A consideration of Spenser’s framing of his continuation of Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale.

This blog will investigate ideas surrounding what extent Chaucer can be considered a legitimate inspiration for Spenser in his desire to complete The Squire’s Tale, or whether we must consider the poetic authority of Chaucer to be a burden that Spenser must overcome and efface in his transformative supplement to the original tale. I will look at the idea of authorship and authorial identity and whether one must sacrifice one’s own identity when interpreting another source, or whether it is possible to change it in such a way it becomes unique but still retains some of its former roots. Spenser’s continuation of The Squire’s Tale raises many questions about his relationship to, and imitation of Chaucer.

Page from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Spenser uses the term “’Dan’ an archaic title of respect derived from Latin dominus [which] is otherwise used by Spenser only of classical gods and heros” (Hamilton, The Spenser Encyclopedia, 144). By using this title specifically in such an obvious reference to Chaucer it could be interpreted that he is making a sardonic joke about the idea of Chaucer being in the same league as the gods, unattainable in stature and accessibility.It could also be interpreted that Spenser may have indeed considered Chaucer an inspiration at the time but as Craig A. Berry mentions; “for Spenser, the well of English may be undefiled, but it needs filtering before it is served to a sixteenth-century audience.”(116) Berry had previously discussed how the Elizabethans viewed the Middle Ages with a paradoxical nature (107) and how “even the greatest English poets” were considered “barbarous and rude Ryming”. (108)

It is possible that Spenser truly did believe that “Of thine owne spirit, which doth in me survive” (IV.ii.34. 7). But, due to the general distaste for Chaucer, he decided to refine and adapt Chaucer’s meaning to suit his own style and the societal demands that he faced. This can be observed in Spenser’s complete avoidance of Cambalo and Canacee’s incestuous relationship. He decides that Cambalo “That faught in lystes with the bretheren two / For Canacee er that he myght hire wynne.” (Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, 177) will fight instead for a suitor for his sister thus removing any incest from the story. A. Kent Hieatt reaffirms this point when he says that Spenser “turns Chaucer’s original into a more obvious member of a more structured Marriage Group” (158).

Spenser may have chosen The Squire’s Tale not just because it was left unfinished but due to the character of the Squire himself. Spenser may have interpreted the Franklin’s praise of the Squire, when he interrupts his tale, as a false compliment or ironic. This is how he may have viewed the response to his own work. The Squire’s anger at King Cambyuskan’s courtiers’ inability to decipher the magic horse in Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale may have echoed Spenser’s own constant fear of being misunderstood.

Portrait of Chaucer

“Of sondry doubts thus they jangle and trete, / As lewed peple demeth comunly / Of thynges that been maad moore subtilly / than they kan in hir lewednesse comprehende” (Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, 171)

Finally, the Squire’s burden of having to impress people in the presence of his father who largely outranked and overshadowed him by being a knight as well as his elder and the fear and pressure of potential failure may have resonated with Spenser in his attempt to “follow here the footing of thy feete, / That with thy meaning so I may the rather meete.” (FQ IV.ii.34.8-9)

It is more than likely that readers of Spenser in the sixteenth century would have been well educated and familiar with Chaucer and would have picked up on Spenser’s subtle and obvious references to him. In one sense it could be argued that Spenser attempted to manage his audience’s response to his adaption of The Squire’s Tale by not only making it more socially acceptable and attempting to turn it into an epic but also by his detailed completion of it; leaving no room for question or misinterpretation, unlike Chaucer. However Berry argues that;  “A poem that represents its author as reading his sources in the same figures that represent it readers reading – or failing to read – the poem itself becomes an arena where the past-orientated concerns of intertextuality meet the present-orientated concerns of contemporary reception” (107). This reiterates the perception of the end of the Chaucerian era and his incompatibility with the fashion of literature in the sixteenth century.

Richard Helgerson argues in Self Crowned Laureates that Spenser distinguished himself as a Laureate by publicly abandoning “all social identity except that conferred by his elected vocation” (63). It can be argued that by losing his identity to his work, he truly did embrace Chaucer’s essence and, in doing so, used him as a legitimate inspiration to create his transformative supplement to the original Squire’s Tale. It is arguable though that Spenser placed himself in Book IV more than in any other book. Not only did he change his style of narration but he made it more personal in the time between the release of the first three books in 1590 and the subsequent others in 1596. His narrator also out-rightly disturbs the story to tell us of Chaucer’s greatness; this narrative interjection a classic element of Chaucer’s own narrative style. “Again the reel has stopped, the major characters have frozen, and then the poet steps forward” (Anderson, The Growth of a Personal Voice,118). This style of Chaucer is exceptionally relevant in The Squire’s Tale as the text is primarily concerned with how to tell the story rather than the storyline itself. The narrator’s voice is consistent and dominates the tale up until the Falcon begins to speak: there is almost no direct speech throughout the tale (Cooper, Oxford Guide to Chaucer, 227).

Hamilton mentions that no writer in the Elizabethan period demonstrates a kinship to Chaucer the way that Spenser does. The epitaph on Spenser’s tomb reportedly says “’Hic prope Chaucerum situs est Spenserius, illi / Proximus ingenio, proximus ut tumulo’ (‘Here buried next to Chaucer, lies Spenser, close to him in wit, and as close in his tomb’)” (Hamilton, 144).   In short, Chaucer can be considered a legitimate inspiration for Spenser in his desire to complete The Squire’s Tale, but this did not come without the occasional burden.

Works Cited

Anderson, Judith H. The Growth of a Personal Voice. London: Yale University Press, 1976. Print.

Berry, Craig A. ‘“Sundrie Doubts” Vulnerable Understanding and Dubious Origins in Spenser’s Continuation of the Squire’s Tale”: Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance. Ed. Theresa M. Krier. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. Print. (106-127)

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1987. Print.

Cooper, Helen. The Oxford Guide to the Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. Print.

Hamilton, A.C. The Spenser Encyclopedia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Helgerson, Richard. Self-Crowned Laureates. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Print.  

Hieatt, A. Kent. “Room of One’s Own for Decisions: Chaucer and the Faerie Queene”. Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance. Ed Theresa M. Krier. Gainesville, University Press of Florida. 1998. Print. (147-164)

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed A.C Hamilton. Harlow, Pearson Longman.2001. Print.

 Images Cited

British Library. Portrait of ChaucerA photographic reproduction of a manuscript illumination. 2014. Portrait and Life of ChaucerWikimedia Commons. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Page from “The Canterbury Tales. A photographic reproduction of a manuscript illumination. 2011. The Canterbury Tales. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 18 Jan 2014

The role of the reader in the representation and construction of a writer’s authorial identity – Ben Jonson and John Taylor

As part of the Book History module I took part in I developed an essay surrounding Ben Jonson and John Taylor, and how the reader and consumer affect the construction of a writer’s authorial identity.

For me the notion of authorial identity is complex even by definition. It can be simply the person who has written the piece one is investigating or the person who came up with the original idea for it. It can be the personality of that writer transcending through the piece and it is almost impossible for authorship to remain uninfluenced by the readers own ideas and notions about the author and the context in which he is writing.The complete disparity between Ben Jonson and John Taylor are an example of this. Both part of the same country at the same time and yet their context could not be further apart.

The title page of Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616)

If we first explore the frontispiece of Jonson’s Workes (1616) it is possible to get an insight into how the early modern readers and consumers of the time may have interpreted the piece and how this may have contributed to their notion of authorial identity. Sara Van Der Berg said in Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio “The multiple definitions of the word author worked out in Jonson’s Folio is implied in the iconography of the frontispiece. Because Ben Jonson took such care with the preparation of his book, the title page can be considered a visual depiction of his personal ideology in relation to the general ideology of authorship available in his culture.”(114) Peter Berek states that “Title pages functioned as a form of what we would call advertising: They tried to persuade potential customers to buy a book.” (The Book of the Play, 162)The intricate detail of the frontispiece proposes the idea that Jonson was either comfortable with this form of ostentatious display or else deeply desired to be among it. It is evident that he considered only the elite eligible to read his work. Van Der Berg also discusses how the frontispiece “links Jonson to the coterie audience of humanist scholars and aristocrats who presumably shared his classical learning and values.” (Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio 114) The early modern readers and consumers may have been repelled by Jonson’s arrogance or intimidated that they would not understand his work or indeed may have been attracted to the invitation for the elite only. Its elaborate columns and Romanesque architecture would have been relevant and would have appealed only to the upper educated classes.

The title page of John Taylor’s Workes

Contradictory to Jonson as Nigel Wheale argues in Writing and Society: Literary Print and Politics in Britain that “The life and works of John Taylor (1578-1653) arguably England’s first self-taught successful author, illustrate the new opportunities which literacy offered to low-status individuals” Wheale also includes the quote from Taylor’s Workes “’To any Reader He or She, / It makes no matter what they be’: / John Taylor the Water Poet” Taylor marketed himself as accessible to everyone unlike a quotation from Jonson’s frontispiece which makes his intentions entirely transparent.  “-neque, me ut miretur turba, / laboro: / Contentus paucis lectoribus” [I do not work so that I will be admired by the crowd, but am content with a few readers] (Van Der Berg, Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio 114) Taylor’s frontispiece is designed to embody what he himself represented and not who he wished to represent. It’s filled with boatman symbolism which demonstrations Taylor’s continual commitment to his literary persona. It is largely understated by comparison to Jonson’s and this is what made it attractive to readers of Taylor’s own class. While it is obvious he wishes to succeed in the upper classes especially considering the importance of patronage, Taylor never forgets his lower class audience. We see this by his use of marginalia throughout his Workes and again when we see who he often addresses his pieces too. In the text An Arrent Thiefe Taylor invites “To any Reader Hee or Shee, / It makes no matter what they bee.” (115) This unbiased and welcoming approach allowed Taylor to transition with ease through the classes.

This example of the title page is only the tip of the iceberg regarding how we as readers can influence the representation of the author subconsciously. But even though it isn’t an extensive example, it does give us reason to pause and reflect on our own interpretations and biased.


Works Cited.

Berek, Peter. “Genres, Early Modern Theatrical Title Pages, and the Authority of Print” The Book of the Play Playrights, Stationers, and readers in Early Modern England. Ed. Marta Straznicky. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2006. Print.

Jonson, Ben. The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. London. 1616. Early English Books Online. Web. 4 Jan 2014.

Taylor, John. The Workes of John Taylor the water-poet. London. 1630. Early English Books Online. Web. 4 Jan. 2014

Van Den Berg, Sara. “Ben Jonson and the Ideology of Authorship. Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio. Ed. Brady and Herendeer. Newark: University of Deleware. 1991. Print. (111-136).

Wheale, Nigel. “Penny Merriments, Penny Godlinesses” Writing and Society: literacy, print and politics in Britain, 1590 – 1660. London, Routledge. 1999. Print.  


Images Cited. 

Mzilikazi1939. The title page of All the Workes of John Taylor. Photograph. 2011. John Taylor. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 12 Jan 2014. 

Reedy, Tom. The Workes of Beniamin Ionson. Photograph. 2010. Ben Jonson. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 12 Jan 2014