In-Class Exercise: Syntax and “Sir Thopas”

Through formalist analysis, this lesson plan explores the course’s main theme, Chaucer’s authorial personae. The lesson acquaints students with terms of grammatical analysis, which they use to closely reading passages from “The General Prologue” and “Sir Thopas.” By comparing the syntax of these two poems, students use close-reading skills to make arguments about authorship.
1. The lesson begins with a tutorial on types of clauses. Students first view example sentences (projected on the board). Guided by questions from the instructor, students discern the differences between main clauses, subordinate clauses, relative clauses, coordinate clauses, and noun clauses.
2. With these definitions in mind, students next undertake an analysis of the opening lines of “The General Prologue”:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote  
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
(That slepen al the nyght with open eye);
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. (1-12)
The instructor asks students to locate subjects and verbs in order to locate clauses. Students then identify independent, subordinate, relative, and coordinate clauses. Having thus diagrammed the sentence, students develop arguments about its form. Asked about the rhetorical effects of this periodic sentence, one student suggests that these lines create an enticing introduction. Pressed for clarification, another student offers that the syntactic structure creates suspense by delaying the main clause. Asked about the relationship between form and content, one student posits that the syntax creates a “grammatical pilgrimage” in which the reader moves toward finding the sentence’s meaning. Asked about the relationship between line-length and rhyme, students observe a tension between the strict order created by the couplet and the meandering movement of the sentence. Observations about Chaucer’s use of enjambment serve the emerging argument that Chaucer deliberately creates a tension between sentence and form.
3. Students turn to the day’s reading, “The Tale of Sir Thopas”:
Listeth, lordes, in good entent,
 And I wol telle verrayment
 Of myrthe and of solas,
 Al of a knyght was fair and gent
 In bataille and in tourneyment; 
 His name was sire Thopas.

Yborn he was in fer contree,
 In Flaundres, al biyonde the see,
 At Poperyng, in the place.
 His fader was a man ful free,
 And lord he was of that contree,
 As it was Goddes grace. &c &c (1-12)
Students undertake a similar procedure. They locate subjects and verbs, and they note the preponderance of independent clauses. Students also observe the prevalence of end-stopped lines. Students point out the redunancies, filler words, and easy rhymes. Asked about the ratio of line length to rhyme, they point out that the structure creates a sense of tedium.
4. This close-reading segues into an open discussion about the poem’s authorial persona and in particular about Geoffrey’s conflict with the Host.