Episode 12

From Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses the opening lines of Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Poet

Geoffrey Chaucer

Translation, reading and commentary

Mark McGuinness

The opening lines of Troilus and Criseyde

by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Mark McGuinness

Before we part I want to speak about
Prince Troilus, son of Priam King of Troy,
And how his destiny in love played out
In double sorrow: from misery to joy
Then out of bliss once more. Lend me your voice,
Tisiphone – help me to compose
These woeful lines, that weep as my ink flows.

To you I call, you goddess of sharp torment,
You cruel Fury, eternally in pain:
Help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
That helps all lovers, voicing their complaint;
Because it suits, to speak the matter plain,
A wretched man to have a gloomy fellow,
And a tragic tale, a face that’s full of sorrow.

For I, who serve the servants of the Lord
Of Love, daren’t pray to Love for my success
On pain of death; I have so many flaws
And languish so far from His help in darkness.
But nonetheless, if this may bring some gladness
To any lover, and advance his courtship,
Give him the thanks and leave me with the hardship.

But all you lovers bathing now in gladness,
If any drop of pity be in you,
Remind yourselves of any former sadness
That you have felt, and also of the woe
Of other folk; recall the times you too
Felt Love affronted you with misery
Or that you won Him far too easily.

And pray for those caught in the same condition
As Troilus, more of which you’ll shortly hear,
That Love will bring them heavenly salvation;
And also pray for me to God so dear,
That I shall have the skill to make it clear
Through Troilus’ own unfortunate adventure
What pain and sadness all Love’s folk endure.

And also pray for those left in despair
Of love, with no chance of recovery,
And all those lovers, whether him or her,
Whom wicked tongues have done great injury.
Pray thus to God, from his great charity
To grant them passage from this earthly place
Who lose all hope of Love’s redeeming grace.

And also pray for those who are at ease
That God will grant their love shall long endure
And give them all the gift to please their ladies
According to Love’s honour and His pleasure.
For so I hope to make my soul more pure:
To pray for those who wear Love’s livery,
And write their woe, and live in charity,

And feel for each of them the same compassion
As though I were their own devoted brother.
Now listen to me with your full attention
For now I will go straight to my main matter
In which you’ll hear the double sorrow suffered
By Troilus when he loved the fair Criseyde
And how she left her love before she died.


Podcast transcript

This is my translation of the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde. 

It’s usually described as the ‘Proem’ to Troilus and Criseyde, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘a preface or preamble to a book or a speech’. Personally I always think of a proem as a cross between a prologue and a poem. But of course it’s not, so whatever you do, don’t think about it like that. 

This is a long narrative poem that Chaucer himself did not call Troilus and Criseyde; he called it The Book of Troilus and he says right here the opening lines that it is about the ‘double sorwe’, the double sorrow of Troilus, a prince of the ancient city of Troy who fell in love with Criseyde, who was a widow and the daughter of Calchas. Now Calchas was a seer or soothsayer, who saw into the future, realised that Troy was going to be destroyed by the Greeks, and defected to the enemy, running away and joining them in their camp outside the city. 

And this put Criseyde in an awkward position, as the daughter of a traitor, but it didn’t put Troilus off falling in love with her. So after a lot of agonising and moping in his bedroom and long conversations with his best friend, he succeeded in winning her love and the two of them were united in bliss for a short time. But then fate intervened, because Calchas managed to do a deal with the Trojans, returning a prisoner of war in exchange for having Criseyde join him in the Greek camp. So the lovers were separated, and to Troilus’ horror, Criseyde fell in love with the Greek warrior Diomedes. 

So the double sorrow of Troilus is firstly his unrequited love for Criseyde, and secondly his separation from Criseyde and betrayal by her. And within the first four lines Chaucer has destroyed any suspense that there may be about what is going to happen in the story. But this would already been a well known story to Chaucer’s audience; they wouldn’t have been interested in what happens so much as how he told the story.

So why am I translating this poem and reading it to you? 

The obvious reason for translating it is that Chaucer wrote it in medieval English, which we call Middle English, and which is quite hard for most of us to understand these days. I’ll talk a about the language and give you a sample of the original a bit later on.

But why did I choose to translate this poem?

Because I think if I’d told you this week’s episode was about Chaucer, you’d probably feel it was a fairly safe bet that we were going to be talking about The Canterbury Tales, right? Because that’s his most famous work. 

And The Tales are wonderful, maybe we will get to them at some point in the podcast, but I’ve chosen Troilus because actually this is my favourite of Chaucer’s works. I love it so much that I’m in the process of translating the whole thing, which is over 8,000 lines long. I’ve got a fair way through it. Obviously, there isn’t time to read you the whole thing so I thought it would be nice to share the beginning, because what we have here is a microcosm of what makes this a very special poem. 

Because if you ask me, Troilus and Criseyde is a serious candidate for the greatest love poem in English. You know, The Canterbury Tales are wonderful, there’s an awful lot of human life in there. But there isn’t anything that will break your heart the way Troilus and Criseyde does, it is a devastatingly sad poem.

And we get that right from the beginning here there’s, the ‘double sorrow’ of Troilus in the first line; ‘Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!’, ‘these woeful lines that weep as I write’; we’ve got sorrow and woe and gloom and torment and sadness and misery, repeated over and over; all summed up in the line ‘Swich peyne and wo as Loves folk endure,’ ‘such pain and woe as all Love’s folk endure’. 

So spoiler alert folks: I’m afraid the lovers do get separated, she leaves him for someone else and she dies. And he dies too, and it is all very sad, it’s very romantic and the poetry is very beautiful. But the poem is also surprisingly entertaining and even very funny in places. 

And we get a tiny little hint of the comedy to come right here at the beginning. So for instance, it’s traditional for poets to start long epic poems to appeal to one of the divine Muses for inspiration. Poetry of course, was traditionally held to be far too good to be written by humans, so if you were going to succeed in your task, you’d need a bit of divine inspiration to help you on your way. 

But Chaucer subverts this convention, because instead of invoking the Muse, he appeals to Tisiphone, one of the Furies, terrifying female deities in the underworld whose job was to punish sinners for their crimes. Which gives us a pretty big clue that this story is not going to have a happy ending!

And this is the first glimpse we get of the persona Chaucer uses to tell the story, of a narrator who’s a bit clueless, who is writing a love story but is hopeless at love himself, and who is too afraid to appeal to the God of Love to help him:

For I, who serve the servants of the Lord
Of Love, daren’t pray to Love for my success
On pain of death; I have so many flaws
And languish so far from His help in darkness.

So he says he isn’t worthy of Love himself, but he is doing his best to ‘serve the servants of the Lord / Of Love’, in other words, lovers. And in the next part, he appeals to lovers directly, and asks them to remember their own experiences of the suffering brought by love:  

But all you lovers bathing now in gladness,
If any drop of pity be in you,
Remind yourselves of any former sadness
That you have felt, and also of the woe
Of other folk; recall the times you too
Felt Love affronted you with misery
Or that you won Him far too easily. 

He then asks the lovers to have compassion ‘for those caught in the same condition / As Troilus’, and to pray for them. And on the one hand this is still quite funny and tongue-in-cheek, it’s Chaucer’s narrator being self-deprecating about his own abilities. But there’s also something genuine here, when he says he wants to 

       feel for each of them the same compassion
As though I were their own devoted brother.

And for me this compassion is one of the things that makes Chaucer an indisputably great writer. It’s something we find everywhere in his work, a deep empathy with all the different characters he writes about, however noble or wise or brave or mean or stupid or evil they are. And we do find a comparable range and depth of empathy in Shakespeare, but in Shakespeare it never quite spills over from empathy into compassion; he presents his characters without judgment but also without any sense of what he personally is feeling about them. But with Chaucer, somehow we get the sense that he really feels their pain as well as their joy and their other emotions.

And this is particularly true of his portrayal of Criseyde. Because as I said, this was a well-known story, and large chunks of Troilus and Criseyde are translated pretty closely from other sources, mainly an Italian poem by Giovanni Boccaccio called Il Filostrato. And in the earlier versions, Criseyde is the archetypal wicked woman, who deserved everything she got for being unfaithful to Troilus. And that tradition continues in Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida, where she appears as ‘false Cressid’. And if you ask me, that’s one of several reasons why Shakespeare’s version of the story is not as good as Chaucer’s. Because what we get in Chaucer is a much more complex and enigmatic and sympathetic portrayal of her character. 

You see, Chaucer’s narrator is very much at pains to avoid passing judgment on Criseyde. He presents her as impressionable rather than calculating and we get a real sense that she is an intelligent and a sensitive woman in a world dominated by men. At several points in the story she is has to submit to the influence or the authority of a man: firstly Prince Hector, who she appeals to when her father’s treachery is discovered; then her uncle Pandarus who persuades her to take Troilus as a lover; later on her father and the Trojan authorities when she’s bargained away in exchange for a prisoner; and finally Diomedes when he persuades her to leave Troilus.

And it’s an open question in Chaucer’s version whether she’s following her own desires in any of this, or just following the social convention of being an obedient woman and deferring to male authority. There are quite a few places where Chaucer’s narrator says he doesn’t know some basic facts about Criseyde, such as how old she was or whether she had children by her former husband. He never lets on whether she really believes Pandarus’s assurances that she’s doing the right thing by getting together with Troilus. And at the crucial moment, when she leaves Troilus for Diomedes, and her betrayal is staring him in the face, he practically mumbles:

Men seyn, I not, that she yaf him hir herte

[Men say, not I, that she gave him her heart.]

So what Chaucer the poet is doing at every turn is trying to give Criseyde the benefit of the doubt. I think it would be straining it to say that Chaucer was any kind of a feminist, but certainly he had a lot more empathy for Criseyde’s position, and she is presented as a much more rounded and sympathetic character than in the earlier versions of the story he was drawing on. 

Now I guess I should say something about the language Chaucer uses, because of course, what I read you at the beginning is not Chaucer but my translation of Chaucer’s Middle English into modern English. I’ve done my best to make my translation as accurate as I can, while using the same verse form as the original, but it’s obviously not the same. 

I was actually in two minds about whether to translate this poem or not, because part of me doesn’t really approve of translating Chaucer. I mean, it’s not that hard to understand, if you get a good edition with footnotes to help you figure out the strange words. And if you are remotely inclined, I would absolutely encourage you to give it ago. 

But actually there is another part of me that has a reservation about handing you the original text. Because, if you begin your acquaintance with Chaucer by trying to read a text covered in footnotes, it might feel a bit slow, a bit academic and a bit dusty, and a little old. Which is a million miles away from the experience of Chaucer’s first audience.

You know to us, Middle English is centuries old. But when I took a course in speaking verse with the renowned voice teacher Kristin Linklater, who I told you about in Episode 4 about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60, she pointed out that Middle English is in fact a young language. And to show us what she meant, she recited the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales from memory, and I could really hear the vigour and strength and youthful zest in the words. 

So just to give you an idea of the sound of the original, and how modern English compares, I’m going to read you both versions of one of these stanzas from Troilus and Criseyde, where the syntax and word forms are close enough that you can hopefully hear the similarities as well as the differences. 

OK so here’s my translation, the modern English:

But all you lovers bathing now in gladness,
If any drop of pity be in you,
Remind yourselves of any former sadness
That you have felt, and also of the woe
Of other folk; recall the times you too
Felt Love affronted you with misery
Or that you won Him far too easily. 

Got that? OK, here’s the original:

But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse,
If any drope of pitee in yow be,
Remembreth yow on passed hevinesse
That ye han felt, and on the adversitee
Of othere folk, and thenketh how that ye
Han felt that Love dorste yow displese;
Or ye han wonne hym with to greet an ese.

Can you hear how much bigger and longer and more resonant those vowels are? Doesn’t it sound much younger and more vigorous? The modern words sound practically old and wizened and shrivelled up by comparison.

I mean, just to take that first line, ‘But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse’. Doesn’t that sound delightful? Who wouldn’t want to ‘bathen in gladnesse’ with their lover? It sounds positively luxurious and sensual and more than a little erotic, like being in a private bath together at a thermal spa, with the steam rising. But ‘bathing in gladness’, or even ‘bathing in joy’, which would be closer to the literal sense of ‘gladnesse’, somehow feels a lot quicker and less luxurious. It’s more like a quick soak in the bath at home before it gets too cold, or before one of you gets fed up of being squashed in at the end with the taps.

So never let anyone tell you that medieval poetry is old and dusty. It is young and lusty!

OK so now we’re homing in on Chaucer’s language and his brilliance as a poet, but one thing I can’t do is my usual thing of highlighting individual words and sentences in the poet’s technique. Because that would get a bit fiddly, to keep translating every little word for you. But one thing I would like you to notice is the verse form that Chaucer uses. As I said, I think Troilus and Criseyde has some of the most moving and memorable love poetry in English, and part of that is down to the stanza form that Chaucer uses, something called rime royal. Chaucer developed it by adapting some continental stanza forms he found in French and Italian poets. 

And what it consists of is a stanza of seven lines, in a ten-syllable line that’s roughly similar to what we nowadays call iambic pentameter, the familiar di-DUM, di-DUM, di-DUM, di-DUM, di-DUM, that Chaucer helped to popularise in English poetry. 

And the rhyme scheme, the rhyming pattern, is part of the signature style of rime royal. So the way we talk about rhyme schemes is, we have a letter to indicate the rhyme at the end of each line. So the first four lines of each stanza rhyme ABAB, which means the first and the third lines, the two A’s, rhyme; and the second and the fourth lines, the two B’s, rhyme as well. And these interweaving rhymes give the verse a forward motion and a sense of things opening out, which in this case helps to propel the story forwards.

So going back to the same stanza, listen for those alternating rhymes in the first four lines:

But all you lovers bathing now in gladness,
If any drop of pity be in you,
Remind yourselves of any former sadness
That you have felt, and also of the woe

OK, you got that? Now I know I’m stretching it a bit, rhyming ‘you’ and ‘woe’, but they’re close enough for my purposes. Now here are the final four lines, so you can hear the two couplets: 

That you have felt, and also of the woe
Of other folk; recall the times you too
Felt Love affronted you with misery
Or that you won Him far too easily. 

 Anyway. What you have in each stanza, is firstly a sense of expansion and forward movement, followed by contraction and compression, with the couplets, before we spring forward again in the next stanza. 

And Chaucer uses that final couplet in particular for all kinds of effects in the course of the poem: sometimes he’s summing up the action, or passing judgment, or making sure we get the message, and sometimes he uses it to deliver the punchline of a joke. And in the passage we’re listening to today, there’s an almost unbearable poignancy in the way he points to the tragic ending of the story: 

Now listen to me with your full attention
For now I will go straight to my main matter
In which you’ll hear the double sorrow suffered
By Troilus when he loved the fair Criseyde
And how she left her love before she died.

Ah, that last line gets me every time. And in case you’re wondering, ‘Criseyde’ and ‘died’ is an even fuller rhyme in the original, because ‘died’ in Middle English was ‘deyde’. 

And I want to draw attention to another couple of words in these lines, when he says ‘Now listen to me with your full attention’, the original word for ‘listen’ is ‘herkneth,’ from which we get ‘hearken’. And he also says ‘in which you’ll hear’, ‘as ye me after here’. Chaucer doesn’t write ‘now read this story with your full attention’ and he doesn’t say ‘in which you’ll read’; instead, he talks about listening and hearing. Because a lot of evidence suggests that as he wrote this poem he was imagining reading it aloud. The very first line of the poem is ‘The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen’, he’s aiming to ‘tell’ the story and he expects people to listen to it.

And so you may have noticed that in this episode I’ve been talking about Chaucer’s audience rather than his readers, because the first people to encounter the poem were just as likely to be listeners as readers. In the 14th century books were a bit like gramophone records in the early 20th century; cutting edge new inventions, precious possessions to be handled with care. And like the gramophone, you didn’t necessarily just sit and enjoy it on your own, you invited your friends around to listen (and obviously to show it off as well). 

There is a famous illustration in a 15th century manuscript showing Chaucer reading Troilus and Criseyde aloud to Richard II and his court. Chaucer was actually a courtier at Richard’s court, so it’s not impossible that this really happened, although it’s unlikely, given how unimportant Chaucer was in the grand scheme of things. But even if he didn’t have quite such an illustrious audience for the poem, he would at least have read it aloud to friends in his intimate circle. 

And the poem was clearly written to be read to an audience and to sweep them along in the power of the speaker’s oratory as well as the story. And this is another reason why I think it’s useful to have a translation, because, as I said, if you’re poring over an old medieval text and looking at all the footnotes, time is going to drag a bit. But actually for the original audience, time would have flown, the way it does for us when we watch a play in the theatre or a movie at the cinema or even on the sofa at home. 

So a translation can never be as rich as the original. But what it loses in richness, it can gain in speed. Which means there’s this one very specific and limited way, I think, that a translation can offer us as modern listeners, a more authentic experience than reading the original. And that’s especially true if you’re brave enough to read it aloud to your friends!

So this time round, as you listen to the poem for the second time, I’d like you to imagine that you are sitting in Chaucer’s private lodgings. And you are one of a select group of friends that he’s invited round to have a glass of wine, and maybe some cakes or a capon, and to listen to the opening lines of his latest poem, that he’s very excited to share with you.


The opening lines of Troilus and Criseyde

by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Mark McGuinness

Before we part I want to speak about
Prince Troilus, son of Priam King of Troy,
And how his destiny in love played out
In double sorrow: from misery to joy
Then out of bliss once more. Lend me your voice,
Tisiphone – help me to compose
These woeful lines, that weep as my ink flows.

To you I call, you goddess of sharp torment,
You cruel Fury, eternally in pain:
Help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
That helps all lovers, voicing their complaint;
Because it suits, to speak the matter plain,
A wretched man to have a gloomy fellow,
And a tragic tale, a face that’s full of sorrow.

For I, who serve the servants of the Lord
Of Love, daren’t pray to Love for my success
On pain of death; I have so many flaws
And languish so far from His help in darkness.
But nonetheless, if this may bring some gladness
To any lover, and advance his courtship,
Give him the thanks and leave me with the hardship.

But all you lovers bathing now in gladness,
If any drop of pity be in you,
Remind yourselves of any former sadness
That you have felt, and also of the woe
Of other folk; recall the times you too
Felt Love affronted you with misery
Or that you won Him far too easily.

And pray for those caught in the same condition
As Troilus, more of which you’ll shortly hear,
That Love will bring them heavenly salvation;
And also pray for me to God so dear,
That I shall have the skill to make it clear
Through Troilus’ own unfortunate adventure
What pain and sadness all Love’s folk endure.

And also pray for those left in despair
Of love, with no chance of recovery,
And all those lovers, whether him or her,
Whom wicked tongues have done great injury.
Pray thus to God, from his great charity
To grant them passage from this earthly place
Who lose all hope of Love’s redeeming grace.

And also pray for those who are at ease
That God will grant their love shall long endure
And give them all the gift to please their ladies
According to Love’s honour and His pleasure.
For so I hope to make my soul more pure:
To pray for those who wear Love’s livery,
And write their woe, and live in charity,

And feel for each of them the same compassion
As though I were their own devoted brother.
Now listen to me with your full attention
For now I will go straight to my main matter
In which you’ll hear the double sorrow suffered
By Troilus when he loved the fair Criseyde
And how she left her love before she died.


This translation

Mark McGuinness’ translation of the opening lines of Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer was awarded Third Prize in The Stephen Spender Prize (2016) and was first published in the Prize booklet.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Manuscript illustration of Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer was a courtier, customs controller, diplomat, member of parliament and poet, who was born in the early 1340s and died in 1400. He has been described as the ‘father of English poetry’ because he was a key figure in the transition in medieval England to writing poetry in English, as opposed to French or Latin, which had been the dominant literary languages since the Normal Conquest in 1066.

He spent most of his career as a ‘King’s man’, serving first Richard II and then Henry IV. And in spite of having a series of demanding day jobs, he found the time to write one of the biggest and richest bodies of work in English poetry. His major works include The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Canterbury Tales.

When he died he became the first poet to be buried in the corner of Westminster Abbey that is now known as Poets’ Corner.


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This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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