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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"If no love is, O God, what fele I so?" - Petrarch and Geoffrey Chaucer

If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?
If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me,
When ever torment and adversite
That cometh of hym, may to me savory thinke,
For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.
And if that at myn owen lust I brenne,
From whennes cometh my waillynge and my pleynte?
If harm agree me, whereto pleyne I thenne?
I noot, ne whi unwery that I feynte.
O quike deth, O swete harm so queynte,
How may of the in me swich quantite,
But if that I consente that it be?
And if that I consente, I wrongfully
Compleyne, iwis.  Thus possed to and fro,
Al stereless withinne a boot am I
Amydde the see, betwixen wyndes two,
That in contrarie stonden evere mo.
Allas! what is this wondre maladie?
For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye.


This poem has quite the complicated history, which I feel is worth explaining before I proceed with any real look at the text.  First off, these lines were written by Geoffrey Chaucer.  However, the idea is not his directly.  It's included as a part of one of his long poems, Troilus and Criseyde, which itself was not a new story.  What Chaucer offered was a re-interpretation of Boccaccio's Il Filostrato which tells largely the same story.  Troilus himself is a figure out of the Trojan War legend, and was the son of King Priam.  Chaucer's telling is much more nuanced than Boccaccio's, and has had enduring impact.  However, I also included Petrarch in the title because that poetic extract of Troilus and Criseyde is not his original work, but rather, a translation and expansion of one of Petrarch's sonnets, absent from Il Filostrato.  Chaucer included this passage as a song of Troilus, wherein he falls further in love with Criseyde.  I think it is fairly clear that Chaucer was working the tale even further into the tradition of courtly romance, the genre to which it may be said to belong.

Getting that out of the way, we can now focus on the text itself, which despite many archaic wordings and spellings, remains quite readable and even more relevant.  It's a monologue about the pangs of love, and how it manifests itself so really within us.  Troilus begins by wondering, paraphrased for your convenience, "If there is no love, God, what do I feel?"  Moving on with the assumption that it is love, he wants to know, "what thing and which" is love?  Love is thought of as positive, but Troilus feels pain from it.  "If love is good, then from where comes my woe?  If it's wicked, why do I find its torments savory, why do I thirst for it?"  It's the question we all ask:  "Why does love hurt if it's good, why do I want it so badly, why can I not live without it?"

Further wondering where love comes from, Troilus wonders if it comes from within his own brain.  But if it comes from himself, then why does he wail and feel plaintive?  The whole poem is loaded with images of pleasure and pain in opposition, both caused by love.  It's like an irreconcilable quarrel within, seemingly happening without his permission.  But surely he must be letting himself fall in love, he thinks!  "How may you (love) be in me in such quantity but with my consent?"  Assuming he is allowing himself to fall in love, Troilus then thinks he has no right to complain!  "If I consent, I wrongfully complain, I think!"  He feels passed to and fro, as if a boat caught between two winds.  He feels as if he's dying of cold in the heat, or dying of heat in the cold.

I think the best descriptor of love in the poem is this line, "Allas! what is this wondre maladie?" which translated, reads, "Alas!  What is this wondrous malady?"  Love surely is a wondrous malady.  It afflicts us all with tremendous pain, wonderful pleasures, leaves us constantly thirsting for it, and yet it happens despite our wishes, and we have no choice but to allow it.  It's an ancient sentiment, and one expressed in a refined, clear manner here.  I know Middle English can be difficult to read, but I'd really encourage you to try.  It's a rewarding feeling, working it out.

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