Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 8. Troilus and Criseyde

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VII. Chaucer

§ 8. Troilus and Criseyde

In Troilus and Criseyde, to which we now come, Chaucer had entirely passed his apprentice stage; indeed, it may be said that, in certain lines, he never went further, though he found new lines and carried on others which here are only seen in their beginning. The story of the Trojan prince Troilus and his love for a damsel (who, from a confused remembrance of the Homeric heroines, was successively called Briseida and Griseida or Criseida) is one of those developments of the tale of Troy which, unknown to classical tradition, grew up and were eagerly fostered in the Middle Ages. Probably first sketched in the curious and still uncertainly dated works of Dictys Cretensis and Dares Phrygius, it had been worked up into a long legend in the Roman de Troie of Benoît de Sainte. More, a French trouvére of the late twelfth century; these, according to medieval habit, though with an absence of acknowledgement by no means universal or even usual, had been adapted bodily a hundred years later in the prose Latin Hystoria Troiana of Guido delle Colonne. On this, in turn, Boccaccio, somewhat before the middle of the fourteenth century, based his poem of Il Filostrato in ottava rima; and, from the Filostrato, Chaucer took the story. Not more, however, than one-third of the actual Troilus and Criseyde is, in any sense, translated from Boccaccio, who is never named by the English poet, though he has references to a mysterious “Lollius.” But such points as this last cannot be dealt with here.

What really concerns us is that, in this poem, Chaucer, though still playing the part of hermit-crab—in a manner strange to modern notions, but constantly practised in medieval times and by no means unusual in Shakespeare—has quite transformed the house which he borrowed and peopled it with quite different inhabitants. This is most remarkable in the case of Pandarus: but it is hardly less so in those of Troilus and Criseyde themselves. Indeed, in this poem Chaucer has not only given us a full and finished romance, but has endowed it with what, as rule, medieval romance conspicuously lacked—interest of character as well as of incident, and interest of drama as well as of narrative. Discussions (which need not be idle and should not be other than amicable) have been, and may be, held on the question whether Chaucer himself is not a sixteenth-seventeenth century dramatist, and a nineteenth century novelist, who happened to be born in the fourteenth century: and Troilus is one of the first texts which lend themselves to this discussion. The piece is somewhat too long; it has (which amounts to much the same thing) the action is too seldom concentrated and “spirited up”—there is too much talk and too little happens. But these were faults so ingrained in medieval literature that even Chaucer could not entirely get rid of them: and hardly anyone before him had got rid of them to the same extent.

And if the comparative excellence of the story be great, the positive excellence of the poetry is greater. Of the rime royal stanza the poet is now a perfect master; and, if his diction has not acquired its full suppleness and variety of application, its dignity and its facility for the purposes to which it is actually applied leave nothing whatever to be desired. A list of show passages would be out of place here; it is enough to say that nowhere, from the fine opening to the far finer close, is the medium of verse and phrase other than fully adequate to the subject and the poet’s intention. It is, on the whole, the weakest point of medieval poetry, that, with subjects of the most charming kind, and frequent felicities of sentiment and imagery, the verse lacks finish, and the phrase has no concentrated fire or sweetness. In Troilus this ceases to be the case.

Very strong arguments, in the absence of positive evidence, would be required to make us regard a work of such maturity as early; and the tendency has been to date it about 1383. Of late, however, attempts have been made to put it six or seven years earlier, on the strength, chiefly, of a passage in the Mirour de l’Omme, attributed to Gower and supposed to be itself of about 1376. Here it may be enough to say that, even if the passage be certainly Gower’s and certainly as early as this, it need not refer to Chaucer’s Troilus at all, or, at any rate, to any tale of Troilus that Gower knew Chaucer to have finished. That the poet, at this time still busy man and having many irons, literary and other, in the fire, may have been a considerable time over so long a book, even to the length of having revised it, as some think, is quite possible. That, as a whole, and as we have it, it can be other than much later than the recognised “early” poems, is, on sound principles of literary criticism, nearly impossible; the later date suits much better than the earlier both with what followed as well as with what went before.

In any case, Chaucer’s position and prospects as a poet on the morrow, whenever this was, of his finishing Troilus, are interesting to consider. He had mastered, and, to some extent, transformed, the romance. Was he to continue this? Is it fortunate that he did not? Is not a Lancelot and Guinevere or a Tristram and Iseult handled á la Troilus rather to be deplored as a vanished possibility? It would appear that he asked himself something like this question; and, if the usually accepted order of his works be correct, he was somewhat irresolute in answering it—at any rate for a time, if not always. It is probable that, at any rate, The Knight’s Tale, the longest and most finished constituent of the Canterbury collection, was begun at this time. It is somewhat out of proportion and keeping with its fellows, is like Troilus taken from a poem of Boccaccio’s and, like Troilus, is a romance proper, but even further carried out of its kind by story and character interest, mixture of serious and lighter treatment and brilliancy of contributory parts. It seems not improbable that the unfinished and, indeed, hardly begun Squire’s tale, which would have made such a brilliant pendant, is also of this time as well as St. Cecily and, perhaps, other things. But the most considerable products of this period of hesitation are, undoubtedly, The House of Fame and The Legend of Good Women. Neither of these is complete; in fact, Chaucer is a poet of torsi; but each is an effort in a different and definite direction, and both are distinguished remarkably from each other, from their predecessor Troilus, and from The Canterbury Tales, which, as an entire scheme, no doubt succeeded them.