July 15, 2010

Approaching Troilus and Criseyde

There are a few things I am curious about this work. The first distinction is that it exists as a whole text. Compared to the Canterbury Tales, the story is concerned with a solitary narrative arc, instead of a frame story with smaller tales interspersed (much like the Reinhardt / Renard / Reynard stories.) As such, I feel more comfortable approaching the work in a critical manner. Through the introduction, I have already learned the plot of the tale. What leaves me uncertain about approaching the text is how the story is has been constructed through time. The narrative comes from late antiquity and on through Shakespeare, so how do we consider Chaucer's role as a re-visionary of the tale?

In the intro, it speaks much of how this tale comes from the Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, where "[Chaucer] often matched the Italian text stanza for stanza" (xxiii). This is so much emphasized that there are places where this is drawn attention to, and included in a chart in the text. Thinking in terms of my paper, I am weary about making a claim about authorial intent before I know the context that this should be taken in. As such, it is with reservations that I bring this assertion into the text: the character of Pandarus, which Chaucer created, seems like an analogue within the poem for the poet's own narrative voice. From the reading considered so far, this character is a go-between and facilitator for the love that will perhaps develop between the two main characters. If this character is a Chaucerian invention and not coming from the source texts this is one place where we can speak of the edifice of the poet's creativity. That this Pandarus is friend of Troilus and the uncle of Criseyde places him within a level of intimacy with the characters that only a writer knows.

Although Troilus and Criseyde has areas of direct transcription, there are places where he veers from the source text. The most notable one at this reading is Troilus's song in part one. Again, I know nothing other sources of the text, but this song has been presented as the first use of the Petrarchan sonnet in English poetry. This is not pure invention, as the poem is more an adaptation (362) of the original sonnet from Petrarch, and not a new one all together. This is textually interesting to see how Chaucer is writing a poem in vulgar English, but he is taking source material from two different contemporary Italian sources and making something that while not entirely original, is something that is entirely Chaucer's. What makes me curious is this notion of invention as part of how a modern reader hails an author. If we are able to maintain Chaucer in the canon, why do modern readers know Camus, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and not the unfortunate forgotten who translated them.

It is again a rhetorical leap to claim that Chaucer was nothing but a translator, but it is an interesting subject to me. I have this notion that the ideas of authorship, ideas of genre, and the divide between written and performed where much more fluid than they is now. Modern readers have build walls around ideas. I can remember reading somewhere where the prize-winning novel The Life of Pi was under criticism because its author wrote a story about a tiger and a little boy and a raft. This represents how modern society puts not the craft of versification, but the ideas behind them in primacy.
A final consideration is the fact that I have been raised to recognize what genre a work fits in, and that is the beginning of a description:

"What are you reading?"
"Oh, this, it's a play by Tom Stoppard."

Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde is not so easily classifiable. There is a narrative arc, creating what might be considered fiction. There's versification, metered lines, and stanza breaks with a regular rhyme pattern within the stanzas. And lastly there is a lot of talking. From what I've read, I can see why Shakespeare made this into a play. He might only have needed to modernize some of the lines and place in stage directions. The fun thing is that it seems Chaucer is self conscious about these ambiguities. Instead of the classic epic invocation to the muse, there is an invocation to a fury. Instead of a love triangle with a jilted lover, there is just the two of them, both free to do as they choose. These subversions show something about Chaucer's own enjoyment of the work he was creating.

Perhaps this poem is also about interpretation and ambiguity. My mind returns to the image of Chaucer at some sort of pulpit or lectern: is he reading, performing, or both?