Echoes of Boethius and Dante in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde
An Sonjae (Brother Anthony)
While the connections between Chaucer and the literary works serving as his immediate sources are now familiar, more complex, indirect and hidden references to other writers are less easily recognized. This is particularly true of the echoes of Dante that scholars have identified at certain points in his rewriting of Boccaccio’s Filostrato as Troilus and Criseyde. This may in part be because, while the way in which Chaucer uses Dante’s Commedia shows a quite remarkable depth of understanding, many scholars of Chaucer in recent decades have not had an equivalent familiarity with Dante’s work. It is all the more striking that Chaucer nowhere in Troilus refers to Dante’s Commedia explicitly. It remains a secret, private subtext, providing depths and complexities of meaning to Troilus that have only recently begun to be recognized.
The topic was initially discussed by Morton W. Bloomfield, in a PMLA article “Distance and Predestination in Troilus and Criseyde” (1957). Richard Neuse begins his essay “Troilus and Criseyde: Another Dantean Reading” (Shoaf 1992 199-210) with a list of previous studies that refers to Monica MacAlpine’s The Genre of Troilus and Criseyde (1978), R. A. Shoaf’s Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word (1983), Winthrop Wetherbee’s Chaucer and the Poets (1984), and Karla Taylor’s Chaucer Reads the Divine Comedy (1989). Other major studies of Chaucer’s knowledge of Dante include those by J. A. W. Bennett, “Chaucer, Dante and Boccaccio,” and by Piero Boitani, “What Dante meant to Chaucer,” both in Boitani’s 1983 collection of studies on Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, and pages 125 – 137 of Barry Windeatt’s 1992 Troilus and Criseyde in the Oxford Guides to Chaucer. In 1997, David Wallace opened his Chaucerian Polity with a lengthy chapter on “Chaucer in Florence and Lombardy,” which studies mainly social and political issues. Finally, Winthrop Wetherbee’s 1998 essay “Dante and the Poetics of Troilus and Criseyde,” a radical revision of the last chapter of his 1984 Chaucer and the Poets, is the most recent and perhaps the most insightful discussion of Dante’s relationship to Chaucer’s Troilus so far published.
Windeatt (1992, 126-7) provides a list of over 30 points in Troilus and Criseyde where Chaucer is clearly translating directly from Dante’s Commedia. At the same time, all the critics named above agree that Chaucer owes Dante much more than mere details. In his article on Chaucer for the Dante Encyclopedia (160-2), Winthrop Wetherbee suggests that in Troilus,
a historically localized story of earthly love is played out against the background of the spiritual journey of the Commedia. The relationship is of course largely parodic: though the idealistic lover Troilus has much of the buono ardor of Dante’s pilgrim, Criseyde is an all-too-worldly Beatrice – emmeshed in desire, politics, and history—and Pandarus, the guide who leads Troilus to the ‘hevene blisse’ of sexual union, is a cynical and self-interested Virgil.
It might seem at first sight impossible to prove that Chaucer was conscious of these precise ironic parallels. It is clear, however, that the references to Dante found throughout the poem are sufficiently numerous and deliberate to show that Chaucer had an amazingly profound knowledge of the Commedia and was constantly recalling it as he was writing his version of Boccaccio’s story.
The depth of Chaucer’s knowledge of Dante’s Commedia and the complexity of his references to it becomes clear from the very first lines of the poem.
The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro woe to wele, and after out of joie,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for t'endite
These woful vers, that wepen as I write.
These lines seem self-explanatory, and in one sense they are. Yet, in view of what we shall see in the following pages, it cannot be mere coincidence that the words ‘double sorwe’ echo lines in Dante’s Purgatorio (22.55-6) where Virgil uses the phrase ‘le crude armi / della doppia tristizia di Iocasta’ (the cruel arms / of the double sorrow of Jocasta) as a summary of the contents of Statius’s Thebaid. He is formulating a question in which he asks Statius how he can reconcile the pagan darkness of his epic with the Christian faith he has just revealed he held in secret. One fundamental theme of Chaucer’s work, like Dante’s, is the problematic continuity between pagan and Christian writing; another is the question of how much pessimism a writer can have without despairing of both humanity and literature.
On the other hand, Chaucer may very well not have realized when he was writing ‘double sorwe’ that Dante was probably consciously echoing an expression found in St. Augustine’s Confessions, where Augustine says he ‘lamented his mother’s death with a duplicia tristitia’ (Patterson 132 note 118) because he was deeply tormented at her death—sad because she was dead and sad not to be able to rejoice at her salvation as he thought a Christian should. For Chaucer, the doubly hidden reference to Statius’s Thebaid would have been sufficient. As Patterson, says, Troilus is ‘massively saturated with Thebanness’ (131) and Chaucer uses versions of the term ‘double sorrow’ several times in his “Theban” works, but nowhere else in his writing (Patterson 132 note 118).
In the following lines of the opening stanza quoted above, Troilus is given a double literary dimension. First, he is Priam’s son, therefore destined to be a heroic warrior as brother of the better known Hector, linked by blood and his very name to the tale of the sorrowful end of Troy; second, he is to be seen experiencing joys and sorrows in loving as the main male character of a heroic, chivalric romance. That may be what Chaucer’s ‘double sorrow’ refers to, or it may be explicated by the pattern of his love story that is summarized in the next line: ‘Fro woe to wele, and after out of joie.’ In this lapidary summary of the familiar Boethian pattern of Fortune’s wheel turning there is also a double sorrow, that which comes before and after joy. The theme of the impermanence of human happiness, so lightly introduced here, can be considered to lie at the very core of the poem. Wetherbee points out that everyone knows how short-lived human happiness is, and everyone always forgets it, including Troilus and the narrator of his story; history is a tragic story that constantly repeats itself ― ‘the Theban legend (is) Chaucer’s chosen model of the fatally repetitive character of secular history’ (1998, 253).
In closing the first stanza, Chaucer invokes Tisiphone to be his inspiring spirit. The reader needs first to recall that Tisiphone is not a classical muse but one of the furies, the dreadful keeper of Tartarus, the place of torment, glimpsed by Aeneas during his journey to the infernal regions in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. Boccaccio (in his commentary on the Inferno) and other commentators interpret the name Tisiphone to mean ‘voice of anger’ or ‘evil speech,’ which is hardly what we expect to find inspiring a love story. Chaucer must also have known that in the opening lines of Statius’s Thebaid, this same Tisiphone is summoned from Hell by blind Oedipus and sent to make his sons mad at the start of the action that leads to disaster. In this way, the first stanza of Troilus opens and closes with hidden references to Statius’s Thebaid.
The Furies also have their role in Dante, although Tisiphone is given no separate role there. Dante and Virgil are threatened by the three Furies in Inferno 9, in a passage that stresses their malevolent, hellish nature. Remorse, despair and darkness are suggested by these parallels, and recalled by the line in the next stanza where Chaucer establishes a parallel between himself as weeping narrator and the Fury: ‘Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne.’ Why, after all, should the narrator of a love story, even a sad one, weep as he writes the opening lines? Pity, perhaps, would be a reason. But why then would he suggest a parallel with the infernal sorrows (see Wetherbee 1998 266 note 13) of a tormenting Fury? Discussing this question, Wetherbee (1998 250) affirms that ‘In both the Troilus and Dante’s Commedia the influence of this ‘infernal’ vision, dominated by the sense of individual tragedy and historical fatalism, coexists with an idealizing poetics of love.’ We are made aware by this of the delicate nature of the responsibilities facing a story’s narrator, and of the risk that a narrator too may misread the tale he is telling. It is dangerously true, as the proverb says, that ‘All the world loves a lover’ for not all lovers should be loved, and excessive love of tales about loving can lead, as Paolo and Francesca know, to Hell.
Chaucer’s dialogue with Dante is far more subtle than his more familiar dialogue with Boethius, and it is rarely discussed in part because the ‘Boethian’ language of Fortune, freedom and necessity is so much simpler to spot. Yet even when he mentions such ‘Boethian’ topics as the theme of Fortune, Chaucer should not be too quickly assumed to be referring directly to Boethius. Before him, Dante had undertaken his own thoughtful re-reading of Boethius’ Consolation in the light of Augustine and Aquinas (see: Dante Encyclopedia 405: ‘Fortune’). Editors have already noted, as J.A.W. Bennett points out (Boitani 1983 99), an echo of Dante in Troilus (Book 5.1541-7) in a passage which is concerned with defining the role of Fortune in the loss of joy:
ffortune -- which that permutacioun
Thorough purueyaunce and disposicioun
Of heighe Ioue, as regnes shal be flitted
ffro folk in folk or when they shal be smytted –
Gan pulle away the fetheres brighte of Troie
ffro day to day til they ben bare of ioie.
This passage clearly contains echoes from a major passage in Dante’s Inferno (7.61-96), where Virgil instructs Dante on the relationship between Fortune and material fortunes (i.e. worldly wealth):
Who made the heavens and who gave them guides
was He whose wisdom transcends everything;
75 that every part may shine unto the other,
He had the light apportioned equally;
similarly, for wordly splendors, He
78 ordained a general minister and guide
to shift, from time to time, those empty goods
from nation unto nation, clan to clan,
81 in ways that human reason can't prevent;
just so, one people rules, one languishes,
obeying the decision she has given,
84 which, like a serpent in the grass, is hidden. (Trans. Allen Mandelbaum)
The most important lines in Italian, which Chaucer drew on and echoes directly, are:
Similemente a li splendor mondani
78 ordinò general ministra e duce
che permutasse a
tempo li ben vani
di gente in gente e d'uno in altro sangue,
81 oltre la difension d'i senni umani
( . . . )
Vostro saver non ha contasto a lei:
questa provede, giudica, e persegue
87 suo regno come il loro li altri dèi
Le sue permutazion non hanno triegue:
necessità la fa esser veloce;
90 sì spesso vien chi vicenda consegue.
It may or may not be a coincidence that Chaucer, after having stressed like Dante (and Virgil in the Aeneid) that Fortune is not always mere ‘blind chance’ but ultimately proves to be a source of blessing and is subject to the will of ‘high Jove,’ says that the fall of Troy was the work of Fortune. For that is what Dante says explicitly in Inferno 30:
E quando la fortuna volse in basso
l'altezza de' Troian che tutto ardiva,
15 sì che 'nsieme col regno il re fu casso
The presence of Dante in this passage of Chaucer’s may be still more complex. As Bennett remarks, Dante always makes a clear distinction between ‘Giove,’ used in naming the pagan god and the planet Jupiter, and ‘sommo Giove,’ designating the Christian God. In Purgatorio 6.118 Dante refers to ‘sommo Giove che fosti in terra per noi crucifisso’ (you, high Jove who were crucified here on earth for us). Likewise, there is no other passage in Troilus in which the name of Jove is qualified with ‘high’ and no other where the name Jove is clearly used to refer to the Christian God. Chaucer, with his strong interest in Boethius, must have been particularly struck by Virgil’s teaching about Fortune in Inferno 7, for he also echoes it in adapting the Knight’s Tale (1663-6):
The destinee, ministre general,
That executeth in the world over al
The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn,
So strong it is . . .
Another clear echo of Dante in Troilus, that (like the one just discussed) has no parallel in Boccaccio’s text, is particularly intriguing. Near the center of the poem, in Book 3, at the climax of the poem’s love tale, as Troilus finds himself in bed with a willing Criseyde, he bursts into a hymn of praise to Love: ‘O Loue, O Charite’ (3.1254) that includes a stanza meditating on Love’s generosity:
Benigne Love, thou holy bond of thinges,
Who-so wol grace, and list thee nought honouren,
Lo, his desyr wol flee with-outen winges.
For, noldestow of bountee hem socouren
1265 That serven best and most alwey labouren,
Yet were al lost, that dar I wel seyn, certes,
But-if thy grace passed our desertes.
What is challenging and troubling is the fact that, after opening with a strongly Boethian notion (cf. Chaucer’s translation Boece 2.metrum 8 ‘al this accordaunce and ordenaunce of thynges is bounde with love, that governeth erthe and see and hath also commandement to the hevene’) this stanza includes slight but certain echoes from the highest spiritual climax of Dante’s Commedia, the prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary by St. Bernard in Paradiso 33.13-21:
Donna, se' tanto grande e tanto vali,
che qual vuol grazia e a te non ricorre,
sua disïanza vuol volar sanz'ali.
La tua benignità non pur soccorre
a chi domanda, ma molte fïate
liberamente al dimandar precorre.
In te misericordia, in te pietate,
in te magnificenza, in te s'aduna
quantunque in creatura è di bontate.
(Lady,you are so high, you can so intercede,
that he who would have grace but does not seek
your aid, may long to fly but has no wings.
Your loving-kindness does not only answer
the one who asks, but it is often ready
to answer freely long before the asking.
In you compassion is, in you is pity,
in you is generosity, in you
is every goodness found in any creature.)
To take words spoken in highest Heaven describing the spiritual love manifested in the Virgin Mary and put them in the mouth of Troilus at the moment he achieves sexual union with Criseyde might be considered a gross breach of literary decorum. J. A. W. Bennett (Boitani 1983 93-4) quotes J. A. Symonds and J. H. Whitfield before making his own comments on how Boccaccio used echoes of Dante in indecorous, inappropriate and inept ways. Symonds, he comments, even ventured to write that Boccaccio ‘was incapable of comprehending the real character of [Dante] the man he deified.’ Chaucer seems to be laying himself open to similar accusations of a complete lack of decorum here. However, we might rather want to suggest with Winthrop Wetherbee that these shocking lines form part of a deliberate, but hidden strategy that culminates in the final lines of the poem, by which Troilus’s trajectory is deliberately and constantly contrasted ironically with Dante’s.
Winthrop Wetherbee writes of the transfer of St. Bernard’s address to the sexually triumphant Troilus (Dante Encyclopedia 162): ‘The barrier separating human from divine love is for a moment virtually translucent, but the context makes plain that Troilus is self-deceived and is destined in the end to be betrayed by the ‘grace’ that seems to inform his experience.’ It is hard to believe that Chaucer was unaware of the ironic patterning he was introducing into his poem by these intertextual moments, yet they are never identified as such. He knew he was using words from Dante; he knew where the words came from; we should not doubt that he knew exactly why he was using them as he did.
Finally, one of the stanzas in Troilus that most clearly contains Dantean echoes is found near the end of Book 5, as he is preparing to conclude the tale of Troilus with a brief account of his death and momentary ascension:
Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther God thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
1790 But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wheras thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.
Commentators often point out that the first recorded uses in English of the word ‘tragedy’ occur in Chaucer’s translation of Fortune’s rhetorical question in Boethius (Boece Book 2, Prosa 2): ‘What other thynge bywaylen the cryinges of tragedyes but oonly the dedes of Fortune, that with an unwar strook overturneth the realmes of greet nobleye? (Glose. Tragedye is to seyn a dite of a prosperite for a time, that endeth in wrecchidnesse).’ Chaucer also used the word with a similar meaning in the opening lines of the Monk’s Tale (1991-4):
I wol biwaille, in manere of tragedie,
The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree,
And fillen so that ther nas no remedie
To brynge hem out of hir adversitee.
Readers naturally identify those uses of the word with that found in this stanza, the only use of the word in Troilus. Kelly (39-50) offers a helpful survey of the ways other writers of the age used the word, stressing Chaucer’s originality. In particular, in pages 50-51 he stresses the significant absence from Boethius’ definition, and from the glose as formulated by Chaucer, of any notion of a moral fault serving as the cause of the tragic disaster. Fortune, after all, wishes to stress the entirely arbitrary nature of her operations, and so too does Chaucer.
It is not correct to see the story of Troilus simply as a ‘tragedy’ in the De casibus sense in which the word is defined and used in the Boece and the Monk’s Tale. More precisely, the ‘dedes of Fortune’ mentioned in both seem always to involve the fall of powerful men from high positions of social, ‘political’ power (‘the realmes of greet nobleye’ or ‘in heigh degree’). This reflects Dante’s view of the role of Fortune, quoted above, in the fall of Troy. It could be argued that there is no precedent before Chaucer for applying the word ‘tragedy’ to the story of a lover made unhappy by losing the woman he loved to another man. It is surely significant that this stanza is placed before the account of Troilus’s death, which is thus clearly marked off as being perhaps unrelated to the story of Troilus’s ‘tragic’ love for Criseyde. The connection between tragedy and personal unhappiness derives, surely, from that same Book 2 of Boethius, where Boethius is mainly focussing on his own loss of human happiness, but his loss was political in nature and cause. Troilus, in that case, would be the first tragic lover.
True, an awareness of Chaucer’s knowledge of Dante opens another possible interpretation of the use of the word ‘tragedie’ in this stanza of Troilus. It could be suggested that the rather unexpected ‘litel’ applied to the ‘book’ and to ‘myn tragedie’ represents a self-deprecating, contrasting echo of the passage in the Commedia (Inferno 20.113) where Virgil refers to the Aeneid as L’alta mia tragedia (my high tragedy), the only use of the word tragedia in the whole Commedia and one of only a few instances in Dante’s entire Opus. Chaucer would then be claiming epic status for his poem by linking it through Dante to Virgil.
Dante never uses the word tragedia in the ‘Boethian’ sense of a story of a fall from power (or happiness), but only to designate works written in the ‘high,’ most elevated poetic style, although in such works the story itself may not be specifically ‘tragic’ in the more modern sense, as can be seen in the quotation from the Inferno, for the Aeneid does not tell a ‘tragic story.’ Indeed, Dante refers to the Canzone ‘Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’amore’ in Vita Nuova 19 as a model of ‘tragic style’ (DVE 12.3) yet this poem is entirely a celebration of the love for Beatrice while she is still alive on earth. It could then possibly be argued that Chaucer is here consciously using the word in Dante’s stylistic sense, rather than that, more familiar to us today through the De casibus tradition, found in Chaucer’s Boece, and in the Monk’s Tale. In the De vulgari eloquentia, which virtually no one in the 14th century had heard of or read, Dante wrote:
When dealing with the various subjects that are suitable for poetry, we must know how to choose whether to treat them in tragic, comic, or elegiac style. By 'tragic' I mean the higher style, by 'comic' the lower, and by 'elegiac' that of the unhappy. If it seems appropriate to use the tragic style, then the illustrious vernacular must be employed, and so you will need to bind together a canzone. (2.4.6)
This passage shows that for Dante, the ‘tragic style’ merely corresponds to what otherwise might be termed the ‘high’ or even ‘epic’ style.
As regards the sense in which Chaucer uses the word near the end of Troilus, Boitani (1983 128) refuses to make a choice:
Tragedy it is because of Fortune’s operations and Troilus’ death; unlike Dante’s ‘Comedy’, it has what Dante would call a ‘foul and horrible’ end. Stylistically it may be classed as a ‘tragedy’, for it uses at appropriate points the ‘high’ style of Virgil’s ‘alta tragedia’.
He ought perhaps to have considered more closely Chaucer’s originality in writing his ‘tragedy’ as a story about loss of happiness, rather than a fall from power. In the end, it almost seems as though Chaucer, in using the term ‘tragedy,’ was deliberately doing what Dante had done in using the word ‘commedia’ for his poem. The Dante Encyclopedia discusses the meaning of the title at length (184-8) and underlines that ‘There is no doubting the importance of the Commedia’s title as a means to understanding the poem; just as there is little doubt that Dante’s choice of ‘comedia’ is deeply problematic . . . . the title’s very idiosyncrasy is meant to be a spur to its interpretation.’ In this context it should be remembered that Dante’s original title was simply ‘Comedia’ (given an additional ‘m’ in modern spellings) and that divina was only added to the title by the editors of the 1555 edition. It seems that Dante was strongly conscious of the importance of redefining such terminology in his attempts to establish a quite new way of writing. Chaucer may have understood that.
Windeatt (1992 133) points out that this stanza in Troilus is also the only place where Chaucer uses the word ‘poesye’ and notes the coincidence that Dante, too, only uses the word ‘poesi’ once (Purgatorio 1.7). The initial humility topos of ‘litel book’ is sometimes contrasted (Windeatt 1992 306) with the apparent presumption of Chaucer in putting his Troilus and himself on an equal footing with the great works and writers of the past. To this it might be replied that Chaucer is expressing a sense of literary tradition and fraternal community as well as profound respect and veneration in the invitation to ‘kiss the steps’ of the named writers. The list of what would today be seen as ‘great’ writers in the last line of that stanza should surely be read as a list of ‘ancient, defining authorities’ of what ‘poesye’ means, since it is not sure that today’s notions of fame, status and prestige were current in Chaucer’s time.
So much can be adduced from within the text. But reference to Dante shows that the list is in fact a far richer line than a cursory reading might suggest. Dante was intensely conscious of his own position as a poet within the great classical literary tradition. He lists the recognized classical auctores in the Vita Nuova 25.9 and in the DVE 2.6.7, when he is discussing the best that the new, vernacular poetry can achieve, and its relationship to the classical Latin canon. Still, it is in the Commedia that we find the most significant correspondence to Chaucer’s line, in a passage that Chaucer was surely recalling. In Inferno 4.85ff Dante’s journey with Virgil as his guide has hardly begun when they enter Limbo, the place of those who cannot enter Heaven since they died before the completion of Christ’s redemption and knew nothing of the Christian faith. There, they encounter the spirits of four of the great figures of classical antiquity in poetry and philosophy, wrapped in light amidst the darkness. The highest poets, masters of the various styles, are named: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan; in the midst of sorrow there are smiles of greeting and the six poets discuss their craft in words so sublime that Dante says he will not report them.
Dante expects the reader to notice that Terence, the great writer of comedies, is absent from the list in which he traditionally figures; here it is Dante himself, author of this very different kind of Christian comedy, who is the sixth figure (Dante Encyclopedia 180-1). In his note to this canto, Sinclair (Inferno page 70) stresses that poetry ‘is the utterance in terms of the imagination of truth which cannot otherwise be known or told and its functions are the loftiest of all that belongs to human speech; ‘For Dante and his contemporaries, poetry was wisdom’ (V. Rosi), and he pleads here, partly for himself, but far more for poetry.’ Beyond this echo of a most significant image of what was above termed the ‘community of poets,’ Windeatt (1984 557) also notes a reference to Purgatorio 21 130. Here we find a key to the inclusion in Chaucer’s list of Statius. Dante has imagined this surely pagan poet to have been converted to Christianity; he is therefore located away from the other, non-Christian poets in their Limbo. His place is high up in Purgatory, and he is ready to rise (together with Dante) to Paradise later in the poem. For Dante, Statius’s Thebaid displays at certain moments ‘an embryonic spirituality’ that sanctioned his promotion to an almost doctoral role; Dante gives him the task of explaining ‘how the powers of the natural organism are transformed and reoriented when informed by divine vertù’ (Wetherbee 1998 252). The Thebaid as such, with its darkness and violence, fades away into insignificance. Wetherbee argues:
It is by an essentially similar shift of perspective that the heroic and even the ‘Dantean’ dimensions of the experience of Chaucer’s Troilus are finally revealed as devoid of meaning, save insofar as their articulation has been a necessary catalyst for the narrator’s progress, through poetry, to that spiritual perspective from which Troilus and his world, like Statian Thebes, will suddenly become all but invisible. Chaucer goes beyond Dante to show us the actual stages of the narrator’s rejection of his story, punctuated by the invective that reduces the hero’s love and bravery to worldly folly and subject his pagan beliefs to a virtual exorcism.
In the closing lines (12: 817-8) of his Thebaid, Statius had addressed his poem directly, as Chaucer does his:
uiue, precor; nec tu diuinam Aeneida tempta,
sed longe sequere et uestigia semper adora.
(Live, I pray. Do not seek to rival the divine Aeneid
but follow from afar and ever venerate its footsteps)
Dante, writing the scene of the meeting with Statius in the Purgatorio, surely recalled those lines. Statius tells him how much he owed to the Aeneid and how he wishes he had lived at the time of Virgil. He naturally cannot recognize the shade of Virgil standing beside them, since they never met, but Dante cannot help smiling at the irony of the moment and, questioned by Statius, identifies Virgil. Statius at once bends to kiss the feet of Virgil, who stops him.
Chaucer, in writing the words ‘kis the steppes,’ was presumably conscious of these two, quite distinct moments in Dante’s Commedia, and perhaps also of the words from Statius that probably suggested the Purgatorio scene to Dante. His ‘no making thee no envie’ might equally be thought to derive from Statius’s ‘tempta.’ More, though, it must suggest a realization that, just as Dante places himself as the humble sixth in the company of Great Ancient Poets, so too Chaucer is here placing himself and his little tragedy as a humble sixth.
All these moments are concerned with community and indebtedness within the poetic tradition. With that comes an awareness that Chaucer’s use of the word ‘poesye’ is likewise fraught with meaning. As Windeatt remarks (1992 132-3), Dante and Petrarch are the only ‘modern’ writers whom Chaucer ever calls ‘poet’ (though neither is named in the Troilus) and they, together with Boccaccio, whom he never names anywhere, are his main modern references in Troilus. The mere mention of the word ‘poesye’ in that context should make the reader alert to Chaucer’s hidden reference here to the parallel theme of the nature of modern, vernacular poetry, expressed in Dante’s Convivio and De vulgari eloquentia, evoked by Windeatt (1992 133). Yet nothing in Chaucer’s text expressly indicates such multiple dimensions and it is indeed very unlikely that any of his 14th-century English readers could have been aware of them.
Likewise, it may be wondered what Chaucer’s initial audience made of his stated wish at this point to ‘make in som comedie.’ It is possible to find critics who see in this a reference to plans for the Canterbury Tales (Boitani 1983 128) but Windeatt (1992 132) identifies the ‘comedie’ with what follows directly, the rise of Troilus’s soul to the Eighth Sphere after his death; the ‘litel myn tragedye,’ containing the story of Troilus’s passionate union with Criseyde, has been sent on its way, what remains is comedy. The narrator of this ardent love story seems to want to publish it in an unfinished form. He presents the story of Trolius’s unhappy love as a ‘tragedy’ complete in itself, without any mention of his death and the final closure of the poem. The next stanza seems equally final, concerned only with the technicalities of copying the finished book accurately.
All commentators have noted the laconic way in which Troilus is finally killed, after all this, within two lines (V, 1805-6), and by Achilles, who has no relationship with the love affair. The choice of Achilles as the agent of Troilus’s death takes readers back to the death of Hector (V, 1555-61), who was likewise killed by Achilles; Chaucer encourages this reference by mentioning Hector in line V, 1804. The heroic death of Hector comes immediately after the stanza mentioned previously, where the fall of Troy is attributed to Fortune. Immediately prior to that, Cassandra had interpreted Troilus’s dream of the boar by telling the entire story of the Thebaid before concluding that Diomede has taken Criseyde from him. Although he cannot believe her because she is telling the truth, her words combine with the death of Hector to plunge Troilus into what is effectively a ‘double sorrow’ in which he longs for death.
Readers today know through scholarly footnotes, although Chaucer naturally makes no mention of the fact, that the incident of Troilus’s ascent after his death does not figure in Boccaccio’s Filostrato but is transferred by Chaucer from his Teseida, where it happens to Arcita. Boccaccio was almost certainly inspired there by the ascent of Dante with Beatrice from Purgatory at the start of the Paradiso. It might be possible to suggest that Chaucer’s word ‘comedie’ applied to the episode constitutes a verbal wink, indicating that he has recognized the parallel with the Commedia and hopes a few good readers may do likewise.
Probably nothing in Chaucer’s Troilus troubles and challenges modern readers so much as what is said in the four stanzas following Troilus’s ascent and vision; the first is a series of reductive, dismissive exclamations: ‘Swich fyn hath, lo, this Troilus for love;’ the second addresses a group of potential contemporary readers in moralizing tones: ‘O yonge fresshe folkes, he or she, / In which that love up groweth with your age, / Repeyreth hoom from worldly vanitee;’ the third continues the exhortation to live sincerely Christian lives that began in the previous stanza; the fourth returns with greater explicitness to the rejection of the pagan world implied in the first:
Lo here, of Payens corsed olde rytes,
1850 Lo here, what alle hir goddes may availle;
Lo here, these wrecched worldes appetytes;
Lo here, the fyn and guerdon for travaille
Of Iove, Appollo, of Mars, of swich rascaille!
One reason for modern surprise and even disappointment must be the contrast between these lines and the seemingly positive, sympathetic tone in which the narrator has hitherto told his tale. This corresponds to the positive response to sexual expressions of ‘romantic’ love that passes for normal in today’s world, and a dislike for any indication that salvation might not automatically be open to everyone. It seems to such permissive readers that whoever has been responsible for the narrative up to this point has done an abrupt about-turn in order to end on an irreconcilably different, orthodox Christian, even puritan key. These stanzas are sometimes seen as an aesthetic blemish, a failure to preserve the unity of the work to the end.
In the light of what has been seen in the preceding pages, another, quite different reading of Troilus might be (and has indeed been) proposed, one which sees these concluding stanzas as integral to a full understanding of the poem. It would begin with the invocation of Tisiphone in the opening stanza, and relate the entire course of the action of Chaucer’s poem to the role of the references to Statius, the pagan and Christian literary traditions, and the nature of love in Dante’s Commedia. That is the principle focus of Wetherbee’s 1998 essay.
Essentially, he says, we are sent back by the ending to reexamine our reading of the poem as a whole, and particularly its moral status as a love story. We now notice that the hymn of joy that Troilus utters as he lies in bed with Criseyde, (3.1254-74) which includes the words of Dante’s St. Bernard already noted, begins with the double exclamation ‘O Love! O Charite!’ Now these are regular Christian names for God but the very next line shows that Troilus is blessing Eros, not the Christian God of whom he can of course know nothing, for he includes ‘Thi moder ek, Citheria the swete’ in his praises. For him, erotic, physical love is God and the highest bliss. From a Christian perspective, he is wrong about everything important: the nature of love, the nature of bliss, and the identity of God.
A few lines later, still in sexual ecstasy, he will tell Pandarus, ‘Thow hast in hevene ybrought my soule at reste (III, 1599). To this, only a few lines later, Pandarus responds with a truly wise warning of the mutability of all earthly joys: ‘For of fortunes sharpe adversitee / The worste kynde of infortune is this, / A man to han ben in prosperitee, / And it remembren whan it passed is.’ (III, 1625-8) Troilus takes no notice of this essential truth, which echoes lines in Chaucer’s Boece: ‘For in alle adversities of fortune the most unzeely kynde of contrarious fortune is to han ben weleful’ (II, pr. 4 noted by Windeatt 1984, 331). Windeatt, designating the notion ‘proverbial,’ notes another possible parallel, quoting lines from Dante Inferno V: ‘nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / nella miseria’ (V, 121-3) (there is no greater pain than to recall the happy time in misery). The full significance of this Dantean parallel can only be sensed if we recall that those are the words of Francesca, who tells how she committed adultery with her husband’s brother after reading with him about Lancelot and Guinevere’s first kiss. That moment of physical passion and ‘bliss’ has brought them to everlasting torment. Troilus, we might begin to suspect, is blinded by folly; he believes that he has reached ‘rest’ and permanence when he has in fact only reached the midpoint of his story (Kaylor). The readers may recall better than the narrator that what follows is the movement ‘out of joie,’ (I, 4) announced in the very first stanza of the poem.
Once that movement is complete, Troilus dies as a heroic warrior, not as a lover, and is granted his final moment of insight into the truth of the matter. Here he is out of joy indeed. Looking down from the inner surface of the eighth sphere, high indeed, but not as high as God in heaven, he ‘fully gan despyse / This wrecched world, held al vanitee / To respect of the pleyn felicitee / That is in hevene above’ (V, 1814-7) but that Heaven with its true felicity is not for him. Then ‘Ther he was slayn, his loking doun he caste; / And in him-self he lough right at the wo / Of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste,’ (V, 1820-2) which is not a very positive response to the expressions of human affection and friendship common in heroic poetry. At last he admits his moral failure as a too physical lover: ‘“And dampned al our werk that folweth so / The blinde lust, the which that may not laste, / And sholden al our herte on hevene caste’ (V, 1823-5). But such a glimpse of Christian and moral truth can have no redemptive effect on him now, for what is represented in these lines is not some kind of apotheosis or special grace, but Troilus’s ‘Particular Judgement.’
Catholic doctrine teaches that each human soul without exception, Christian or not, receives knowledge of its eternal destiny at the moment of death. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia says: ‘Theologians suppose that the particular judgment will be instantaneous, that in the moment of death the separated soul is internally illuminated as to its own guilt or innocence and of its own initiation takes its course either to hell, or to purgatory, or to heaven.’ There may be a double irony in the location of Troilus’ final moment of insight. The seventh heaven is that of Saturn, the last of the planets, of whose character the Knight’s Tale paints an appalling picture (2454-69). Rising to the sphere of Saturn is for Troilus a brief experience of the full scope of ‘the erratik sterres’ (V, 1812), the planets that influence humanity by their constant changes. Above him lie only the unmoving sphere of the fixed stars and the Empyrean, beyond which lies the Christian Heaven, not a place but the eternal ‘mind’ of God.
The judgement is not only for Troilus. The narrator who has so long sided with him must share in it, and the readers too. From the height of the sphere of Saturn the soul of Troilus must be imagined to make an abrupt fall, to the sphere lying immediately above that of the moon, for the text says it is Mercury who is to take him away to where he must go, to Limbo, as one who lived before the coming of Christ. In the eighth sphere, too, there is no resting place for Troilus. The delightful tale of romantic love’s joys and pains has suddenly been denounced as ‘blinde lust.’ Naturally, the narrator speaks with a radically changed, repentant voice the denunciatory stanzas that follow.
As Wetherbee stresses, ‘the story adumbrated in the opening stanzas of the Troilus—the story, ultimately, of Troilus’s double sorrow for love of a Criseyde who ‘forsook hym er she deyde’ (1.56)—conforms in its prevailing emphases to the representation of human love in canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno, the canto of Dido, Francesca, and all the ‘donne antiche e’cavalieri’ whose love proved stronger than reason’ (1998, 250-1). In view of what we have so far seen, it seems almost unthinkable that Chaucer did not realize the parallel and difference between his own way of telling the story of Troilus and Dante’s response to the tale of Paolo and Francesca. Never explicitly mentioned, Chaucer’s awareness of this parallel is perhaps revealed in the lines from Purgatorio echoed in Pandarus’s words quoted above: ‘nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / nella miseria’ (V, 121-3 (there is no greater pain than to recall the happy time in misery). For these are the words by which Francesca begins her account of her sexual encounter with Paolo. We cannot fail to note that she says she ‘diro come colui che piange e dice’ (V, 126) (will tell as one who weeps and tells) which might perhaps underlie the last line of Chaucer’s poem’s first stanza: ‘for t'endite / These woful vers, that wepen as I write.’
Chaucer’s narrator weeps, surely, out of pity for the human condition in which love can be experienced at the same time as both the highest bliss and utter vanity, indeed a cause of damnation. His tears could be seen, Wetherbee suggests, as ‘something closer to true charity than Dante’s self-regarding pity’ (1998 250). Francesca recalls how she and Paolo, both married adults, were brought to commit adultery while reading a romance about Lancelot. She tells, her companion weeps, and Dante falls unconscious in one of the most emotional moments of his entire journey: ‘si che di pietade / io vienni men cosi com’io morisse; / e caddi come corpo morto cade’ (Inferno V, 140-2) (While the one spirit said this the other wept so that for pity I swooned as if in death and dropped like a dead body). While telling the story of the union of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s narrator maintains his distance. Arriving at the end of his task, he is brought back to the emotions indicated in the opening lines of the poem, and to a fuller understanding of where such a passion must lead.
The complexity of Chaucer’s debt to Dante in Troilus is nowhere clearer than in the words that close the poem (V, 1863-9):
Thou oon, and two, and three, eterne on-lyve,
That regnest ay in three and two and oon,
1865 Uncircumscript, and al mayst circumscryve,
Us from visible and invisible foon
Defende; and to thy mercy, everichoon,
So make us, Iesus, for thy grace digne,
For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne! Amen.
The stanza owes nothing to Boccaccio. The first three lines are a close translation of words from Dante’s Commedia (Paradiso 14.28-30) while Boitani (1983, 127) links the final line with the opening line of Paradiso 30. The lines celebrating the Trinity are taken from Canto 14 of Paradiso, which is set in the Sphere of the Sun, which Dante entered in Canto 10, and the singers are the spirits encountered in the first two circles of the wise. Eighth among the wise doctors forming the First Circle introduced by Beatrice in Canto 10 is ‘the holy soul who makes plain the world’s deceitfulness to one that hears him rightly; the body from which he was driven lies below in Cieldauro, and he came from martyrdom and exile to this peace.’ Did Chaucer realize that this meant that one of the voices joining in this hymn is none other than that of his favorite philosopher, Boethius? Given the difficulty of the reference, we might wonder. Yet, in order to attain such a full understanding of the Commedia as we have been suggesting, Chaucer must have been introduced to Dante’s work by someone with a very deep knowledge of it during his visit to Italy. They may have helped him here. It is certainly a fitting final, hidden link to a Boethius already dear to Chaucer but now made more significant by the role assigned to him by Dante, as he dances in eternal bliss above, so very unlike Troilus.
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Scholars have identified over 30 points in Troilus and Criseyde where Chaucer is clearly translating directly from Dante’s Commedia. Yet he never indicates his debt or refers to Dante explicitly. The echoes of Dante’s text are particularly dense in the poem’s opening lines in Book 1, at the moment in Book 3 when Troilus and Criseyde acheive physical union, and above all in the closing section of Book 5. Close examination of these sections suggests that Chaucer was pursuing a deliberate, but hidden strategy that culminates in the final lines of the poem, by which Troilus’s trajectory is deliberately and constantly contrasted ironically with Dante’s. While Troilus and the poem’s narratorial voice identify the sexual union of Book 3 with achieved bliss, the Dantean references and Boethian elements invite a quite different reading. The references to Statius in Chaucer’s poem, in particular, cannot be fully understood without reference to the role he plays in Dante’s Commedia, as the archetype of the Christian poet confronting his religious and moral responsibilities in a pagan literary tradition. A brief survey of the echoes of Boethius’ Consolation in Troilus shows a similar strategy of indirect, ironic commentary on Troilus’ notions of happiness.
Key words: Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Dante, Commedia, Boethius, Consolation, tragedy, happiness, irony, hidden echoes.