Holding the Center: Chaucer's Book of Troilus and Dante's Commedia
Noel Harold Kaylor
In his "Retraction," Chaucer names The Book of Troilus first among his "translacions and enditynges" to be revoked, and he names his Boece de Consolacione first among the works for which he thanks "oure Lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful Mooder, and alle the seintes of hevene." Among Chaucer's works, The Book of Troilus shows the greatest influence from the Boece, but in Chaucer's final words addressed to his readers, it is prominently proscribed while the Boece is prominently praised. Such ambiguity is characteristic of all things Chaucerian―so much so, in fact, that if something is not ambiguous, it seems not to be Chaucerian. Apart from the influence of the Boece, The Book of Troilus also shows the influence of Dante's Commedia; but Chaucer did not translate Dante, as he did Boethius. Their influence is apparent, but perhaps not so immediately striking as that of structures and arguments he borrows from Boethius because, as will be shown, Dante's influence is primarily structural rather than thematic.
Dante opens his Commedia with words and lines that call attention to themselves: the carefully chosen words and verses simply demand more than passive consideration.
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(The thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good. (Hell I, 1-9)
Immediately the reader's mind is midway, with the Pilgrim narrator's mind, into a journey that necessarily includes both the journy's good aspects and its unnamed opposite aspects. Thus, in Dante's opening lines, the reader is at a moment of crisis: the reader immediately faces the central moment of the Christian experience: the moment of choosing the good and rejecting its alternative.
Interestingly, it is exactly "midway along the journey" of our reading of the Commedia that Dante, the Pilgrim, asks the cause of vice (or evil) in the world: defining the parameters of the argument, the Pilgrim says, "some see [the cause] in the stars, some on the earth" (Purgatory XVI, 63). The Canto in which Dante raises this question, Purgatory XVI, is just short of being at the center of the 33 Cantos of the volume, but it is still Canto 50, or one of the two central cantos of the entire Commedia. Marco, the Lombard to whom he is speaking, replies to the Pilgrim's question:
You men on earth attribute everything
to the spheres' influence, as if
with some predestined plan they moved all things.
If this were true, then our Free Will would be
annihilated: it would not be just
to render bliss for good or pain for evil.
(Purgatory XVI, 65-72)
Marco continues by pointing out that the planets and their influence initiate our human inclinations toward certain patterns of behavior, but that, through reason, free will "can still / surmount all obstacles if nurtured well" (Purgatory XVI, 77-8). There is a point, then, at which reason enters as a factor to counter-balance or off-set the otherwise determining factors that surround us, making us responsible for our actions: human choice, founded in reason, makes us responsible for what we do. But what is the basis of that choice?
In Purgatory 17, Canto 51 of the Commedia but the exact midpoint of its second volume, Virgil delivers his major discourse on Love. In a universe in which God is Love, "Neither Creator nor his creatures ever, / my son, lacked love" (Purgatory XVII, 92-3). Following this line of reasoning, Virgil concludes:
So, you can understand how love must be
the seed of every virtue growing in you,
and every deed that merits punishment.
(Purgatory XVII, 103-5)
Here, at the very center of the Commedia, we learn that there is but one, basic non-element in the universe, and that this non-element is Love. Virgil distinguishes "natural love" from "rational love," stating then that rational love―the love that permits a choice of object―also permits us to love something improperly, and it is this love that becomes the very source of all that is not good, or what is referred to as evil.
When it is fixed on the Eternal Good,
and observes temperance loving worldly goods,
it cannot be the cause of sinful joys;
but when it turns toward evil or pursues
some good with not enough or too much zeal―
the creature turns on his Creator then.
(Purgatory XVII, 97-105)
Natural love causes human beings to love. Loving, therefore, simply occurs, naturally. However, it is how we choose to love, through rational love, that makes our loving either noble or ignoble.
Dante's reducing the motivational force in the universe to one spiritual principle echoes the thorough-going monotheism of St. Augustine, which stands behind most subsequent Christian theology. According to Augustine, there is nothing but the Good, and choosing evil is simply attempting to follow other than that Good, or the Will of God. In the theology of Augustine, attempting to do evil is an act of cupiditas, but choosing the Good is an act of caritas. Dante uses a derivative formulation of this Augustinian scheme when he names the single motivational force Love, so that attempting evil is loving improperly an object of that love, and seeking the Good is loving properly an object of that Love.
At the midpoint of the Purgatory, at the same time that Virgil lays out this principle of human choice, Dante necessarily initiates a discussion of "free will versus predestination or determinism." This theme of free will versus predestination is then amplified in Paradise, Canto XVII, which is, of course, midway through the third and last volume of the Commedia. Dante asks his great-great-grand father Cacciaguida, in the Paradise of Mars, what his future holds in store, and Cacciaguida prefaces his response with a caveat:
Contingency, which in no way extends
beyond the pages of your world of matter,
is all depicted in the eternal sight;
but this no more confers necessity
than does the movement of a boat downstream
depend upon the eyes that mirror it.
(Paradise XVII, 37-42)
The argument to contingency derives primarily from Thomas Aquinas, but the argument to necessity and the image of the boat are similar to those found in Book V of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Dante's own argument on "free will versus predestination or determinism" culminates in Canto XXX of the Paradise:
Oh Virgin Mother, daughter of your son,
most humble, most exalted of all creatures
chosen of God in His eternal plan,
you are the one who ennobled human nature
to the extent that He did not disdain,
Who was its maker, to make Himself man.
(Paradise XXX, 1-6)
Dante introduces paradox to resolve his theme: in the universe described in the Commedia, there is but one principle, Love, and there is but one goal, to do the will of God. So, as in Augustine, good and evil are but two sides of one coin, and the coin is Love (evil is simply attempting not to do the will of God); in similar fashion, free will is free only when it chooses to do the will of God, and thus free will and determinism are paradoxically but two sides of one coin. The same desire to reconcile opposites is found, also paradoxically, in the other dichotomies that require resolution during Dante's journey upward to the highest heaven. Life and death are but two sides of the individual―the individual living and the individual deceased; spirit and flesh are also but two sides of the individual―the interior soul and the exterior body.
To make this paradoxical position as poetically clear (through image and metaphor) as possible, Dante structured the Commedia, globally, as a teeter-totter that pivots at its midpoint, which is Purgatory, Cantos XVI/XVII, with the introduction of the themes of "love" and "free will versus predestination or determinism" at exactly that midpoint. So, in Dante's view, it would seem that if 51% of humanity either chooses not to love the higher values of civilization, or, like Dante the Pilgrim, unconsciously (or irrationally) loses sight of those values, the balance of civilization tips toward Hell. If, on the other hand, 51% of humanity chooses, as an act of free will, to love and cultivate those higher values, then the road to Paradise-Regained begins to open up.
Dante impresses upon the reader the importance of this pivotal, central moment in the Commedia early on, when he presents Midwayas the first word in the work. He then amplifies the importance of midpoints throughout the journey: the midpoint of Hell is in Circle 7, of Violence, where there is a discussion of why Dante's Florence has literally gone to Hell; the midpoint of Purgatory finds the reader on Terrace 3, Wrath, with its discussion of the evils prevailing in Florence; the midpoint of Paradise is on the Fifth Heaven, Mars (war), with its discussion of Florence's history, which shows a gradual decline from a "golden age" to the conditions prevailing in 1300. Each midpoint brings the reader back to the central moment of Christian experience, the moment of choice between an improper and a proper expression of love, which suggests, of course, that Dante's beloved Florence has chosen an improper expression of love and tipped its balance toward violence, wrath, and war.
Few writers have been able to maintain consistency in point of view so well as Dante, as he proceeds from the proposition that there is but one principle in the universe, which is Love―which, according to St. John, defines God.
The opening verses of The Book of Troilus are also famous.
The Double sorwe of Troilus to tellen
That was the kyng Priamus sonne of Troye,
In lovynge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie,
My purpose is, er that I parte fro ye.
(Troiuls and Criseyde I, 1-5)
The first verses of Chaucer's "little tragedy" are quite different in effect from those of Dante's Commedia: very decidedly they direct the reader's attention away from the center, which is characterized by wele, and toward the beginning and the ending of the narrative, which are characterized by suffering wo and being out of joie, respectively.
Just as does Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, Chaucer's Book of Troilus comprises five books. It is in the central or third book of Chaucer's work that Troilus experiences his wele or joie. After a series of adventures or misadventures, all orchestrated by his friend Pandarus, Troilus ends up literally thrown by Pandarus into the arms of his beloved Criseyde:
Hire armes smale, hire streghte bak and softe,
Hire sydes longe, fleshly, smoothe, and white
He gan to stroke, and good thrift bad ful ofte
Hire snowissh throte, hire brestes rounde and lite.
Thus in this hevene [my emphasis] he gan hym to delite,
And therwithal; a thousand tyme hire kiste,
That what to don, for joie [my emphasis] unneathe he wiste.
(Troilus and Criseyde III, 1247-53)
Whereas Beatrice is a deceased, disembodied spirit, Criseyde is obviously a living, flesh-and-blood woman; and whereas Dante's paradise, to which Virgil and then Beatrice lead the Pilgrim-narrator, is an eternal realm, Chaucers's hevene, to which Pandarus and then Criseyde lead Troilus, is definitely a temporal realm. At this climactic moment, during the love scene in the narrative, Troilus makes a somewhat lengthy (three-stanza) speech as an apostrophe to the god, Love, who is specified as the son of Venus, and whom we must assume to be Cupid. It is instructive to examine at least a portion of this speech, at the beginning of which Troilus names this god twice:
"O Love, O Charite!
Thi moder ek, Citheria the swete,
After thiself next heried be she―
Venus mene I, the wel-willy planete!―
"And for thow me, that koude leest disserve
Of hem that noumbred ben unto thi grace,
Hast holpen, ther I likly was to sterve,
And me bistowed in so heigh a place [my emphasis]
That thilke boundes may no blisse pace,
I kan namore; but laude and reverence
Be to thy bounte and thyn excellence!"
(Troilus and Criseyde III, 1254-60, 1268-74)
This speech opens with typical Chaucerian ambiguity―the double naming of the god, "O Love, O Charite," subtly calls to mind the Augustinian dichotomy of cupiditas and caritas, so the reader must wonder at this point whether Troilus is actually achieving the one, the other, both, or neither.
Interestingly, the third stanza of the speech, which is quoted in full above, in which Troilus praises the god, Love, for having brought him to his pinnacle of joy, is stanza 589 out of the 1177 stanzas in the entire work. Thus, it is exactly midway through The Book of Troilus. The fifth and central verse of this seven-verse stanza, which is consequently the central verse in the entire work, is worth examining more closely. In it, Troilus says that Love [Cupid/Charite] has "me bestowed in so high a place" that bliss is boundless. The image informing this verse, which is borrowed from Boethius, places Troilus at precisely the highest point of Fortune's Wheel. The reader can hear echoed behind these words similar words from the beginning of "The Monk's Tale":
I wol biwaille in manere of tragedie
The harm of hem that stoode in high degree,
And fillen so that ther nas no remedie
To brynge hem out of hir adversitee.
("The Monk's Tale," 1991-94)
Therefore, this central image of the work places Troilus precariously at a point from which his fortunes can only descend. As Troilus thanks Pandarus, his Virgil-figure, for "guiding" him to his heaven of bliss,
He seyde, "O frend of frendes the alderbeste
That ever was, the sothe for to telle,
Thow hast in hevene [my emphasis] ybrought my soule at reste
Fro Flegitoun, the fery flood of helle [my emphasis] . . . ."
(Troilus and Criseyde III, 1597-1600)
In his own view, Troilus has ascended from the emotional hell of Book I to the emotional heaven of Book III, but apparently he is oblivious to the possible loss of his new-found happiness. However, Pandarus brings this possibility to Troilus's attention, unknowingly of course, by quoting Boethius:
"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."
(Troilus and Criseyde III, 1625-28)
Pandarus is well aware of the potential of Troilus's descent to a condition of being "out of joie," just as the reader anticipates the coming of Troilus's second sorrow. It is anticipated by the narrator even in the opening stanza, which looks forward precisely to this central verse of the work, that Troilus's emotional Wheel of Fortune will turn from comedy to tragedy, and from bliss of Book III to the sorrow that he will experience in Book V.
Just as a "divine" choice, signaled by the first word of the Commedia, is presented at the center of Dante's narrative, so, too, is an "earthly" choice, signaled by the opening stanza of The Book of Troilus, presented at the center of Chaucer's. The choice in Chaucer's case is between love-without-lasting-commitment and love-with-lasting-commitment―which is the earthly equivalent of Augustine's divine choice between cupiditas and caritas.
In the central scene of Chaucer's tragedy, Troilus pledges his lasting commitment to Criseyde:
"For certes, fresshe wommanliche wif,
This dar I seye, that trouthe and diligence [my emphasis],
That shal ye fynden in me al my lif . . . ."
(Troilus and Criseyde III, 1296-28)
Troilus chooses the object of his flesh-and-blood love, and he swears to her unending fidelity. She then accepts his pledge.
"And at o word, withouten repentaunce,
Welcome, my knight, my pees, my suffisaunce!"
(Troilus and Crideyde III, 1308-09)
She soon makes her own pledge of fidelity to Troilus, saying that the sun will fall from its sphere, the eagle will befriend the dove, and all rocks will leap from their proper settings before Troilus will be reft from her heart (Troilus and Criseyde III, 1492-98).
"For I am thyne, by God and by my trouthe!"
(Troiuls and Criseyde III, 1512)
Thus, the feudal formulae of fidelity are offered and accepted by each partner in turn in this central scene of The Book of Troilus.
Within the system of structural montage that Chaucer is building between Dante's Commedia and his tragedy, yet another center from Dante's work is recalled through the exchanges of these feudal oaths: the center of Dante's Hell―the center of the Ninth Circle, and therefore the focal point of hell―which is reserved for betrayers of feudal allegiances, or for those who have forsaken their trouthe. Chaucer's central moment of choice for Troilus and Crideyde must be understood as the choice to remain faithful in earthly love through fidelity to a plighted trouthe, or to betray that earthly love through forsaking a plighted trouthe. "To love or not to love" is not the choice―to love is natural and human; as Dante points out in scientific detail, we are born to love (Purgatory XVIII, passim). It is rather what we love and how love―whether on a divine or earthly plane―that defines that love as either good or otherwise.
Troilus and Criseyde have enjoyed their relationship for three years (Troilus and Criseyde V, 8-14) before adversity enters in Book IV to threaten the love affair, and actual separation occurs in Book V. Decisions have been made in the Trojan and Greek camps to exchange Criseyde for Antenor. Chaucer's narrator thereafter delicately describes
. . . how Criseyde Troilus forsook―
Or at the leeste, how that she was unkynde―
(Troilus and Criseyde IV, 15-16)
Troilus, however, in spite of gaining conclusive evidence of Criseyde's betrayal of her love for him, remains faithful to her unto death. His final statement on this matter is:
". . . I ne kan nor may,
For al this world, withinne myn herte fynde
To unloven yow a quarter of a day!"
(Troilus and Criseyde V, 1696-98)
Between the midpoint of the narrative in Book III, in which Chaucer establishes the point of plighted trouthe from which his dichotomies in loving radiate, and the end of the narrative in Book V, Troilus's love develops toward fidelity, on the one hand, and Criseyde's toward betrayal, on the other.
But at the moment of Troilus's death at the hands of Achilles,
His lighte goost ful blissfully is went
Up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere
In convers letyng everich element . . . .
(Troilus and Criseyde V, 1807-10)
Then, a few verses later,
. . . . forth he wente, shortly for to telle,
Ther as Mercurye sorted hym to dwelle
(Troilus and Criseyde V, 1826-27)
Significantly, Chaucer rhymes "telle" with "dwelle" and not with the alternative rhyme, "helle," but even so, in this final scene of his tragedy, Chaucer fades into the ambiguity for which he is so well known. The reader necessarily must question what Chaucer intends by this striking scene.
Although Chaucer borrows the image of a departing soul that rises to the eighth sphere from Boccaccio's Il Teseida (11.1), the scene in The Book of Troilus can properly be better understood against the physics used by Dante in his Commedia. Dante, the Pilgrim, after having rejected sin in Hell, and having purged the stain of sin in Purgatory, is finally light enough to rise spontaneously through the heavens toward the Empyrean. It would seem a veiled judgment on Chaucer's part, that Troilus's "lighte" soul rose to this highest point of the created universe, beyond which pagan souls, such as Troilus's, may not pass. Chaucer spares his reader the death scene of Criseyde, so it is impossible to rely upon comparisons within the text to judge the death scene of Troilus more specifically.
The plot-line that Chaucer borrows for his Book of Troilus comes from Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, but the elements out of which he adds his own significance to that plot derive from structures and arguments borrowed from Boethius and Dante. It is against these background structures and arguments that The Book of Troilus must be understood as tragedy. It is tragedy in contradistinction to Dante's Commedia, and it is tragic through its use of Boethian elements. It is in extraordinary fashion that Chaucer manages to give the two source authors together the final statement in his work.
Thow oon, and two, and thre, eterne on lyve,
That regnest ay in thre, and two, and oon,
Uncircumscript, and al maist circumscrive,
Us from visible and invisible foon
Defende, and to they mercy, everichon,
So, make us, Jesus, for thi mercy, digne,
For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne. Amen.
(Troilus and Criseyde V, 1863-69)
The first three verses of this final stanza are translated by Chaucer from a passage found in the Commedia (Paradise XIV, 28-30), a passage written by Dante, but sung, among others, by Boethius, in the Fourth Heaven, the Heaven of the Sun. Chaucer is characterized by ambiguity, rather than by paradox, but he should be given more credit for his subtlety. It is out of Chaucer's subtle montaging of images and themes in The Book of Troilus with those in Dante's Commedia that he gives particular meaning to his very human love story and to Troilus's very human tragedy.
(Northern Iowa University)
1. All quoted passages from the Commedia are taken from: Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).
2. Note, for example, a portion of Boethius's attempt to reconcile God's foreknowledge and man's free will:
No necessity forces [a] man to walk who is making his way of his own free will, although it is necessary that he walks when he takes a step.
In the same way, if Providence sees something as present, it is necessary for it to happen, even though it has no necessity in its own nature. God sees those future events which happen of free will as present; so that these things when considered with reference to God's sight of them do happen necessarily as a result of the condition of divine knowledge; but when considered in themselves they do not lose the absolute freedom of their nature. All things, therefore, whose future occurrence is known to God do without doubt happen, but some of them are the result of free will. In spite of the fact that they do happen, their existence does not deprive them of their true nature, in virtue of which the possibility of their non-occurrence existed before they happened.
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), p.167.
3. It has been noted often that Dante, born in 1265, would have been 35 in 1300, the year in which his Pilgrim sets out on his spiritual journey. Thirty-five is, of course, one-half the three-score-years-and-ten assigned by Biblical reference as the length of a human life-span.
4. All quoted passages from Troilus and Criseyde are taken from: Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987.)
5. Heaven and Earth, Gaius and Gia, are called to witness in the scene from the Aeneid in which Dido and Aeneas first consummate their affair:
Now to the self-same cave
Came Dido and the captain of the Trojans.
Primal Earth herself and Nuptual June
Opened the ritual, tourches of lightening blazed,
High Heaven became witness to the marriage,
And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top.
That day was the first cause of death, and first
Of sorrow. Dido had no further qualms
As to impressons given and set abroad;
She thought no longer of a secret love
But called it marriage. Thus, under that name,
she hid her fault. (The Aeneid IV, 227-238)
About the only real parallel between this scene and that in The Book of Troilus is in the fact that Troilus dares to refer to Criseyde as his "fresshe wommanliche wif"―which suggests that he dares think of their affair as a marriage. We assume from earlier passages in the work that Criseyde would not call her affair with Troilus a marriage:
"I am myn owene womman, wel at ese―
I thnak it God―as after myn estat,
Right yong, and stoned unteyd in lusty leese,
Withouten jalousie or swich debat:
Shal noon housbonde seyn to me 'Chek mat!'
For either they ben ful of jalousie,
Or maisterfull, or loven novelrie."
(Troilus and Criseyde II, 750-56)
Chaucer may have had Virgil's idea of marriage vaguely in mind when he had Troilus voice the word "wif" in this scene from his tragedy, but there is little other evidence to support this possibility.
Dante, the Pilgrim, once refers to Virgil's Aeneid as his guide's "high tragedy." This reference could derive from Aeneas's apparent surrender to furor in the final verses of the work, which might justify the possible fulfillment of Dido's curse, placed upon him for having forsaken her. Chaucer undoubtedly would have noticed Dante's reference to the word tragedy in his Commedia.
6. Dante had singled out Antenor as a betrayer of cities; indeed, he names the region of Hell, Circle Nine the Antenora after this Trojan (Hell XXXII, 88 and following).
7. This rather strikingly specific reference to "one-quarter of a day" derives possibly from the Commedia, Paradise XXVI, 139-42, in which Adam states that he had remained in Eden only six hours ―one-quarter of a day―before Eve and he had entered into sin by betraying their love of God.
Holding the Center:
Chaucer's Book of Troilus and Dante's Commedia
Noel Harold Kaylor
Two major influences on the structure of Chaucer's Book of Troilus are Dante's Commedia and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. The Commedia begins significantly with the word midway, and it is precisely midway through the work that Dante, the Pilgrim, initiates a discussion on the causes of vice. He learns that it is Love that lies behind both vice and virtue, each being but a different manifestation of love. Natural love causes human beings to love; rational love, however, allows love to be either noble or ignoble.
The first verses of Chaucer's Troilus direct the reader's attention away from the center, characterized as wele, and toward wo―or being out of joie. Troilus reaches the nadir of his happiness in Book Three of the work, but dead center in that Book Three, we find the verse: "And me bistowed in so heigh a place." It contains the image of the Wheel of Fortune, set at the point from which only decline is possible. It is from Book Three that Troilus's fortunes change for the worse. After making mutual pledges of trouthe, Troilus's love develops toward deeper levels of fidelity, but Criseyde's develops toward betrayal.
plot-line that Chaucer borrows for his Book of Troilus comes from Boccaccio's Il
but the elements out of which he adds his own significance to that plot
derive from structures and arguments borrowed from Dante and Boethius.
The evidence cited above indicates that some of these borrowings converge
at the center of the Troilus:
the midway importance in Dante (with its discussion of love leading to
diametrically differing ends) and the Wheel importance in Boethius (with
the necessity of a downward turn of fortune after one reaches the apex
of one's good fortune).