Lavinia Greenlaw's fresh take on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde evokes the slipping-away character of love
Lavinia Greenlaw's A Double Sorrow, is a new take on Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. It joins a series from Faber that already includes Alice Oswald's Memorial for the dead of the Iliad, and Daljit Nagra's retelling of the Ramayana, with others in the pipeline. But Chaucer's poem is peculiarly apt for reworking. Written in the 1380s, it was based on Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, which had appeared around 50 years earlier, and whose own sources included the 12th-century French Le Roman de Troie by Benoît of Sainte-Maure. Thus A Double Sorrow pays double homage, both to the story Chaucer tells and to how it was arrived at.
In that story the widowed Trojan noblewoman Criseyde, a traitor's daughter, is wooed by the hero Troilus; or rather, she is procured for him by her uncle Pandarus. Still, they fall in love. But Calchas, Criseyde's father, asks for her to join him in the Greek camp. Once there, she realises that she cannot get back to Troy within 10 days as she has promised Troilus. She gives up, and accepts the Greek warrior who courts her. Eventually the knowledge of this destroys Troilus. It's a dramatic story, but human in the way that equivocation plays a part in the characters' every move. Troilus and Criseyde is a palimpsest within an epic, roughly Homeric canvas. But in it, what matters is the internal world of feelings and decisions, not the outer one of honour code or institution. The poem is one of the earliest works in English to take this "inside-out" approach, now a literary convention.
Greenlaw's account is a sequence of more than 200 poems, each seven lines long and working over three rhymes, loosely in the manner of rime royal. Her introduction points out that this was Chaucer's verse form. A Double Sorrow uses its model with precision. The title itself is taken from Chaucer's opening words: "The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen, […] / My purpos is, ere that I parte fro ye." As this borrowing suggests, Greenlaw sticks close to the arc of her predecessor's story. But she also reads him phrase by phrase, with an accuracy sustained throughout the 8,240 lines. We know this because, below each poem, she gives the line references of the original passages. It's possible to look across at Chaucer and find, for example, how Greenlaw has made "Stories change shape in the telling, / As words alter through long use" out of "Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is change /Within a thousand yeer" early in Book Two; or, midway through Book One, "Thi lady is as frost in winter moone, / And thow fordon [ruined] as snow in fire is soone" into "He gives way like snow flung upon a fire."
A Double Sorrow is not a simple translation. Instead, in an act of imaginative reconstruction, Greenlaw has filleted the original, lifting telling phrases and key narrative moments and making them her own. It's a project of both condensation and translation. Chaucer's bounding pentameter stanzas, and the momentum the accumulating rhyme-pattern creates in each, seem to be "answered" by Greenlaw, for whom seven lines make not merely a stanza, but an entire, free-standing poem. These delicate structures often stand in for lengthy passages of the original. The result evokes the slippery, slipping-away character of love – and also of oral transmission.
The volume the sequence most closely resembles is arguably Anne Carson's version of Sappho, If Not, Winter, which by contrast translates every word and indicates every known missing line, yet which produces a similar effect of poised raptness. Greenlaw's tone has something in common with a Greek chorus. In "Nothing moves", "Things fall as they fall in war. / The wheel tips and the city pushes. / The wheel tips and the Greeks press. / Luck rolls back and forth. / Nothing moves / That does not then move on. / The days pass." It's difficult to escape the twin traps of cynicism and cliche in order to write freshly about romantic love, but A Double Sorrow manages to do so. On the night of the lovers' first tryst, "A scrape of moon in a heaped sky" sets the scene, while on the night of their last, "All she has been made to contain / Has forced such utterance / That what pours forth now is silence."
The unusually generous pages and line-spacing of this elegant book give its poems the room they need to breathe. Greenlaw has spoken about the "words that are deep in the shadows of themselves and so carry a feeling of still emerging 'out of the impenetrable wood'" in her last collection, The Casual Perfect. The words of A Double Sorrow are brought nearer the surface than that by the residual sense they have of being spoken in some Euripidean drama. But they are still shadowed by the mystery that is the mark of real poetry.
• Fiona Sampson's latest collection is Coleshill (Chatto).