Troilus’s Future: Perspectives on Futurity in Troilus and Criseyde–By Tyler Jones


Questions about the future were never far from the medieval Christian mind. In Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer plunges his story back into the ancient past. The poem presents the reader with multiple perspectives on how readers, writers, and characters interact with the future. It furthermore presents us with questions concerning the psychology of the future and our ways of understanding it. This essay utilizes both St. Augustine’s ontology of time in Book XI of his Confessions and Michel de Certeau’s thoughts on spatial temporalities as theoretical foundations for a close reading of Chaucer’s poem. This textual criticism will explore the manner in which different temporal perspectives on the future embed themselves in Troilus.


This paper will explore different perspectives on the future in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In his grand poem, the future is not limited to one unified conception, but instead contains a multiplicity of perspectives reflective of the poem’s heterogeneous structure and influences.[1] Special interest will be paid to the indeterminacy of temporal formations in the poem. This paper presses on the notion of the heterogeneity of futurity, relying on a close reading of passages in which the poem presents multiple or exclusive temporal conceptions. Furthermore, a distinction will be made between future perspectives located meta-textually and within the characters. This approach will differentiate the poem’s narrative and its psychological perspectives. A methodology based primarily on a close analysis of the text will hopefully leave us better equipped to explore the multiplicity of the text itself, instead of applying prescriptive heuristic. Given the paper’s attention to the indeterminacy of temporal perspectives, it will not provide a way of reading the poem but will instead seek to clarify some of Troilus’ latent temporal features.

In order to provide an exemplary medieval discourse on temporality, this paper will introduce Saint Augustine’s investigation of the nature of time in Book XI of his Confessions. This will be the theoretical foundation for considering three different perspectives on the future in Troilus and Criseyde; namely, the narrative, the strategic, and the prophetic. Strategy, a spatial theorization of time, will be explored with particular reference to the writings of Michel de Certeau. This paper will employ close readings of key passages to gather textual evidence for these three senses of the future. Finally, it will illustrate the instability of these perspectives in the poem by examining the ways in which they are undermined in the concluding Book V.[2]

The future is the most elusive of the three standard temporal states – past, present, and future – since it has yet to happen. English grammar does not properly possess a future conjugation; it is merely an augmented formulation of the present. The typical structure asserts a known future (“I will do that”). However, since the future has not yet happened, there can be no assurances. It would be more accurate to form the future as “I might do that.” Predictions are based on one’s experiences in the past. The laws of cause-and-effect in classical science can present a fairly accurate estimate of future action based on what has already been observed. However, the scientific method is far from claiming an absolute certainty for its predictions. Therefore, there is always present the pressure of the unknown: of what is not yet determined. The scientific future, therefore, exists as a probability, an informed prediction, but never as a certainty.

Can one apply the laws of science to a literary text? How is the future different in such a work? A literary text has already been determined, since it has already been written. That something might happen in a text is only possible from the perspective of the reader. However, as recent sensitivity to narrative “spoilers” attests, the reader’s perspective of an undetermined future is tenuous, and can be disrupted by the premature revelation of the narrative future that has already been written down. The ending (the narrative future) can be “spoiled” before the reader has organically experienced it, and it can thus disrupt the reader’s sense of chronology. Conversely, these spoilers also show that there is comfort taken from the quality of always already pastness of narrative: the reader knows that the story is complete and has an ending. That is to say that there is something in a narrative text to be spoiled. The pleasure afforded by Agatha Christie’s detective stories rests on the fact that the reader knows, despite her/his confusion during the novel, that there is a definite solution – “whodunnit?” has already been answered by the author. The agony of Dickens’s unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that its future was never finally determined: it is in a perpetual state of potentiality. The narrative end is ultimately out of reach. Troilus and Criseyde, while certainly complete, does not share the singular, obsessive structure of a murder mystery. Chaucer’s reader must consider the future of a text that is highly complex with multiple narrative strands weaving in and out.

Complicating this complex futurity is the fact that any literary text has two coplanar temporalities: the narrative (as discussed above) and the diegetic (i.e. in the narrative). These temporalities correspond to the difference in perspective between reader and character, respectively. The literary text re-presents a reality, populated with characters for whom there only exists their own sense of time. Individually, theirs is a future yet to be determined. They have a limited perspective, unburdened by the knowledge of an ultimate narrative structure. Therefore, a perspective of the future can find its locus in either the narrative (always already complete) or the character (perpetually undetermined).

The Clock According to Augustine

Saint Augustine’s Confessions includes a book on time. His investigation seeks to determine how, if at all, time actually exists in the world. This section (Book XI) takes on the aspect of a prayer or meditation on how time fits into the divine ordo. He notes the division between heavenly and earthly time: “Your ‘years’ neither go nor come,” he says to God, “Ours come and go so that all may come in succession. All your ‘years’ subsist in simultaneity, because they do not change.” The primary distinction in place here is between succession and simultaneity. This is to say that, for us mortals, time occurs in succession, and therefore must be split between past, present, and future. For it to flow, there must be something that came before and something to follow. Mortals are contrasted with God, who sees all things simultaneously. There is no need for distinct past, present, and future, because He sees all things.

The quality of succession leads Augustine to realize that our experience of time privileges the present. He writes that “at least I know that whatever they [i.e. past and future] are, they are not there as future or past, but as present.”[4] If the past has already happened, then there must be a present from the perspective of which we can determine that something has “already happened.” However, this present is irreducible. It does not exist as a quantitative thing in the world; it is an incorporeal perspective. This ephemeral pastness finds an analogue in the act of reading, where every moment exists in an eternal present. Even though a text must necessarily have been written in the past, and even if it is given in the past tense, our mind understands it as an active present. When Augustine says that “when a true narrative of the past is related, memory produces not the actual events which have passed away but words conceived from images of them, which they fixed in the mind like imprints.”[5] This explanation could equally apply to the act of writing, of translating images of the past into words. When put into words, the past is translated into the present. The images are always accessible to the present through words.

The conclusion reached by Augustine is that only the present really exists. As he formulates it, “there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.”[6] The past and future are remembered and predicted from our conscious present. Given the highly-structured nature of Christian cosmology, it is surprising that Augustine’s conception of time should be so subjective and individual. While he does put forth the idea of a “true past,” but he maintains that such a past does not exist: it can only be retrieved by the present through (cultural or personal) memory. The intangibility of the past is perhaps obvious; however, Augustine’s formulation of it makes the effort to locate the past in the individual. Since past and future are understood from the perspective of the present, they must be apprehended from the perspective of a perceiver in the present. The past exists, therefore, as long as it is retained in present memory.

Memory is also a key for understanding the future. He explains that when “people speak of knowing the future, what is seen is not events which do not yet exist, but perhaps their causes or signs which already exist.”[7] The future is therefore not a monolithic, determined event, but rather a present-based hypothesis. The example given is that of a sunrise. When one sees the familiar aspects of a sunrise, the brightening colors on the eastern horizon, one can “see the future” insofar as one can accurately predict what has yet to happen. The future Augustine talks of here is not the matter of eschatology, but rather the future in what he calls successive time. Since time is limited to our human perspective, we cannot predict that which lies outside our experience of it. “The future” is thus limited to the knowable future.

St. Augustine reformulates past, present and future as memory, immediate awareness and expectation.[8] These reformulations are the cognitive processes of the individual, and thus they are of lesser metaphysical import. Clock time is illusory for Augustine, who instead focuses on our experience of time. This fosters idiosyncratic experiences of time: individual memory, awareness and expectation. In narrative terms, this allows for differing conceptions of time. The bricolage-like structure of Troilus would be impossible without exclusive temporalities existing together in the poem. Furthermore, Augustine writes that he has “come to think that time is simply a distention.”[9] This is a shocking choice of words. This distention allows for time to be malleable, to not remain fixed to ordained and mechanical rules of governance. Time can contract and dilate in relation to the individual experiencing it. Some scholars have interpreted this phrase to refer to a metaphysical temporal context, and that distentio animi is the interaction between the individual and the world-soul.[10] For Chaucer’s text, this is not especially applicable. The distention there manifests itself moreso as a temporal elasticity. The distentio animi is rather the ability of time to swell around characters – of their minds’ ability to dictate the progress of time.

This sense of the individual grounding of time is crucial in Troilus. The structure of the poem is predicated on the sense that different temporalities can exist in succession. The poem expands and contracts with different sections. Had Chaucer abided by a regular and organic conception of time, then he would not have been able to retain many of its digressive aspects. A characteristic idiosyncrasy of the poem is its propensity for distention. Because time is tied to the experience of the individual, Chaucer can structure the flow of narrative time according to what strikes his interest. For example, Troilus’s Boethian argument at the temple in Book IV and Criseyde’s internal argument in Book II  are there because the narrative can slow down and adjust its rhythm to the pulse of their thoughts.

Proem One: “Birth was the Death of Him”

Troilus and Criseyde opens with an ending. This paradox is the narrative perspective of the future. The narrative future here is to mean the progress of the written story: it is the part of the poem that lies ahead of any given point. The narrative future is part of the future because the reader has yet to read it. It begins with what the reader knows already exists: the ending. The narrator sketches out the whole story for the reader, who is immediately confronted with the idea that the story has already been determined. He writes:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,

That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye,

In lovynge, how his aventures fellen

Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie,

My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.[2]

We are told how the story will end for Troilus; there is no mystery to be solved. Yet this information inevitably colors everything that follows, and it establishes our expectation for the story. Even if we had never before heard the names Troilus and Criseyde, the opening lines inform the reader of the poem’s tragic resolution. How he goes “fro wo to wele, and after out of joie” is yet undisclosed, but the phrase imparts the sense of a closed narrative. We therefore expect the book to consummate the proem’s promise and end when Troilus is “out of joie.” That the narrator mentions his parting from us compounds this sense of a closed narrative. He calls attention to the fact that the narrative will be over and the poem will be done, at which point all potentialities and mights will be exhausted.

Once the reader has a defined temporal framework, they can situate the narrative within it. That is to say that the reader has a sense of the space of the future: how near are we to the end? where are we in the story? is Troilus now in “wo” or “wele?”, et cetera. Alfred Hitchcock makes a relevant distinction between suspense and surprise. For him, a surprising scene sees something unexpected happen unannounced (e.g. a bomb goes off). A suspenseful scene involves the audience knowing what is to happen, but not knowing when or what the outcome will be (e.g. the audience sees the bomb but does not know if the heroes will escape). Hitchcock thinks that giving the audience some additional information engages them further; an otherwise innocuous scene, when suspenseful “becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.”[12] Their participation is invited through the expectation of what is to happen, by giving them, as in Augustine’s example, the “evidence for the sunrise.” Narratively, the future becomes clearer, but still hangs in the suspense of what has not yet happened. There are still uncertainties as to the future’s particular manifestation when it becomes the narrative present. Because the events are known, the guiding curiosity of the reader can attach itself to why what happens happens. The proem of Book I gives the reader the tools to set an expectation for the future, and thus the meaning of every subsequent scene is imbued with the reader’s knowledge of its ultimate consequence.

Already the narrator can instruct us, as he does on line 29-30, to “preieth for hem that ben in the cas / Of Troilus.” The reader has yet to experience what “the cas of Troilus” is, yet the narrator, even in outline, assures us that the meaning of this statement is clear. We do not have to fully experience Troilus’s tribulations to have an unequivocal understanding of his future. Even within the first 30 lines, the reader can gain a clear perspective on the case of Troilus; therefore, the rest of the poem is not meant to reveal this state of affairs, but rather to illuminate and fully embody them.

Additionally, in these opening lines the narrator steps out of the narrative to comment on the metatextual future. He wonders, for example, “if this [story] may don gladnesse / Unto any lovere.”[13] The narrator intermittently ruminates on the poem’s reception, its sources, or its impression on the audience. In these lines, Chaucer gestures at the future of the poem: how it “may don gladnesse.” The narrative possesses the ability to reference itself, and to speak to its own future, in addition to the future of its story. Although the future within the narrative is already determined, the reception of the narrative is anything but certain.

Although the narrator establishes the sense of a closed story, he presents the idea of an additional narrative future: that of the work itself. The artificiality of this gesture, the way it breaks the illusion of an immersive world by referencing itself as a work, emphasizes the manner in which the story is being told, rather than what is being told.

This narrative methodology is made even more explicit when Chaucer defines his “matere”:

Now herkneth with a good entencioun,

For now wil I gon streght to my matere,

In which ye may the double sorwes here

Of Troilus in lovynge of Criseyde,

And how that she forsook hym er he deyde.[14]

In addition to his more defined temporal framework, this passage shows the narrator also establishing a discursive framework. His “matere,” the elements comprising his story, are limited to the love between Troilus and Criseyde, and their consequent “sorwes.” While the poem navigates different narrative registers – for example, invoking Gods and wars – these oftentimes constitute digressions from his primary “matere.” This discursive explication further defines the future by narrowing the text’s narrative scope; it highlights the pieces of evidence to which the reader should pay attention, if they want to follow the narrative. To return to Augustine’s sunrise metaphor, this gesture directs our attention to the color of the sky and not the color of leaves. It will serve the reader better to closely attend to the scenes between Troilus and Criseyde than to dwell on the few descriptions of the war. Furthermore, the narrator restates Troilus’s “double sorwes,” which further emphasizes the tragic future of the narrative. The typical gulf between narrator and reader is constituted by their different knowledge of the future. The reader (in his first time encountering the story) perceives the text’s future only tenuously. For the narrator, the story has already been determined, but the reader is continually discovering newness. Troilus’s narrator collapses this distance by explicitly informing the reader of the narrative future. The reader therefore knows where the story is going to end: they can see colored light peeking from behind the horizon.

Future as Strategic Pandering

The future does not exist only in the larger narrative sense, but also as an undetermined potentiality for the characters within the narrative. The diegetic future – i.e. the future as perceived from the limited perspective of the characters in the story – is still yet to come and is therefore still malleable. Most of the major players in Troilus do not see the future as a monolithic or fixed entity, but rather as something that can be changed. Pandarus especially tries to use his wits as a tool to determine the future. Augustine’s sense of the future as expectation implies a passivity (e.g. watching the sun rise) that Pandarus would certainly reject. That the future is yet to exist does not necessarily imply that it is inalterable. The role Pandarus plays in Troilus is to plan and strategize; in his active conception of the future, Pandarus tries to know the future by making it his future.

It will be instructive here to turn to Michel de Certeau’s distinction between Strategy and Tactics to understand how Pandarus’s position as a strategist defines his active relationship to the future. Space is a precious commodity in warfare. It is the metric of success: how much area you control or how far you have progressed into enemy territory. One’s relationship to the future, in this context becomes dependent on one’s relationship to one’s environment. The thoughts of St. Augustine place the locus of temporality in the animus, yet the mind does not exist in a vacuum. De Certeau helps shows how the manipulation of space can affect one’s perception of futurity.

Thus, “[t]he calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships” is integral to the function of a strategist.[15] The goal of Strategy is to affect a change in your favor, which is to say to determine the future in your favor. However, the defining feature of Strategy is its postulation of “a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats … can be managed.”[16] It is therefore defined by a spatial relationship: the resilient and fixed position of power from which the external other can be controlled. Pandarus fulfils this in two ways. First, it is in his house that much of the strategizing and the illicit rendezvous take place; secondly, he is the central place of intersection for character relationships. Everybody gets to know each other through him.

However, this spatiality is also applicable to a temporal relationship. One merely needs to take de Certeau’s postulation and replace “exteriority” with “the future.” The future, then, is the point against which one’s place of fixity (the present) is located. The targets and threats would be the future outcomes that one wants to manage. De Certeau adds that “the ‘proper’ is a triumph of place over time.”[17] The stable base of power that Pandarus has allows him to influence the yet-to-be in his favor. The spatial and the temporal are in this sense entwined for him. His fixed spatial power is insulated against variability, so he can better use his resources to control the highly variable future.

Pandarus employs Strategy in his effort to help Troilus woo Criseyde. He is the “brains” of the operation, devising the schemes and techniques they will employ. While Troilus has the desire, the love painful and yearning, he knows not how to consummate it. His is a future perpetually deferred, and thus Troilus retreats into a passive role in his relationship with the future. It falls to Pandarus to show him the way to realize his love with Criseyde. The only way that the future will bear the fruits of his desire is if it is actively shaped by them. Future potentiality, like Troilus’s love for Criseyde, is not realized until it is vigorously sought after.

Troilus’s passivity is proportional to his interiority, as Pandarus’s activity is proportional to his lack of psychological depth. The poem often explicates Troilus’s thoughts and will slow the pace of the narrative to present his letters, songs, and monologizing. Augustine’s psychological time can be applied to Troilus’s perspective because the reader has access to his interiority. However, as with Hamlet, this interiority can at times produce a paralysis. Conversely, Pandarus is rarely given any sort of inner life. His scenes in the poem exclusively relate to his concern and his schemes for Troilus and Criseyde. His lack of psychology dimension seems to predispose him this activity, however. His relationship with the future revolves around his ability to shape the physical space and people around him.

When Pandarus first promises to help Troilus in his courtship, he says:

“For thus ferforth I have thi werk bigonne

Fro day to day, til this day by the morwe

Hire love of frendshipe have I to the wonne,

And therto hath she leyd hire feyth to borwe.[18]

Pandarus speaks of this scheme in explicitly temporal terms. What he states initially is not how her heart will be “wonne,” but rather when. Pandarus and Troilus will know their success when the future becomes present, i.e. “this day by the morwe.” Furthermore, their work does not manifest in spatial terms, but in temporal ones. The measure of their success is not how far they penetrate into her palace or how many baubles they bestow on her, but rather how they have their “werk bigonne / Fro day to day.” It is a temporal evaluation: success is marked by the progressive accumulation of time. The externalized target, their goal located in the future, is the territory they seek to vassalize.

Pandarus then begins to lay out the first phase of his plans in lines 1003 to 1022 of Book II. He instructs Troilus to write her a letter. The grammatical tense of this passage shifts from the present to the future. Pandarus says that “I woulde outrely” (1004), “I wolde hire tellen” (1006), “And I myself wol therwith to hire gon” (1009), “And thow shalt fynde us” (1014), “And we shal speek of the somwhat, I trowe” (1021), et cetera. This grammatical shift reflects a change in temporal interest. With Pandarus’s strategic influence, the will towards the future becomes tangible in the text. The future is graspable here, because it is made to align with the present. Pandarus’s plans focus the present on some goal in the future, and thus he orients himself towards it. This has the effect of limiting the future, even though it remains as an indefinite potentiality. The connections between the present and the future are narrowed, so that they can gravitate towards the strategic center.

Pandarus therefore has the ability to tell the future, insofar as it is a future he fashions himself. The strategic future is bound to the perspective of the active participant. He cannot expect a future outside the binary success-or-failure of his own stratagems. Power, then, can potentially dictate the future, but only in terms of that power. The future is a tangible object, an achievement to be obtained, but it is one that requires an active desire, unlike Augustine’s future expectation. Pandarus is exemplary of this type of future-oriented strategist. His relationship to the future is defined by the will to control. He doesn’t play to realize the future, but rather his future.

Dreams and Prophecy

The last way the characters in Troilus engage with the future is through prophetic means. Prophecy is an intuitive and often mystical form of knowledge that can sometimes, as in the case of dreams, offer an obscure realization of the future. Even when the agents of prophecy are correct (as they invariably are in Troilus), the details of their knowledge will often remain uncertain. This marks a change from other perspectives of futurity: as the narrative is always already complete, and the strategic actively forms its future.

There are two dreams presented in Troilus and Criseyde, and each plays a different role. The first dream is had by Criseyde in Book II, and the second by Troilus in Book V.  Criseyde’s dream appears towards the beginning of Troilus’s courtship of her, right after she has a long internal debate on her feelings about such a love-arrangement. Thus, this dream’s psychological ramifications are contextualized by the excitement and anxiety that are elucidated in her proceeding monologue. Her dream is described as follows:

And as she slep, anonright tho hire mette

How that an egle, fethered whit as bon,

Under hire brest his longe clawes sette,

And out hire herte he rente, and that anon,

And dide his herte into hire brest to gon –

Of which she nought agroos, ne nothing smerte –

And forth he fleigh, with herte left for herte.[19]

The dream presents a potent image of Criseyde’s feelings. This said, it is not allegorical in the sense that there is not a direct one-to-one correspondence between dream-images and real qualities. The image is instead the embodiment of her feelings. This sense of her dream as epitome rather than explication is borne out by the narrator’s shift in subject-matter immediately afterwards. In the very next line, he says “Now late hire slepe, and we oure tales holde / Of Troilus,”[20] so the dream is given no exegesis. The power of the image has to stand on its own without resource to interpretation. In this way, dreams’ sense of the future is indefinite because it remains unexplained.

Although the text does not explicate the dream for us, its sublime imagery is intelligible in connection to Criseyde’s feelings about Troilus. She dreams of an eagle, a bird of prey, that appears completely white. Although eagles are considered noble birds, they have also the potential for violence. This eagle appears as a spectre, both because of its presence in a dream and its pale white appearance. It sets itself upon her chest and tears her heart out, then proceeds to replace her heart with Troilus’s. The effect is a kind of disturbing sweetness. The heart is metonymic for love, and thus the exchange is symbolic of the intimate intermingling of their love. The image is also infused with a tangible sexual energy, literalizing a bodily unity. However, it also expresses an anxiety about their love. This eagle tears open her chest, and forcefully replaces her heart. This powerfully expresses the violence of love, the chaotic quality of unbridled passions. In intimacy there is vulnerability. To open oneself so deeply to another living soul as to exchange one’s heart for another’s, is to subject oneself to the violence of their love and of the world that does not understand one’s love. However, the narrator says that she was “nought agroos,” which the Riverside Chaucer glosses as meaning she “was [not] frightened.”[21] Despite the violent sweetness of the eagle, cleaving her heart from her chest and replacing it with that of her beloved, she is not afraid. These forceful passions do not faze her. This dream acts as a summation: the representation of her ambivalent feelings by means of an image that embodies her expectation of the future.

Troilus’s dream in Book V does not have the same role as Criseyde’s. His, like hers, registers an anxiety – but unlike it, it is consumed by this anxiety. There is no counterweight of love to balance the dread. While his too embodies his state of mind at that moment, it is not a summation but a cipher. After Criseyde fails to appear on the designated tenth day, Troilus returns home:

So on a day he leyde hym doun to slepe,

And so byfel that yn his slep hym thoughte

That in a forest faste he welk to wepe

For love of here that hym these peynes wroughte;

And up and doun as he the forest soughte,

He mette he saugh a bor with tuskes grete,

That slepte ayeyn the bryghte sonne hete.

And by this bor, faste in his arme folde,

Lay, kyssyng ay, his lady bryght, Criseyde.[22]

Like Criseyde’s dream, Troilus’s is defined by its animal imagery. The boar is its most prominent feature. However, unlike Criseyde’s dream, his’ also has a setting. He walks and weeps in a forest, where he eventually discovers the boar sleeping with his lost beloved. The meaning of this dream is more inscrutable than Criseyde’s: the images do not have the same emotional clarity as hers, other than the evocation of his jealous anxiety. Neither dream is a good indication of the future, as neither presents a clear indication of any future “event” as such. The perspective they take on the future is merely a feeling towards it.

What is crucial for Troilus’s dream, however, is its enigmatic quality. It is not in itself a definite expectation of what will (or even might) happen in the future, but it is a text that can be translated by someone to describe the future. This introduces the realm of prophecy. Troilus calls for his sister Cassandra, a prophetess, to explain his dream to him. It is important, before we proceed, to explain her mythological significance. She does indeed have the God-granted gift of prophecy, but her gift was also cursed. Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World states that Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon tells how Apollo gave her the power of prophecy in order to win her sexual favours, which she promised to him. But she broke her word; so he turned the blessing into a curse by causing her always to be disbelieved.”[23] That she is always doubted will be considered later, but for now what is important is that her intuitive knowledge gives her ability to unlock the cipher of Troilus’s dream.

She explains to Troilus that “this ilke boor bitokneth Diomede,” a man whom Troilus has never met. He manifests as a boar because that is an important and mythic figure in his family’s history that goes back generations. What is especially interesting about this scene is the way in which the prophecy of the future is inextricably enmeshed in an understanding of the past. This connection between the future and the past is also apparent in St. Augustine. His example of the sunrise pre-supposes that the person who observes evidence of an imminent sunrise is familiar with the evidence she/he must look for. That is to say that the observer must have already experienced a sunrise in the past in order to have adequate means to predict one in the future. Similarly, Cassandra divines Troilus’s future because she knows Diomede’s past. Without knowing the symbolic significance of the boar to Diomede’s family, Cassandra would not have been able to decipher Troilus’s dream.

This also introduces an opening-up of the narrator’s explicit “matere.” Cassandra’s prophecy speaks of gods and peoples, whereas the narrator usually limits himself to the mundane love story between these individuals. Her exegesis historicizes Diomede: it tells of his past in order to understand his actions in the future. She gives a whole chronicle of his family; at points, it becomes little more than a laundry-list of names: Meleagre, Tideus, Polymytes, Ethiocles, Hemonydes, Archymoris, Amphiorax, Ypomedoun, Parthonope, Capaneus, and Argyves are all mentioned in this short passage.

The other prophet in this poem is Calkas. Contrary to Cassandra, he sees the future not through history but through science:

So whan this Calkas knew by calkulynge,

And ek by answer of this Appollo,

That Grekes sholden swich a peple brynge,

Thorugh which that Troie moste ben fordo,

He caste anon out of the town to go;”[25]

The Riverside Chaucer glosses calkulynge as “astrological computation.” The way that Calkas sees the future is through a scientific divining, a sort of empirical mythology. He is one of the only people that knows of Troy’s destruction, and his role is to tell of that doom. Calculation prophesies the future by finding patterns and resonances in the past. Because of his knowledge, he exits Troy and joins the Greeks. He is presented as a villain in the poem, yet his arcane knowledge ultimately saves him and his daughter Criseyde. The future for Calkas, once divined, is unalterable. Contrary to a strategist like Panarus, the tactical Calkas can only react against a fixed future. For the former, the present is a stable point from which to invade and change the future; for the latter, the future is fixed, and one can only change their position in the present in reaction to the unalterable future. Calkas therefore has no base of power, and he uses his nomadic adaptability to react to what he knows will come to pass. In this sense, his prophecy does not function as a cipher that relates the past to the future, but rather as an alarm that notifies the present of the future’s imposition. Yet, as we shall soon see, there is a tragic consequence to the gift of prophecy.

Book V: “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”

These three future-oriented perspectives: narrative, strategic, and prophetic, all are built on unstable ground. While each offers a certain access to understanding the future, each is undermined in the course of Book V. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the shifting foundations of these perspectives build towards the final stanzas of the poem, wherein we are shown the place of ultimate temporal stability.

The authority of the prophetic perspective of the future is subverted by Cassandra’s curse. Foreknowledge has a tragic dimension in the poem because it is doomed never to be believed. Cassandra and Calkas can prove what will come to be, and yet their messages will go unheeded. It is not ambiguous whether these soothsayers predict correctly in Troilus: they invariably do. Anyone remotely familiar with the story of Troy will know that Calkas’s prophecy of its destruction is true. That he is branded a traitor by the Trojans is unsurprising, but that his own daughter should not only disbelieve him, but also repudiate him, is part of the tragic nature of prophecy.

Cassandra is cursed not to be believed, but I think Calkas’s similar fate leaves room to suppose this might be a quality inherent to prophecy. Troilus is so incensed by his sister’s prediction that he “foryat his wo, for angre of hire speche.”[26] The reader has already seen Criseyde and Diomede begin the dance of courtship, so there is no doubt as to the veracity of Cassandra’s claims. Yet for Troilus, the imposition of the future is such a heavy burden that he rejects it outright. There seems to be something potent about knowledge in Christian cosmology. In Genesis, of course, Adam and Eve are ejected from Earthly Paradise because they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. With their acquisition of that knowledge came tragic consequences. For Troilus, the power of this knowledge is so devastating that he refuses it. Yet, like Adam and Eve, the cat is already out of the bag: there is no retreating from the future once it is known. One may choose to ignore it, but the prophetic future will inevitably become the present.

In Book V, the ability for strategy to shape the future is also dislocated. This is especially apparent in the episode where Pandarus takes Troilus to Sarpedoun. Having made a pact with Criseyde to the effect that they would meet on the tenth day of her imprisonment, Troilus is at a loss as to how to spend the intervening hours. Pandarus, ever the strategist, has a plan:

Go we pleye us in som lusty route

To Sarpedoun, nat hennes but a myle;

And thus thow shalt the tyme wel bygile,

And dryve it forth unto that blissful morwe

That thow hire se, that cause is of thi sorwe.[27]

He wants to take Troilus’s mind off the future and stop his inevitable obsession with counting the remaining days. His strategy is to erase the distance between future and present. However, he gives up the defining feature of a strategist: the consolidation of power in place. By leaving for Sarpedoun, Pandarus forgoes the location of his power in order to “bygile tyme.” His plan, therefore, is not to shape the future, but merely trying to freeze the present until the future comes. This does not quite work. Troilus spends the days in agony, and he is constantly telling Pandarus that he wishes to leave. The active role required of a strategist is replaced by a passive role. Strategy fails Pandarus, as the situation becomes increasingly complicated. His power of place is sufficient for bringing together two lovers, but is outmatched when it becomes embroiled in the larger political conflict.

Although the narrator is omniscient, his authority over the future is also frustrated in Book V. This is not his authority over the narrative future, but rather the future of the narrative. The last book betrays his self-consciousness about the reception of his poem, and how the work will fare in the future. In the concluding stanzas of the poem, the narrator says:

And for ther is so gret diversite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God that non myswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge;

And red wherso thow be, or elles songe,

That thow be understonde, God I biseche![28]

In Book I, we find the narrator in a position of power, and ourselves subjected to his telling of the story. Here, it is evident that that power dynamic has changed. The narrator now recognizes how far his story depends on its future reception: a future he has no control over. This poem can be miscopied, misspoken, and misunderstood by its readers. As such, the narrator’s perspective on the future reaches its limit at the end of the text itself. Once the last word is written, the narrator no longer has an influence over the story. The future of the work cannot be determined, it can only be predicted, because it has yet to be past. While the narrator determines the future of their text, that text is already past, which is to say that it is already complete. By acknowledging the world outside the text, the narrator recognizes also the instability of his authority. He relinquishes this power to the reader, who is now responsible for taking his text into the undetermined future.

However, the very end of Troilus and Criseyde transcends these future perspectives and their limitations through Troilus’s ascension to heaven. Troilus transcends the narrative, and disrupts the narrative progress outlined at the outset of the poem. The narrator’s “matere” was about Troilus’s “double sorwes,” where he goes “fro wo to wele, and after out of joie” (I. 4). Therefore, the implied narrative closure would be effective at the death of Troilus. That is the consummation of the tragedy. That is the ultimate end of his sorrows, yet the poem continues onto a bizarre sequence where Troilus ascends “up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere” (V. 1809). The strangeness of this section is due to the uneasy relation to the rest of the poem. There is no previous indication in the Troilus that this scene is within its narrative scope. Suddenly, we are taken to a place that we have not been theoretically or textually prepared for. In heaven, Troilus exists outside time, without distention. All the rules and the operations of time heretofore experienced are obsolete. There is no need for strategy or prophecy, or even narrative, because “in the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future.”[29] Eternity is an eternal present that is in a complete stasis. In Nietzsche’s phraseology, he has ceased becoming and is instead being. This, in effect, reinforces the notion that “this world … passeth soone as floures faire.”[30] The world, temporally-bound, is subject to vanity and variation. The future is a concept only useful to mortals, and not to the eternal denizens of heaven. Our preoccupation with the future is a result of our limitations: limitations that seem intrinsically tied to the idea of original sin. In eternity, Troilus transcends worldly tragedy.

The poet resolves the instability of the future – its unknowability and inalterability – by assimilating his poem into the divine stasis of heaven. Although it initially limits its scope to earthly matters, Troilus can only reconcile itself with tragedy through an appeal to an order greater than itself. Because the appeal to the divine ordo supersedes the individual perspectives of the future, it induces that multitude of voices ex pluribus unum. This unity is not achievable on the earthly sphere, and thus requires a relinquishment of the narrative to God.

Conclusion: “He Do Time in Different Voices”

An analysis of different perspectives of the future in Troilus and Criseyde has illuminated the multifaceted the experience of time present in the poem. One of Troilus’s great qualities is its integration of sundry influences, so perhaps myriad embodiments of time are unsurprising. Yet, the way in which the poem can naturally embody such perspectives through its characters is certainly an achievement. Saint Augustine’s writings about time provides a conceptual framework that would have been familiar to a medieval poet. Although the Confessions introduce a theoretical context for the poem, the limitation of this method is that it prescribes a certain interpretation of it. While Augustine’s thoughts are very compatible with Chaucer’s realization of the psychology of time, in focusing on the former, this argument perhaps lost its ability to explore time’s non-psychological manifestations. Michel de Certeau provides a more contemporary theoretical counterpoint, and can thus invite a different (spatial) interpretation of time. However, using only one instance of contemporary theory sometimes threatens to stand out like a sore thumb.

Additionally, the course of this paper required a sincere reading of the final stanzas of Troilus. Because our focus was on the multiplicity of future-perspectives and the limitations of those perspectives, Troilus’s ascension to heaven was most easily read as a transcendence of these perspectives and limitations. Augustine’s thinking, furthermore cements this interpretation by emphasizing the disparity between human and divine time. The assumption of Troilus, in this way, marks the final reconciliation of temporal disunity: time itself is transcended by a heavenly order. This reading, however, represses the fundamental discontinuity of the poem’s conclusion. The strangeness of those concluding stanzas, and the way in which they overhastily unify the poem, resists any definitive reading. This abrupt interjection of divine time functions as a deus ex machina. It is as if the only possibly satisfying resolution to the multifarious temporal perspectives is an invocation of the divine order. This ending becomes suspect exactly because of this tidiness. Its resistance to a consistent interpretation is a result of this last-minute promotion of an ideological and temporal unity, which comes at the close of a long poem that otherwise envelops itself in different voices. It is therefore possible to read Chaucer’s conclusion as an ironic conceit.

The focus on futurity in this paper has perhaps promoted a manner of tunnel-vision, where temporality is isolated from other aspects in the poem, such as the intersection of temporality with the social determinants of the characters or with prosodic elements of the poem. The benefit, however, of focusing merely on the future is that this paper is able to emphasize the multiplicity of perspectives within even only one temporal frame. The future is not one monolithic concept in Troilus and Criseyde; the poem contains many points of view regarding it. The indeterminacy of what is yet to be is evident in its protean operation. My close reading of the poem, through its focus on one textual aspect, has sought to emphasize Troilus’ integral formlessness. Thematic and theoretical conclusions can be made from the poem, but detailed analysis reveals that those conclusions sit side-by-side with other mutually exclusive ideas. The poem does not create a dogmatic edifice, but rather illuminates the inter-action of Time: its indistinct form, operation, and reception. Troilus and Criseyde is a text that cannot be reduced to just one thing, and as such, our understanding of this poem will never be quite complete.  The more we pull at its strands, the further we become absorbed in its fascinating complexities.

Tyler Jones, New York University, New York 

Tyler Jones is currently finishing his Master of Arts at New York University, where he is writing a thesis on the use of style as an epistemological advocate in Ezra Pound and William Faulkner. His interests are in transhistorical conceptions of irony, literary abstraction, and the phenomenology of time.


[1]  For further reading on the intricate structure of Troilus and Criseyde, see Robert M. Jordan’s Chaucer and the Shape of Creation: The Aesthetic Possibilities of Inorganic Structure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967). Also see C. David Benson’s Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990). .

[2] I would like to thank Dr. Paul Strohm for his invaluable advice and suggestions in the writing of this article, and furthermore for his essay “Chaucer’s Troilus as Temporal Archive” from Theory and the Premodern Text (University of Minnesota Press, 2000),
Other essays on the subject of Chaucer and temporality include John M. Ganim’s “Tone and Time in Chaucer’s Troilus,” ELH 43, no. 2 (1976): 141-53,; and David Williams’s “Distentio, Intentio, Attentio: Intentionality and Chaucer’s Third Eye,” Florilegium 15 (1998), 37-59. Dr. Ganim’s tracking of the way the reader experiences the poem’s tone shifts along the axis of time. An instability of the text, in his reading, results from the poem’s tonal progression: the reader cannot acclimate themselves to a single tone or aesthetic point of view. Williams’s article provides an exegesis on Augustine’s Book XI of Confessions which he then associates with the idea of “transcendent intentionality (p. 50). The third eye, according to Williams, “is a symbol of intellect itself” (p. 48), and therefore is a figure of Criseyde’s inability to surmount the past’s determination of future events.

[3] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 230.

[4] Ibid., p. 233..

[5] Ibid., p. 234.

[6]  Ibid., p. 235.

[7]  Ibid., p. 234..

[8]  Ibid., p. 235..

[9]  Ibid., p. 240. [inde mihi visum est nihil esse aliud tempus quam distentionem] .

[10]  The exact meaning of St. Augustine’s phrase has been the source of much academic discourse. See especially Thomas L. Humphries Jr.’s “Distentio Animi: praesens temporis, imago aeternitatis,” Augustinian Studies 40:1 (2009), pp. 75–101. Dr. Humphries writes convincingly against an interpretation of “distentio animi” as meaning something like a neoplatonic world-spirit. Refer also to Burcht Pranger’s “Augustine and the Silence of the Sirens.” The Journal of Religion 91, no. 1 (2011): 64-77, .

[11] Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde I.1-5, in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edition, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 473.

[12] Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1984), p. 73.

[13] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde I.19-20, p. 473.

[14] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde I.52-56, p. 474.

[15] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2013), p. 35.

[16] Ibid., p. 36 [source’s italics]

[17] Ibid.

[18] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde II.960-963, p. 502.

[19] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde II.925-931, p. 502.

[20]Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde II.932-3, p. 502.

[21] “Troilus and Criseyde,” Riverside Chaucer, p. 502

[22] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.1233-1241, p. 576.

[23] “Cassandra,” in Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, ed. John Roberts, (Oxford University Press, 2007).

[24] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.1513, p. 580.

[25] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde I.71-75, p. 474.

[26] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.1535, p. 580.

[27] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.402-406, p. 565.

[28] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.1793-1798, p. 584.

[29] Augustine, Confessions, p. 230.

[30] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.1841, p. 584.