Our book today is Geoffrey Chaucer's 1380s masterpiece, the magnificent long poem Troilus and Criseyde. The semi-mythical 'common reader' of today will not have read this great book, although that same reader will almost certainly have been forced to read segments of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales at some point in school. Unlike that reading-list book, Troilus and Criseyde is complete right down to the last fine detail.
It's odd that young people don't read this book, because it's one of the most moving (and unsparingly accurate) depictions of what it's like to be young and passionately, hopelessly tormented by love. While he was composing the poem, Chaucer's life was crowded to the rafters with responsibilities - he was a fixture at Court, Comptroller of Petty Customs (a silly-sounding name to us now, but oh, the money that flowed past your fingertips when you held such a post), Justice of the Peace for Kent, member of Parliament for Kent ... most men in such dizzying demand barely had time to bolt down a bit of cold mutton every day, but Chaucer had the knack for work. It was a refuge for him, a welcome that greeted him every time he closed his study door. People who embrace their writing rather than fight it often find themselves feeling this way; Chaucer wasn't the first to feel it (the Venerable Bede used to hum in sheer happiness when the writing was going well), and he had some pretty good external motivation - he was a favorite with the Court readers, especially the ladies (he'd been stunningly good-looking in his twenties and retained a lot of it even now, in his forties), and especially the queen.
(and just maybe, when he thought about the hectic pace of his life, he began to realize that he could never go back to the headstrong and happy love-stung antics of his teens and early twenties ... maybe that's exactly where Troilus and Criseyde comes from)
By the time he wrote Troilus and Criseyde, he'd been to Italy, absorbed the burgeoning literary scene there, and was quite openly chaffing at the traditional limitations of English letters. He was already a well-known author (for The Book of the Duchess) and translator (for his version of Roman de la Rose, among many other things), and he was impatient, as only people lit from inside by true writing talent can be. And so he looked to Homeric pastiche.
He didn't know it as that, of course; Homer was virtually unknown in the West at the time. Chaucer got his Troy materials from two slight but entertaining purportedly ancient accounts, one by Dares and one by Dictys (it's a shame Penguin hasn't seen fit to publish these in one fat volume with lots of notes - they could call it Chaucer's Homer and market it to schools - I'd buy one), plus a French poet named Benoit who wrote a long and boring Roman de Troye, plus a Sicilian writer named Guido who wrote another Historia Trojana. And then there was Chaucer's biggest source: Boccaccio, whose Il Filostrato is echoed everywhere in Troilus and Criseyde, often line for line.
Critics over the centuries have come up with lots of reasons why Chaucer never so much as mentions Boccaccio's name (and the omission doesn't just happen here - he uses Boccaccio just as heavily in The Canterbury Tales, also without a nod), but to my mind, the best summary of the state of affairs in Troilus and Criseyde comes from the great Chaucer scholar Don Howard:
When Boccaccio wrote Il Filostrato he was, we should remember, barely over twenty, an unknown poet in Naples, where he had been raised, trying to attract the attention of the Angevin court. Chaucer, on the other hand, had a courtly education and extensive exposure to courtly ways, and he understood the conventions of courtly culture quite well enough to see that Boccaccio had them wrong. This was probably why he never mentioned Boccaccio by name; there may have been other reasons, but this was reason enough.Whatever the reason, Chaucer took that plump twenty-year-old's basic story, swirled it around in Dares and Dictys and Benoit and Guido, and then did what, reading him, you realize he so often did: made something stronger, more remarkable, and just plain better than all of it. Filostrato is a fairly conventional little evocation of courtly love; Troilus and Criseyde is a bursting, singing encyclopedia of humanity, the full realization of the character-heavy drama that's only hinted at in what we have of The Canterbury Tales, and the most thorough anatomy of love since Ovid finished his Ars amatoria. If you're reading along chronologically in Western literature, you eventually come across Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and suddenly realize it'd been 2000 years since the last time somebody wrote about actual people.
But here they are, in all their three-dimensional glory: there's pretty young Criseyde, even prettier young Troilus, and older, wiser Pandarus trying to bring them together in the midst of the Trojan War. The young lovers aren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier (although Troilus is smart enough to care how convincingly he acts smitten, and Criseyde is smart enough not to want anybody to know that she knows how pretty she is), but this is more than compensated for by the incredible invention that is Pandarus, a seasoned loser in love who's secretly so proud of being in a position to dispense love-wisdom that willfully blinds himself to the damage his advice is doing. The lovers flirt, agonize, meet, fornicate, sleep it off, fornicate lots and lots more (Chaucer had an audience to entertain, after all) - then they're parted, first by the politics of war and then, amazingly, by Criseyde's 'She's Just Not That Into You' change of heart when she decides to be infatuated with the Greek warrior Diomede instead.
(This last was such an enormous departure from the forms and expectations of courtly love - a woman deserting one passionate himbo for another! trading up to the winning side! scandalous! - that the ladies all pretended to be outraged, and the Queen 'ordered' the grinning poet to write an entire work on the worthiness of women, as an apology)
It's all spectacularly, subversively good, and it's almost heartbreaking that most modern-day readers would never dream of looking at it. With poets I can almost understand this (Pound wasn't the only one to dolorously acknowledge that the more you read Chaucer, the more you see how truly great he is), but what's everybody else's excuse?
Part of the problem is that Chaucer sits right on the translation divide: if you study a thin manual for a few weeks and squint a bit while you're turning the pages, you can read him today just as he put the words on the page eight hundred years ago - but it's an effort. And scholars and teachers, proud of their own efforts to master Chaucer's English, have perhaps too stubbornly insisted that everybody do the same work - often even to the point of preserving Chaucer's exact spelling and syntax, something we certainly don't do for Shakespeare, who wrote centuries later than Chaucer. It's confusing, and it can be frustrating for those of us who, while rejoicing in Chaucer's original form, very much want him to have modern readers.
Take a quick example, one of the many times we see into Troilus' private anguish over Criseyde:
Wher is myn owene lady lief and deere?
Wer is hire white brest? Wher is it, where?
Wher ben hire armes and hire eyen cleeere,
That yesternyght this tyme with me were?
Now may I wepe allone many a teere,
And graspe aboute I may, but in this place,
Save a pilowe, I fynde naught t'enbrace.
(and that's a fairly painless choice, needing, as it does, virtually no trots on vocabulary)
That halts a modern reader right to the point of dropping the book altogether, or past that point - and so needlessly! With all due apologies to those professors and poetical sticklers, fully four-fifths of the fourteenth century anachronisms so lovingly preserved in that passage - and all through Troilus and Criseyde - preserve absolutely nothing worth preserving at the cost of even one potential reader, much less almost all of them.
Modern 'translations' often aren't much help either. Take the one by Philip Krapp from 1932:
O where is now my lovely lady dear?
Where are her breasts so white, O where, O where?
Where are her arms and where her eyes so clear,
Which yesternight were solace to my care?
Now I must weep alone in dark despair,
And blindly grope, but nothing in this place,
Except a pillow, find I to embrace!
Yeesh. And the estimable Neville Coghill's 1971 version isn't much better:
Where is my own, my lady loved and dear?You see the problem. In attempting to bring Chaucer alive to modern readers, both Krapp and Coghill mostly manage to hit him in the head with their shovels and then proceed to bury his still-twitching corpse. The solution is as simple to see as it is to obtain: what's needed is for a first-rate poet to simply and clearly comb Chaucer's diction into modernity, without getting in his way with where, O where's and the like. Even through the antique spellings, you can see immediately from that first excerpt that Chaucer was exulting in a rhythm his later adapters either don't hear or can't figure out how to match; we can only hope somebody will come along who hears and understands.
And where is her white breast? Where is it? Where?
Where are her arms? And where her eyes so clear,
That this time yesternight were with me here?
Now I may weep alone, full many a tear!
And wildly grasp about, but in her place
I only find a pillow to embrace.
I hope it happens soon, because every year fewer and fewer passionate young people - who would learn from and love Troilus and Criseyde more than anybody - bother to read it. When I tell such young people that their various school educations have given them no real idea of the strange, vital, utterly living things the 'classics' of Western literature are, Troilus and Criseyde is always on the shortlist of such classics I have in mind. I just re-read it yesternight.