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The "Miracle" ofSir Thopas Alan T. Gaylord Dartmouth College In a previous article I have discussed rhe importance of rhe "moment" of Sir Thopas: when and how it occurs within the contexts of fragment B2 (VII), the "book of the tales of Caunter­ bury," and Chaucer's poetic career.1 My emphasis had been on redefining the target of Chaucer's satire, suggesting that it is the figure of the poet as craftsman-particularly one in danger of becoming bedazzled or self-satisfied with the polish of style-that his parody aims at. In this article I shall move beyond the prob­ lematics of poetic diction and verse forms to consider the wider stylistic problem of theme, exploring the wonderful trouble that craft gets itself into as it attempts to signify. For the shape of the aborted narrative deserves attention as it strikes conflicting generic keys and makes confusing gestures toward meaning. In terms ofthe dialectic ofthis fragment I have already discussed the role ofthe tale in attempting to provide "som myrthe"; now I shall turn to its portentous failure in "som doctrine" (line 2125). And the secret of this nonsuccess, the source of keys and gestures, is the unfulfilled promise, in romance terms, ofa "miracle." I am aware that it will strike some as stretching things out of proportion to spend so much time on such a little thing. There is no doubt that the tale tests us to match in scale and temper its sub­ lapidary achievement; and if explaining a modest jest is all that is required, one ought tohave the good sense not to belabor the point. Yet it is my contention that a proper appreciation ofthe moment of 1 Alan T. Gaylord, "The Moment of Sir Thopas: Towards a New Look at Chaucer's Language," ChauR 16(1982):311-29. 65 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER this tale should alert us to its pivotal importance, and to the strength and skill contained within it which dramatize the poet's self-con­ scious consideration not only ofhis craft but of his mission. Every­ one is now familiar with the concept of Chaucer's pose as a short­ witted incompetent, which seems here to have been brought to a head as Harry Bailly pronounces him altogether unfit for rime. What we may not have sufficiently remarked, however, is the strength ofpurpose that acts behind that pose. Contemporary post­ structuralist criticism may eventually descend to the Middle Ages to explain how Chaucer's own "anxiety ofinfluence" rewrites the texts ofthe "strong" authors he seems to defer to; in the meantime we can perhaps approximate some of these hypermodern perceptions by learning to understand his undeviating resolve to make his own poetic language, inscribe his own poetic audience, and create his own poetic character (HF 1878-82): "I wot myself best how y stonde; For what I drye, or what I thynke, I wil myselven al hyt drynke, Certeyn, for the more part, As fer forth as I kan myn art." In this moment ofhigh play, in Thopas, Chaucer can also be seen to exhibit his high resolve. It may also seem irreverent or perverse to suggest that Chaucer's tale about Sir Thopas can have anything more to do with a miracle than hop ineptly behind the real one contained in The Prioress's Tale. The Thopas spills all and contains nothing, and is stopped short by Harry Bailly, who says the whole thing is "drasty," not miraculous. Yet consider how portentously Chaucer introduces his own first attempt. He continues the stanzas in rime royal out from The Prioress's Tale into the link-the only time he does so.2 He calls her tale a "miracle" and emphasizes its sobering effect. Then imme2 Note, however, the intriguing "original ending," or "canceled stanza," which follows The Clerk's Tale in many good MSS. It is in rime royal, though the clerk's Envoi is not. See John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, eds., The Text of the Canterbury Tales (Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1940), 3:373-75. 66 THE "MIRACLE" OF SIR THOPAS diately he draws himself into the picture. Harry looks at him, as it were...


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