In the 1920s the Golden Cockerel Press produced three works which are considered amongst the finest achievements of the private press movement, uniting the talents of the typographer Robert Gibbings and artist-engraver Eric Gill. They represented a union between text and illustration that has remained a gold standard for designers ever since. We are now pleased to announce the publication of the earliest of these masterpieces: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.
This was the work that marked the start of a fertile creative collaboration between Gill and Gibbings. Although Gill had worked on books for Gibbings before, this was the first project to fire his enthusiasm and inspire his finest work. Gill greatly admired medieval manuscripts (he had begun his working life as a calligrapher) and he wanted to create a modern response to the books of hours and psalters which so delighted him. He developed borders to frame each page with marginal illustrations, and initial letters often printed in red and blue – a very pared-down, but conscious allusion to illuminated manuscripts. For Troilus and Criseyde Gill also created full-page illustrations with which to begin each of the five books of the poem. It reveals the moment at which Gill’s ideas were developing from more traditional illustration to a very different kind of page design, and unites the beauty of both forms.
Eric Gill is a controversial but brilliant figure. One of the finest artists of the 20th century, he developed an elegant, spare style which is instantly recognisable throughout his work – from the sculpted figures of Prospero and Ariel on Broadcasting House in London, to his lettering and typefaces, or his superb engraved illustrations. In his work for the Golden Cockerel Press, Gill was able to display his artistic versatility, marrying the medieval illuminated manuscript tradition with the modernist aesthetic. Just like Chaucer’s poem, the illustrations are by turns playful and tender, erotic and tragic.
Gill depicts the two lovers at the crucial moments of their relationship: when Troilus first sees Criseyde; Pandarus bringing her to see Troilus; the night Criseyde finally accepts his love; their parting at the gates of the city when Criseyde is forced to leave; and the death of Troilus, killed by Achilles. The borders and marginal illustrations show Chaucer himself writing the book, the God of Love, and birds, trees and flowers – appropriate images for a poem that both promotes and provides a critique of courtly love.
This Folio Society limited edition has been produced to exacting standards, from the choice of materials to the traditional craftsmanship of binding the books. The original 1927 cover was an unexciting quarter-binding with patterned paper sides, so we commissioned Neil Gower to create a new design derived from one of Eric Gill’s full-page illustrations. The image and titling are blocked in 22-carat gold on full leather.
The poem is accompanied by a commentary volume containing essays by Roderick Cave on the history of the Golden Cockerel Press, and Professor Barry Windeatt on the sources, structure and interpretation of Troilus and Criseyde.
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
A tragic love story set during the Trojan War, Troilus and Criseyde is considered by many to be Chaucer’s masterpiece. It is his longest complete poem, a virtuoso display of poetic brilliance and emotional depth. Chaucer’s treatment of the themes of fate, free will, fidelity and betrayal is masterly, as is his portrayal of his characters and their inner lives. As Professor Barry Windeatt of Cambridge University puts it in his commentary essay, the poem is ‘a sustained exploration of private life and inward feeling that challenges comparison with the novel’.
‘The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen …’
The story of Troilus and Criseyde is of early medieval origin, and would have been familiar to Chaucer’s readers. Troilus is a Trojan prince. Criseyde is the daughter of the traitor Calchas. The pair fall in love, and are brought together by Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus. They are blissfully happy until Criseyde is forced to leave Troy. She betrays her vows of fidelity to Troilus and accepts the love of Diomedes, a Greek leader. The poem ends with Troilus’ death at the hands of Achilles and his final happiness as he ascends to heaven.
A poem of extraordinary power, Troilus and Criseyde is a consummate work of art in both its themes and construction. It is divided into five parts, with the lovers’ union taking place exactly halfway through the poem. Its 1,177 stanzas are of seven lines each, rhyming ababbcc – a form known as rhyme royal, which Chaucer introduced from French. This pattern proves an extremely flexible, fluent tool which in Chaucer’s hands can present narrative, comedy, high-flown tragedy, philosophical enquiry, and dialogue.
Chaucer plays a number of elaborate games with the reader. He pretends to be a mere translator, naming as his source an imaginary Latin writer called Lollius. He pretends not to know details, such as whether Criseyde has children or not, and in doing so deliberately reminds us that Criseyde is a widow, not a maiden.
When does Criseyde change her mind about returning to Troilus? When does she write the dishonest letter in which she tells Troilus she will return? Chaucer – who has shown us so much of Criseyde’s inner life – suddenly withdraws, leaving us to pity or condemn her according to our inclination.
‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie’
And for ther is so greet diversitee
In English and in wryting of our tonge,
So preye I god that noon miswryte thee,
Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wher-so thou be, or elles songe,
That thou be understonde I god beseche!
Chaucer’s final address to his readers marks a crucial transition in English literature. Chaucer expects his poem to be listened to as well as read – a mark of how the oral tradition was giving way to a literary form. He also refers explicitly to the fact that he is writing in the vernacular and acknowledges the differences between regional dialects. Chaucer’s story became an inspiration to later writers, notably Shakespeare. Seven centuries after it was first written, Troilus and Criseyde continues to move and intrigue readers with its story of love and fate.
Review by ferenc on 23rd Feb 2013
"The binding and illustrations are wonderful. The text can be difficult."
Review by bcapstick on 8th Feb 2013
"Troilus and Criseyde is one of the greatest poems in the English language and easily merits being rendered in such a wonderful edition as this. Chaucer's English is not the most accessible to the mod..." [read more]