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Is Geoffrey Chaucer a table writer?

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arjun | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted June 29, 2013 at 7:23 AM via web

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Is Geoffrey Chaucer a table writer?

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K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted June 29, 2013 at 11:30 AM (Answer #1)

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This is an interesting question, yet one that is not exactly clear as to meaning. I can think of three things you might mean by "table writer." You might mean (1) a correctly spelled idiomatic expression "table writer" or you might mean (2) an incorrectly spelled "tale writer" or you might mean (3) an incorrectly spelled "tableau writer." Let's look at each possibility.

1. "Table writer": This might be a nonstandard English idiom that means a person who writes for leisure, not in a professional way and not seriously for an actual audience. If this is the meaning intended by your question, then, no, Chaucer is not a "table writer." Chaucer took his writing very seriously. Though his main life's work was as a courtier--which took him through many employment positions for three English kings, positions that included military aide, diplomatic courier and bureaucrat--he utilized every opportunity to advance his understanding of and skill in writing great literary poetry. That he had meetings with both Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy and France is probable; that he made translations of great French and Italian works is well known; that he borrowed from and was inspired by great French and Italian works is well documented; that he chose to follow suit with Boccaccio and Petrarch by writing in the vernacular of his country is well established. In short, Chaucer was anything but a casual "table writer"; he was a dedicated and serious literary scholar and artist.

2. "Tale Writer": A tale is a short narrative that has the overall structure of narratives in both the oral and written forms: a tale has the classic beginning, middle and end. A tale (1) tells a moral--it has a theme and a greater meaning than the mere rendering of actions--and it (2) presents a broad perspective in worldview or (3) divine (spiritual or moral) truth. If this is the meaning of your question, then, yes, Chaucer is a tale writer and one of our greatest English tale writers. The Canterbury Tales (likely to have been inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron) is his greatest contribution to tales. These tales have the above elements of structure, theme, greater meaning, worldview, divine truth. A tale that make this clear is "The Kinght's Tale" of the romantic rivalry between two noble knights. Thus Chaucer was most definitely a writer of tales.

3. "Tableau writer": A tableau is usually a physical rendering of a recognizable scene that is assembled and held or "frozen" by people for the purpose of presenting an interesting or famous event or gathering to an audience. In earlier centuries, tableau formation was popular as a parlor game. Let's try to sort out this application to Chaucer through a comparison to Dickens. Though Dickens wrote full-blown novels, which can in no terms be called "tableaux," his literature is filled with scenes that pose characters in memorable momentary tableaux that live in the minds of those who read them. For instance, the scene in David Copperfield when Annie Strong is carried back into the party with her roses in disarray after her wrenching encounter with Maldon is in tableau as is the scene of her affirmation of devotion to Dr. Strong:

That ... we saw Mrs. Strong glide in, pale and trembling. That Mr. Dick supported her on his arm. That he laid his other hand upon the Doctor's arm, causing him to look up .... That, ... his wife dropped down on one knee at his feet, and, with her hands imploringly lifted, fixed upon his face the memorable look I had never forgotten. (Dickens, David Copperfield)

These moments are frozen in tableau as characters and readers alike stare at the scenes. There are few or no scenes of this nature in Chaucer's writing; his scenes are all action. Even the scene when he encounters Scipio the Elder in his dream vision in Parlement of Foules describes continuing action and is not a static tableau scene. Thus, no, Chaucer is not a tableau writer as Dickens might, in a sense, be considered a tableau writer.

my spirit ... sent me to sleep so fast
That in my sleep I dreamed there as I lay
How that Elder in selfsame array
Whom Scipio saw, who long ago had died,
Came and stood there right at my bedside. [emphasis added] (Chaucer, Parlement of Foules)

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