As Sarah Stanbury has observed, “Chaucer’s most complex development of the imagery of the lover’s gaze…occurs in Troilus and Criseyde.“ Indeed, the relationships among the characters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde are cemented through systems of gazes: Troilus looks at Criseyde, Criseyde looks at Troilus, and Pandarus gleefully orchestrates both lines of sight. Eyes shoot out streams that wound and start fires, and images are emblazoned in the mirrors of the mind. Not surprisingly, therefore, the system of gazes in Troilus and Criseyde has generally been viewed as participating in the conventions of courtly love literature, the mode of its primary source, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato.
Recently, significant work has been done on the gendered economy of the gaze in Chaucer’s poem by such scholars as Stanbury and David Aers, whose readings have complicated the simplified erotic paradigm of male gazer/female object. Stanbury and Aers, for instance, have pointed out that Criseyde is not entirely a passive “victim” of the desiring gaze, nor is Troilus truly “feminized” when he is the desired object. However, when one considers the ways in which Chaucer develops and transforms the topos of the lover’s gaze in Boccaccio’s text, the difference between Boccaccio’s conventional treatment and Chaucer’s dramatically changed emphasis becomes clear: Chaucer begins with the lover’s gaze only to reveal its inadequacy, invoking his readers through Troilus’s recognition of his own blindness to turn their eyes to the Christian God. In noting the sharp swerve away from the tightly constructed universe of love and woe in terms of a shift in vision, I follow Norman Klassen’s argument that the “ending of the poem is carefully wrought as an explicitly Christian text in its emphasis upon vision.” But while Klassen draws his conclusions primarily from a focused reading of isolated episodes, particularly the poem’s ending, I wish to compare the trajectories of the lover’s gaze throughout Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s poems to clarify how Chaucer manipulates this trope to expose its weaknesses vis-à-vis a larger cosmological, and ultimately Christian, perspective.
The transference of the gaze in Troilus and Criseyde from the blindness of corporal love to the love and knowledge of God is consistent with Biblical and patristic traditions. From the visions of the Old Testament prophets to Paul’s radical collision with Christ at Damascus and John’s revelation on the island of Patmos, divine encounters in the Bible were commonly rendered in the language of sight. Neo-Platonist medieval thought emphasized the double nature of vision—spiritual and corporal—enabling it to contain, respectively, “the greatest capacity to reveal truth, and the greatest capacity to deceive.” The prescribed movement from blindness to true vision, however, was often mapped out in complex yet highly systematic ways. In Book 12 of De Genesi ad litteram, Augustine charted Christian development in terms of three levels of seeing. For example, the understanding of the golden rule was described through a tripartite scheme of sight and gradual understanding:
Behold, when we read the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” three kinds of vision take place: one through the eyes, by which we see these letters; another through the spirit, by which we think of our neighbor, even absent; and the third through the intuition of the mind, by which we perceive and understand love itself.
In the Breviloquium, Bonaventure also made a threefold distinction within the human faculty of sight: “Through the eye of the flesh, man was to see things outside him; with the eye of reason, things within him; with the eye of contemplation, things above him. Now the eye of contemplation cannot see with perfect clearness, except through glory…” Boethius’s Lady Philosophy in De Consolatione Philosophiae offered a strikingly similar system, which I will discuss later and in greater detail in relation to the later books of Troilus and Criseyde. By reading the development of the gaze in Troilus and Criseyde in conjunction with these patterns, with the conventional lover’s gaze corresponding to the first of the three stages, the critically contentious ending—marked by the sharp ascent into the consolation of Christianity—not only appears continuous with the rest of the “matere” of the poem but emerges as the very culmination of its meaning.
The Gaze of the Lover
As a participant in the rhetoric of courtly love, Chaucer’s system of vision in Troilus and Criseyde, particularly in the earlier books,reflects vibrant secular paradigms in addition to Christian ones. Medieval optical theory combined the Greek theories of extramission (visual rays pouring out of the subject’s eyes and penetrating other bodies) and intromission (whole images streaming from another object’s body and entering the subject’s body through the eyes). An immense body of medical literature represents the physical structure and mechanism of the eye as well as the materiality of the gaze itself, heavily influenced by Greek and Arabic thought. The second-century physician Galen outlined the two models of extramission and intromission in his De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis: “A body that is seen does one of two things: either it sends something from itself to us and thereby gives an indication of its peculiar character, or if it does not itself send something, it waits for some sensory power to come to it from us.” A millennium later, Robert Grosseteste argued in his optical treatise De Iride that the visual ray, or species, issuing from the eye was an actual tangible substance, “shining and radiating” like the sun.
The centralized role of vision in aesthetics and the apprehension of beauty was seamlessly taken up by the courtly tradition, particularly through the topoi of the wounded and wounding gaze, which were themselves variations on the ideas of intromission and extramission. The direction of the gaze was strictly gendered: Andreas Capellanus theorized that a man who catches sight of a desirable woman sears the image of her body into his heart, and “the more he thinks of it [her form], the more he burns with desire, until his imagination is brimming over. Then, he begins to conceive of her figure, distinguish her limbs and imagine their actions, and he desires to discover the secrets of her body…” The vexed pornographic pleasures derived from the gaze take place entirely within the man’s imagination, and if the image is not successfully exorcised by actual sex, then it can lead to a recognized medical condition known as amor hereos. In this condition, the image literally takes possession of the body of the lover, producing—according to Ioan P. Couliano—”somatic disturbances of a quite vexing sort.” According to the thirteenth-century physician Bernardus Gordonius of Montpelier, the symptoms of amor hereos are dire, leading inexorably to a lack of desire for sleep, food, and drink. Significantly, the whole body weakens except for the eyes, which grow more acute than ever in the face of death brought on by unfulfilled lust. In a startling subversion of the flow of power, the lover’s gaze physically transforms the one who gazes rather than the object—albeit only an image—of his desire.
Such an infection that originates in the eyes, spreads through the imaginative faculty of the brain, and overflows into all the parts of the body was well known in Florentine poetry before Boccaccio took up the pen, flourishing in the love lyrics of Guido Cavalcanti and Dante. Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato is unique, however, in that the enfeebling gaze of love becomes the organizing trope of the entire lengthy work. At the beginning of the proem, Filostrato rhetorically raises the question—derived from popular courtly debate—of whether it is best for a lover to see his beloved, to speak of her with someone else, or to conjure her image in his mind. In the false opinions of his youth, he had decided that it is better to forego love-talk and genuine sight for the imagined memory, but now that he no longer can see his Filomena, he has been converted from a longing for a false image to an overwhelming desire for the true one. All of this, of course, sits squarely within the courtly tradition, despite its structural similarities with patristic schemas of false and true vision, since the object of the gaze throughout remains his beloved lady. Her absence necessitates the transformation of her memory into a Muse, though the memory itself is metonymic: the lady is fragmented and refigured as the “lovely light of those beautiful eyes in which Love has placed all my delight” (1.4) ["o vaga luce de' begli occhi in cui / Amore ha posto tutto il mio diletto"]. Ironically, the signs of amor hereos from which he presently suffers fulfill his rash youthful wish, since the lady is now “pictured in my sad heart with such force that you can do more there than I can” (1.5) ["Tu se' nel tristo petto effigiata / con forza tal, che tu vi puoi piú ch'io"]. Bereft of his lady and too disoriented to write, Filostrato invokes her counterfeit specular image to perform the work of poetry in his stead.
Based on its prominent appearance in his works such as Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight’s Tale, Chaucer also seemed to have been well aware of hereos and other elaborate theories based on the faculty of sight. In theKnight’s Tale, Palamon describes his first sight of Emily as having the effect of an arrow shot through his eye: “But I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye / Into myn herte, that wol my bane be” (1096-97). The typical unrequited lover’s trope combining extramission and intromission is the focal figure here, with the beloved’s image slaying the gazing lover with an arrow through the heart—though she is unaware of her terrible effects. Based on the frequency of such motifs in Chaucer’s works, Klassen observes that “Chaucer’s poetry, particularly his handling of visual motifs, reveals a conscious bringing together of various strands of inquiry. Through vision he appeals to the doctrine of illumination, physical representation in aesthetics, revived interest in optical theory, and the widespread fourteenth-century discourse of epistemology.” This vast range of discourses comes together in particularly complex and innovative ways in Troilus and Criseyde.
In books 1-3 of this poem, Chaucer adheres closely to courtly conventions. Like the lovesick Troilo of Il Filostrato, who mulls constantly over the image of Criseida and longs to “draw sweet water” (“trarre… / acqua soave”) from the direct gaze of her beautiful eyes (1.41), Troilus quivers with keen pleasure and pain from both the thought of her and the desire “to sen hire goodly lok” (1.446). Before he experiences the sweet pleasures of actual lovemaking, Troilus naively imagines that the “fyn” of his “entente” with Criseyde is no more than a yearning for a glance: “that with the stremes of youre eyen cleere / Ye wolde somtyme friendly on me see” (3.129-30). Both Boccaccio and Chaucer carefully call attention to the role of the lovers’ eyes in the affair. While they gaze at one another just after they have made love, Troilo/Troilus passionately accuses the eyes of Criseida/Criseyde for burning him with their bittersweet fire. Boccaccio describes the scene as follows:
Troilo often kissed the beautiful, amorous eyes of Criseida, saying: “You thrust
into my heart the fiery darts of love by which I am all inflamed; you captured me,
and I did not hide myself by fleeing as he who fears would do; you hold me and
always will hold me in love’s net, my beautiful eyes.”
[Troilo spesso i belli occhi amorosi
basciava di Criseida, dicendo:
"Voi mi metteste nel core i focosi
Dardi d'amor del qual io tutto incendo,
voi mi pigliaste ed io non mi nascosi,
come suol far chi dubita, fuggendo;
voi mi tenete e sempre mi terrete,
occhi miei bei, nell'amorosa rete."] (Il Filostrato 3.36)
Chaucer depicts the lovers’ eyes in a similar way:
This Troilus ful ofte hire eyen two
Gan for to kisse, and seyde, “O eyen clere,
It weren ye that wroughte me swich wo,
Ye humble nettes of my lady deere!
Though ther be mercy writen in youre cheere,
God woot, the text ful hard is, soth, to fynde!
How koude ye withouten bond me bynde?” (Troilus and Criseyde 3.1352-58)
But even in these very similar passages, there are subtler, darker undertones in Chaucer’s version. While Troilo trades in the typical love-language of fire, arrows, and snares, Troilus renders Criseyde’s eyes—and by extension, Criseyde herself—as an inscrutable text, which hints at her future “slydynge of corage” (5.825). Interestingly, his characterization of her eyes as a bind evokes the description of cosmic love in De Consolatione Philosophiae: in Chaucer’s own translation, “al this accordaunce [and] ordenaunce of thynges is bounde with love” (Boece 2m8). Both allusions, barely visible in what is ostensibly a conventional passage on the burning effects of consummated love, foreshadow the tragedy and the larger cosmic context of the end of the poem.
Indeed, throughout the early stages of the love affair, Chaucer’s gazes are at once more violently physical and more troublingly illusory than Boccaccio’s. In book 1, when Boccaccio’s Troilo is cruising the temple with his fellow knights, he casually scopes the scene before his wandering eyes land gently on Criseida. He discovers delicious pleasure in admiring her delicate features, and he returns to his palace, relishing her inwardly as Filostrato did his lady, “enumerating one by one the true beauties of her face and praising them all” (1.33) ["e delle vere/bellezze del suo viso, annoverando/a parte a parte, e quelle commendando"]. At this point in the tale, Troilo’s admiration is presented as purely aesthetic, his eyes skimming over the surface of Criseida’s form and preserving a lovely memory of her to enjoy privately in his chamber. The experience of Chaucer’s Troilus, on the other hand, is far less picturesque. The instant he first sees her, he is depicted as simultaneously aggressive and emasculated:
And upon cas bifel that thorugh a route
His eye percede, and so depe it wente,
Til on Criseyde it smot, and ther it stente.
And sodeynly he wax therwith astoned,
And gan hir bet biholde in thrifty wise. (1.271-335)
The immediate reaction of Troilus is hardly delicate or appreciative. Though the species emanating from his eye appears to have the brute, penetrating force of a weapon, the rest of Troilus’s body is overcome by the mesmerizing force of her image: his heart inordinately swells, and his “hornes” of masculine pride shrivel into his head, at least for a moment (1.300). Chaucer comically dramatizes the irony, inherent in the courtly trope, that the power of the gaze does not lie in the gazer: a point that Boccaccio does not engage with here. Unlike Troilo who holds his gaze on Criseida with voyeuristic abandon, Troilus can barely decide whether “to loke or wynke,”, tentatively stealing a glance or two before feigning to rest his eyes on other objects in the temple (1.301). For Troilus, the stamping of the lady’s image in the heart takes place involuntarily, and he begins to suffer from sudden death pangs within moments of catching his first glimpse of her.
Yet another important difference between Boccaccio and Chaucer involves the issue of female complicity in the game of seduction. In Il Filostrato, Criseida may be seemingly chaste to a fault, as Pandaro confides in Troilo, but she “is a widow and has desires, and if she should deny it, I would not believe her” (2.27) ["La mia cugina é vedova e disia,/ e se 'l negasse non gliel crederia"]. Her soliloquy before she decides to take Troilo as her lover is far less vexed than Chaucer’s Criseyde’s, thus seeming to confirm Pandaro’s gallant suspicions; whereas Criseyde is profoundly concerned with the loss of her own sovereignty, Criseida sighs wistfully in the manner of a romantic heroine: “I am young, beautiful, lovely and gay, a widow, rich, noble, and beloved, without children and leading a quiet life. Why should I not be in love?” (2.69) ["Io son giovane, bella, vaga e lieta, / vedova, ricca, nobile ed amata, / sanza figliuoli ed in vita quieta, / perché esser non deggio innamorata?"]. Several stanzas later, she appears at her window when Troilo passes below, and she knowingly trades flirty glances with her suitor to reveal her attentions—but not too much. Sure enough, longing for more he returns repeatedly to her window where she demurely “show[s] herself to him at prearranged times beautiful and gay” (2.84) ["gli si mostrava a tempi vaga e lieta"].
Chaucer’s version, however, takes pains to depict the lady as more or less an innocent aggressor. Although it may seem, at least from Troilus’s perspective, that the real power issues from the “subtile stremes” of Criseyde’s eyes, Chaucer is careful to present her as completely unaware of dispatching these cruel effects (1.305). Indeed, he goes even further to distance her from the stereotypical disdainful lady, departing from his source in two significant ways: by endowing Criseyde with a consciousness of her precarious status as a desired image (reminiscent of Emily’s dilemma in the Knight’s Tale), and by staging two scenes in which she becomes the gazer and Troilus the unwitting desired object (2.603-81, 2.1235-72). In book 2, Criseyde is acutely uncomfortable when she becomes aware of Pandarus intently scrutinizing her as a proxy for Troilus. When she protests against the impropriety of having Troilus visit her privately, Pandarus responds, “What, who wol demen, though he se a man/To temple go, that he th’ymages eteth?” (2.372-73). In this bizarre metaphor, Pandarus is in effect equating the act of looking with cannibalism; regardless of what others may “demen,” Troilus is the man seeking to consume the image that he worships—this is precisely the logic of the erotic encounter. But when Criseyde continues to protest against her characterization as this image, Pandarus hurls at her the cruelest stroke, ruthlessly identifying her with her mere—and mutable—surface:
“The kynges fool is wont to crien loude,
Whan that hym thinketh a woman berth hire hye,
‘So longe mote ye lyve, and alle proude,
Til crowes feet be growe under youre ye,
And sende yow than a myrour in to prye,
In which that ye may se youre face a morwe!’
I bidde wisshe yow namore sorwe.” (2.400-406)
Even as she struggles against her idealization, however, Criseyde elsewhere idealizes the image of Troilus through her own focalizing gaze. Assuming the man’s role in the system of gazes, she is nevertheless prone to the same emasculating effects, and in her first sighting of Troilus, she feels suddenly enervated, as though she has been intoxicated by drink. In each of these moments, whether it is Troilus or Criseyde who is the one gazing, Chaucer complicates the typically gendered roles of the players in the drama and renders the erotic pleasures of the gaze as deeply ambivalent. In doing so, Chaucer exposes the courtly trope to be a kind of blindness that occludes the integrity of—and the relations between—desiring subjects. He is already hinting that the corporal gaze, material in its object and the very substance of its stream, is fallen.
The Blindness of the Lover…and the Turn to God
Chaucer’s project of dismantling the fundamental assumptions underlying the system of the lover’s gaze intensifies with the breakdown of the love story in book 4. Though both Boccaccio and Chaucer shift their focus away from the reinforcing gazes of the lovers to the absence of sight and memory, their diverging treatments of the courtly gaze becomes clear. In Boccaccio, the lady’s absence is shown to be fully circumscribed within the conventions of courtly love. Indeed, in an unexpected interjection at 4.23, Filostrato explicitly refuses to call on his lady to aid him as his Muse; he argues that in order to narrate the sorrowful downfall of the love affair, he in fact requires her absence: “To what follows after, lovely lady, I do not care at all if you are not present because my power of invention by itself, if weak memory does not deceive it, will know how to recount well, without any aid from you, who are the cause of such bitter pain, the heavy sorrow by which, oppressed through your departure, it feels itself sad” ["A quel che segue, vaga donna, appresso, / non curo guari se non se' presente, / percioccheé 'l mio ingegno da se stesso, se la memoria debol non gli mente, / sapra 'l grave dolor, dal quale oppresso / per la partenza tua tristo si sente, / ben raccontar sanza alcun tuo soccorso, / che se' cagion di sí amaro morso"]. It is his very lack of her memory that will enable him to write on his own, an ironically empowering claim that reverses his earlier invocation begging Filomena’s memory to compose the poem in his stead.
While Boccaccio’s Troilo comes to mourn the loss of his lady’s eyes and visage, he never once interrogates the intrinsic validity of the courtly convention. For Troilo, the rupture in the system lies predictably in the absence of the object rather than the direction, or even the very existence, of the gaze itself. In the conventional system, therefore, once the beloved has been lost, the lover’s gaze is limited to two possibilities: finding a new object or mourning its lack. Thus, upon hearing the news of Criseida’s departure, Troilo wails, “O sorrowing eyes, whose comfort was all in our Criseida’s face, what will you do?…In vain will you see other virtue now, if your well-being is taken from you” (4.35) ["O dolente occhi il cui conforto tutto/ di Criseida nostra era nel viso,/ che farete?...“Invano omai vedrete altra virtute,/ se el v'é tolta la vostra salute"]. Since Troilo can no longer see Criseida’s face, he attempts to shift his eyes to substitutes. Rather than new erotic ones, however, he seeks extensions of his lost lover as he proves to be incapable of betraying the first object of his gaze. After Criseida’s removal to the Greek camp, Troilo grows tired of speaking about her with Pandarus and futilely attempts a scopophilic tour of Criseida’s old haunts, each evoking the memory of her eyes:
“Alas, how luminous and pleasing you were, O place, when that beautiful one resided in you who bore my peace entirely within her eyes. Now you are left dark without her, and I do not know whether you will ever have her again.” When he went riding through Troy alone, he remembered every place; of these places he would go about speaking to himself: “Here I saw her laugh joyfully, here I saw her glancing toward me…There she was when her fair and beautiful eyes captured my love…”
dentro degli occhi suoi tutto portava;
or se’ rimaso oscuro sanza lei,
Ciaschedun luogo gli tornava a mente;
“Quivi rider la vidi lietamente,
con gli occhi belli e vaghi con amore…” (5.53-54, 5.55)
Significantly, however, even as he mourns the loss of his beloved’s eyes and begins to doubt her fidelity, Troilo never loses his faith in the reality of the lover’s gaze and the beloved’s image. In his anguished letter to Criseida, he writes that he looks upon the mountains surrounding the camp and sighs, “‘They have, without knowing it, the love-inspiring view of the beautiful eyes for which I grieve’” ["'coloro hanno, / sanza sentirla, la vista amorosa / degli occhi vaghi, per la quale affanno'"]. Similarly, the waves of the sea are said to “‘come where the divine light of my eyes has gone to stay and will be seen by her’” (7.64, 7.65) ["'verranno dove la divina / luce degli occhi miei n'é gita a stare, / e da lei fien vedute'"]. Once he discovers the truth of Criseida’s relationship with Diomede, Troilo still insists on holding on to the memory of her idealized image, even as its original has proven false to him: “I see that you have driven me completely out of your breast, and against my will I still hold your beautiful face as an effigy in mine with excruciating grief” (8.15) ["Del tutto veggio che m'hai discacciato / del petto tuo, ed io oltre mia voglia / nel mio ancora tengo effigiato / il tuo bel viso con noiosa doglia"]. Even in the depths of his woe, the eyes of love have uncanny staying power.
But Chaucer’s Troilus does not have the pleasure of such illusions. His eyes, temporarily blinded by tears, are subjected to severe existential questioning. In one of his most significant additions to Boccaccio’s text, Chaucer ascribes a speech to Troilus based on the debate in De Consolatione Philosophiae on the subject of God’s foresight. In Boethius, Lady Philosophy tells the prisoner,
“To hym [God], that loketh alle thinges from an hey, ne withstondeth no thinges by hevynesse of erthe, ne the nyght ne withstondeth nat to hym by the blake cloudes. Thilke God seeth in o strok of thought alle thinges that ben, or weren, or shollen comen; and thilke God, for he loketh and seeth alle thingis alone, thou maist seyn that he is the verrai sonne.” (Boece 5m2, italics added)
Troilus’s speech reveals his realization not only of God’s divine providence, but of the limitations of the lover’s gaze:
“For certeynly, this wot I wel,” he seyde,
“That forsight of divine purveyaunce
Hath seyn alwey me to forgon Criseyde,
Syn God seeth every thyng, out of doutance,
And hem disponyth, thorugh his ordinaunce,
In hire merites sothly for to be,
As they shul comen by predestyne.” (4.960-66)
By acknowledging that God sees what the lover does not—and indeed, cannot—see, Troilus begins the process of turning his eyes away from false images (the parallel between image and object is made more urgent with the betrayal of Criseyde). Symbolizing the second stage in patristic schemes of vision—the transitional stage of the clearing of false sight—Troilus’s dream in book 5 successfully replaces in his mind the false specular image of the beloved with the sobering imprint of Criseyde and the boar. While Troilo goes to his death clinging to the beautiful effigy of Criseida’s face, Troilus declares to Pandarus with grim finality, “By my drem it is now sene” (5.1715).
However, Troilus’s education remains incomplete even after he passes through the eighth sphere of the pagan firmament after his death. In a mockery of his heartfelt survey of Criseyde’s abandoned palace, Troilus gazes down at the “litel spot” of the “wrecched world” (5.1815, 5.1817). Focusing his line of vision on the scene of his death, he laughs at the futility of human affairs and “blynde lust” (5.1824) before moving on to the final resting place that Mercury has prepared for him. But while the narration states in this moment that we must reject blind lust and “sholden al oure herte on heven caste” (5.1825), it is unclear whether this statement represents Troilus’s own recognition of his misguided vision on earth, for if it is, we do not see him following his own advice. Rather than looking upward to divine providence, his final act is to gaze down at the world in scorn.
There is a way to make sense of the “gap” between Troilus’s cynical exit and the Christian closure of the actual ending if we consider the Boethian underpinnings of the poem that have become more urgently visible with the narrative’s turn from romance to tragedy. In the final metrum of De Consolatione Philosophiae, Lady Philosophy enjoins people to separate themselves from the rest of earth’s creatures by raising their eyes and minds to heaven: “And, but yif thou, erthly man, waxest yvel out of thi wit, this figure amonesteth the, that axest the hevene with thi ryghte visage and hast areised thi forheved, to beren up an hye thi corage…” (Boece 5m5). Similarly, in the concluding frame of Troilus and Criseyde the narrator encourages his “yonge, fresshe” readers “of youre herte up casteth the visage/To thilke God that after his ymage/Yow made” (5.1835, 5.1838-40). Appropriately, the final stanzas offer the images of the embodied Christ in various stages of his life on earth and ascension into heaven, as well as the visage of the Holy Virgin—all of which are conventionally Christian tropes of meditation that lead to a deeper contemplation of the divine. Thus, if we read the ending as the realization of the Christian trajectory of the gaze, the overarching framework of the entire poem, then the move from Troilus’s bitter downward look to the final hopeful exhortation to gaze on God—who has created us in his true image, compared with the delusive images of distant lovers—represents the triumphant completion of this trajectory. Through the tragic education of Troilus, we readers have been guided from the false gaze of the lover to the true vision of God.
Coda: Criseyde’s Third Eye
Of course, I have traced the trajectory of vision primarily by following the viewpoint of Troilus, not Criseyde. As I have hinted above, however, Criseyde’s vision in the poem follows an equally complex trajectory, one that is especially clear when compared to Boccaccio’s Criseida’s relatively straightforward alignment with conventional courtly paradigms of sight. In the manner of Pandaro, Boccaccio’s narrator repeatedly invokes the anti-feminist tradition of the scornful, vain lady in an attempt to justify the supposed betrayals of Criseida and the narrator’s own Filomena. According to the narrator, “A young woman is fickle and is desirous of many lovers, and she esteems her beauty greater than the mirror shows, and puffed up she has the vainglory of her youth, which is more pleasing and attractive the more she appraises it to herself” (8.30) ["Giovane donna, e mobile e vogliosa / é negli amanti molti, e sua belleza / estima piú ch'allo specchio, e pomposa / ha vanagloria di sua giovinezza, / la qual quanto piacevole e vezzosa / é piú, cotanto piú seco l'apprezza"]. The narcissistic relationship between a woman and her own mirror-image that Boccaccio’s courtly narrator describes is unavailable to Chaucer’s Criseyde, however, whose own face is a mere “mirour” for male projection, and for whom a hand-mirror only reflects, through Pandarus’s curse, the decay of old age (2.266). Thus, when Pandarus demands that she take Troilus as her lover before her mirror reveals “how elde wasteth every houre/In ech of yow a partie of beautee”, she breaks down in bitter weeping:
“Allas, for wo! Why nere I deed?
For of this world the feyth is al agoon.
Alls, what sholden straunge to me doon,
Whan he that for my beste frend I wende
Ret me to love, and sholde it me defende?” (2.383-84, 2.409-13)
Subject to the devouring eyes of others and unable to take advantage of her own desirability to play the game of love, she comes to view her submission to Troilus, not surprisingly, as an inevitable outcome over which she has little control.
Like Troilus, however, Criseyde experiences a tragic epiphany of her own when she recognizes the woeful limitations of her own vision. After her arrival at the Greek camp, she laments that she did not have the courage to steal away with Troilus, blaming this on her faulty sight:
“Prudence, allas, oon of thyne eyen thre
Me lakked alwey, er that I come here!
And present tyme ek koud ich wel ise,
But future tyme, er I was in the snare,
Koude I nate sen; that causeth now my care.” (5.744-49)
The startlingly graphic reference to the faculty of sight is even more marked in comparison with Criseida’s parallel lament in book 6 upon arrival, which is sorely lacking in providential foresight, with reference neither to Prudence nor to vision. In contrast, Chaucer’s version philosophically invokes resonances between Criseyde’s missing “eye” and Troilus’s own self-acknowledged blindness, which suggests that Criseyde’s blindness is essentially no different from that of Troilus. Although Troilus is at least partially redeemed in the end with his shift in perspective while Criseyde is still mired on earth, lacking a third eye, both ultimately come to recognize their fallen state.  This subtle identification between the two characters, transcending their gender, extends to the poem’s conclusion. Compared with Boccaccio’s ending that is clearly aimed at male readers, warning youths to learn from Troilo’s example and “not lightly have trust in all women” (8.29) ["non di leggieri a tutte crederete"], Chaucer’s final exhortation implicitly enfolds Criseyde’s perspective in his address to “yonge, fresshe folks, he or she” to turn their gazes to God (5.1835, italics added).
Through a sustained comparison between Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s poems, it becomes clear that the seeming discrepancies between Chaucer’s use of the medieval trope of the lover’s gaze and the Christian ending of the poem are resolved through Chaucer’s development and transformation of Boccaccio’s conventional employment of the courtly trope. While Boccaccio’s Troilo loses faith in the real Criseida, he never relinquishes the effigy of her ideal image, even up to the moment of his death. Through the disillusionment of Troilus, however, Chaucer’s narrator invokes his readers to leave behind the deceiving glances of love and to reaffix their eyes on the true Christian God. Such a message, moreover, is directed to all readers, signaling the text’s conscious move beyond the purview of the male reader of Boccaccio’s conventional romance.
It is significant that the development of Chaucer’s poem is symbolized by the shifting paradigms of sight, from corporal to spiritual. As Chaucer’s most visually centered work, Troilus and Criseyde is beset throughout by double vision: extra- and intromissive rays, shifting genders on either side of the gaze, and tensions between secular and Christian paradigms of sight, all of which serve to undermine the notion of an unadulterated optical line between a clearly demarcated subject and object. Having focused on Chaucer’s stark revision of Boccaccio’s employment of the lover’s gaze through the character of Troilus, my investigation is necessarily limited in its scope. Considering the fact that all the descriptions of Criseyde’s awareness of her precarious position in the crossfire of gazes are Chaucer’s original additions to the Il Filostrato, it is evident that the problematic experience of sight for both sexes—as well as the ambiguous role that Pandarus occupies—is more than a simple preoccupation within Chaucer’s work. This paper, therefore, is ultimately aimed towards opening a conversation in other critical directions, for work remains to be done on the complex gender dynamics within the interlocking trajectories of gazes in Troilus and Criseyde. Whereas Troilus bemoaned that the woven “text” of the mirroring lover’s eyes was “ful hard…to finde,” it is only by weaving together the fragmentary visual streams of the various characters that the rich visual subtexts of the poem can eventually be brought to light.
Jenny Lee received her B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley and her M.A. from the University of Cape Town, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Northwestern University. Her interests include dream visions and the intersection of confession and autobiography in late 14th- and early 15th-century medieval English poetry.
‘Of Your Herte Up Casteth the Visage’: Turning Troilo/Troilus’s Eyes to God by Jenny Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
- Sarah Stanbury, “The Lover’s Gaze in Troilus and Criseyde,” in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: “Subgit to Alle Poesye.” Essays in Criticism, vol. 104, ed. R. A. Shoaf (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), pp. 224-38, at p. 226.
- See David Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360-1430 (London and New York: Routledge, 1988); Stanbury, “The Lover’s Gaze.
- Norman Klassen, Chaucer on Love, Knowledge and Sight, Chaucer Studies (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1995), p. 138.
- Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), p. 7.
- “Ecce in hoc uno praecepto cum legitur, ‘Diliges proximum tuum tanquam teipsum,’ tria genera visionum occurunt: unum per oculos, quibus ipsae litterae videntur; alterum per spiritum hominis quo proximus et absens cogitatur; tertium per contuitum mentis, quo ipsa dilectio intellecta conspicitur.” Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, PL 34:245; translation mine.
- Bonaventure, Breviloquium 2.12.1; English translation in Regis J. Armstrong, “Towards an Unfolding of the Structure of Bonaventure’s ‘Legenda Major,’” in Metodi Di Lettura Della Fonti Francescane, ed. E. Covi and F. Raurell (Rome: Collegio s. Lorenzo da Brindisi, 1988), pp. 159-75, at p.169.
- Galen, De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis 7.5, in On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato, ed. and trans. Phillip de Lacy (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1978-84).
- “Sed sciendum, quod species visibilis est substantia assimilata naturae solis lucens et radians.” Robert Grosseteste, De Iride, in Die Philosophischen Werke des Robert Grosseteste, Bischofs von Lincoln, ed. Ludwig Baur (Münster i.W: Aschendorff, 1912) p. 73.
- “Postea vero, quotiens de ipsa cogitat, totiens eius magis ardescit amore, quousque ad cogitationem devenerit pleniorem. Postmodum mulieris incipit cogitare facturas et eius distinguere membra suosque actus imaginari eiusque corporis secreta rimari ac cuiusque membri officio desiderat perpotiri.” (Andreae Capellani Regii Francorum, De Amore Libri Tres, ed. E. Trojel [Munich: Eidos Verlag, 1964], p. 5; translation mine).
- Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, trans. Margaret Cook (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 19.
- For a fuller discussion of the theories of Bernardus Gordonius on amor hereos, see Doctor Bernard de Gordon: Professor and Practitioner, ed. Luke E. Demaitre(Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980).
- Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, ed. Vincenzo Pernicone, trans. Robert P. apRoberts and Anna Bruni Seldis (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986). All quotations in the original Italian as well as their English translations are taken from this edition.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 40.
- Klassen, Chaucer on Love, Knowledge and Sight, p. xi.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde with Facing-PageIl Filostrato, ed. Stephen A. Barney, A Norton Critical Edition (New York and London: Norton, 2006). All quotations from the poem are taken from this edition.
- Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 420.
- To support this point, Stanbury argues that while the scene in 2.645-51 appears on the surface to be constructed with Criseyde as the privileged “masculine” spectator, it is Troilus who genuinely “wins” the moment: “Criseyde’s gaze is projected within the structure of a carefully orchestrated masculine fantasy. Her look at that particular moment not only causes her to fall in love, but even turns her into an object of male desire, the woman in the grandstand at the tournament, looking down on her knight at his most heroic moment” (“The Lover’s Gaze,” p. 238).
- For a discussion on the ambivalent gendering of the gaze that disrupts the representation of the gaze as fundamentally masculine (as argued in the influential work of feminist theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Jacqueline Rose in their studies on film), see Simon Gaunt, “The Look of Love: The Gender of the Gaze in Troubadour Lyric,” in Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality, and Sight in Medieval Text and Image, ed. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), pp. 79-95.
- This view coincides with the work of Morton W. Bloomfield and D. W. Robertson. See especially Bloomfield, “Distance and Predestination in Troilus and Criseyde,“ PMLA 72 (1957), 14-26; Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964). But whereas Bloomfield justifies the first three books by the framework of predestination and Robertson by ironizing Troilus, I emphasize here the Boethian intertext throughout the poem, a topic treated at length in Thomas L. Martin, “Time and Eternity in Troilus and Criseyde,” Renascence 51 (1999), 167–79.
- Her blindness gets a profoundly misogynistic treatment in Robert Henryson’s sequel, the Testament of Cresseid, when Cresseid, who is now a leper begging for alms, encounters Troilus. Although he does not recognize her because of her dramatically changed appearance, he does however become flooded with the memory of her former beauty through the “blenk” unwittingly streaming from her eyes (499), testifying to the conventional power of true love’s apprehension of the beloved’s gaze. Cresseid, on the other hand, does not recognize Troilus at all, though he has presumably not changed in appearance; her inability to recognize her former lover appears to suggest a correlation with her supposed state of moral blindness. Henryson’s work can be found in its entirety in Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde with Facing-Page Il Filostrato, pp. 433-47.