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"'I moot speke as I kan': The Squire's Optimistic Attempt to Circumvent Rhetorical 'Following' in The Canterbury Tales

by Kristen Abbott Bennett, Tufts University

(December 2011 Issue / PDF)

Revered by early modern poets including Edmund Spenser and John Milton, the Squire’s youthful poetic effort in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has since been “decisively denigrated” by modern readers (Scala 98). Referring to the prima pars, Alan S. Ambrisco observes that “[t]he Squire’s egregiously bad deployment of occupatio and other rhetorical tropes has been one of the most noted features in the text” (210).[1] Modern critical consensus suggests the Squire lacks rhetorical skill, specifically the ability to engage as productively in the art of imitatio as his father, the Knight. For example, Robert S. Haller argues that the Squire would have been more successful had he followed his father: a “model worthy of imitation by any squire wishing to fulfill his estate” (285). But the Squire marks his departure from the Knight’s Tale through his imitation of the lover’s complaint in Chaucer’s early poem Anelida and Arcite. The Squire-as-Chaucer’s self-reflexively chosen literary model represents the Squire’s “fresshe” desire to circumvent the diachronic trajectory of “following” that characterizes rhetorical imitation and discover a site of poetic origin (Chaucer, GP 92).[2] Countering Haller’s suggestion that the Squire is such a bad poet that Chaucer is “making fun” of him, I contend that Chaucer-as-Squire dramatizes rhetorically sophisticated optimism as he attempts to overcome the “doubleness” that characterizes language in the post-lapsarian world. Paradoxically, the Squire endeavors to resolve this duplicity by multiplying instances of literary techniques such as imitatio, inexpressibility topoi, and translatio (Haller 285).

Shifting critical perspective away from the Squire’s failure to tell as good a story as his father, we recognize that the stakes for the Squire are quite different from those for his fellow pilgrims. As early as the General Prologue, close reading reveals that the Squire’s relationship to his father does not necessarily follow convention. After describing the youthful courtier, and the only poet present in addition to Chaucer, the narrator’s transition from the Squire to the Yeoman is curious. Traditionally, the description of the Squire as a son who “carf biforn his fader at the table” has been interpreted as reflecting the Squire’s dutiful respect for his father (GP 100). Moreover, readers generally assume that the Squire will follow his father’s example in his tale. But the Squire is carving “biforn” – before, in front of – his father, and the reversal of place implied by putting the young before the old foreshadows the Squire’s experimental manipulation of the trajectory of “following” literary predecessors. As we will see, the Squire’s attempt to conflate the traditional diachronic path of imitatio manifests itself through his interrogation of the potential for poetic originality. Instead of drawing his influence from ancient masters, the Squire’s compositional practice presents itself as one striving for contemporary immediacy; as something as fresh and young as he is himself. This essay follows the Squire’s rhetorical maneuvering and explains classical terminology to demonstrate how the Squire’s quest both culminates and collapses through the figures of the foreign knight and the magical gifts he offers King Cambyuskan and his daughter, Canacee.

Ultimately, the Squire recognizes that neither magic nor myth will help him recover a poetic etiology, a first cause, that has always already been eradicated by the fall of mankind and, subsequently, of language. Although the multiplicity of language is itself a sign of the “fallen” world and man’s failure, the Squire’s rhetorical experiments appear to proceed from the mathematical axiom that two negatives multiply to make a positive. Dramatizing his awareness of the abstract nature of language, the Squire subjects it to an abstract equation. By multiplying the rhetorical conventions imitatio, inexpressibility, and translatio, the Squire idealistically probes the idea of poetic origin in the context of vernacular poetry.

Imitatio is the rhetorical practice of imitating literary and oratorical masters as one gains rhetorical expertise and maturity (see Curtius 115). Because of the connotations of copying associated with imitatio, modern readers often have difficulty distinguishing classical rhetorical practices of imitation from plagiarism. For example, because Shakespeare often “copies” information, plots, and other narrative devices from sources like Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles or Ovid’s Metamorphoses, some readers argue that Shakespeare plagiarizes his sources. But the ancient rhetorician Seneca clarifies the critical nature of imitatio:

“What,” you say, “will it not be seen whose style you are imitating, whose method of reasoning, whose pungent sayings?” I think that sometimes it is impossible for it to be seen who is being imitated, if the copy is a true one; for a true copy stamps its own form upon all the features which it has drawn from what we may call the original, in such a way that they are combined into a unity. ( 281; epist. 84, par. 9)

That something is a “copy” and “original” at the same time seems contradictory, but imitation is more a process of culling, of choices, than it is of copying. Thus, Shakespeare’s mastery of imitatio is manifest in his ability to “stamp his own form” on his literary precedents; although his sources are often detectable, they emerge in his work as original “unities.”[3] In addition, imitatio constitutes a path to maturity, as Quintillian writes (following Seneca): “The mature advocates rival the ancients, and the efforts of the promising and aspiring young imitate and follow them” (319;  bk.10, par.1, l.122).[4] Because imitatio represents the conventionally ideal path to mastery and maturity, the Squire’s imitation of master sources in his Tale is expected. However, the Squire’s choice of Chaucer’s own youthful effort, Anelida and Arcite, as a “master text” radically revises the traditionally diachronic model of imitatio into a self-reflexive, synchronic process.

Chaucer’s Italian contemporary Francesco Petrarch’s definition of imitatio resonates rhetorically and thematically in the Squire’s Tale: “a proper imitator should take care that what he writes resemble the original without reproducing it. The resemblance . . . should be the resemblance of a son to his father” (198).[5] In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Knight and Squire as complementary figures of chivalry; the Knight represents the heroic ideal and his son its romantic counterpart. E. Talbot Donaldson summarizes their relationship: “What the Squire is, the Knight once was, and what the Knight is, the Squire may yet be” (1043). Since the Squire appropriates an immature version of Chaucer’s poetry, critics habitually interpret him as an immature version of his father. For instance, Haller dismisses the Squire’s source as “a rather trivial story for such an elaborate buildup. It is a variation on the Anelida and Arcite which Chaucer had written and never finished in his youth” (291). According to this camp of modern critics, the Squire commits a double faux pas by not trying to imitate his father, the Knight, and choosing a poor source to imitate. However, those arguing that Anelida and Arcite is “too trivial” for imitatio fail to acknowledge that both the Knight and the Squire invoke Chaucer’s early Anelida and Arcite as a source. Moreover, this “trivial” source remains the most formally elaborate poem among Chaucer’s works.

Through his invocation of Anelida and Arcite, the Squire radically multiplies the patriarchial construct underlying both the ancient and late-medieval descriptions of imitatio.Before the Knight’s Tale, Chaucer had introduced the borrowed narrative of Theseus returning from war with his wife Hippolyta and her sister Emelye at the beginning of Anelida and Arcite (AA 10; KT 859). Also, Chaucer introduces both the Knight’s Tale and Anelida and Arcite as “olde stories” featuring Mars in ascendancy and Arcite as a lover (AA 50; KT 975). But the Knight’s Tale diverges from Chaucer’s early poem immediately after the frame is established. Instead of following Anelida’s complaint about a false lover, the Knight returns to Chaucer’s Italian source and translates the story of Palamon and Arcite, following Boccaccio. Conversely, the Squire excises the thematic allusions to Boccaccio, and follows his father to Anelida and Arcite. As Alfred David humorously remarks, the Squire’s Tale is Anelida and Arcite “recycled – with feathers” (110). But the Squire’s poetic ambition for his own taleaccrues upon recognizing that he focuses his imitation on the portion of the poem that constitutes Chaucer’s thematic originality. Riverside Chaucer editor Vincent J. DiMarco explains that “though the name Arcite is taken from Boccaccio, and Chaucer claims he follows ancient Latin sources, the tale of Anelida and the “false” Arcite seems to have been of his own invention” (SqT, intro.376). Adapting Dondaldson’s explanation of the Squire’s poetic relationship to the Knight, we might now say that what the Squire is, Chaucer once was, and what Chaucer is – so is the Squire. The Squire-as-Chaucer’s self-imitation manifests his attempt to break the cycle of “following” rhetorical masters by positing himself as master.

The Squire’s choice of Anelida and Arcite as a source worthy of imitation also serves to translate Chaucer’s youthfulpoetic ambition into his own. Although Haller and others criticize Anelida and Arcite for its poetic immaturity, DiMarco explains that the poem is “Chaucer’s most elaborate surviving work”:

[S]tructurally and metrically . . .  [the poem is] divided into Proem, Strophe (220-80), Antistrophe (281-341), and Conclusion, with the Proem and Strophe exactly matching the Antistrophe and Conclusion in their intricate stanzaic forms, and with the last line of the Complaint almost matching the first. (375)

The Squire’s imitation of Chaucer’s “most elaborate” work suggests a carrying through of the poetic ambition that inspired it. Thematically, Chaucer invented the Anelida plot, but the tight metrical structures governing this early poemare most likely informed by the Gawain poet’s Pearl (see DiMarco 375-76). Despite his ambition, young Chaucer’s imitation of the Gawain poet undercuts the illusion of self-sufficiency suggested by the Squire’s imitation of his makere.

Persistently supporting this illusion, however, the Squire dramatizes the inherent poetic challenge of composing poetry in vernacular English. One problem for Chaucer and the Squire is that English does not offer the kind of flexibility necessary for easy rhyming. French and Italian offer much more manageable models for vernacular poetry. Moreover, as Andrew Taylor explains in The Idea of the Vernacular, compared to Latin, vernacular English is profoundly unstable:

While access to Latin was limited almost exclusively to male clerics, it was at least available to male clerics of any nation and any age. In contrast, English was both unstable and highly localized. The degree of dialect variation in late medieval England meant that a poem, unless it was written in the dialect of the Oxford-London-Cambridge triangle that began to emerge as standard in the fourteenth century, might encounter difficulties in circulating outside its region, or at least have to be translated (in effect) from one dialect to another. (Wogan-Browne et al. 11)

Chaucer’s awarenesss of the instability of vernacular is pronounced throughout his works. In both Anelida and Arcite and the Squire’s Tale, Chaucer acknowledges the drawbacks of English while at the same time performing his desire to overcome these problems.

Anelida and Arcite also offers insight into Chaucer’s practical interest in the potential for the English vernacular to preserve “elde” texts written in Latin. Following an invocation to “Mars the rede” in Anelida and Arcite, Chaucer continues:

For hit ful depe is sonken in my mynde,
With pitous hert in Englyssh to endyte
This olde storie, in Latyn which I fynde,
Of queen Anelida and fals Arcite,
That elde, which that al can frete and bite,
As hit hath freten mony a noble storie,
Hath nygh devoured out of oure memorie. (8-14)

Chaucer juxtaposes late-medieval angst surrounding vernacular translation with images of violent consumption conveyed in the repetition of “frete,” “bite,” and “devour.” Chaucer’s fretting about “elde’s” power to “devour” its source here is complicated. The slippery grammar surrounding these repeated images of “devouring” emphasizes that time, with its threat of oblivion, will consume “mony a noble storie” – especially those in Latin. Yet in this last line, Chaucer implies that translation into vernacular English, however “pitous,” can reconstitute these stories in contemporary memory and stave off the destructive effects of time.

The Squire’s approach to the problem of time appears more rhetorically confident and sophisticated than in his source. Recognizing how Anelida and Arcite offers translation into contemporary English as an antidote to the problem of time that older languages pose, the Squire multiplies the presence of the vernacular through imitatio. Again, the Squire appears to adapt a common theory of mathematics to language. Because two “negatives” multiply to make a “positive,” the Squire’s doubling of the vernacular (an unstable, unwieldy “negative”) through his imitation of Anelida and Arcite theoretically translates into a stable, positive, and therefore, immediate form. In sum, the Squire’s doubling of vernacular presence in his Tale dramatizes a sense of theoretical immediacy that counters the decaying effects of time.

Although the Squire’s doubling of the vernacular in his tale rhetorically suggests confidence in his medium, early in the poem he invokes the inexpressibility topos. This conventional motif of inexpressibility is a rhetorical convention employed to convey the idea that word cannot express the wonder of the object or person being described. From this rhetorical vein, the Squire claims that his “Englissh eek is insufficient” as he describes how he cannot describe Canacee:

But for to telle yow al hir beautee,
It lyth nat in my tonge, n’yn my konnying;
I dar nat undertake so heigh a thyng.
My Englissh eek is insufficient.
It moste been a rhetor excellent
That koude his colours longynge for that art,
If he should hire discryven every part.
I am noon swich, I moot speke as I kan. (37-41)

Modern critics often cite these lines to illustrate the Squire’s inferior skill in English poetics. Indeed, Ambrisco offers this passage as exemplary of the Squire’s “bad deployment of occupatio,” and contends that this passage offers “not a single descriptive detail” (209). Occupatio is a “device of making mention of a thing by pretending to omit to mention it” (Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Terms). Thus, Ambrisco argues that the Squire is misdirecting readers merely to avoid description. Implying that the Squire is incapable of description, and therefore is a rhetorical failure, Ambrisco fails to recognize that the Squire is, rather maturely, invoking the inexpressibility topos. Ernst Robert Curtius explains that “in panegyric, the orator “finds no words” which can fitly praise the person celebrated” (159). Additionally, “included among the ‘inexpressibility topoi’ is the author’s assurance that he sets down only a small part of what he has to say” (Curtius 160). The Squire’s invocation of inexpressibility topoi here and throughout ironically suggests his desire to escape imitating a predecessor by not “expressing” or theoretically pointing to one. At the same time, of course, the Squire is paradoxically following convention.

Another way of apprehending the Squire’s employment of inexpressibility topoi is to recognize the fact that he doth protest too much. And, as Taylor explains,

These protestations should not be taken at face value . . . If Chaucer, for instance, complains of English’s rhyming capacities and his own “litel suffisaunce” . . .  he elsewhere affirms his confidence in the complete sufficiency of English to match any style. (Wogan-Browne et al.9)

Chaucer-as-Squire’s ironic invocation of the modesty trope discloses a shift from Chaucer’s practical application of vernacular English to preserve “mony a noble story” in Anelida and Arcite to heightened poetic ambition in the Squire’s Tale.

The arrival of the foreign knight at Cambyuskan’s court offers the Squire another opportunity to deploy inexpressibility as he attempts a “bolder form of imitation” (Berry 291). The foreign knight’s arrival also gives the Squire the opportunity to rhetorically best his vernacular master poet, the Gawain poet:

This strange knight, that cam thus sodeynly,
Al armed, save hi heed, ful richely,
Saleweth kyng and queene and lords alle,
By ordre, as they seten in the halle,
With so heigh reverence and obeisaunce,
As wel in speche as in contenaunce,
That Gawayn, with his olde curteisye
Though he were comen ayeyn out of Fairye,
Ne koude hymn nat amende with a word. (89-97)

The Squire is not invoking Gawain to imitate him, as a youth should in the fourteenth century, but instead to elevate himself to the status of his predecessor. Ambrisco offers this passage as another example of “bad” occupatio, but fails to recognize the Squire’s deft management of inexpressibility by setting “down only a small part of what he has to say” (Curtius 160). Thus, the Squire’s description of the knight’s “rich” armament and impressive stature generating “reverence and obeisaunce” among Cambyuskan’s courtiers arguably trumps Gawain, who “ne koude hymn nat amende with a word.” Because the Squire and Gawain speak the same language, they play on the same rhetorical field. The foreign knight, however, is extricated from this competition by virtue of his independence from the “vice of sillable or lettre” (101).

The Squire again attempts to escape the problem of imitatio and, indeed, of language itself, by thematizing an ideal of wordlessness as he describes the foreign knight’s language:

And after this, biforn the heighe bord,
He with a manly voys seide his message,
After the forme used in his langage,
Withouten vice of silable or of lettre;
And for his tale shoulde seme the bettre. (98-102)

“Withouten vice of silable or lettre,” the knight’s language extends inexpressibility beyond itself. Emphasizing that the foreign knight’s language is not the same as Gawain’s, the Squire claims that he spoke “after the forme used in his language.” Thus, the foreign knight does not follow Gawain’s precedent, but speaks a language that does not succumb to “vice of silable or lettre.” By stripping the knight of the “forme” of language, the Squire represents him as having escaped the trajectory of “following.”

Linguistically departing from the “vice” of “silable or lettre,” the Squire’s representation of the foreign knight’s language exemplifies what John Fyler identifies as Chaucer’s dismay that the “perfect language of Adam has been lost beyond recovery; what remains is a diminished thing” (Language and the Declining World 182). In pre-lapsarian Christian tradition, language was unnecessary; humans and animals shared perfect understanding. But exile from Paradise signifies the corruption of the human world that is, quite literally, symbolized by the abstractions of alphabetic language itself. What remains is the still vexed problem that Jacques Derrida has translated into modernity: language always already has been imbued by signification, and pure, naked language is lost. As Derrida writes in The Animal That Therefore I Am:“We are following, we follow ourselves” (39). Chaucer’s overarching concern about the “fall” of language is clearly present in The Squire’s Tale, but unlike later tales in the Canterbury sequence, the Squire’s Tale dramatizes what an escape from “following” might look like by extricating the foreign knight from the post-lapsarian “vice” of language itself.

The foreign knight’s Pegasus-like magical horse figures another attempt to discover poetic etiology as the Squire invokes the spring at Mount Helicon that inspires the Muses themselves. As Urania tells Pallas in the Ovidian version of the story, “The author of the Spring was Pegasus” (Ovid bk. 5, l.263). But the Squire’s quest for poetic origin remains problematic, and Craig A. Berry rightly observes:

The tension between originality and dependence on a tradition is explicit in the tradition itself . . . Even the Muses, it seems, are conscious of precursors, and the use of the verb “follow” is perhaps more than coincidental since Seneca, Statius, Quintilian, and Jerome all use it to describe the practice of imitatio (296).

At stake once again is the poet’s ability to extricate himself from “following” predecessors. Although the Squire-as-Chaucer attempts to strike his own path by setting himself up as an authoritative precursor, he remains dependent on following the “syllables and letters” that constitute language itself.

Berry’s reading of Pegasus mirrors the narrator’s optimism, but also doubles back to invoke one onlooker’s deduction that this magical horse constitutes some kind of trick like “the Grekes hors Synon, / That broghte Troie to destruccion” (209-10). On the one hand, the “trick” is that to summon the horse’s magical powers, the user must “trille a pyn, stant in his ere” (316). Translating the foreign knight’s instructions into modern English, Cambyuskan must “turn a pin in its ear” to make the horse perform its magic. But this instruction reads like a fabliau; the joke is on the person naïve enough to stick a pin in a horse’s ear and turn it. The “magic” effected would most likely take the form of a kick or a bite. On the other hand, the “trick” is that even if the horse has struck the wellspring of poetic origin on Mount Helicon, the Muses still follow both language and precursors.

The knight’s additional magical gifts of the mirror and the sword presented to Cambyuskan supplement the Squire’s idealistic desire to rhetorically supersede the act of following that predicates imitatio and translation. Fyler points out that the mirror and the sword are also “aids to translation, if in a less direct sense: like the horse and the ring, they close gaps, recover unities, pull together what has been dispersed” (“Domesticating the Exotic”34). But despite the Squire’s imaginative presentation of magical “aids to translation,” these objects problematize the Squire’s etiology by multiplying the translations required to – oxymoronically – manufacture origin. Jean de Meun offers an analogy to the Squire’s problem with translatio through discussion of the relationship between Art and Nature in the Romance of the Rose:

With most attentive care she kneels before Nature, like a poor beggar who lacks both knowledge and strength but who strives hard to follow her. She begs and prays and implores Nature to teach her how to use her skill so that her figures may properly encompass every creature . . . Like an ape, she mimics Nature, but her understanding is so weak and bare that she cannot make living things, however natural they seem. (15981-16004)

Origin cannot be recovered through art because it is always already following nature. The magical objects in The Squire’s Tale represent an attempt to mimic nature, to recover the purity of pre-lapsarian communication.

However, because these ‘magical’ objects are artificial, they are always supplements to Nature. Derrida echoes Jean’s Nature by explaining that the only escape from the supplement is nudity:

There is no nudity “in nature.” There is only the sentiment, the affect, the (conscious or unconscious) experience of existing in nakedness. Because it is naked, without existing in nakedness, the animal neither feels nor sees itself naked. And therefore it isn’t naked. (5)

In The Squire’s Tale, Derrida’s ideal of “nudity” is best represented by the falcon, but her unselfconscious literal and linguistic nudity does not support the Squire’s rhetorical experiment, and instead emphasizes the artificiality of Canacee’s ring.

Optimistically, the Squire continues to try and relocate poetic origin in himself by magically bypassing problems posed by translatio as Canacee converses with the falcon. Translatio is, as it sounds, a form of translation, and it bears a strong resemblance to imitatio. In fact, according to Thomas M. Greene, “parts of any imitations might well be regarded as translations, while most Renaissance ‘translations’ are already interpretations” (51). Although Greene speaks to the English Renaissance, the slippery distinction he makes between translatio and imitatio dates back much further:

In medieval Latin, the word translatio (translation) was often taken to be synonymous with exposition (interpretation) (Minnis and Scott 1988, 374). If this equation is taken seriously, it provides a justification for understanding vernacular translations not simply as attempts to transfer meaning unchanged from one language to another but as readings of source texts, part of whose purpose may indeed lie in their difference from those texts . . . inventio (invention), part of the discipline of rhetoric, emphasized aggressive displacement of that text. (Taylor, in Wogan-Browne et al.9)

Anelida and Arcite and the Knight’s Tale are, on one level, simple examples of translatio. In each, Chaucer translates characters and narrative elements from Boccacio’s Teseida (Italian). Chaucer’s “translation” is always already an interpretation, and through his interpretation he concurrently imitates Boccaccio by translating plot, characters, and rhetorical devices into vernacular English. But, again, the Squire’s doubling of vernacular translatio through his invocation of Anelida and Arcite multiplies the site of “origin” (Chaucer) to paradoxically establish and explode poetic authority.
Ironically, “doubleness” is at the crux of Anelida’s romantic agony in the Squire’s source and represents the failure of love and language that duplicity generates in both stories. Although the narrator warns readers repeatedly of Arcite’s doubleness in love, Anelida embodies truth and fealty:

And dide him honour as he were a kyng.
Her herte was to him wedded with a ring;
So ferforth upon trouthe is her entente
That wher he gooth her herte with him wente. (130-34)

Anelida’s faith in a “ring” to unify their hearts despite the problem of separate bodies anticipates the magical ring in the Squire’s Tale that enables Canacee to understand the falcon’s echoing of Anelida’s complaint. In fact, both Anelida and the falcon are betrayed by their lovers’ “doubleness” (SqT 543, 556) and prioritization of “newfanglenesse” before “trouthe” in love (see Anelida 141-142; SqT 618).

Recently, Patricia Claire Ingham has explored Chaucer’s association between a love for “newfangleness” and failed love itself in the context of the magical objects, or “new technology,” offered in the Squire’s Tale (59). Ingham’s argument appears to be indebted to Fyler’s contemporaneous observations in Language and the Declining World:

Love and poetry both signify the fallen state of the world – love in its post-Edenic doubleness, but also its earthly manifestation as an unsatisfiable desire; poetry because, as the House of Fame most clearly shows, language is always at a remove from the reality it uncertainly attempts to reveal. In both love and language, the effects of simple consciousness, and even more of self-consciousness, compound the division: to be aware of alienation adds to the pain of experiencing it. (67)

Failed love in both the Squire’s source and his Tale is at the same time analogous to the ultimate failure that post-lapsarian language – itself a relatively new “technology”– represents. Translation multiplies language(s) and manifests both affective and linguistic alienation.

In later tales, like The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, or in poems like The House of Fame, the speaker presents an a priori, behind-the-scenes translation of animals’ speech. However, in The Squire’s Tale the fiction implies that we witness the immediacy of understanding translation as a magical act made possible by Canacee’s ring:

Ther is no fowel that fleeth under the hevene
That she ne shal wel understonde his stevene,
And knowe his menying openly and pleyn,
And answere hym in his language ageyn;
And every gras that groweth upon roote
She shal eek knowe, and whom it wol do boote. (149-53)

Enabling Canacee to communicate with birds magically displaces the poem and rhetorically resituates it in pre-lapsarian Eden. The Squire suggests the “perfect language” that Fyler attributes to Adam might be recovered in the language of the birds, and, importantly, Nature herself as “every gras that groweth upon roote.” The “vertu” of the ring is that it appears to magically extricate Canacee from the art, or post-lapsarian “vice of silable or lettre,” and restore her to pre-lapsarian Nature in which birds and people can communicate without an intermediary.

However, neither Canacee nor the falcon is actively translating the other’s “leden,” and the fiction of perfect communication dissolves when we recognize multiple intermediaries. First, only through the ring could Canacee understand “every thing / That any fowel may in his leden seyn, / And could answeren hym in his leden ageyn” (434-36). The Squire’s “magical” representation of linguistic origin also fails on close inspection because Canacee’s replies to the falcon are rendered directly into English. The illusion of the ring’s magical potency is abruptly dispelled when we remember the non-magical Squire is the translator for and of Canacee, the falcons, the foreign knight, and the Mongolian court. In Anelida and Arcite Chaucer presented translatio as a process that could either destroy or preserve “olde stories,” but the Squire dramatizes his thinking around the problem of translation by multiplying the translation itself.

When magic fails, the Squire turns again to mythology as he suspends the poem with the figures of Apollo and Mercury. The Squire’s choice of Apollo and Mercury is significant because of the gods’ complementary roles in the discourses of speech and alchemy.[6] Discussing Apollo’s association with the art of speech, Berry observes: “Apollo embodies an absolute authority whose presence would overshadow or exclude the limited temporal authority of the human poet” (305). Berry’s claim that the Squire’s assertion of authority “depends for its very existence on the absence of an ultimate reference point” recalls the foreign knight’s linguistic independence from form or precedent. This “absence” informs the Squire’s idealistic desire to escape the vicious rhetorical circle he is trapped in. Thematically, the foreign knight, the horse, and Canacee’s ring invoke Apollonian absolutism by knotting immediacy and origin. But Apollo is an oracle who, according to Ovid, cannot anticipate his own failure in love, and the fallacy of the deity’s powers contributes to the ultimate fallacy of poetic origin.[7] The Squire’s invocation of Mercury, among other things a linguistic trickster, might be an attempt to circumvent Apollo’s shortcomings. As Berry observes, Mercury “offers in his role as devious mediator a better model than Apollo for Chaucer’s poetic activity” (305). Indeed, the Squire’s multiplication of rhetorical techniques and topoi, his doubling of the vernacular through the allusion to Anelida and Arcite, and his invocation of magical figures that do not work represent an extended portrayal of optimism that has always already been frustrated by linguistic duplicity.[8] Finally, the Squire’s juxtaposition of Apollo and Mercury draws an analogy between linguistic trickery and alchemy.

As Fyler points out, Chaucer himself suggests in the later The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale that “the multiplication of metals and the multiplications of words are analogous phenomena: the alchemist’s nostalgia, some part of a longing for the world of transparent language before Babel” (“Domesticating the Exotic” 42). In the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Chaucer uses the word “sol,” or sun, as a synonym for gold: “sol gold is” (826). Thus, Apollo, the sun god, a.k.a. “golden Apollo,” corresponds to the end result of alchemy: gold. Mercury, on the other hand, is, as Dorothee Metlizki points out, both the “father of alchemy” and, with sulphur, a core element of the “elixir” that will transmute any metal into gold (138). The Squire has Mercury, but without sulphur he lacks a critical ingredient for translating base metal into gold. This gap between Apollo and Mercury, very much like the gap between “nature” and “art,” and between pre- and post-lapsarian language, resists reconciliation.

Despite his optimistic rhetorical experimentation, the Squire-as-Chaucer cannot circumvent the trajectory of “following” because he cannot escape the problems posed by language itself. The Squire’s self-referencing of Anelida and Arcite represents an ambitious step away from relying on Latin sources and toward validating the still-emerging English vernacular. Apollo and Mercury’s near collision at the end of the tale is provocative, and much like the magical horse and ring, the suggested conflation of language and alchemy manifests the Squire-as-Chaucer’s ideal of vernacular originality. Although Chaucer painstakingly strips away this poetic confidence in the talesthat follow, The Squire’s Tale represents Chaucer’s attempt to embrace what Thomas Norton claims in his 1477 treatise on alchemy: “English is the base metal alchemy turns into gold and the best medium for describing the process” (qtd. in Wogan-Browne et al. 326).


[1] According to the OED, the rhetorical term “occupatio” did not come into regular usage until the mid-sixteenth century. When a speaker employs occupatio, he or she draws attention to something by omitting it.

[2]All references to Chaucer’s works follow the Riverside Chaucer, third edition. Here and throughout, citations will be given parenthetically using abbreviated titles and line numbers.

[3] My use of the word “unity” here is strictly limited to Shakespeare’s use of imitatio. Picking up the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century arguments surrounding Shakespeare’s success insofar as he presents a “unified” plot is beyond the scope and focus of this essay.

[4] Gummere translates Seneca’s “debemus imitare” as “we should follow” (277; epist. 84, para. 3); however, it is Quintillian who generates a compound sense of imitation: “imitatur ac sequitur”(318; 10.1.122).

[5] Petrarch is, of course, following Seneca. Cf.: “Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.” (Seneca 281; epist. 84, para. 9).

[6] I have chosen the word “suspended” partially to avoid engaging my argument with the debate about whether or not Chaucer “finished” the Squire’s Tale. Any position we take on this problem is necessarily conjecture because, as Helen Cooper points out, “there is no clue in the state of the manuscripts as to whether the tale was left unfinished or deliberately broken short, or indeed whether it simply lost the later pages of its original exemplar” (Oxford Guide to CT 218). Regardless, the Squire’s Tale remains suggestively “suspended” by Apollo and Mercury; it is here that the third part of the talebegins and ends: “Appollo whirleth up his chaar so hye / Til that the god Mercurius hous, the slye –” (671-72). The Riverside editors’ choice to punctuate this last line of the Squire’s Tale with an em dash tacitly suggests that something should follow it. But in the Ellesmere facsimile of The Canterbury Tales, there is no punctuation, and the remainder of the page is left blank (f122 v). This lack of punctuation in the early manuscript emphasizes suspension while halting what appears to be an imminent collision between Apollo and Mercury.

[7] See Ovid 1.9.450-568.

[8] For a good explanation regarding how magic does not need to “work” to be an effective rhetorical device in medieval romance, see Helen Cooper, “Magic that Does Not Work.”

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