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A Double Sorrow review 'Shadowed by the mystery of real poetry'

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.

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