‘Unmatched by anyone between Dante and Shakespeare’
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’.
‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie’
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’s greatest single achievement … one of the finest narrative poems in the English language’
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.
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.