Troilus and Criseyde, the only long work completed by Geoffrey Chaucer, is based on the legend of the Trojan War. The characters, however, behave in the best tradition of the medieval romance. Chaucer, an incomparable teller of tales and a great poet, combined his two talents to create this perfectly constructed narrative poem. The effective depiction of character and its development in this work forecasts the shrewd observations of human nature Chaucer would make in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).
Troilus and Criseyde is a paradox of artistic creation. At once both medieval and modern, it holds vast problems of interpretation yet pleases with its wit, style, comedy, and humanity. The work cannot be dated with complete certainty, but certainly by that point in his career, Chaucer—diplomat, man of letters, public official, and onetime prisoner of war—already had a literary reputation, which the appearance of Troilus and Criseyde did nothing to diminish. Chaucer’s contemporary reputation, in fact, probably rested with this poem at least as much as with the later and much-loved Canterbury Tales. It was certainly Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, more than any other poems that addressed the same subject matter, that later poets used as a source for their own works. The fifteenth century Scottish poet Robert Henryson, for example, wrote of Criseyde’s ignoble end in The...
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