The Testament of Cresseid
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Yit nevertheles within myne oratur
I stude, quhen Titan had his bemis bricht
Withdrawin doun and sylit under cure,
And fair Venus, the bewtie of the nicht,
Uprais and set unto the west full richt
Hir goldin face, in oppositioun
Of God Phebus, direct discending doun.
The poem begins with a bit of scene setting. In the first few verses Henryson employs pathetic fallacy – a common literary device where agents external to the narrator influence the narrator’s mind – usually weather. So in the first verse we’re told that it’s a dismal season - sometime in the middle of spring; the weather is ‘richt fervent’, sending showers of hail from the north that he can barely defend himself against. What state of mind is our narrator in?
But verse 2 sees the skies clearing – enough for him to see Venus rising in the west, and the sun going down in the east. He’s a studious man, our narrator. Look at the company he keeps: Aries, Titan, Venus, Phebus. He might be religious too – an ‘oratur’ can be a prayer room as well as a study.
Throwout the glas hir bemis brast sa fair
That I micht se on everie syde me by;
The northin wind had purifyit the air
And sched the mistie cloudis fra the sky;
The froist freisit, the blastis bitterly
Fra Pole Artick come quhisling loud and schill,
And causit me remufe aganis my will.
The weather’s clearing but it’s still freezing. Maybe the narrator is experiencing a metaphorical clearing too – of the mind? He is enjoying the view by the window but the icy draughts blowing in from the North Pole send him reluctantly deeper into his study.
For I traistit that Venus, luifis quene,
To quhome sum tyme I hecht obedience,
My faidit hart of lufe scho wald mak grene,
And therupon with humbill reverence
I thocht to pray hir hie magnificence;
Bot for greit cald as than I lattit was
And in my chalmer to the fyre can pas.
Thocht lufe be hait, yit in ane man of age
It kendillis nocht sa sone as in youtheid,
Of quhome the blude is flowing in ane rage;
And in the auld the curage doif and deid
Of quhilk the fyre outward is best remeid:
To help be phisike quhair that nature faillit
I am expert, for baith I have assaillit.
Our narrator is drawn to thoughts of love. Seeing Venus rising in the sky has made him think of the Goddess of Love, to whom he once vowed his obedience – he used to be a lover too, as a younger man – but now, age has caught up with him. He is almost moved to pray to Venus, but the freezing cold prevents him and he goes to sit by the fire.
The fire, too, kindles associations. He’s getting old. The flame of desire he once felt is now dull and dead – and the best cure for that is to sit by the fire and keep warm. The ‘physike’ he refers to may well be strong drink – for medicinal purposes, of course.
I mend the fyre and beikit me about,
Than tuik ane drink, my spreitis to comfort,
And armit me weill fra the cauld thairout.
To cut the winter nicht and mak it schort
I tuik ane quair - and left all uther sport -
Writtin be worthie Chaucer glorious
Of fair Creisseid and worthie Troylus.
Leaving aside – for now – his thoughts of love and loss, our narrator settles down by the fire with a drop of the medicinal to keep out the cold. He picks up Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer was the greatest English poet before Shakespeare who lived from around 1342 until 1400. His Troilus and Criseyde tells the story of Criseyde, a Trojan woman who falls in love with Troilus, a soldier in King Priam’s army. She then falls in love with Diomedes, another Greek soldier who is sent to take her to her father, leaving Troilus miserable. The story Troilus and Cressida, set against the background of the Greek – Trojan war, is also the subject of one of Shakespeare’s plays. By basing his poem on the work of the greatest of English poet of his time who in turn took his material from an ancient Greek classic, Henryson establishes himself as a writer in the European tradition.
And thair I fand, efter that Diomeid
Ressavit had that lady bricht of hew,
How Troilus neir out of wit abraid
And weipit soir with visage paill of hew;
For quhilk wanhope his teiris can renew,
Quhill esperance rejoisit him agane:
Thus quhyle in joy he levit, quhyle in pane.
Of hir behest he had greit comforting,
Traisting to Troy that scho suld mak retour,
Quhilk he desyrit maist of eirdly thing,
For quhy scho was his only paramour.
Bot quhen he saw passit baith day and hour
Of hir ganecome, than sorrow can oppres
His wofull hart in cair and hevines.
Our narrator summarises the story of Troilus and Criseyde for us, and we are made certain of the empathy he feels towards Troilus – waiting for his lover to come back, sometimes thinking she will, sometimes (and increasingly more often) thinking she won’t.
Of his distres me neidis nocht reheirs,
For worthie Chauceir in the samin buik,
In gudelie termis and in joly veirs,
Compylit hes his cairis, quha will luik.
To brek my sleip ane uther quair I tuik,
In quhilk I fand the fatall destenie
Of fair Cresseid, that endit wretchitlie.
The narrator thinks he’s told us enough – anyway, we should already be familiar with the story – and he directs us to Chaucer’s original if we’d like to remind ourselves. Not yet ready for bed he opens another book, which tells of what happened to Cresseid – something Chaucer’s tale doesn’t tell us, concerned as it is with the sorrows of Troilus. This book he takes is none other than his own poem, in which he proceeds to tell what happens in it. (There is a bit of a tradition of this in literature – prefaces which tell us that the narrator found a long-forgotten or hidden volume. Edgar Allan Poe does it in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, James Hogg in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justfied Sinner, and more recently Alasdair Gray does it in Poor Things.) The effect created by this device is really to remove the feeling of authorial control, to place the narrator and the reader on an equal footing. As if he’s saying – if we’re both reading this together for the first time, how can I be manipulating how you read this? Henryson wanted his readers to make up their own minds about the moral issues he presented in his poems and this device, to side the reader with the author in the ‘discovery’ of the text, allows him (to an extent) to do this.
Quha wait gif all that Chauceir wrait was trew?
Nor I wait nocht gif this narratioun
Be authoreist, or fenyeit of the new
Be sum poeit, throw his inventioun
Maid to report the lamentatioun
And wofull end of this lustie Cresseid,
And quhat distres scho thoillit, and quhat deid.
Henryson casts a knowing wink at the reader here: I bet it’s all made up, he says,‘by some poet’ (it’s me, and you know it really is me, but let’s pretend) who has decided to tell of the terrible fate suffered by Cresseid. Who knows if it’s true? But ‘true’ in what sense? Henryson, remember, is after moral truth, rather than historical truth.
Quhen Diomeid had all his appetyte,
And mair, fulfillit of this fair ladie,
Upon ane uther he set his haill delyte,
And send to hir ane lybell of repudie
And hir excludit fra his companie.
Than desolait scho walkit up and doun,
And sum men sayis, into the court, commoun.
O fair Cresseid, the flour and A per se
Of Troy and Grece, how was thow fortunait
To change in filth all thy feminitie,
And be with fleschelie lust sa maculait,
And go amang the Greikis air and lait,
Sa giglotlike takand thy foull plesance!
I have pietie thow suld fall sic mischance!
Yit nevertheles, quhat ever men deme or say
In scornefull langage of thy brukkilnes,
I sall excuse als far furth as I may
Thy womanheid, thy wisdome and fairnes,
The quhilk fortoun hes put to sic distres
As hir pleisit, and nathing throw the gilt
Of the, throw wickit langage to be spilt!
Now we’re really into Henryson’s sequel narrative. Taking up the story where Chaucer left off, we learn here that Diomedes got fed up with Cresseid, having had his fill of pleasure from her, and dumps her for another woman. He even goes as far as to issue her with a ‘lybell of repudie’ – the modern equivalent would be a restraining order – so that she stays away from him. Drastic measures! Who deserves that treatment? Now, utterly desolate, Cresseid starts sleeping around, earning a name for herself. Perhaps a living, too – ‘commoun’ also suggests prostitution.
But the narrator takes pity on the plight of Cresseid, blaming wagging tongues (‘wickit langage’) for her reputation.
This fair lady, in this wyse destitute
Of all comfort and consolatioun,
Richt privelie, but fellowschip, on fute
Disagysit passit far out of the toun
Ane myle or twa, unto ane mansioun
Beildit full gay, quhair hir father Calchas
Quhilk than amang the Greikis dwelland was.
Quhen he hir saw, the caus he can inquyre
Of hir cumming: scho said, siching full soir,
"Fra Diomeid had gottin his desyre
He wox werie and wald of me no moir."
Quod Calchas, "Douchter, weip thow not thairfoir;
Peraventure all cummis for the best.
Welcum to me; thow art full deir ane gest!"
Cresseid, utterly miserable, disguises herself and leaves town to go home to her father who welcomes her warmly.
In verses 16 – 20 we learn that her father is the keeper of the temple devoted to Venus and Cupid – gods of love. Afraid of giving people cause to gossip about her Cresseid avoids going to the temple while others are at their prayer, but she goes in secretly to weep bitterly about her fate at the hands of these two gods. As she once abandoned Troilus now she has suffered the same fate at the hands of Diomedes. She is angry too because during her prayers Cupid at one time responded by telling her she would be Troy’s ‘flower of love’. Now, outcast, her ‘seed of love’ that the gods promised her, has not bloomed, but rather perished in the ‘frost’ of her rejection.
Is Cresseid here denying all responsibility for the part she played in her own destiny? Is she right to feel hard done by the gods? Perhaps she is too proud to admit it – this pride may yet cause her more grief. You don’t offend the gods lightly.
Quhen this was said, doun in ane extasie,
Ravischit in spreit, intill ane dreame scho fell,
And be apperance hard, quhair scho did ly,
Cupide the king ringand ane silver bell,
Quhilk men micht heir fra hevin unto hell;
At quhais sound befoir Cupide appeiris
The sevin planetis, discending fra thair spheiris;
Cresseid falls into a dream in which the seven planetary gods come down and sit in judgement of her blasphemy against Venus and Cupid. In verses 22 – 39 Henryson paints some lively alliterative descriptions, terrible and fair,of the planet gods.
For example, in verses 27 and 28 we meet . . .
. . . Mars the god of ire,
Of strife, debait, and all dissensioun,
To chide and fecht, als feirs as ony fyre,
In hard harnes, hewmound, and habirgeoun,
And on his hanche ane roustie fell fachioun,
And in his hand he had ane roustie sword,
Wrything his face with mony angrie word.
Schaikand his sword, befoir Cupide he come,
With reid visage and grislie glowrand ene,
And at his mouth ane bullar stude of fome,
Lyke to ane bair quhetting his tuskis kene;
Richt tuilyeour lyke, but temperance in tene,
Ane horne he blew with mony bosteous brag,
Quhilk all this warld with weir hes maid to wag.
A heavily alliterative desciption seems to suit Mars. It’s almost like we’re being beaten over the head by these repetitive sounds. Later, in verse 40, Cupid puts the charge against Cresseid:
"Lo," quod Cupide, "quha will blaspheme the name
Of his awin god, outher in word or deid,
To all goddis he dois baith lak and schame,
And suld have bitter panis to his meid.
I say this by yone wretchit Cresseid,
The quhilk throw me was sum tyme flour of lufe,
Me and my mother starklie can reprufe,
"Saying of hir greit infelicitie
I was the caus, and my mother Venus,
Ane blind goddes hir cald, that micht not se,
With sclander and defame injurious.
Thus hir leving unclene and lecherous
Scho wald returne in me and my mother,
To quhome I schew my grace abone all uther.
"And sen ye ar all sevin deificait,
Participant of devyne sapience,
This greit injure done to our hie estait
Me think with pane we suld mak recompence;
Was never to goddes done sic violence:
As weill for yow as for my self I say,
Thairfoir ga help to revenge, I yow pray!"
As counsel for the prosecution, Cupid, full of anger at the way Cresseid has blasphemed, appeals to the gods and says that not only has she insulted Venus (his mother) and himself, but the whole of their ‘high estate’- in other words he feels she has undermined their divine authority. He wants Cresseid to be punished and implores his fellow deities to seek revenge on her.
As the highest power of all the gods, Saturn (verses 45-6) gets the last word. He finds her guity and passes sentence:
. . .
"Thy greit fairnes and all thy bewtie gay,
Thy wantoun blude, and eik thy goldin hair,
Heir I exclude fra the for evermair.
"I change thy mirth into melancholy,
Quhilk is the mother of all pensivenes;
Thy moisture and thy heit in cald and dry;
Thyne insolence, thy play and wantones,
To greit diseis; thy pomp and thy riches
In mortall neid; and greit penuritie
Thow suffer sall, and as ane beggar die."
The narrator thinks he has gone too far and wonders if she has deserved this punishment. But Cynthia, who represents the Moon, goes even further:
"Fra heit of bodie I the now depryve,
And to thy seiknes sall be na recure
Bot in dolour thy dayis to indure.
"Thy cristall ene mingit with blude I mak,
Thy voice sa cleir unplesand, hoir, and hoir,
Thy lustie lyre ovirspred with spottis blak,
And lumpis haw appeirand in thy face:
Quhair thow cummis, ilk man sall fle the place.
This sall thow go begging fra hous to hous
With cop and clapper lyke ane lazarous."
Is Cresseid perhaps condemning herself for her actions? Possibly, but in verses 49 – 57 Cresseid awakes from her dream to discover, to her utter horror, that she has indeed become a leper. She calls for her father who shares her distress and they both agree that she should spend the rest of her days in a leper colony. It seems the gods have taken their full and bitter vengeance after all.
Over all the other medieval maladies Henryson could have visited upon Cresseid, his choice of leprosy, as the disease which should afflict Cresseid, is not random. We can read Cresseid’s decaying flesh not only as a fitting (if a little drastic) punishment for her ‘sins of the flesh’, but also as symbolic of her moral decay.
The next section of the poem is subtitled The Complaint of Cressied. In the first seven verses we hear the words of Cresseid herself, lamenting her fate. They are written in a different verse form (nine line verses, rhyming aabaabbab) to further mark the shift in the poem’s focus. As her speech ends, the poem resumes its original form (rhyme royal – seven line verses, rhyming ababbcc). Reading her speech it is difficult not to feel pity, she puts forward a good case. But we also have to weigh her actions against the drastic consequences she suffers. Does she deserve such punishment? Blasphemy, promiscuity – are they really all that bad? What is good? What is bad? Henryson forces us to reflect on our own moral position.
Meanwhile, her former lover, Troilus – the one Cresseid dumped for Diomedes – appears in town at the head of a Trojan garrison returning victorious from the war against the Greeks. Cresseid is out on the street with her cup and rattle with a group of lepers, begging for alms. The lepers shake their cups vigorously to attract the soldiers’ attention.
Then, in verse 70 . . .
. . . to thair cry nobill Troylus tuik heid,
Having pietie, neir by the place can pas
Quhair Cresseid sat, not witting quhat scho was.
Than upon him scho kest up baith hir ene,
And with ane blenk it come into his thocht
That he sumtime hir face befoir had sene,
Bot scho was in sic plye he knew hir nocht;
Yit than hir luik into his mynd it brocht
The sweit visage and amorous blenking
Of fair Cresseid, sumtyme his awin darling.
Na wonder was, suppois in mynd that he
Tuik hir figure sa sone, and lo, now quhy:
The idole of ane thing in cace may be
Sa deip imprentit in the fantasy
That it deludis the wittis outwardly,
And sa appeiris in forme and lyke estait
Within the mynd as it was figurait.
Ane spark of lufe than till his hart culd spring
And kendlit all his bodie in ane fyre;
With hait fewir, ane sweit and trimbling
Him tuik, quhill he was reddie to expyre;
To beir his scheild his breist began to tyre;
Within ane quhyle he changit mony hew;
And nevertheles not ane ane uther knew.
For knichtlie pietie and memoriall
Of fair Cresseid, ane gyrdill can he tak,
Ane purs of gold, and mony gay jowall,
And in the skirt of Cresseid doun can swak;
Than raid away and not ane word he spak,
Pensiwe in hart, quhill he come to the toun,
And for greit cair oftsyis almaist fell doun.
Troylus goes to her not knowing who she is, then suddenly has a flash of recognition – the face that he had once loved is etched so deeply in his mind that even in her greatly transformed and hideous condition he still recognises her. He is moved to great and terrible emotion, but doesn’t say anything – instead he rides off out of town, barely able to stay on his horse, such is his grief.
Cresseid by this time hasn’t recognised him. In the next verse, the lepers gather round Cresseid to receive their share of the money Troylus gave her. When they see how much he left, the lepers praise him for always being so generous to them. Cresseid asks who he was, and on hearing the answer . . .
Stiffer than steill thair stert ane bitter stound
Throwout hir hart, and fell doun to the ground.
Finally, Cresseid realises the truth about herself. At the end of the next three verses she repeats the refrain: "O fals Cresseid and trew knicht Troylus!” She berates herself for her fickle affections, and for her lustful actions and her betrayal of the honest and worthy Troylus. She has learned about love and life – too late, alas! – and shares this new self knowledge with us:
"Lovers be war and tak gude heid about
Quhome that ye lufe, for quhome ye suffer paine.
I lat yow wit, thair is richt few thairout
Quhome ye may traist to have trew lufe agane;
Preif quhen ye will, your labour is in vaine.
Thairfoir I reid ye tak thame as ye find,
For thay ar sad as widdercok in wind.
"Becaus I knaw the greit unstabilnes,
Brukkill as glas, into my self, I say -
Traisting in uther als greit unfaithfulnes,
Als unconstant, and als untrew of fay -
Thocht sum be trew, I wait richt few ar thay;
Quha findis treuth, lat him his lady ruse;
Nane but my self as now I will accuse."
And with that Cresseid’s self-knowledge is complete: no more does she blame the gods for the way her life turned out. The next three verses deal with Cresseid’s acceptance of her fate as she tries to make amends by writing her will – her Testament, of the title.
Quhen this was said, with paper scho sat doun,
And on this maneir maid hir testament:
"Heir I beteiche my corps and carioun
With wormis and with taidis to be rent;
My cop and clapper, and myne ornament,
And all my gold the lipper folk sall have,
Quhen I am deid, to burie me in grave.
"This royall ring, set with this rubie reid,
Quhilk Troylus in drowrie to me send,
To him agane I leif it quhen I am deid,
To mak my cairfull deid unto him kend.
Thus I conclude schortlie and mak ane end:
My spreit I leif to Diane, quhair scho dwellis,
To walk with hir in waist woddis and wellis.
"O Diomeid, thou hes baith broche and belt
Quhilk Troylus gave me in takning
Of his trew lufe," and with that word scho swelt.
And sone ane lipper man tuik of the ring,
Syne buryit hir withouttin tarying;
To Troylus furthwith the ring he bair,
And of Cresseid the deith he can declair.
Quhen he had hard hir greit infirmitie,
Hir legacie and lamentatioun,
And how scho endit in sic povertie,
He swelt for wo and fell doun in ane swoun;
For greit sorrow his hart to brist was boun;
Siching full sadlie, said, "I can no moir;
Scho was untrew and wo is me thairfoir."
Sum said he maid ane tomb of merbell gray,
And wrait hir name and superscriptioun,
And laid it on hir grave quhair that scho lay,
In goldin letteris, conteining this ressoun:
"Lo, fair ladyis, Cresseid of Troy the toun,
Sumtyme countit the flour of womanheid,
Under this stane, lait lipper, lyis deid."
Finally, Henryson gets the last word in and delivers a stern admonition to us readers – especially the ladies . . .
Now, worthie wemen, in this ballet schort,
Maid for your worschip and instructioun,
Of cheritie, I monische and exhort,
Ming not your lufe with fals deceptioun:
Beir in your mynd this schort conclusioun
Of fair Cresseid, as I have said befoir.
Sen scho is deid I speik of hir no moir
So much for keeping the authorial voice out of the way so that we can make up our own minds. The tacked on moral at the end seems to pull us up really abruptly. Don’t screw up your relationships with lies and deception! he tells us. Is that all it comes down to? The way he casually signs off, almost with a wave of the hand seems dismissive not only of Cresseid, but of his readers. That’s it, he seems to say to us, enough said – she’s dead. The end.
This stern, almost preacherly tone he adopts in the final verse seems to undemine the narrator’s earlier voice which was full of pity for Cresseid. Has the narrator made up his mind about her, after hearing the full story? Is she, after all, just another loose woman who got what she deserved? We are forced to take issue with the narrator here – wait a minute, we say, you can’t just close the book here! We don’t think it’s fair – OK, so she made some bad decisions, but she paid for that, she suffered guilt and remorse and self-loathing – isn’t that punishment enough? And, isn’t society to blame somewhere? Why do we judge women so harshly on their moral conduct?
We find ourselves with plenty of questions. It seems perhaps that the device Henryson employed way back at the beginning might still be in operation. Recall that Henryson presented The Testament of Cresseid as a volume he discovers in his study and that we suggested that the purpose for presenting his poem like that may have been to put reader and writer in a similar position. Well, aren’t we now in the position of questioning the narrator’s point of view here – his brisk dismissal of Cresseid in the final verse? Aren’t we now asking questions of the plight of Cresseid? Beyond that – aren’t we now reflecting on our own view of the world? Looking at the bigger picture? This, ultimately, is where Henryson wants to take us. Out of the pages of a book and into the world we inhabit.