Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde


Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think?

I personally prefer the Morrison translation found in The Portable Chaucer:

The double sorrow of Troilus to tell,
Who was the son of Priam, King of Troy,
The fortunes of his love, and how he fell
From woe to weal, and then again from joy,
This is my purpose; you, Tisiphone,
help me compose these lines that grieve me so
I write them sadly, weeping as I go.

To you I call, you goddess of torment,
You cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain,
Help me, who am the the sorrowful instrument
That, as I can, help lovers to complain.
Fore well it suits – the old saying is not vain -
A sorry man to have a sorry mate,
And a sad tale to go with a sad gait.

Chaucer wrote the poem in  “rhyme royal” verse, which may feel a bit stodgy today. Wikipedia describes it thus:

The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. In practice, the stanza can be constructed either as a tercet and two couplets (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or a quatrain and a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c). This allows for variety, especially when the form is used for longer narrative poems. Along with the couplet, it was the standard narrative metre in the late Middle Ages.

Some of the archaic words in the original have become familiar as I read them, but not all. I find Middle English difficult because of the unknown or archaic words – clepen? That one I know: it means “speak, call; call by name; summon, invite. Wight is a creature (it’s still used sometimes in fantasy novels). But tendyte? Hmm.

A U Michsite renders this as

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen
That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye,
In louynge how his auentures fellen
ffro wo to wele, and after out of ioie,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thow help me for tendite
Thise woful vers that wepen as I write.

To the clepe I, thow goddesse of torment,
Thow cruwel furie, sorwynge euere in peyne,
Help me that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth loueres, as I kan, to pleyne;
ffor wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery feere,
And to a sorwful tale a sory chere.

Some subtle differences between the two versions. The use of u for v in words like loueres (“lovers”) and auventures (adventures).

Tendyte becomes tendite, which in the Riverside Chaucer is t’endite. And it’s the same in the Librarius version online (this version has many uncommon or archaic words helpfully hyperlinked to an online glossary).

Endite is a verb meaning to “write, compose; dictate (poems); prescribe rules.” Ah, now I understand.

So while I attempt it in the original, I tend to lose the story in the words. I usually head to a modern English version for clarity, or a version with copious notes.

I have a glossary of Chaucer’s English, as well as a couple of textbooks on Middle English that help. There are other glossaries online, but not much help when I’m reading this in bed or on the deck.

Some words are just spelled differently and it takes a second or two, usually while pronouncing them aloud or silently, to recognize them. Peyne (pain), for example. Sone (son) is another.

The Northern Virginia Community College site describes the poem thus:

Perhaps the greatest medieval romance is the fourteenth century English poem, Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer. While Homer focused on the impact of passion (both love/lust and rage) on war, Chaucer puts love and loss in the foreground, with a background of war and the unavoidable destruction of Troy.

Chaucer’s Criseyde is more feminine, more vulnerable, less calculating than Shakespeare’s. And the story ends differently. Shakespeare clearly was inspired by Chaucer, but made the tale his own, as he was wont to do. Over the ages, the tale has been told in many iterations, some sympathetic to Troilus, others to Cressida. It’s even been rewritten as a modern feminist opera by Alice Shields.

Anyway, enough for now. I’m enjoying it, so far. Time to head outside, chair on the porch, book in hand, cup of tea in t’other, dog by my side, to read some more.