Knowing Sweet Through Bitter: A Dialectical Reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde



              eoffrey Chaucer’s take on Boccaccio’s classic poem “Troilus and Criseyde” is one that honors the original as it innovates and brings in entirely new thematics to the tale. Chaucer’s own version of the tragedy is one that deals intimately with the processes of a happy life and the failure of Troilus to capture that happy life. Of import is the presence of a process within the poem; Chaucer delivers the reader with a keenly dialectical process, one where everything is made known only by its opposite and were all joy must be followed by a period of grief. Certainly Chaucer’s translation of Boethius would make him familiar with the medieval sense of the dialectic which was part of the trivium and deeply rooted in Aristotelian logic. Chaucer’s use of binary dialectics (i.e. the definition of everything coming from its opposite) is but a starting point for his greater exploration of the contradictions of free will and foreknowledge, one that wrenches at the troubled mind of Troilus in Book IV (Grady). Indeed, the entire story is constructed upon this very question – every reader and listener of Chaucer’s poem knows the ending of the story, if not from reading Boccaccio’s own version simply by Chaucer repeatedly telling the reader that the tale is of “The double sorwe of Troilus;” yet Chaucer endeavors to tell the tale nonetheless. By studying the dialectical nature of the triumvirate of main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of happiness as a product of grief, Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination in Book IV and finally Chaucer’s final thoughts in Book V, a greater understanding of the dialectical nature of the story emerges. The dialectics of Boethius, of which Chaucer interacted with deeply, are not simply present in the poem but its main catalyst; the means through which Chaucer establishes his characters in relation to one another and forges the thesis of idealistic love, the antithesis of infidelity and the synthesis of the eighth sphere and the “floures fayre.”

The three main characters in Troilus and Criseyde are emblematic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the way they represent idealistic love, pragmatism and an interesting expression of their mixture. Troilus, of course, is keenly emblematic of the thesis of idealistic and chivalric love. His falling in love with Criseyde is highly conventional, as his eyes by “cas bifel” upon the maiden, causing his heart to “sprede and rise” (I. 270-275). Indeed, the minute he sees Criseyde he goes from teasing lovers to being the most conventional lover of them all. The Canticus Troili is a case study in Chaucer’s representation of Troilus as the prototypical love-struck individual as Troilus ponders anxiously over his churning heart. Yet, Troilus’ song expresses his own anxiety over his naïve understanding of love, as he sings, “If no love is, O god, what fele I so? / And if love is, what thing and which is he? / If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo? /…When every torment and adversite / That cometh of hym may to me savory thinke, / For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.” (I. 400-406). Troilus struggles intimately with just what it is he is feeling, and the dialectical relationship between his great joy and his great woe. He ponders that if it is his own “lust I brenne,” why then should he be upset if such a harm “agree (him)” (I. 407-409). Reading from a dialectical perspective, Troilus’ woe is a product of his singular nature; he mocks lovers and then becomes one, he cannot live without Criseyde’s faithfulness and so on. The tragedy of Troilus’ character is his lack of any pragmatism and his almost innocent dependence on his love relationship.

The antithesis of Troilus is his greatest ally in the poem, Pandarus. Indeed, Pandarus is the catalyst of the entire story yet tellingly he vanishes when the lovers are finally united in mutual love. If we accept that Troilus is the thesis of idealistic love, Pandarus is the antithesis of pragmatism. In Book III, as Troilus anxiously invokes the gods to help in this encounter with Criseyde Pandarus crassly retorts, “Thow wrecched mouses herte, / Artow agast so that she wol the bite?”(III.176) Throughout the poem, Pandarus is emblematic of a pragmatic, results oriented approach. He cannot understand Troilus’ invocation to gods to ease his anxiety because he is not Troilus’ emotional peer. He forces Troilus’ letter on Criseyde and manipulates her into meeting with Troilus by having Troilus ride under her window, he sets up the scene in the gloomy bedroom where Troilus lies falsely ill, and he indeed is the mastermind behind the entire love relationship. But Pandarus’ own failures in love cause Troilus to ask, “How devel maistow brynge me to blisse?” As it turns out, Troilus question is a prescient one as Pandarus truly is unable to bring Troilus bliss. In Book V Pandarus condemns the understanding of dreams, even though dreams have been correct in two instances within the poem. Pandarus scolds Troilus by saying, “Have I nat seyd er this, that dreams many a maner man begile?” (V. 1275). Pandarus cannot escape from his pragmatism, even when both Criseyde’s dream in Book I and Troilus’ dream in Book V are both keenly accurate in their foretelling. In this way Pandarus, like Troilus, is unable to reach a synthesis; the two of them representing only one part of what Chaucer presents as love and happiness and instilling the sense of tragedy within the poem.

Interestingly, Criseyde is perhaps the most dual character in the entire poem. Her nature is highly fluid and conflicting, illustrated by the fact that within the first 100 lines Chaucer refers to her death in line 56 and then dubs her “a thing inmortal” on line 103 (Grady). To most readers Criseyde’s character is a reasonable one, as she often finds middle ground where Troilus cannot. This theme is found from her first meeting with Troilus, as she agrees to see him but says she will only do so to ease his heart. In Book V, she agrees to see Diomed if he will relent on his romantic advances, a pragmatic and compassionate response. The narrator tells us, “So that Criseyde / Graunted on the morrow, at his request, / For to speken with him at the leeste — / So that he nolde speke of swich matere” (V. 952-3). In this way Criseyde is perhaps ironically the closest character to a synthesis of idealistic love and pragmatism that we are given, and it is perhaps her reasonable nature that elicits Chaucer’s pity in Book V. Like Chaucer, a dialectical reader cannot absolve Criseyde, but it certainly moves us into Chaucer’s party, in that such a reading elicits one to feel sorry for the Trojan maiden separated from her doomed home and lover. So we see that through a dialectical reading that Troilus, Pandarus and Criseyde are keenly dialectical in their representation; as Chaucer uses the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to construct his characters and their relationship to one another. Troilus and Pandarus must come together to create the synthesis that is the love relationship centered on Criseyde, arguably the most dual character in the poem. Indeed, the synthesis of Troilus and Criseyde’s love quickly dissolves into despair and woe, and Chaucer deals intimately about whether or not this invalidates the beauty of that synthesis.

Chaucer from the outset of his poem establishes the known end of the story, the first line having established the imminent twin sorrows of Troilus. Immediately following his mentioning of the twin sorrows, Chaucer elucidates the process through which Troilus will tragically navigate later in the poem. Chaucer expresses his intent to tell of “how his aventures fellen / Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie” (I. 3-4). Here Chaucer is not at all diminishing the wele and joie, rather, the language mentions “wo” once; the last tragedy being Troilus falling “out of joie.” Certainly as the story progresses Chaucer makes no effort to at all diminish the joy of Troilus and Criseyde in any way, in spite of the fact that every reader knows of the ever present final sorrow on the horizon. This opposition between “woe and joie” is both the heart of the tragedy and the heart of the truly romantic scenes in Book III, and here in the first lines Chaucer is establishing that very fact. Attached to this fact is the binary dialectical thesis that runs throughout the poem, best described in Book I by one of the frequent soliloquies by the narrator. The narrator states, “By his contrarie is every thyng declared / For how myghte ever swetnesse han ben know / To him that nevere tasted bitternesse” (637-639)? This is the central question within Troilus and Criseyde, as Chaucer endeavors to negotiate whether or not the foreknowledge of Troilus’ fall can negate the flowers faire of the love that illuminates Book III with its beauty. Chaucer begins to elucidate this answer by offering that true sweetness is unknown to those who do not know bitterness. Indeed, the lines immediately preceding this expression is Pandarus’ thesis that he above others could advise Troilus in love, for his failures are exactly what enables him to better advise his friend. In other words, Chaucer acknowledges both dialectical poles; as one necessarily begets the other. In this way Chaucer has not diminished the joy, anxiety and anticipation in the hearts of the young lovers in spite of their foreknown fall, illustrating the tension between foreknowledge and free will that cuts through both Boethius and Chaucer, as is poignantly explored by Troilus himself.

Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination is one that Boethius deals with intimately in his Consolation of Philosophy. Troilus’ debate with himself over the metaphysical concepts of free will and predestination is certainly related to the story but Troilus is much more thoughtful in his explication of the issue than he is at any other point in the poem. A reader can clearly see Chaucer’s own debate with the material coming through, as Troilus ponders the ideas of “great clerkes olde” (IV 973). Within the scope of the story Troilus’ contemplations are of central importance, as Chaucer here is interacting in an almost detached way with the nature of his story; and it’s worth noting that such a contemplation is completely absent in Boccaccio’s version. Troilus begins his exploration by saying that, “For cereyntly, this wot I well, / That forsight of divine purveyaunce / hath seyn alwey me to forgot Criseyde / Syn God seeth every thing, out of doutaunce…/ But natheless, allas, who shal I leeve? / For there been grete clerkes many oon /That destine thrugh arguments preve; /And som men seyn that nedely there is noon, / But that fre chois is yeven us everychon” (IV 960-75). This is the foundation with which Troilus and Criseyde is constructed upon, for every listener and reader knows the end of the story. Does this fact, Chaucer ponders through Troilus, change the crafting and development of the story? This is a keenly dialectical series of thoughts, as fate and choice are opposed to each other in Troilus’ construction. As Troilus continues, he is essentially using the dialectical process to debate himself, bringing up point and counterpoint and using reason to determine a correct answer. He first reasons through whether or not foreknowledge necessitates an event or what the men with “han hire top ful heigh and smothe yshore” suggest; that things happen and thus divine foreknowledge knows of its happening but does not necessitate it happening. Chaucer’s metaphor of the chair is telling, as he certainly used his surroundings to craft the metaphor while he composed his poem. He concludes the metaphor by offering that “And I seye, though the cause of soth of this / Comth of his sittyng, yet neccesite / Is entrechaunged, both in hym and the” (IV 1045). In this dialectical construction Chaucer has elucidated his perceived role in the crafting of the story – to tell of this tragedy necessitates both him as a creative author and the foreknown end, and arguably Boccaccio’s own version. Troilus then ponders over those clerks, of which Chaucer has labeled himself as earlier in the poem, who suggest that all men have complete free will, but this is not Chaucer or Troilus’ conclusion. Troilus’ final conclusion is thus, “So mot it come; and thus the bifallyng / of thynges that ben wist bifore the tyde, /They mowe nat ben eschued on no syde” (IV 1080.) Ergo, Chaucer places himself between the two camps of predestination and free will; and this is certainly where he sits as he writes the very poem – he and his audience all know the end, yet he writes anyway, the final foreknowledge unavoidable “by any means.” Thus the dialectical relationship between fate and free will is one that drives the entire story, one that drives the reader on to an end already known to them; and indeed, what drives Chaucer’s own anxiety over leading his characters to the gallows of shattered love.

Yet Chaucer does not leave the reader with tragedy, he instead leaves the reader one last synthesis; the one between the serene 8th sphere and the beautiful flowers of earthly spring. Ultimately, Chaucer endeavors to reconcile the tragedy of Troilus, dead at the hand of Achilles, and a compassionate higher power. Indeed, Troilus’ entire speech elicits the reader to question why a god should let such a tragedy happen. Chaucer presents the spirit of Troilus as spiteful of the “blynde lust” he felt on earth and the sorrow he endured, and this is much in line with his singular nature highlighted above. Chaucer, however, does not deliver us with such a simplistic notion in his final lines of Troilus and Criseyde. The end of Book V is not a simple condemnation of all things worldly, but in an Augustinian sense, worldly things done incorrectly. Chaucer uses repetition to illustrate the fate of Troilus, writing, “Swich fyn hath all his great worthynesse! /Swich fyn hath his estat real above!” It’s clear Chaucer is condemning very specific parts of sublunary life, and not all of material life. The image of the “floures faire” certainly lends the reader to a certain level of affection for this brief time we spend on earth, and Chaucer is not condemning the sublunary pleasures felt by Troilus and Criseyde just to glamorize the superlunary 8th sphere. In between these two concepts is Chaucer’s synthesis of the passing nature of life on earth and a life after; based in the necessity and beauty of both joy and woe that will end in the most serene of places. Thus the dialectics of opposition are the means through which Chaucer conceives the woe of Troilus and indeed Chaucer’s own effort to leave the reader on a positive note; Troilus never stopped to see the flowers faire, wherein lies the tragedy of the tale, but in the end he still ascended to the 8th sphere, where Mars brings him to residence unknown in heaven.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is a work that keenly interacts with the dialectics of opposition, be it through explorations of joy and woe or fate and choice. By studying the dialectical nature of the three main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of sweetness as a product of bitternesse, Troilus’ debate over predestination and choice and finally Chaucer’s last synthesis of material and spiritual, a greater understanding of Chaucer’s dialectical project within Troilus and Criseyde emerges. The dialectic is not only in the poem in numerous places, but it also is present in its very creation as Chaucer deals intimately with the creation of a story with an already known end; as he struggles dialectically to understand whether or not his sitting in a chair, or Troilus’ fall, is a necessity of foreknowledge or an event simply known by foreknowledge. In any case, Chaucer’s wish for his “litel myn tragedye” to kiss the steps of Ovid and Virgil did not fall on deaf ears; for certainly his tragedy is one of his most read and enjoyed works. That the accounting of such woe should elicit such literary enjoyment is fitting indeed to this keenly dialectical tale.

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Filed under Academic, Chaucer, Dialectics, English, Literature, Poetry

One response to “Knowing Sweet Through Bitter: A Dialectical Reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

  1. Pingback: a story. | somewhere between life and death.

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