A Thought-Fawn

As I’ve had to press the pause-button on my research in the last couple of weeks (blame gift shopping, school holidays, and the in-laws for Christmas), I’ve been reading Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow in fits and starts.  I’m writing a short article on this poem and its inspiration, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for The English Review, a magazine for sixth-formers published by Philip Allan.  This is a commission, and I am delighted to have been asked – it’s an excuse to write on something I would never have been brave enough to choose myself.  Reading Greenlaw’s poem has been very moving in its own right (sending me right back, in unexpected ways, to strong memories of my earlier love-struck and lovelorn self) and returning me to Chaucer yet once more.

A Double Sorrow is neither a translation nor an alternative version of Troilus, but, in Greenlaw’s term, an ‘extrapolation’.  Chaucer’s five-book rhyme-royal narrative becomes a sequence of poems, each of seven lines.  Each poem has a page to itself, with some narrative waymarkers provided by each poem’s title, a reference to its source(s), and sometimes a subtitle at the foot of the page.  Just as Chaucer amplifies and alters his own source, Boccaccio’s Filostrato, so too Greenlaw makes some changes to the narrative, adding scenes and deleting others.  Just as Chaucer drew on other versions of the story by Guido delle Colonna and Benoit de Saint-Maure, so too Greenlaw includes details from Boccaccio’s Filostrato, giving Criseyde in particular an almost impossible complexity.

In her introduction, Greenlaw writes that A Double Sorrow ‘was conceived overall as a form of detonation’ of the story of Troilus and Criseyde.  It is not so much that she has blasted the poem into fragments, but that she has ignited it.  It is as if Chaucer’s poem is held by Greenlaw in the moment of explosion itself, that moment of bright-white light and heat.  The poem is set on fire – familiar images and moments burn even brighter, sometimes warp in the heat, are incandescent.  It has given me new thoughts on a story I know all too well from teaching Chaucer’s version for commentary every year.

As Greenlaw explains, she often seizes a brief image or phrase from Chaucer’s poem, letting it become the inspiration for one of her seven-line lyrics.  Here’s a nice example.  In Book I, Chaucer describes how Troilus has brief moments of optimism during the profound love-sickness he experiences after falling in love with Criseyde.  His fears leave him, and his desire for Criseyde creates no other  thoughts than those which lead to what he wants in the future:

Alle othere dredes weren from him fledde,
Both of the assege and his savacioun;
Ne in him desyr noon othere fownes bredde
But argumentes to his conclusioun,
That she on him wolde han compassioun,
And he to be hir man, whyl he may dure; (I.463–8)

[All other fears, both about the siege and his own security, left him; nor did desire breed any other offspring/fawns in him except reasoning [which led towards] to his desired outcome: that she would take pity on him, and that he would become her man, for as long as he might last.]

Detail from British Library MS Burney 201 (Livy’s Ab urbe condita, c. 1464)

Chaucer, following Boccaccio, has Troilus’s love for Criseyde make all other fears flee from his thought.   This rhyme word fledde produces the need to have Troilus’s thoughts bred within him.  And this breeding leads Chaucer to figure the thoughts as offspring, literally fawns, the word in Middle English meaning both a baby fallow deer and the cubs of lions or tigers.  In Greenlaw’s Double Sorrow, the single figure of fownes being bred spawns an intricate extended metaphor:

If he ever fears he might not win her

He falls into some inward place of trees
Refusing any path that does not make of itself
The right answer.  Hope will emerge
Like a gentle creature drawn from green shadows
To steady his gaze.
A fawn, soft in the wild,
Followed only by more of its kind. (Double Sorrow, p. 28)

Troilus’s fears that he might not win the heart of the woman whom he has fallen in love with at first sight lead him into a thought-forest (which of course is where a thought-fawn would live) in which he ignores any doubtful or doubting paths.  Enlarging and dwelling on this image finds questions latent in Chaucer’s brief figure.  What is it that draws hope, the thought-fawn, from the shadows in order to fix Troilus’s inner gaze, to stop his mental wanderings?  Why is a hopeful thought like a fawn, soft, nervy, gentle, wild?  It’s a brilliant reversal of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famously evasive creatures in They Flee from Me.  This is not Wyatt the cynic, grumbling that his deer/dear ladies have left him, but (in Greenlaw’s clever, thoughtful hands) Troilus the believer, coaxing the new possibility of his love for Criseyde out into the open.

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