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Troilus and Criseyde

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TROILUS AND CRISEYDE. This nar rative poem of over 8,000 lines, written about 1380, is the longest and most elaborate work of Geoffrey Chaucer, and is by many considered his masterpiece, though it is by no means so widely known as those immortal 'Canterbury Tales' which have made his name the common property of all English-speaking peoples. As is usual with Chaucer, the main outline of the story is not original; it is, indeed, the gradual growth of perhaps 2,000 years, from Homer to Boccaccio. But Chaucer has made it his own as he made the stories of his Tales and as Shakespeare made the plots of his plays, and "by the alchemy of his genius has transmuted the baser metal into gold." Troilus, son of Priam, king of Troy, faithfully loves the beau tiful Criseyde, daughter of the Trojan priest Calchas, who has deserted to the Greeks. Through the intercession of Pandar, uncle of Criseyde and friend of Troilus, the lovers are united, and for three years are supremely happy. At length, Criseyde is transferred to the Greek camp in exchange for a Trojan prisoner, and joins her father. 'At parting, the lovers vow eternal constancy, Criseyde, especially, assuring Troilus of her unalterable affection. Once in the Greek camp, however, she soon yields to circumstances and transfers her love to Dio mede, the Greek. When Troilus becomes con vinced of her faithlessness, he seeks revenge upon his successful rival, but fails, and, after performing prodigies of valor, is slain by the enemy. Criseyde and Diomede survive. The story itself is slight, and the action moves slowly; only about 1,600 lines are pure narra tive; almost 6,000 lines are dialogue or solilo quy; several hundred lines are descriptive, or purely lyrical, or in the form of the poet's per sonal comments upon the action and the charac- • ters. The emphasis is so much more upon character than action, that the poem, might almost be called a psychological novel in verse,— a surprising production for its period, and one that curiously anticipates a javorite literary method of the 19th century., 74i s story of love, faithlessness and despair, Chaucer treats sympathetically, yet with a sanity, a sense values, a profound humor and a worldly wisdom that turn the tragedy into com edy, rather ironic yet neither cynical nor bitter. He has gone far beyond his immediate prede cessor in the treatment of the story, Boccaccio (whose poem 'Filostrato) he used in part), in characterization, in sympathy, in numberless subtle touches that show the most penetrating observation of both the inner and the outer worlds. He has added elements distinctly Eng

lish; for, in spite of his humor and his irony, he shows religious earnestness and a strong tendency to moralize; and, in the sphere of sense, he gives us English scenery, especially the May morning which he loved. Greek though the story is supposed to he, the general setting and the tone are distinctly mediaeval, with char acteristic disregard of "local color" and his toric verisimilitude. But as a whole the poem is compounded of elements that lift it out of any particular milieu into the universaj: love that grows into overmastering passion; devoted and self-sacrificing friendship; the lure of lovely womanhood. Its supreme excellence is its marvelous characterization. Troilus and, especially, Criseyde and Pandar, are unmatched outside of Shakespeare as examples of the in teraction of character and circumstances. They show Chaucer's profound knowledge of human traits and motives; each is completely rounded, utterly consistent and convincing. Each reacts upon the others; together they mold the ac tion, which, as in all true drama, moves logic ally onward to its inevitable conclusion. This is less the material of ordinary narrative poetry than of p ological drama, easy to make over into ay, as might have been done by Chauce espeare's time, and as was actu ally by Shakespeare in his 'Troilus and Cr a,' though with a curiously cynical dpkradauon of the material. As a masterpiece 6'1 sheer poetic craftsmanship, 'Troilus and far surpasses anything that English poetry'has to offer before the time of Spenser. Chaucer handles his seven-line stanza (rime royale, rhyming ababbcc) with an ease and variety of effect, as well as with a variety and richness of music, possible only to a great mas ter. The monotony which might have attended the use of one form through over 1,000 stanzas is obviated by skilful and constant shifting of the cxsura or verse-pause, by a copious vocabu lary, and an inexhaustible variety of rhyme. In form, then, as in matter, the poem is essentially great. It must be admitted that as mere narra tive it is always prolix; that it is written in a language now archaic; that, since its time, standards of taste and literary methods have often changed; and that some effort must be made to overcome these initial barriers to a full appreciation. When these have been passed, however, it will be found that 'Troilus and Criseyde' remains, after the lapse of over five centuries, a very great work, rich in the essen tial elements of poetry.

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