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Love in Troilus and Criseyde

December 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post. Also, thanks to HMU Tutor Dominique Wagner for a wonderful discussion which resulted in some of the questions posed in today's blog.

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly as love.” - Erich Fromm

Listen to John Cage's Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard while reading of love.

What kind of love do Troilus and Criseyde share? Courtly love, romantic love, passionate love, committed love, friendly love, dutiful love? I could go on. We have so many types of love, and we use the word so often that it may refer to our favorite food (as in “I love pie”) all the way down to the essential core of our being. More than merely defining what type of love they share, however, I propose that Troilus and Criseyde do not share love at all. Let me explain.

Let me start with a note on the style of the work. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in Rhyme Royal. This just sounds like the form that such an idealized notion would take – that love be represented in Rhyme Royal sounds fitting, doesn't it? Rhyme Royal consists of stanzas that contain 7 lines of iambic pentameter rhymed in ababbcc format. It is common to fuse elevated speech with elevated notions (or nobility). Shakespeare often employs this tactic, as does Chaucer. And both do it with great success. So, the rhyme scheme alone may be a hint to the reader.

In the story, Troilus, the son of Priam, has fallen in love with Criseyde. He pines away for her and finds himself growing weaker at the idea of both having her love, and of being scorned by her. As Troilus pines away, his friend Pandarus offers help. Pandarus also happens to be Criseyde's uncle. After a few schemes and ruses, the affair begins. Yet, from the very outset, Criseyde's participation is at a different level than Troilus'. He has fallen in love with her by sight and, perhaps, reputation. She has yet to truly notice the noble knight. And when Pandarus explains the love that Troilus feels for her, she reasons to herself:

“'Alas, since I am free,/ Am I to love and put myself in danger?/ Am I to lose my darling liberty?/ Am I not mad to trust it to a stranger?/ For look at others and their dog-in-manger/ Loves, and their anxious joys, constraints and fears!/ She who loves none has little cause for tears.

“'For love is still the stormiest way of life,/ In its own kind, that ever was begun;/ There's always some mistrust, some silly strife/ In love, some cloud that covers up the sun;/ We wretched women! What is to be done/ In all our grief? We sit and weep and think;/ Our grief is this, that it's our grief we drink.

“'And then there are these wicked tongues whose fashion/ Is to speak harm; and men are so untrue;/ Immediately they cease to feel their passion,/ They cease to love; they're off to love anew; But harm that's done is done, that's certain too:/ Those are the very ones that passion rends;/ But violent delights have violent ends.'” (Book II, #111-113)

She explains how the violence of a passionate relationship can go awry. She even advocates for her liberty over security in marriage. In fact, she does not address marriage in a contemporary sense, but only the instability of passionate love. Throughout the text, I feel that Criseyde's character is fairly flat. She is not given a lot of depth, but I wonder more and more about her actions. In this speech, she demonstrates her hesitation and her concern for herself. Yet, she does fall into Pandarus' schemes and begins to see Troilus.

Criseyde is not new to the pain of love. Previously widowed, she was also abandoned by her father who foretold the fall of Troy and left. Her father fled to the Greek stronghold just outside Trojan walls. In Book V, her father enacts a deal that trades Criseyde for a Trojan prisoner, and thus, she is forced to leave Troilus. They part among tears and promises, however, Criseyde does not keep her promises. Instead she is courted by the Greek Diomedes and eventually falls in love with him. Once Troilus learns of her betrayal, he pushes harder on the battlefield until he is killed by Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And, having fallen to Achilles' spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.” (Book V, #259) As Troilus ascends to heaven, he recognizes the futility of worldly love. It would be easy to say that the moral of the story is that the only true love is devotion to God. If so, I wonder why Chaucer used a pre-Biblical setting for his moral? However, I can overlook this based upon the fact that Troilus and Criseyde was an incredibly popular story of Chaucer's time. (In fact, the narrative had been written at least twice - first in French, then in Italian- before he recounted it in English.) In other words, I can imagine that Chaucer used a popular tale to demonstrate his ideal of heavenly love.

There are two things that I cannot overlook, though. First, Troilus and Criseyde display an almost cheapened sense of self-serving love. Troilus, a great warrior, pines away and devotes every moment of his life (even those in battle) to his love Criseyde. In doing so, he implores the gods for help to win her love. Then, when he wins her love, he curses the gods (for making sunlight which signals his time to leave). He chooses not to eat and drink, he foresakes all pleasure save that which he experiences with Criseyde. The entire time, Troilus is acted upon by others, unable to create a plan of action on his own. On the other hand, Criseyde reluctantly enters into the love affair after numerous tricks (created by her uncle Pandarus). Therefore, their love was never truly about the other. The warrior who cannot act for himself and is so devoted to fulfilling his own desire enters into love for his own sake, not for any noble reason. Criseyde, whose main reason for starting the affair with Troilus was so that her uncle would be happy, does not have much choice in the matter. She does not want to lose her newfound liberty. She does not want to be attached to pain and ridicule and gossip. Furthermore, she realizes that the type of love exhibited by Troilus (the intense passion) often has violent ends. She knows, however, that women have little choice, and so in a sense of self-defeat, she takes pity on him. Troilus has yet to realize this, and perhaps he never fully realizes it. Instead, after his death, his soul flies into heaven mocking those who participate in worldly love. Yet, I feel it is unfair to mock love and then claim that all earthly love is untrue. And second, I wonder why Chaucer dedicated five books to tell the tale of their love, and then introduce the idea of virtue only in the last 10 stanzas of the poem. What is the purpose for such a short discussion of virtue?

My point, though, is not whether or not this is a tale of Christian love, but rather, what our actions say about us. Did Troilus truly love Criseyde, or did he love himself, or his own idea of Criseyde? Did Criseyde truly love Troilus? In leaving him for Diomedes, she perhaps chose the smarter path, since Troy was falling and Diomedes appears stronger and more decisive than Troilus. So, is self-preservation a type of love? Would Chaucer say that religious love can also be seen as a type of self-preservation? And, in classic Chaucerian style, what do we know about truth after reading of this love affair? Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, can we only gain access to divine love through an experience of mortal love?

Read the full text of Troilus and Criseyde on Project Gutenberg.

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