It is time to bring the April Poetry Month to a close, and I would never forgive myself if I featured long poetical works worth reading and did not give the spotlight to Chaucer. While most people have likely heard of The Canterbury Tales, and perhaps even read some of it (in a modern translation) before, it is likely most have not picked up anything else he wrote. And that is a shame, since his Troilus and Criseyde is arguably just as good as Canterbury, albeit in a very different manner.
Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the 14th century and was arguably the most influential author in early English literature. During a period when most poets were writing in French and Latin, Chaucer chose to write his works in English. He wrote in what is now known as Middle English, closer in relation to our Modern English than the works of the Beowulf poet and other works in Old English. Whereas a person could pick up an Old English text and be completely confused, a person can reasonably decipher the language of Middle English.
His work, Troilus and Criseyde, tells the story of Troilus and Criseyde during the Siege of Troy. Yes, the hero and heroine of this book are from Greek Mythology, which means some of the names, places, and events will be familiar. Many of the future retellings have drawn their inspiration from Chaucer’s version of this poem.
A brief spoiler-free preview of the poem’s story: The story is about the Trojan prince Troilus, son of Priamus who is king of Troy, who falls in love with a lady called Criseyde. With the help of his friend Pandarus, who is Criseyde’s uncle, Troilus wins Criseyde’s love. A time of love and prosperity follows, which ends when the Greeks capture the Trojan warrior Antenor. Criseyde and Antenor are exchanged hence Troilus and Criseyde are separated.
Here are the first 49 lines in Middle English (Full poem here):
The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!
To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.
For I, that god of Loves servaunts serve,
Ne dar to Love, for myn unlyklinesse,
Preyen for speed, al sholde I therfor sterve,
So fer am I fro his help in derknesse;
But nathelees, if this may doon gladnesse
To any lover, and his cause avayle,
Have he my thank, and myn be this travayle!
But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse,
If any drope of pitee in yow be,
Remembreth yow on passed hevinesse
That ye han felt, and on the adversitee
Of othere folk, and thenketh how that ye
Han felt that Love dorste yow displese;
Or ye han wonne hym with to greet an ese.
And preyeth for hem that ben in the cas
Of Troilus, as ye may after here,
That love hem bringe in hevene to solas,
And eek for me preyeth to god so dere,
That I have might to shewe, in som manere,
Swich peyne and wo as Loves folk endure,
In Troilus unsely aventure.
And biddeth eek for hem that been despeyred
In love, that never nil recovered be,
And eek for hem that falsly been apeyred
Thorugh wikked tonges, be it he or she;
Thus biddeth god, for his benignitee,
So graunte hem sone out of this world to pace,
That been despeyred out of Loves grace.
And biddeth eek for hem that been at ese,
That god hem graunte ay good perseveraunce,
And sende hem might hir ladies so to plese,
That it to Love be worship and plesaunce.
For so hope I my soule best avaunce,
To preye for hem that Loves servaunts be,
And wryte hir wo, and live in charitee.
And those same lines in Modern English (Full poem here):
Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.
I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.
For I, who the God of Love’s servants serve,
not daring to Love, in my inadequateness,
pray for success, though death I might deserve,
so far am I from his help in darkness.
But nevertheless, if this should bring gladness
to any lover, and his cause avail,
Love take my thanks, and mine be the travail.
But you, lovers that bathe in gladness,
if any drop of pity is in you,
remember all your past heaviness
that you have felt, and how others knew
the same adversity: and think how, too,
you have felt Love dare to displease
if you have won him with too great an ease.
And pray for those that may have been
in Troilus’s trouble, as you’ll later hear,
that love bring them solace in heaven:
and also, for me, pray to God so dear
that I might have the power to make clear
such pain and woe as Love’s folk endure
in Troilus’s unhappiest adventure.
And also pray for those that have despaired
of love, and never can recover:
and also those by falsity impaired,
by wicked tongues, beloved one, or lover,
And so ask of God the benign mover,
to grant them soon to pass from this place,
that have despaired of Love’s grace.
And also pray for those that are at ease,
that God might grant them to persevere,
and send them power their lovers to please,
that it might, for Love, be worship and a pleasure.
For that I hope will be my soul’s best measure:
to pray for those who Love’s servants be,
and write their woes, and live in charity.
While the latter might be easier to read, you can see that the first set of lines in Middle English can be puzzled out. At least a good number of the words can be, although the spellings weren’t standardized on anything yet so they may look a little different. Curious about what Middle English sounded like? Here is a video of a reading from the Prologue in Chaucer’s Caterbury Tales:
And for an even more interesting experience, the Prologue being rapped in Middle English:
Have you read anything by Chaucer before? Ever tried reading it in Middle English? If you’ve read the Canterbury Tales, was there a tale that you remember enjoying from it?