The end of Troilus

Last night I was with a group of people who were talking about their oral exams in graduate school.

One person explaining his advice to a fellow student about Professor X: “You know him from the reading group as FirstName, but in the exam room he will be very much Professor X.” Advisee was all, pshaw, FirstName is such a nice guy…  After the final, though, he said, “Wow, I met Professor X in there.”

I think the prize, though, went to the person who had one of her committee members actually fall asleep during her oral exam. A big guy. She is very short, as was one of the still-wakeful committee members. They ended up having to lean way back in their seats in order to talk over the sleeping guy. (I think there were relative status levels at play here, big guy being a Big Guy, and thus being able to do whatever he wanted….)

My own oral exam was friendly and almost fun. It was sad, though, because the woman who was supposed to be chairing it was in the hospital dying, and we were all missing her.  At the last minute we’d substituted another professor, and he didn’t show up. We had awaited almost half an hour for him, when he finally stuck his head in at the door. He announced that as a dean, he could give me permission to have my exams with one fewer examiners. So he was giving me that permission, and taking his leave.

After that, we were all almost rowdy. My committee guys were all fine and smart people. My Italian guy was the Dante professor who also taught Hittite; my English professor was a poet; my two Comp Lit professors were scholars in love with their fields. Not a mean person in the bunch. When I answered a question, they’d all join in discussing it. It was like the best seminar ever.

My favorite part was towards the end. The man who would have chaired my dissertation, the sweetest, gentlest guy you could imagine, had a question about how I read the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Well, first of all, the Troilus is pretty much my Favorite Thing In The World. It’s a lovely medieval love story set in the city of Troy during the war. You have courtly lovers, and lots of philosophy, and the casting of the Trojan War as a medieval siege.  And all of it Chaucer. A very kind question.

Anyway, in the poem, Troilus has been betrayed by his lover, Criseyde (or at least she was unkind). In the course of the story, you have seen him go from a callow young man, to a successful lover whose very being is purified by this love, to a man whose last hopes have been destroyed. He is killed in battle shortly after. At this nadir of story, where everything has been lost, Troilus’ ascending spirit looks down on the loved ones mourning his death in the doomed city, and he laughs.  I talked about this bit for a while. Troilus is ascending through the celestial spheres and seeing things now from the divine perspective; it is not an unkind laugh but rather an assertion that human life is a comedy not a tragedy; etc.

But what else happens at the end, my professor asks. I am blanking and ask for a clue, and then HE has trouble remembering it exactly. The exam is in the department library, so he simply pulls the book off the shelf and reads it to the committee.  At the very close of the work, Chaucer goes on to point his readers (he and she) towards divine not human love, and closes with a prayer to the trinity. So is this passage a rejection of the secular love poem it ends? Well, no, not since you have Troilus right before this demonstrating the shift from earthly to divine perspective.  And Troilus’ worth as a person has very much been shaped by his relationship with Criseyde. Chaucer is just underlining a point: there are relative values here, and he needs to be sure that we are weighing them correctly. If he meant us to reject his poetry he’d have burnt it, not written a rhyming apology for it.

Anyway, I have been contemplating that laugh of Troilus lately. I mean, I can’t go very far along with Chaucer when he gets to “the one and two and three alive/that reignest ay in three and two and one,” but I’m pretty much down with the concept that the way things look to us here, now, close up, is not necessarily the way they are. And I like to think there could be a laugh there somewhere.




18 responses to this post.

  1. That’s absolutely my take on existence. From our earthly and therefore narrow perspective everything appears to be so danged important.

    I like Einstein’s declaration that the Universe is ultimately a friendly place.

    Loved this post!


  2. Nicely put: though I find it hilarious that the professor couldn’t recall the end to “Troilus and Cressida” himself. I miss grad school, somewhat, but not the folderol of orals or the torment of writing a thesis. Which maybe means I really don’t miss grad school.

    I always thought the best dramas were the ones that made you cry or gasp at first, but in the end made you laugh. Humans need to be reminded that most of the things we worry about really aren’t serious at all.


  3. Lol at “folderol of orals”.


  4. So that’s what Troilus and Cressida is all about! That’s the one Shakespeare play I could never make heads or tails out of.


    • Well Shakespeare’s play is following not Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but rather The Testament of Cresseid by Henryson.
      Henryson’s a more of a morality tale, with Cresseid meeting a bad end (leprosy), where Chaucer’s is a weird combination of utter kindness and unflinchingly clear vision.
      So when circumstances put Criseyde into a position beyond her strength to deal with, she betrays Troilus and takes a new lover among the Greeks.
      But we can’t hate her for it, because part of her beauty was her utter defenselessness.
      And she is trying so hard to be good, so she resolves to be true to this one.
      But he is not worth it, and Troilus was.
      And you know her resolution is doomed.
      But the whole story is happening inside a doomed city – everyone is Troy is going to die.
      So the tragedy of her father’s tearing her from her lover is undercut by the truth that this will save her life.
      So the whole love story was always being played out in the face of death.
      It all makes it difficult to blame her, despite all the evidence that she has been false and weak, she is still worthy of having been loved, and deserving of pity.
      Which is why I adore Chaucer.
      As opposed to Henryson whose telling of the story makes sure the hussy gets properly punished.
      And that’s the one Shakespeare is working from.
      Anyway, I have a hard time reading the play too.


  5. As the sage Pogo told us “Don’t take life serious, it ain’t nohow permanent.”

    Wise words from a cartoon possum.


    • Posted by geologywoman on December 11, 2011 at 12:12 am

      I quite like that.
      Thank goodness for you guys, I seem to be suffering from lack of intellectualism lately. Here in England of all places! Although Masha did quite Ayn Rand in a scathing way yesterday when we were ragging on American healthcare.


      • Posted by geologywoman on December 11, 2011 at 12:15 am

        That sounded snotty there (about the people I am around in person). Sorry. Esp. since I got angry the other day at this man who tried to imply I am not nearly as intelligent a she is because he has a degree in English and I have one in Earth Science. (he was being very snotty)


        • Sounds to me as if you aren’t the one having a problem with being snotty.

          And people can be perfectly bright, but just not be interested in discussing a thing that happens to interest you.
          Doesn’t make you a snob to notice.

          And someone can have a degree in English and still be an ass.


  6. Posted by geologywoman on December 11, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Yes, oh yes, if we can not laugh about what has happened, eventually or even straight away, then we may as well take anti-memory pills and hope for dementia soon.


  7. I’m absolutely counting on things not being quite what they appear to us in the here and now.


    • Heehee. Amen, Redz. And, I am absolutely counting on them NOT being as they appear to so many to be in teh Bibel, also.

      My sis and daughter and I were in the National Gallery in London, viewing the old paintings and most of the one gallery was religous themed gilded with gold.
      My sister pulls out “Won’t it be wonderful to be in Heaven where the streets will all look like this?”
      I mean, she pulled that one right out of her butt….I was completely speechless, which often turns out to be a wonderful thing right at that moment. Keeps me out of a lot of trouble. 🙂


  8. Hmmm.
    Lots to think about here.
    I’m still smitten with the idea that nothing exists at all…that we aren’t here or anywhere…and that everything we think is or isn’t, isn’t.
    Some days, non-reality is a dandy concept.


    • Robbie, I saw a show on PBS that suggested that is true. Some scientists think that maybe there isn’t really a 3-dimensional universe, that everything’s just a hologram off a 2-dimensional something. Like the hologram image on the credit cards looks 3-D but it’s obviously flat.


      • Yes!!!

        So cool. Thank you!!
        I’m sort of a physics nerd; cosmology…thinking about the various membranes and foams and strings is my version of taking a vacation…LOL


        • Then you MUST see the last few episodes of NOVA. It was all theoretical physics and quantum stuff. If it’s not on your PBS station, I’m sure it’s on the website. It will stretch your brain. There were like 4 episodes.


          • Hey, thank you!!
            Was it the Nova series called “Fabric”…the Multiverse, quantum leaps, etc. I saw a couple of those. FABULOUS!! will look for the others!


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