Poems Recount Love, Death in Modern Troy

Dec 9, 2013

In the late 14th Century, poet Geoffrey Chaucer mined Greek mythology to retell the story of two lovers from ancient Troy. His book, Troilus and Criseyde, is considered by scholars to be his best work.

You'll find a synopsis below, but the first thing you should know is this: On his deathbed, Chaucer renounced the poem.

"He thought it was too worldly," says Francesca Abbate, a poet who studied Chaucer. Abbate says such retractions were common during the middle ages. "You're going to meet God," she says. "And, if you've been at all sacrilegious, you renounce that stuff."

Abbate's latest book transplants Chaucer's characters to Troy, Wisconsin, where their story plays out in the farms and strip malls of Walworth County.

Troy Unincorporated is Abbate's first poetry collection. She got the idea from a class which involved rewriting Chaucer's poems.

"I found myself writing a poem in Criseyde's voice," Abbate says. "And it surprised me, disconcerted me a little." Then she wrote one in Troilus's voice and couldn't stop. "I didn't want to rewrite Chaucer," she says. "I love Chaucer, but I just kept going." She adds Chaucer's rejection of the book made it easier to resurrect his characters, which she calls "orphaned." Her book, like Chaucer's, begins with the narrator, Chorus:

Everything is half here,

like the marble head

of the Greek warrior

and the lean torso

of his favorite.

The way the funnel cloud

which doesn't seem

to touch the ground does --

flips a few cars, a semi --

we learn to walk miles above our bodies.

The pig farms dissolve,

then the small hills.

As in dreams fraught

with irrevocable gestures,

the ruined set seemed larger,

a charred palace

the gaze tunnels through

and through. How well

we remember the stage --

the actors gliding about

like petite sails, the balustrade

cooling our palms.

Not wings or singing,

but a darkness fast as blood.

It ended at our fingertips.

The fence gave way.

The world began.

If you don't know Chaucer's story, here's a thumbnail:

Troy is under siege by a Greek army. Inside the city, the warrior Troilus publicly mocks love. Cupid, the God of Love, witnesses this and shoots him with a magic arrow. The spell transforms the stalwart soldier into a weepy lovelorn who falls for Criseyde. Criseyde is unimpressed with the now-slavish Troilus but eventually returns his affections. They spend one night together.

During a truce, Criseyde is traded for a prisoner of war but promises to return to Troilus after ten days. During that time Criseyde ignores his letters and, on the tenth day, takes another lover. Troilus is subsequently killed in battle by the Greek warrior Achilles.

At the end, the narrator apologizes for giving women a bad name and asks for Christ's mercy for the pagan Troilus.

In Abbate's version, a depressed Troilus dies from an overdose while Criseyde is visiting her father, who is recovering from a broken hip. Abbate's heroine misses Troilus but takes no action to resume their relationship. "She's moved on," the poet says.

In Chaucer's version, Criseyde's fate is unimportant. Ditto for William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Robert Henryson wrote a poem called the Testament of Cresseid in which in she becomes a leper. "Everyone wants to punish her for betraying Troilus," Abbate says.

Abbate views Criseyde differently: "Maybe it wasn't so much a betrayal as a realistic response to the separation." She adds, "I wanted her to find, in Chaucer's words, her `Litel spot of erthe'."

Francesca Abbate is a Professor of English at Beloit College. Her book was a semifinalist for the 2010 Walt Whitman Award and a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro Prize.

Next week, our Winter Book Series continues with Cabin Fever, a nature memoir by Tom Montgomery Fate. Installments air Mondays in December during Morning Edition at 6:34 and 8:34.

Francesca Abbate, author of Troy Unincorporated