Palamon And Arcite by John Dryden

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"Repentance Is But Want Of Power To Sin"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Having on hand translations of bits of Homer and Virgil, Dryden decided that in order to have enough material to publish a volume, he would modernize part of the Canterbury Tales by the "Father of English poetry," Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400). Dryden selected the Knight's tale of "Palamon and Arcite," Chaucer's longest and one of his best, which he adapted from a chivalric romance by the Italian Boccaccio (1313–1375). Shakespeare and Fletcher dramatized it as The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613). Theseus, returning to Athens with his Queen Hippolyta and her sister Emilia, meets a group of wives in mourning who beg him to force King Creon of Thebes to allow decent burial for their dead husbands. In the course of the ensuing battle, Theseus captures two Theban knights, Palamon and Arcite, whom he imprisons. From their prison window they see and fall in love with Emilia. Arcite is released and later returns to Athens. Palamon escapes to meet and challenge his rival. Learning of the proposed battle between the two knights of Thebes, Theseus arranges for a joust between them, the winner to marry Emilia, who loves neither of them. Both the warriors pray to the gods, and each is promised victory by a god. To settle this strife in Olympus, Saturn arranges a compromise. Arcite wins the joust, but he is hurt when his horse is frightened by fire bursting from the ground. He confesses that he had plotted unchivalrously against his rival. He begs Emilia to wed Palamon. He adds cynically that he is now repentant only because he is no longer able to continue with his evil scheme. In this way Dryden has modernized Chaucer's version of Arcite's plea. Emilia is, in the language of chivalry, his "friendly enemy," since knights looked upon courtship as a sort of battle with their sweethearts.

. . .
Ah, my sweet foe, for you, and you alone,
I broke my faith with injur'd Palamon.
But love the sense of right and wrong confounds,
Strong love and proud ambition have no bounds.
And much I doubt, should Heav'n my life prolong,
I should return to justify my wrong:
For while my former flames remain within,
Repentance is but want of pow'r to sin.
With mortal hatred I pursued his life;
Nor he, nor you, were guilty of the strife;
. . .