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Reading the Forms of Sir Thopas
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Chaucer’s Sir Thopas has always been read in terms of its forms: the tail-rhyme that creates the poem’s laughable music, the affiliation with romance that grounds its parody in the forms we call genre. Nor are these forms of Sir Thopas inconsequential. Christopher Cannon has recently argued that it was precisely in the forms of romance that textual objects in the thirteenth century rose above the vagaries of matter and became literary essence: through King Horn, Havelok the Dane, and the other texts that Sir Thopas spoofs, “the spirit of English romance became the spirit of English literature.”1 But if Chaucer registers this apotheosis of the literary through a knowing de-materialization of his own text, Cannon’s study of early Middle English literature asks us to return to the matter that grounds that spirit. Similarly, the material forms of Sir Thopas raise questions about how to understand the poem’s essence—that is to say, how the tail-rhyme meter or the layout of a manuscript page might be invested with literary significance. In different ways, both New Criticism and textual materialism have made it commonplace to assert that form shapes meaning, but I am equally interested here in the ways in which it fails to do so. For the material forms of Sir Thopas, specifically its manuscript layout, bear a problematic relation to its immaterial ones, specifically verse-form and, more ambitiously, genre. Putting this text into its material context prompts questions about the posture of the reader before the manuscript and about how the material forms of texts structure their readers’ experiences. Although reading practices are shaped by generic expectations, generic categories are equally shaped by readers’ habits, and both are indebted to the physical forms of texts in manuscript books.

The physical form of Sir Thopas—like so many other things about the poem—is a joke. Many early and important manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales, including both Ellesmere and Hengwrt, mark Geoffrey’s first storytelling effort by a drastic change (not to say a “drasty” change) in the format of the page.2 Breaking from the more familiar couplets or stanzas in single columns of text, the new layout calls attention to the literary structures of tail-rhyme through an unusual spacing of verses and an elaborate system of brackets. For example, in the Ellesmere manuscript, the first two verses in the left-hand column (the a-rhyme) are linked by a bracket, which then points to the b-rhyme verses, set off in another sort of makeshift column to the right and bracketed also: one reads aa on the left, and then b on the right (Fig. 1). Halfway down the page, things become still more complex; single-stress bob lines begin to crowd awkwardly into the margin from time to time, just as they crowd awkwardly into the poem. Additional brackets indicate how these bob-lines relate to the rhymes of the more regular pattern. So, for example, the stanza where Thopas declares his love for the elf-queen reads as follows:

An elf-queen wol I love, ywis
For in this world no womman is    Worthy to be my make In towne
Alle othere wommen I forsake,
And to an elf-queene I me take    By dale and eek by downe!


In Helen Cooper’s oft-quoted words, the pattern is “reminiscent of a schedule for a tennis tournament with an inconvenient number of players.”4

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Fig. 1. 

San Marino, Huntington MS EL 26.C.9 (Ellesmere), fol. 152r. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Similar layouts occur in the Hengwrt manuscript and in other significant copies of the Canterbury Tales, such as Cambridge University Library MSS Gg.4.27 and Dd.4.24. Judith Tschann, in an important article published in this journal in 1985, notes eleven manuscripts (of fifty-three) with what she calls the “landmark layout” of Sir Thopas. Four more manuscripts implement this layout inconsistently. Five more make a separate column of tail-rhyme lines without marking the bob. And nine more use brackets without other formal markings.5 Such a deliberate and...

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