Telling the story of Troilus and Criseyde is no laughing matter. “Thesiphone,” Chaucer cries at the opening of his version, sobbing into his inkwell, “thou help me for tendyte / Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!” Six hundred-odd years later and Lavinia Greenlaw is dusting off this tearjerker with similar melancholy. “A sad story is sad to tell,” she begins, before launching us headlong into an age-old tale of love, longing, and the irresistible sex appeal of Greeks.
Lucid images of the far away and long ago are a key feature of Greenlaw’s work, and this is apparent in A Double Sorrow. High society gossip becomes background noise in the poem (“This is a small town”, Hector thinks as he surveys Criseyde), reaching its bathetic potential as Criseyde worries about the destructive power of Troilus’s passion, wondering, “What if he came here and slit his throat in front of me? / What would people say?” The turns of phrase throughout are honed to create a vernacular faithful to Chaucer’s register while leaving space for idiomatic flair.
Formally, Greenlaw walks a similar tightrope between trite medievalism and unscrupulous modernisation. Her choice of a “corrupt version” of Chaucer’s “rime royale” is judicious, allowing her to retain and amplify the form’s untidy sounds and reflective structure through jarring half-rhymes and punchy final lines. Troilus’ first sight of Criseyde is symptomatic:
His attention folds like a dying star
As he takes her – black and white – to his core.
The service begins.
He can neither see nor hear.
The people fall to prayer.
In a crisis (one of very many), Troilus “puts out every lamp in his chamber / As if plucking the last bright leaves / From the blackest tree in winter”. Delicious.
Unfortunately, the book’s greatest feature also turns out to be something of a flaw: Greenlaw’s virtuosic manipulations of images leave little room for the plot. The poem’s layout on the page gives it a sparse quality, letting the stanzas breathe but also perhaps severing them from the overarching narrative; with seven lines on each page, the book occasionally reads more like a compilation of delightful miniatures than a cohesive story.
But this doesn’t really matter when the pictures are so nicely painted. A Double Sorrow is a valuable way into Chaucer’s poetry and a gem in its own right. Pandarus gives some advice to Troilus on letter writing which might also serve as a juicy summary of Greenlaw’s own Ars Poetica:
Don’t spin arguments or put on airs.
Use the right terms. This is love not war.
Let an inkblot fall – like a tear.
And here we are again, crying over spilt ink.