The Affairs of Troy - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)

Chapter 9. The Affairs of Troy


If Richard II proved his courage by confronting the dissidents in the summer of 1381, his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1382 set the seal of stability upon what was now a recognised and recognisable royal court. It initiated what was in many respects a magnificent period, even though it ended in the forced abdication and murder of Richard himself. If a reign is also to be celebrated for the culture which it creates, then that of Richard must be remembered for the work of Langland and of Gower no less than that of Chaucer himself. It was a resplendent literary period, only to be equalled by that of Elizabeth in the late sixteenth century. It was the age of a masterpiece such as “the Wilton Diptych.” It was the first age of the mystery plays. It was the age of the great religious works of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. It was the context for the “East Anglian revival” both in manuscript illumination and in wall-painting. Richard II had a fully conceived and almost theatrical sense of his own kingship; he believed that he ruled by divine authority and was inspired by the divine will. It was a court of ceremony and of formal ritual; it was no longer a court of war in anything but a theoretical sense. This in turn encouraged what might be called the self-consciousness of the nation, so that all aspects of the body politic came to be represented in dramatic or rhetorical terms. No other medieval king can boast of such a legacy. To this must be added the influence at the English court of Milan and Bohemia, of Genoa and Paris, of Provence and Pavia. Chaucer was part of this European tradition but it ought to be remembered that he owed as much to the demotic of the mystery plays as to the rhetoric of Dante or of Petrarch. He was at the heart of both a national and an international culture.


The Wilton Diptych of 1395-99; one of the great works of art to be produced in the reign of Richard II, who is shown with his patron saint,


John the Baptist, and saints Edward and Edmund being presented to the Virgin and Child

This is nowhere more evident than in the poem which he began to compose during this period. Troilus and Criseyde has been hailed as the first novel in modern English. But it is more than that. It is a love story and a farce, a lament and a philosophical enquiry, a social comedy and a threnody upon destiny; it is a novel of manners and a poem of high deeds. It is a commodious and accommodating epic poem, and such a new thing in English that it can really be given no fixed or definite name. It can only be said, perhaps, that it is the first modern work of literature in English. In a sense it can be described as an epic of Englishness itself, since it is such an absorbent and accommodating, assimilative and heterogeneous, work of art.

By common consent its origin is to be found in Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. It is the ground of Chaucer’s endeavour, and there are numerous indications that he was engaged in a very close reading of the Italian poem. Indeed all the evidence suggests that he had the volume open before him, since there are many line-by-line translations which could not have been accomplished by memory alone. In particular the openings of Chaucer’s stanzas are closely modelled upon Boccaccio’s own words, as if Chaucer needed the lift and inspiration of the original before embarking upon his own invention and transvaluation. The lines:

Tu stai negli occhi suoi, signor verace
sì come in loco degno a tua virtute

become in Chaucer’s poem:

Ye stonden in hir eighen myghtily,
As in a place unto youre vertu digne …

This is very close translation indeed, where relatively unfamiliar words such as “vertu” and “digne” had to be employed in order to follow the Italian closely. Indeed the whole of Il Filostrato shines through Troilus and Criseyde as the permanent fabric of Chaucer’s venture.

The story itself is an old one, lingering in the European imagination since the middle of the twelfth century as a token of disappointed love and doomed civilisation. The unhappy story is set in Troy just before its destruction at the hands of the Greek invaders. Her father having gone over to the side of the besiegers, Criseyde is left alone and bereft in her native city; Troilus, one of the heroes of the Trojan army, falls wholly and irrevocably in love with this solitary figure. They become lovers—in Chaucer’s version by the machinations of Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus—and enjoy a brief period of ecstatic happiness. Then it is decreed by the civic authorities that Criseyde should be despatched to her father and to the Greek camp in exchange for certain Trojan worthies; the parting of Troilus and Criseyde in which Criseyde pledges by her truth and her honour to remain ever faithful to Troilus is one of the great moments of European literature, rivalling the scenes between Tristram and Isolde. When she is comfortably ensconced in the Greek camp, however, she reneges upon her solemn promise in order to pursue her passion for the warrior Diomede. After weary watchings and searchings for her, Troilus eventually realises the extent of her iniquity and dies of a broken heart. In Chaucer’s version, however, he is lifted into the eighth sphere and realises at last the futility of all earthly love and the vicissitudes of all worldly fortune. It is a wonderful story, which had been transmitted through every generation of poets and minstrels. It was only when Chaucer read Il Filostrato, however, that he was deeply impressed with the possibilities of the theme. It might almost be said that he was engaged in a competitive act with the older Italian poet, by trying to prove that he could outwrite him upon his own ground. The differences between the two poems might then be seen as the difference between the work of a young Italian, and the work of a middle-aged English, poet. But there are more subtle contrasts.

Chaucer’s alterations and additions to Il Filostrato, for example, are of some significance in any account of his poetic genius. Boccaccio wrote the poem when he was still in his twenties, and it is designed in part to be an account of the narrator’s own love-sickness at the departure of his mistress from Naples. Chaucer removes any personal application and instead introduces a narrator who is somewhat bewildered by the course of events and who in no sense feels that he is a part of them; he is a somewhat bookish creature, referring back to his authorities and disavowing any private opinion on the matters discussed:

Men seyn—I not—that she yaf hym hire herte.

It is only to be expected that Chaucer deepens and strengthens the characterisation of the major actors, principally by means of irony and comedy; the constant emphasis lies between the words and the deeds, between the professions of love or honesty and the actual dissimulation involved in any act of love. Chaucer turns a romance into a drama, with all the subtleties of character and action that this requires.

He also emphasises the feudal and medieval aspects of the tale. In Boccaccio’s account it almost becomes a modern love story, but in Chaucer’s rendering it reassumes all the trappings of antiquity and ritual courtesy. This is part of the general English instinct for antiquarianism in all of its forms, but it had the added virtue of imbuing the poem with that bookishness or literariness which was very much to Chaucer’s taste. In the same spirit the English poet also introduced the concept of Fate or Destiny as one of the primary agents of the narrative; there are occasions when the two lovers, and indeed the two warring hosts, seem to be the helpless subjects of forces which they can neither control nor understand. Chaucer also introduces astrological and astronomical lore as a way of preserving the mysteries of fortune in a story of love which can have no happy ending. These higher powers can of course induce a sense of tragedy or a sense of irony; it says much about Chaucer’s genius that in this poem he is capable of both.

He had in fact been translating a philosophical treatise on the nature of fortune even as he was composing the poem itself. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher, was one of the key medieval texts. Indeed its appeal to an English audience predated the fourteenth century. King Alfred had also translated the work some five hundred years before. But for Chaucer it seems to have had some private, as well as public, significance. Its principal theme lies in the need to reach the home and haven of “Philiosophie” as a way of forgetting the uncertain delights of “the blynde goddesse Fortune”; the text was written while Boethius, the servant of a sixth-century king, lay awaiting death in a prison cell. It has all the force and bitterness of private sorrow within it. Only by embracing the serene precepts of philosophy is it possible to escape “the swyftnesse and the sweighe” of worldly fortune’s “turnynge wheel.”

The injunction of philosophy—“Hope aftir no thyng, ne drede nat”—also seems perfectly appropriate to one of Chaucer’s quiet or at least quietistic temperament. He may be imagined to be something of a fatalist in the affairs of the world, who welcomed a treatise that encouraged a settled contemptus mundi in the face of trials or privations. He may not have progressed as far in his public career as he had hoped or expected; he may have willingly disavowed that career in order to serve his poetic vocation. Whatever the truth of the matter he would have been only too happy to dismiss “thilke merveylous monstre Fortune.” By gaining tranquillity of soul “thow art myghty over thyself.” The treatise then proceeds to a debate on the relative status of human free will and divine providence; it is central to fourteenth-century theological speculation, but at this late date it is enough to say that it was resolved to the satisfaction of Chaucer himself. Providence is the scheme of all created things as it exists in the mind of God, for whom the thing that men call “time” does not exist. Free will can be exercised as this eternal scheme works itself through the changeable things in time. It is the philosophical equivalent of a double-edged sword.

The language of Boethius’s work enters many of Chaucer’s shorter poems in this period, and has a direct bearing upon the epic fable of “Palamon and Arcite” which he was also composing; that poem eventually emerges as “The Knight’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, so the influence of Boethius can be said to have lingered until his last years. But the period of the early 1380s can still justly be called the period of his philosophical poetry. The vocabulary of Boethius is introduced within Troilus and Criseyde in a direct manner, for example, in Troilus’s oration upon “necessite” and “Goddes prescience eternel”; that great verse disquisition is followed by the entry of Pandarus with his own brand of worldly wisdom. In this context it is important to realise that the poetic language and tone of Troilus and Criseyde are entirely flexible; they contain Saxon and Romance elements in such a degree of mutual compatibility that they can be shaped in any way.

The distinction between rhetoric and ordinary speech in fact conveys half of the poem’s meaning, since the narrative is conducted by means of orations which speak less than the truth. It is impossible not to be reminded of Chaucer’s own career in royal service, where he would have been expected to use his skills as a rhetorician in order to fabricate a courtly or civilised reality beyond the imperatives of power and commerce. The poem itself is filled with false words or brittle words that do not bear much investigation. Words become dangerous when they are bewitching. “I shal hym so enchaunten with my sawes,” Criseyde declares, and, in turn, it is said that “ravysshen he shal yow with his speche.Troilus and Criseyde is a drama of duplicity. It presents a world established upon etiquette and the rituals of social appearance, while the most significant events take place sub rosa or, in the medieval phrase, under the thumb:

Ye knowe al thilke covered qualitee
Of thynges, which that folk on wondren so.

When his characters are confronted with the truth of their actions or words they are embarrassed; they go red, or they sit “as stil as any ston.”

This emphasis upon oration, and the “covered qualitee” of speech, lends weight to the argument that Troilus and Criseyde was indeed designed for oral delivery. There are references in the text which seem to support such a conclusion, particularly when Chaucer can be presumed to be addressing an audience:

For ay the ner the fir, the hotter is—
This, trowe I, knoweth al this compaignye.

What “compaignye” can it be, other than that sitting before him? And again he talks directly to his hearers:

For sothe, I have naught herd it don er this
In story non, ne no man here, I wene …

The possibilities of performance are of course infinite in such a context. It has often been suggested that there are so many areas of irony and ambiguity in Chaucer’s poem that it is impossible to gauge or gather any one “meaning” from the work; that is why it has been interpreted in a hundred different ways. But if you consider the poem as a text for performance, in which the narrator conveys meaning by gesture or expression, many of the apparent difficulties of interpretation can be resolved. The voices of Criseyde and Pandarus are literally equivocal—their real feelings and motives are not disclosed—but a competent actor would bring them fully to life. We may assume, indeed, that Chaucer himself was just such a performer. He was an actor in his daily life, adopting the roles of diplomat and negotiator, and he may have extended his skills into more formal productions.

He may have acted the parts of Troilus and Criseyde in front of a courtly gathering, but he may also have narrated the poem before an urban audience. There was an annual feast for the city merchants, known from French derivation as a “puy,” when “royal songs” were performed in a form of oratorical contest; it was very much a medieval affair, again not unlike the debates in the Inns of Court, and can be understood as one of the sources of Tudor drama. It is also a lively social context in which we may see Geoffrey Chaucer. It is perhaps the best explanation for the poem’s dedication to John Gower and Ralph Strode, both of them sergeants-at-law and both of them members of what might be called the civic aristocracy.

But nothing can ever be exactly known. There are allusions in Troilus and Criseyde, for example, which suggest that the poem was also conceived as a text or book to be perused by the solitary reader:

Thow, redere, maist thiself ful wel devyne
That swich a wo my wit kan nat diffyne …

There is a short poem of the period, addressed to a scrivener named Adam:

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe.

The poet is here complaining about the faulty state of Adam’s copies, which he must “rubbe and scrape” to correct and to refine. It is further evidence that Troilus and Criseyde was indeed circulated in manuscript form. It was a text for contemplation as well as performance; Chaucer was, as in so many other respects, on the cusp of two worlds. He was poised between the courtly poet, who declaimed his verses in the hall after vespers, and the self-conscious literary artist.

It is natural and inevitable that we should return here to the illustration that is the frontispiece to one edition of Troilus and Criseyde. The entire scene, of the poet in a pulpit addressing his noble audience, is to be interpreted in the context of reading as preaching; we are aware that Chaucer is in earnest as well as game, to use one of his own favourite contrasts, and that he is engaged in the formation of “high sentence” as part of his ethical intention. He is as interested in “sentence” as in “solas.” It has been suggested that two figures in front of the decorated pulpit are engaged in miming the action which Chaucer is expounding; this possibility would throw an interesting light upon the circumstances of poetic delivery. But the audience are indeed primarily auditors. They are engaged in a communal act, with its own rules and expectations. The poet will address those gathered before him in ways which engage and hold their attention. The verses, as Chaucer put it, are “red wherso thow be, or elles songe.” Sometimes he will address them directly in inspired or impassioned terms, so that he takes on all the skills of an orator. On other occasions he will become more familiar, with sly anecdote or innuendo; he will then be less of an impersonal orator than the individual Geoffrey Chaucer, the frail mortal whose idiosyncrasies will be known to some of the audience. There are any number of strategies or subtleties which can also be introduced; Chaucer may impersonate another speaker, or by his expression and gesture contradict the apparent import of his words. That is why it has proved impossible to interpret Chaucer’s written texts in any fixed or coherent manner; every critic has his or her own theory. Without the performer, where is the meaning? And what is the use of critical explication, when the poems reveal themselves always in fresh and unanticipated ways?

At the end of Troilus and Criseyde there is an apostrophe to his own poetry:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in som comedye!
But litel book, no makyng thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

This may be an anticipation of the “comedye” of his last years, The Canterbury Tales, but perhaps more importantly Chaucer is here aspiring towards a place in the pantheon of the great poets. He had alluded to them before. In The House of Fame Statius and Lucan, Virgil and Homer, were all holding up the glory and burden of their respective civilisations. They represented “alle poesye” but they also embodied the gifts and aspirations of their nations. There can be little doubt that Chaucer now considered himself to be worthy of the same company. He was quite aware of his achievement in Troilus and Criseyde, and was, as it were, asserting his claim to being the poetic representative or poetic authority of England.