Thursday, 22 January 2015

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer reciting Troilus and Criseyde,
15th Century.
My Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Challenge is now in full swing, and I decided to read Troilus and Criseyde (1382-86) for Fanda's Literary Movements Challenge. I said of The Romaunt of the Rose that is was a particularly difficult book: Troilus and Criseyde is far harder, and was a far more arduous read. I began Troilus at the beginning of the month and then decided first to read Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (1602) to help me out a little. And help it did, so that was a good move, and I managed to finish Chaucer's Troilus on Tuesday. If The Canterbury Tales (1386-94) is a collection of short stories in verse, then Troilus and Criseyde is his greatest 'single' work. It's about 8, 239 lines and 1, 177 stanzas (apart from The Canterbury Tales this is , his longest poem, the second longest, The Romaunt of the Rose, is 7, 692 lines) and is about equally divided into five books.

In my post on Shakespeare's Troilus I wrote about the root of the tales, and this bears repeating here - Chaucer was inspired by Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (1335-40), which itself was derived from Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie (1155-60). All of these ultimately were inspired by Homer's Iliad (1260-40 B.C.).

It's set during the mythical Trojan War (generally dated to be in the second millennium BC) and tells the story of Troilus and Criseyde (a widow), whose relationship is largely at the mercy of the gods.

Book I

A manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde from 1513.
The first book is addressed to Tisiphone:
Thesiphone, thow help me for t'endite
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I write.
Tisiphone (Τισιφόνη) is one of the Furies who punishes crimes of murder.

In this section, a soothsayer, Cachas (Criseyde's father), predicts the fall of Troy and he leaves the city to join the Greeks. Meanwhile, Troilus, a Trojan soldier openly mocks Love in a temple. He is punished by the God of Love -
At which the God of Love gan loken rowe
Right for despit, and shop for to ben wroken.
He kidde anon his bowe nas naught broken;
For seodenly he hitte atte fulle -
And yet as proud a pekok kan he pulle.
"This fierse and proude knyght" is struck and he falls in love with Criseyde, who is now left with her uncle Pandarus who tells Troilus he will help the lovers unite.

Book II

The second book is addressed to Clio (Κλειώ), the muse of history:
O lady myn, that called art Cleo,
Thow be my speed fro this forth, and my Muse,
To ryme wel this book til I have do...
In it, Pandarus tells Criseyde of Troilus' love for her, and urges her to take pity on the young knight. She ponders on the matter, and sees Troilus pass,
So lik a man of armes and a knyght
He was to see, fulfilled of heigh prowesse,
For bothe he hadde a body and a myght
To don that thing, as wel as hardynesse;
And ek to seen hym in his gere hym dresse,
So fressh, so yong, so weldly semed he,
It was an heven upon hym for to see.
She continues to consider the matter, falls asleep, and dreams of a white eagle:
And as she slep, anonright tho hire mette
How than an egle, fethered whit as bon,
Under hire brest his longe clawes sette,
And out hire herte he rente, and that anon,
And dide his herte into hire brest to gon -
Of which she nought agross, ne nothyng smerte -
And forth he fleigh, with herte left for herte.
Meanwhile Pandarus continues to help Troilus write to Criseyde, which leads to them exchanging letters. When she still shows hesitation in meeting Troilus, Pandarus arranges a meeting for the two at the house of Deiphobus, the brother of Troilus. Once there Troilus, under the guidance of Pandarus, pretends to be ill and Criseyde goes to him.

Book III
Troilus and Crisede: Liber Secundus 
by William Morris.

Book III is addressed to Venus, the goddess of Love:
O sonnes kief, O Joves doughter deere,
Plesance of love, O goodly debonaire,
In gentil hertes ay redy to repaire!
O veray cause of heele and of gladnesse,
Iheryed be thy myght and thi goodnesse!
In Book III Troilus declares his love for Criseyde, but she says very little, so Pandarus once again schemes to bring the two together and plans a dinner on the night a great storm is expected. She reassures Troilus of her affection to him, and she weeps. Troilus, over emotional, faints, and Pandarus takes the opportunity to push Criseyde into bed with him. They have sex, and in the morning part, with Troilus' love deepended.

Book IV

The fourth book is addressed to Mars, the god of war, and the Erinyes - the three furies of vengeance:

O ye Herynes, Nyghts doughtren thre,
That endeles compleignen evere in pyne,
Megera, Alete, and ek Thesiphone,
Thow cruel Mars ek, fader to Quyryne,
This ilke ferthe book me helpeth fyne,
So that the losse of lyf and love yfeere
Of Troilus be fully shewed heere.
Book IV shows how Calchas (the father of Criseyde) persuades the Trojans to exchange Antenor, a prisoner of war, for his daughter. Troilus, guided by Pandarus (who previously suggested that Troilus finds a new lover), tries to persuade to elope but she refuses believing it to be impractical. She assures him that she will return to her father but run away ten days later. Troilus leaves her with a great sense of foreboding:
The day gan rise, and Troilus hym cladde,
And rewfullich his lady gan byholde,
As he that felte dethes cares colde,
And to hire grace he gan hym recomaunde,
Wher hym was wo, this holde I no demaunde. 
Book V
A manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde from 1513.

Book V is addressed to the Fates:
Aprochen gan the fatal destinee
That Joves hath in disposicioun,
And to yow, angry Parcas, sustren three,
Committeth, to don execucioun;
For which Criseyde moste out of the toun,
And Troilus shal dwelle forth in pyne
Til Lachesis his threed no lenger twyne.
In this the final book three years have gone by since Troilus first saw Criseyde in the temple. Now she is in the Greek camp and she meets Diomede who encourages her to forget about the Trojans, telling her of his confidence that they will win the battle. They fall in love and she does not return to Troilus. Having dreamt about her he writes to her, and she responds in vague, distracted terms. He suspects her infidelity which is confirmed on finding Diomede's coat with a brooch he, Troilus, had given Criseyde. On finding it, he curses Fortune, still in love with her, and he later dies in battle. 

Chaucer concludes, dedicating his tragedy to John Gower (author of Mirour de l'Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis) and Ralph Stroode (author of Logica and Consequentiae), contemporaries of Chaucer, and prays that we may all be worthy of Christ's mercy:
O moral Gower, this book I directe 
To thee, and to the philosophical Strode, 
To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to corecte, 
Of your benignitees and zeles gode. 
And to that sothfast Crist, that starf on rode, 
With al myn herte of mercy ever I preye; 
And to the lord right thus I speke and seye:  
Thou oon, and two, and three, eterne on-lyve, 
That regnest ay in three and two and oon, 
Uncircumscript, and al mayst circumscryve, 
Us from visible and invisible foon 
Defende; and to thy mercy, everichoon, 
So make us, Iesus, for thy grace digne, 
For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne! Amen.
It is a sad and complex tale that shows a lot more sympathy for Criseyde than Shakespeare did. She is more thoughtful and more fearful, and Chaucer portrays a love more innocent and less cynical. And the tragedy - that this, ultimately, was caused by the God of Love's punishment of Troilus and Pandarus' meddling, which is down to his regret of his own bad luck in love. Had Troilus been less cynical in the very beginning he might have lived, but because of his actions he learned of the power and might of Love. 

As I said at the beginning, this was an intensely difficult read! From reading Chaucer these past few months I'm more attune to Medieval English, but even so the length and breadth of this huge tale left me out of breath at times. I think I may need a dose of Victorian Literature before I contemplate my next bout of Chaucer!

To finish, some illustrations: these are four of the illustrations by Warwick Goble and were published by Macmillan in 1912.

Further Reading


  1. Oooo, fun! I'd love to have all the time in the world to be able to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. I think it would get to be quite easy, once you got used to it.

    You're going through your list quite quickly. Do you think you'll need a break, or are you enjoying Chaucer so much that you'll be able to just keep going? March is approaching, the month I planned to read the Canterbury Tales, but depending on my book-load in February, I may start early. Your posts are inspiring me!

    1. Well, I've been thinking about this - firstly, Troilus was a very difficult read, and Romaunt of the Rose was so difficult to write, so I think I'm going to have a short break. I was planning on reading House of Fame next week, then Legend of Good Women after - I thought I'd read those, then Canterbury, then the non-fiction (Boece and Astrolabe) but I'm not sure now. I'm really eager to start Canterbury and I don't want to rush through House of Fame and Legend to get to it.

      So, in short: I'm going to start Canterbury in the first week of Feb and read a section a week (that will take me til August I think), after which I'll read House of Fame, Legend, short poems, and the non-fiction. That, right now, is my plan.

      I'm really looking forward to Canterbury Tales - I have read it, but it was over a short period and I don't think it was a successful read. I'm thinking a Tale a week would be a good approach (which will take 26 weeks!). So yes, expect the pace to slow greatly! :)

    2. I liked the tales very much when I was at school back in the early 60s but we didn't study it in Middle English although we had it running alongside - hope you enjoy it:)

    3. Reading in Middle English is so hard - I've had to refer to translations once or twice!


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