Readers of this blog will know of my scepticism towards a literary movement called modernism, but lately I’ve discovered myself increasingly questioning whether there was ever in literature such a thing as the renaissance. Of course, like modernism, this mostly depends on how you define it. The renaissance we are taking here as a literary movement around c15th AD.
The definition of the renaissance I most often have in mind is “a return to the ideas and ideals of the classical period – a rediscovery of same”. This seems problematic to me, since – while in, say, architecture, it is clear things were forgotten and then re-discovered around the c15th – the same can’t be claimed about literature. The major Latin writers were revered throughout this period. So we have such medieval writers as Dante and Petrarch making extenstive reference to them. Cicero in particular had a vast influence on style; Aristotle, of course, on thought.
If I defined the renaissance as “a tendency not to mention the church or God all the time”, perhaps this would mitigate many of these problems. But there were certainly writers throughout this period who didn’t continually reference the divine; who quite clearly pursued the classical model; and besides, that is to ignore the other side of the medieval world: its obsession with such anti-Christian things as chivalry and courtly love, though, of course, lip-service was occasionally paid to keep the clerical world happy.
So what to make of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida? – According to my edition at least, Chaucer wrote it after he had translated The Romaunt of the Rose (the classic work of courtly love) and Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy (that bridge-work between the classical and medieval worlds) into English. These were pretty much straight renditions of the originals; with Troilus and Cressida he begins to enter the realm of his own invention (at least to an extent: he still has his sources, including one Giovanni Boccaccio),although, it has to be said, in his familiar post-modernist way, he keeps up the pretence that he’s merely translating something out of Latin, a work by one Lollius; Chaucer as poet appears constantly, to remind us that here he is writing a poem, and using sources, and selecting his material.
He does make occasional reference to religion in Troilus and Cressida, but this usually comes across as forgetfulness, for instance the biblical apothegm in the following, closely pursued by an explicit classical reference:
“The wise seith, “Wo hym that is allone,
For, and he falle, he hath non helpe to ryse”; …
For this nys naught, certein, the nexte wyse
To wynnen love – as techen us the wyse –
To walwe and wepe as Nyobe the queene,
Whos teres yet in marble ben yseene.”
He mentions God every now and then (but then so do classical writers) often, in fact, but it has this anachronistic feel – Chaucer doesn’t really think through the lack of Christian doctrine inherent in the classical world, so his classical world becomes a strange mash-up of ideas. I’m not sure he ever explicitly mentions Cupid, but he certainly personifies the nature of love as the arrow-armed little boy-god whom none may escape.
Which brings me to Ovid. Now I don’t know, maybe it’s in his sources (Boccaccio, and a French writer called Benoît), but Chaucer does seem to like a spot of Ovidian irony. In fact, the whole of Book 1 is based on one large piece of Ovidian irony, which is this: Troilus has, up to now, particularly laughed at people who fall in love, but now he has fallen in love himself. Chaucer deals with this subject just as Ovid would – here is Troilus talking to himself:
He seyde, “O fool, now artow in the snare,
That whilom japedest at loves peyne.
Now artow hent, now gnaw thin owen cheyne!
Thow were ay wont ech lovere reprehende
Of thing fro which thou kanst the nat defende.
This is about halfway through the first book, and out of fear of being laughed at, he feels forced for the remainder of the book to conceal his love from everyone, most especially its object, not knowing how to deal with love, and gradually begins to waste away.
At one point he even manages to combine his appreciation of Ovid (and his irony) with his own post-modernist tendencies. As Pandarus attempts to get his friend Troilus to tell him what the matter is, he quotes a letter written by Oënone to Paris (Oënone being a nymph, who was thrown over by Paris for the sake of Helen). This letter, of course, never existed – it was in fact written by Ovid (Heroides, 5) as a literary exercise, but it is a nice conceit of Chaucer’s that Pandarus, living at the time, should now take it as real:
“Yee say the lettre that she wrot, I gesse?”
“Nay, nevere yet, ywys,” quod Troilus.
“Now,” quod Pandare, “herkne, it was thus:
‘Phoebus, that first fond art of medicyne,’
Quod she, ‘and couthe in every wightes care
Remedye and reed, by herbes he knew fyne,
Yet to hymself his konnyng was full bare,
For love hadde hym so bounden in a snare
Al for the doughter of the kyng Amete,
That al his craft ne koude his sorwes bete.'”
The only person the doctor cannot cure is himself. (This idea does appear in Heroides 5, but it is only a small part of it, and the skill of medicine is not attributed in it to Phoebus; indeed, it’s attributed to Oënone herself).