Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Troilus and Cressida - Chaucer

The story of Troilus and Cressida comes to us from the Trojan war.  I doubt that any conflict has created more pure literature in Western civilization.  I don't remember either Troilus or Cressida being mentioned by Homer in the Iliad but that fault might be mine.
So what happens?  Our story opens with a priest from Troy named Calchas.  He has forseen that the Greeks will win and Troy will be burned.  He decides to change over to the winning side.  The Trojans are understandably upset by this.  His daughter Cressida was left behind in disgrace.  Hector took her into his house to shield her honor.
Next we meet Troilus, one of the sons of the Trojan king Priam.  He falls for Cressida at a distance.  His love is so strong that instead of asking for her hand, he sulks in agony.  Pandarus, a fellow soldier and Cressida's uncle, finds him and eventually finds out why he is upset.
And then very little happens.  Pandarus tells Cressida about Troilus' love.  She won't commit herself to him because she knows that men are flighty.  Troilus writes a letter.  Pandarus contrives to have them meet.  Cressida falls for him.  Pandarus makes a plan for them to spend a night together.  After much, much hesitation, they do.  (The actions in this paragraph take some 500 stanzas of poetry.)
Then the twists come.  Calchas asks that Cressida be given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange.  Troilus is of course opposed but he can't publicly proclaim it.  He goes to seize Cressida (if she's ok with it).  She declines.  Instead, she'll go to the Greeks but escape ten days later and come back to him.
Alas, she can't escape.  Ten days later, she is convinced by a Greek commander, Diomede, to become his lover.  Eventually Troilus realizes that she isn't coming back.  Later he dies in battle.

Let me start by saying that this wasn't my favorite piece of writing.  Epic poetry isn't quite my taste.  Though, 'Paradise Lost', coming up in August, is quite good.  Maybe I would have enjoyed this more if it was set out in a narrative, though frankly I doubt it.  If it were a modern novel, I'd say that it suffers from serious pacing issues.  The first three books were a slog.
Language barrier?  Some, maybe.  I used the version put out in the Great Books volume 22.  It has the middle English stanzas next to a translation by (I'm not making this up) George Phillip Krapp.  I mostly read the translation but bounced back and forth.  It wasn't too hard to figure out things like this:

But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse,
If any drope of pitee in you be,
Remembreth yow on passed hevinesse
That he han felt, and on the adversitee
Of othere folk, and thenketh how that ye
Han felt that Love dorste yow displease;
Or ye han wonne him with to greet an ese.

It may help to try and read it out loud.  (The spell-check in Blogger hates it.)  The translation:

But O ye lovers, bathed in bliss always,
If any drops of pity in you be,
Recall the griefs gone by of other days,
And think sometimes upon the adversity
Of other folk, forgetting not that ye
Have felt yourselves Love's power to displease,
Lest ye might win Love's prize with too great ease.

It's not hard to look back and forth and figure it out.  I did this mostly in seeing how certain phrases would translate out.  The translation seems to be very good in terms of staying right with the story.  This Krapp job wasn't a crap job.


  1. I don't remember Troilus or Cressida in The Iliad either! Perhaps Chaucer is a Euripides wannabe? ;-)

    I've loved all the epic poetry that I've read to this point (much to my surprise!). Enjoy Paradise Lost. It's my favourite book of 2014 so far!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Cleo! I read the first half or so of Paradise Lost a couple of years ago so I'm already comfortable with it. And it is a very good read. When I read through the 'Iliad' last year, it was a narrative translation. Not sure how a poetic translation would have been.

    2. Based on the books you've been reading, the poetic translation of The Iliad would be relatively easy for you. It's much easier than Paradise Lost. If you don't mind a recommendation, I would definitely get the Lattimore translation. Fitzgerald is good but I've been told he likes to embellish, so the poem becomes more Fitzgerald than Homer, and Fagles is simplified so it almost is a re-telling rather than a translation. Lattimore is the most balanced in form and content and his writing is wonderful! I hope you get to read it again one day!

    3. Very interesting. IIRC, back when I was reading the Iliad, Fagles was widely discussed as the gold standard. The translation I have was from Rieu. I'll keep an eye out for the Lattimore one.
      My copy of the Aeneid is Fitzgerald. Is he the best, or should I keep an eye out for someone else?
      I'm wildly inexperienced here, so I appreciate any advice!

    4. Fagles is very easy to understand and I would perhaps use him for an introduction to the poem for high school students but otherwise, when I read him, I don't really feel that I'm reading Homer.

      My online friend, who studied Greek and is quite knowledgeable, had this to say about the translations:

      "For the Iliad and the Odyssey, imnsho, the only translations I have ever seen which begin to do justice to Homer are Lattimore's. Simple, unadorned, but managing in so many places to capture the feel of the original. I wish I had maintained my Greek, because the original is always better... some things just can't be translated... but Lattimore makes me catch glimpses of the real thing and has a quiet grandeur which I love.

      Fitzgerald has a nice translation of the Aeneid, but his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey are, imho, too florid.. there is too much Fitzgerald and not enough Homer. They are pretty, but way off key.

      The Fagles translations repulse me. They are so colloquial, so far from Homeric that they feel more like modern adaptations than translations.

      Lombardo takes even more liberties with the text - imho this is definitely more of an adaptation than a translation.

      For a very literal translation (most useful if you are trying to translate Homer yourself) the Loeb editions have facing English and Greek pages and follows the word order of each Greek line as closely as possible - I wouldn't use it as a primary text, but it is a neat supplement. (Ex: "The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles," )

      Some people like the Rieu prose translations, and I guess they could serve as an intro to Homer, but I wouldn't use them.

      Mandlebaum has a slightly clunky translation of the Odyssey - he is my translator of choice for Dante (though it was a hard choice!), but not for Homer... but, unlike most of the others it *is* a reasonably reliable translation, as I recall.

      Pope's translations are an older version of what Fagles has done - an adaptation in the "translator's" own style.. pretty, but not Homer... but, imo, less grating than Fagles and less ornate than Fitzgerald... though Fitzgerald is a more reliable translator.

      Butler has prose translations of Homer... pedestrian is the adjective I would apply to them. Rieu's has a little more flavor, but Butler's is sold and straightforward.... not a version I would choose, but there isn't anything *wrong* with it...

      Chapman's translation is a classic in its own right, but one I would read for itself not for Homer...

      Those are all of the translations I have read… or at least can remember off hand with two days of holiday approaching! HTH "

      That should give you some information to chew on, Peder.

      As for The Aeneid, Fitzgerald is the go-to for translators, as she says.

      Hope that helps a little. Sorry for the overly-long comment!

    5. No problem on the long comment. This is very helpful. Thanks!