological resonances, the presence of pi, like that of the ratio 2 : 1, in Sir Thopas would appear to be further evidence of the arithmetical component Derek Brewer has perceived as dominant in Chaucer's mentality.15 Both, however, have significances beyond those recognized by the pragmatic numeracy of the arithmetical mentality. The combination of pi and the harmonic ratios including 2 : 1 is fundamental in the medieval cosmology. Plato's world-soul is created by a process of division by arithmetic ratios, split in two and then twisted to form two circles.16 In the words of Boethius's creation hymn to a God who governs the world by ratio as well as by reason (ratione), O qui perpetua:
Thow knyttest togidere the mene soule of treble kynde moevynge all thingis, and divydest it by membrys accordynge; and whan it es thus divyded and hath assembled a moevynge into two rowndes, it gooth to torne ayen to hymself, and envyrouneth a ful deep thought and turneth the hevene by semblable ymage.17
In the 'semblable ymage' of the macrocosm, therefore, as Calcidius and Macrobius make explicit, the harmonic ratios provide the distances between the planets, and the circle describes their motion.18 Both ratios combine to produce the 'melodye'
That cometh of thilke speres thryes thre,
That welle is of musik and melodye
In this world here, and cause of armonye.
(Parliament of Fowls, 61-3)
Symbolic ratios, like the symbolic numbers of Brewer's `numerological mentality', `create aesthetic patterns and have non-numerical implications beyond themselves' (p. 162) and, like symbolic numbers, they have a long and distinguished history of use in literary composition.19
Thus in his use of the Perfect number 28, and more especially in his reliance on the ratios 2 : 1 and pi, in what is on the face of it his most chaotic work Chaucer, more completely than in any of his other compositions, mimics the divinely ordered act of creation `by measure, number and weight' (Wisdom 11: 21).20