Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Stephen Barney (Norton, 2006)

The publication of this volume is welcome for a number of reasons. It provides the standard critical text, that prepared by Barney for the Riverside Chaucer, in a handy portable format at an affordable price. More importantly, it presents a translation of the major source of the poem, Boccaccio's Filostrato, in a facing-text format. The translation is that of Robert P. apRoberts and Anna Bruni Seldis, published by Garland in 1986 and now impossible to find. It also presents one of the most extraordinary rewritings or continuations of the poem in English (or in this case Older Scots), Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid. And lastly, it reprints a number of articles that have proved influential amongst Chaucerians in the last couple of decades, including those of Bloomfield, Donaldson, Delany, and Taylor, as well as the classic essay by C.S. Lewis, "What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato".

I have been moved to write this review because I have just read a review of this edition by Jenny Adams (University of Massachusetts Amherst) in the rather excellent online journal Heliotropia, the official publication of the American Boccaccio Association. I feel that the Norton Troilus has been rather hard done by and I am more than a little uncomfortable with the review.

The reviewer admits to not having taught with the edition, nor having reason to go to the poem itself for her research. This is considered to provide a "critical distance", which saves her from a "weird attachment to the poem". This weirdness is something Barney presumably suffers from and Barney's assertion that the Troilus is the greatest work in English between Beowulf and The Faerie Qveene is one piece of evidence to suggest such attachment. The Troilus is not, furthermore, considered to be Chaucer's magnum opus. It would be fruitless for me to disagree; it might even be fruitless to cite the evidence that suggests Chaucer's contemporaries and immediate successors considered the poem to be his magnum opus. Fruitless because patent is the evidence of simply reading the poem itself, which ever ceases to amaze me for its extraordinary depths, its sophistication, its beauty and its difficulty.

The strength of the review, to be even handed, is that the facing-text format provides the reviewer with an opportunity to compare the Troilus and its source (apparently for the first time), a comparison considered to be "a powerful antidote to a common undergraduate assumption that medieval authors unthinkingly recycled material". Her comparison results in observing the complexity of Chaucer's treatment of the beginning of Book II, Pandarus awakening to hear the swallow "Proigne", a realization she delightfully calls a "clincher". I quite agree, and I wholeheartedly agree with her when she observes that similar "clinchers" multiply before your eyes when read as a facing-text.

The text is considered "not revolutionary", being a reprint of the Riverside, and in what amounts to damning by faint praise, the whole thing is considered "acceptable". The main criticisms centre on the choice of the essays included at the back of the edition. The main problem appears to be that only two essays treat of the changes made by Chaucer to Boccaccio, that of Lewis and Davis Taylor. Lewis is considered to be "barely teachable", and Taylor is a numerical list rather than actual analysis. Citation in Italian, and words like Frauendienst (Service of the Lady) and ὕβρις (hubris, over-weening pride or supercilliousness) are all deemed beyond students' abilities. The putative lack of good essays out there is finally suggested as an almost inadvertent benefit of this Norton edition, inspiring others to go out and do it.

While I sympathize with untranslated words, I do think that this should provide the lecturer/instructor with an opportunity to talk about these concepts; not understanding something is a moment when students need to consult dictionaries and encyclopediae. I don't think that it is a bad thing at all to have a bit of difficult material for students to work on, it encourages independent work. And there's no doubt that Lewis' essay is difficult, but it is far more difficult to ignore and is surely an important point of reference for all critics who subsequently wrote about Chaucer and Boccaccio. The other articles at the back of the Norton edition are intended to provide material for a much rounder and broader set of views on the Troilus rather than being solely an analysis of the changes to the Filostrato. The student would, in any case, need to consult carefully B.A. Windeatt's Troilus and Criseyde (London, 1984; 1990), whose introduction and notes would provide much of the necessary detail. This is one of the great strengths of the edition in that it can be used so efficiently with Windeatt's text (an admittedly specialist edition) to great effect. The assumption that medieval authors unthinkingly recycled material could easily be dealt with in reading Henryson's poem, also included in the Norton edition and not mentioned at all by the reviewer. This is a pity and a real missed opportunity to make observations on what the editor was saying by putting these texts together and how teaching the Troilus would be enriched and deepened by a reading of the Older Scots poem.

In sum, as a user of this edition for both my research and in my teaching, as a reader who has thought long and hard about both the texts in this edition and the critical essays at the back, I'd like to warmly recommend this volume as nothing short of indispensible.

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