Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde

January 4, 2011

Troilus and Criseyde
Geoffrey Chaucer (Houghton Mifflin, 1961) [c.1390]
95 p.

Based on a minor episode in the saga of the Siege of Troy, Troilus and Criseyde is the longest poem that Chaucer completed. It is thoroughly medieval in conception, saturated with the ideals of courtly love, delighting in the luxurious details of the lover’s devotion to his beloved, meticulously constructed, and well-stocked with the “solid instruction” that C.S. Lewis marked as characteristic of medieval literature. It is a tragedy, certainly, but leavened en route by warm humour.

The poem consists of 1177 stanzas of rime royal, a form that Chaucer himself introduced into English poetry; each stanza, of seven lines, follows the rhyme scheme (or rime scheme) ABABBCC. The story is borrowed from Boccaccio (who in turn borrowed from earlier sources). It relates the ill-fated romance between Troilus, the greatest of the Trojan knights next to Hector, and Criseyde, whose father has betrayed the Trojans by crossing over, as military advisor, to the Greeks. Their forbidden love blossoms in secret, but a crisis arises when Criseyde is sent to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange. Though promising to return, she does not do so, yielding instead to the advances of a Greek hero. It ends badly.

Criseyde is a young woman, respectable, of ‘riche beautee’, and innocent of the ways of love. Chaucer describes her this way:

Criseyde mene was of hir stature,
Therto of shap, of face, and eek of chere,
Ther mighte been no fairer creature.
And ofte tyme this was hir manere,
To gon y-tressed with hir heres clere
Doun by hir coler at hir bak bihinde,
Which with a threde of gold she wolde binde.

And, save hir browes ioyneden yfere,
Ther nas no lak, in ought I can espyen;
But for to speken of hir eyen clere,
Lo, trewely, they writen that hir syen,
That Paradys stood formed in hir yen.
And with hir riche beautee ever-more
Strof love in hir, ay which of hem was more.

She sobre was, eek simple, and wys withal,
The beste ynorisshed eek that mighte be,
And goodly of hir speche in general,
Charitable, estatliche, lusty, and free;
Ne never-mo ne lakkede hir pitee;
Tendre-herted, slydinge of corage;
But trewely, I can not telle hir age.
(V, 806-26)

Troilus, for his part, is renowned as a brave and valiant knight, powerful in battle, elegant in good company, and admired by all:

And Troilus wel waxen was in highte,
And complet formed by proporcioun
So wel, that kinde it not amenden mighte;
Yong, fresshe, strong, and hardy as lyoun;
Trewe as steel in ech condicioun;
On of the beste enteched creature,
That is, or shal, whyl that the world may dure.

And certainly in storie it is yfounde,
That Troilus was never unto no wight,
As in his tyme, in no degree secounde
In durring don that longeth to a knight.
Al mighte a geaunt passen him of might,
His herte ay with the firste and with the beste
Stood paregal, to durre don that him leste.
(V, 827-40)

It is Troilus who first falls in love with Criseyde, and it is he who has the most to lose from the affair. Criseyde’s father is a traitor to the Trojan people, and for Troilus to woo his daughter puts him in what, today, we blandly call a ‘conflict of interest’. Nonetheless, he does woo, in secret, with the connivance of Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus. Criseyde resists, at first, but with persistence she relents. Her willingness to be persuaded by sweet words and smiles, which is the cause of Troilus’ joy, is also, alas, to be the font of his despair.

The terms under which Criseyde accepts Troilus into ‘hir servyse’, promising in return to ‘cherycen yow right after ye deserve’ are worth rehearsing. Here we see the ideal of courtly love laid out in brief compass. She turns her eyes to him, ‘ful esily, and ful debonairly’, and says:

`Myn honour sauf, I wol wel trewely,
And in swich forme as he can now devyse,
Receyven him fully to my servyse,

`Biseching him, for goddes love, that he
Wolde, in honour of trouthe and gentilesse,
As I wel mene, eek mene wel to me,
And myn honour, with wit and besinesse
Ay kepe; and if I may don him gladnesse,
From hennes-forth, ywis, I nil not feyne:
Now beeth al hool; no lenger ye ne pleyne.

`But nathelees, this warne I yow,’ quod she,
`A kinges sone although ye be, ywis,
Ye shal namore have soverainetee
Of me in love, than right in that cas is;
Ne I nil forbere, if that ye doon amis,
To wrathen yow; and whyl that ye me serve,
Cherycen yow right after ye deserve.

`And shortly, dere herte and al my knight,
Beth glad, and draweth yow to lustinesse,
And I shal trewely, with al my might,
Your bittre tornen al into swetenesse.
If I be she that may yow do gladnesse,
For every wo ye shal recovere a blisse’;
And him in armes took, and gan him kisse.
(III, 159-75)

The question, incidentally, of just how to judge whether love be ‘right in that cas’ turns out to be more and more difficult as their romance develops. It may have begun with a kiss, but before long — well, these things have a way of gathering momentum:

Hir armes smale, hir streyghte bak and softe,
Hir sydes longe, fleshly, smothe, and whyte
He gan to stroke, and good thrift bad ful ofte
Hir snowish throte, hir brestes rounde and lyte;
Thus in this hevene he gan him to delyte,
And therwithal a thousand tyme hir kiste;
That, what to done, for Ioye unnethe he wiste.
(III, 1247-53)

As this is a family blog, I’ll say no more along these lines.

When it falls out that Criseyde is sent away from Troy to the Greek camp, she promises to return shortly, and Troilus watches from the ramparts for her each day, but to no avail. His lovesick distress, which he must hide from all observers, bursts forth in long, private laments:

`O wofulle eyen two, sin your disport
Was al to seen Criseydes eyen brighte,
What shal ye doon but, for my discomfort,
Stonden for nought, and wepen out your sighte?
Sin she is queynt, that wont was yow to lighte,
In veyn fro this forth have I eyen tweye
Yformed, sin your vertue is aweye.
(IV, 309-315)

His sorrow ripens with time until, one fateful day, he realizes that Criseyde is not just prevented from returning to him, but no longer wishes to return. Her affections have been turned. The fickleness of women is a theme with a long and distinguished pedigree, and Criseyde is certainly guilty, but Chaucer rounds out her character by allowing her a troubled conscience. Says the narrator:

But trewely, the story telleth us,
Ther made never womman more wo
Than she, whan that she falsed Troilus.
She seyde, `Allas! For now is clene ago
My name of trouthe in love, for evermo!
For I have falsed oon, the gentileste
That ever was, and oon the worthieste!

`Allas, of me, unto the worldes ende,
Shal neither been ywriten nor ysonge
No good word, for thise bokes wol me shende.
O, rolled shal I been on many a tonge;
Throughout the world my belle shal be ronge;
And wommen most wol hate me of alle.
Allas, that swich a cas me sholde falle!
(V, 1051-64)

Chaucer’s poem, we see, is one of those that rings her bell.


I found that I enjoyed Troilus and Criseyde tremendously. I do not read Chaucer very often, this being the first time I have ventured beyond The Canterbury Tales, and it was a pleasure to pass the time in his urbane and witty company again.  I confess that I did struggle with the language at times. It became easier with practice, but it still required a good deal more concentration than my usual bed-time reading. It was very interesting to read a large-scale finished work by Chaucer; his control over the architecture, and the fluidity of his writing (in what is quite a difficult form) was consistently admirable. There is something attractive about the stocky vigour of his language too. This is what English can be when the highfalutin’ bits are sawn off.

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