Troilus and Cressida Bk.1, by Geoffrey Chaucer

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).

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10 thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida Bk.1, by Geoffrey Chaucer

  1. I do not remember any of this. I remember the end vividly, or feel that I do.

    The use of Ovid is fascinating. I was just looking at the Heroides, because Swinburne makes reference to it (or I think he does).

    Oh right, I saw a joke in there “Are you sure it was by LOLlius, and not by ROFLlius?” Or something like that.

  2. Don’t tell me the end though, I haven’t got there yet. Hope they all live happily ever after! I’ll be most upset otherwise. The Trojans win, don’t they?

    I’m intruged whether it’s Chaucer’s use of Ovid, or his sources. I suppose I’m never going to get to check, but I suspect it’s Chaucer (my edition suggests he adds a lot to his sources).

    Yes, I think Chaucer was frustrated that the English language was changing with all this Modern English. Mind you, he has some great shortenings of his own. The word “slombrestow”, for “are you asleep?”; “nyl” for “will not”; “ywis” for “I think”. I’m sure we could bring these back.

  3. Have you read Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, which takes up the story from where Chaucer left it? It’s really good, and it’s nice to compare Middle Scots to Middle English.

  4. Thanks for this – and i hope posts on the other books will follow. My ignorance of Chaucer has been gnawing at me for some time now, and I have both Troilus & Cressida and The Canterbury Tales lines up to remedy my ignorance. I’m particularly interested to see what, if anything, Shakespeare had taken from Chaucer.

    As for the Renaissance, I don’t know that its literal meaning – i.e. rebirth, implying a rediscovery of classical culture – is applicable at all, for reasons you mention, in literature and in music as it is in the visual arts. When we speak of, say, Sidney being a renaissance poet or of Byrd being a Renaissance composer, all we mean, I think, is that they were around at the same time as the Renaissance artists. It’s a convenient label, and I don’t know that we should get too hung up over labels. (And as for modernism, that obviously came about because Einstein discovered relativity, but let’s not go into all that again…)

  5. Hopefully other books will follow, though I don’t have a great history of finishing things by Chaucer (I’ve failed to finish Roman of the Rose, Boethius and The Canterbury Tales). – I also am interested in what Shakespeare borrowed, and that’s indeed why I embarked on reading it.

    There is one salient fact of the Renaissance in literature not mentioned here which probably make a difference, and that’s the re-discovery of the Greek language in c15th, which had been unknown in the west since soon after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. That is to say, that couldn’t read Homer, Greek tragedy, Plato and Aristotle, Greek science, the New Testament – at least, not in the original. Most were available in Latin translation (not sure about the tragedies though), Homer most known through Latin epitomes. Don’t think Chaucer knew Homer as the poems are today.

  6. Interesting. i have long harboured a hypothesis that the great tragic oplays of Shakespeare from 1599 onwards was a consequence of Shakespeare’s first encounter with Homer (Chapman’s Iliad came out in 1598). Certainly, Shakespeare’s Thersytes is very similar to Homer’s, and I’d be interested to know if there is an equivalent character in Chaucer.

    To my knowledge, no-one has pointed out the paallels between Homer’s Achilles and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. At teh start of the work, both are put down in public, in a big court scene (Achilles by Agamemnon, Hamlet by Claudius). And, having been put down, these proud men, instead of taking arms against a sea of troubles, withdraw from action and brood on mortality. But when they do act, they are merciless: there’s a superb speech of Achilles (I don’t have the text with me, and can’t remember where it is) where he tells a Trojan he is about to kill that his death means nothing, that even he, the great Achilles, will one day die in battle. This is not a million miles away from the Hamlet we see in Act 5.

    Is this worth developing further, or am I talking crap again?

  7. A short browse around the internet indicates that Chaucer didn’t know Homer first hand, but his source Boccaccio did (seems to be one of the few people in c14th Italy who could read Greek). Whether he knew him secondhand – i.e. in translation – I’m uncertain.

    Your theory sounds plausible enough. So far as I can see, Shakespeare’s sources tended to be English (perhaps French, and even perhaps Italian). I don’t think he ever took anything directly from Latin or Greek (just like I’d be unlikely to). – Essentially I suppose Chapman first brought Homer to the majority of English-speakers.

  8. He took a lot from Ovid, I think. There’s a direct reference to Ovid in “As You Like It”. There’s a book by Jonathan Bate (which I haven’t read) on Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare.

    I know I keep making reading plans and then fail to follow them up – but Chaucer is a must-read for next year.

  9. I don’t think he read often in Latin though (I’m just guessing). I did check my copy of Julius Caesar, to see whether he’d actually read Plutarch (Greek) in the original, and it says he read him in English translation.

    Ovid seems to have been such common currency through the late Middle Ages / Renaissance, although I’m beginning to become a bit suspicious of Chaucer: he always seems to half-know the stories, but gets bits wrong – but I’m not sure if this is embellishment, or if he’s less aware of his source than I’m assuming.

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