TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 15 September 2004
There surely can't be many tragic love stories more affecting and involving than this. Nor, it seems to me, can there be many that are more original, despite the conspicuous play the author makes of depending on ancient sources. The tale of Troilus and Cressida (Criseyde) derives ultimately from the Iliad through a multiplicity of mediaeval variations, cited in detail by the editor. It is original in the way Hamlet is original, in its depiction of characters and thought-processes, and it does not suffer from the comparison. There are four protagonists, and two are straightforward, contrasted with a wince-making clarity. Troilus himself, son of King Priam of Troy, is a mighty warrior but tongue-tied and shy when it comes to dealing with women, derisive to begin with at the agonies of those who fall in love and then falling hopelessly, suddenly and finally into the same trap himself. How often have we all seen just that happen within our own acquaintance? Diomede, sent to escort Cressida from Troy to the Greek camp as part of a prisoner-exchange, is uninhibited in that respect to the point of outright crassness, with an eye for an opportunity and an easy `nothing venture nothing gain' attitude that I would again guess most of us will recognise without much difficulty.
The other two are anything but simple. Chaucer stays deliberately vague regarding Cressida's relationship with Diomede (characteristically hiding behind his sources - he was anything but straightforward himself), and what if anything remains of her love of Troilus. However it seems to me that there was a calculating bit in her decision to give herself to Troilus in the first place. She could make herself fall in love, and her fascinating speeches with the twists and turns of their thinking say to me that she was no innocent, quite unlike her infatuated wooer. That leaves Pandarus, a creation to rival Iago in a different way. Again, it's left to us to decide what prompted such extraordinary vicarious commitment to bringing the pair together. There may or may not be hints that his motivation was not altruistic, but hints are the most they can be. It is not just a matter of his strange motivation but also of his extraordinary mental agility and speed of reaction. He plots the lovers' tryst in fantastic detail, when the fateful prisoner-exchange is decreed he tries to steer Troilus into a different outlook that in effect abandons the romance he has taken such incredible trouble to arrange, and to the very end he is still trying to manipulate the emotions of the devastated Troilus.
It is all told in an easy and relaxed verse, typical Chaucer in being at the same time deadly serious and tongue-in-cheek. This verse is not as 'poetic' as, say, The Ancient Mariner. It stands in much the relationship to that, poetry-wise, as Hamlet does to Macbeth or Othello. This is a psychological drama, not an opportunity to display the special `tone of voice' and `way of saying things' that Housman thought the essence of poetry. Obviously it is in mediaeval English, and this edition uses the authentic original spellings. This will slow most of us down a bit, but that can actually be a good thing. I found that it not only forced me to read with the close attention this drama needs, it kept me fascinated with the wonderful English language itself, and I had to notice how popular speech and even slang have kept alive ancient meanings of words (guess, deal, gear, right, sweetheart) that have been lost in more formal discourse. Where this edition is particularly helpful is in its footnotes reminding us of the meanings of certain words (and reminding us repeatedly, for which I bless the editor) and translating occasional phrases and lines where we might go wrong. I think I only had to refer some half-dozen times to the glossary at the back throughout a poem that is half as long as Paradise Lost.
The editor is no less a person than the Professor of English at Cambridge, so his introduction has the thoroughly thorough and also thoroughly stifling profundity that I associate with university literature courses. There are also notes at the back, very helpful in the main but obsessed with quoting parallels for the sake of quoting parallels. At V/1176 there is the line `Ye, fare wel al the snow of ferne year', and I thought immediately of Villon's `Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?' On turning to the back I found that the editor just quoted this obvious parallel without further comment on what the connection might be, and for a moment I nearly hurled the book across the room. Again I wondered whether the proem to book III might have influenced Milton's great invocation of light at the start of the same book of Paradise Lost, but no light was shed. In general, though, this is a very helpful edition. When reading the Iliad I found that after I had read the first 23 books the 24th was comparatively simple. You may find here that once you have got through the first four books you are quite fluent with the fifth.