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and the Greco-Latin epic during the Middle Ages; and to this instructive study I am greatly indebted for much relating to the traditions of the two lovers, and for still more with respect to the legends of Troy.
The materials for the “Roman de Troie” were almost entirely derived from Dares. In a sort of preface to his narrative, Benoit announces that Dares is his guide, and that he intends following him ; but that still he will not deny himself the pleasure of inserting here and there, as occasion offers, any pretty little fancy that may occur to him.
“Le Latin suivrai et la lettre.
Nulle autre rien n'y voudrai mettre,
The episode of the coquette, Briseida, is one of these pretty little fancies, one of these "bons dits," as he says himself, and forms a welcome interruption to the monotony of a poem of more than thirty thousand lines, in which battle follows battle with wearisome uniformity. For the readers, or rather listeners, in the Middle Ages were full of the childlike and easily satisfied imagination that is one of the most beautiful possessions of early youth, both of individuals and of nations; they never tired of listening to stories, and to stories always the same. Their poets knew nothing of the art of composition, of selecting the essential point of a subject and grouping everything round it as a centre in true perspective, and in proportion to the importance of each detail. They simply followed the whole course of the events themselves, beginning with the very first and ending with the very last. With them every poem was a cycle, and hence arises their tedious length, which we of the present day find so intolerable.
Generally speaking,” writes Sainte-Benne, “the infinite or the indefinite, anything interminable, is the distinguishing mark of these artless compositions. . . . These people have a passion for details and for length. . . Everything unfolds itself and nothing is knit together." It is, therefore, an exceptional piece of good fortune to alight in these immense poems upon a comparatively short episode, complete in itself, which can be detached from the rest of the history, just in the same manner that the loves of Troilus and Cressida, in Shakespeare's play, are independent of the rest of the plot and can easily be separated
The highest place of interest in Benoit's narrative is not occupied by Troilus, of whom the long but insignificant description may be passed over in silence, but the portrait of Briseida calls for closer attention. It is the first sketch of the picture afterwards to be painted by Shakespeare, and what makes it still more remarkable is that it is not only the first sketch, but also the only sketch. The portrait of the young Trojan beauty has been drawn again and again by many different hands, and even by such celebrated poets as Boccaccio and Chaucer, but the essence of its character has undergone such important alterations that the original outline of the old trouvère is the only one amidst all these aftertouches that has any true affinity with the type chosen and fixed by Shakespeare.
“She was very comely,” says Benoit, “neither too little nor too big; she was fairer and whiter and more lovely than any flower of the lily, or snow upon the branch, but her eyebrows had the mischance of meeting. She had wide-open beautiful eyes, and her wit was quick and ready. She was graceful and of demure countenance. She was well-beloved, and could also herself love well, but her heart was changeable. She was of an amorous and simple nature, and in alms-giving
“Of quick and ready wit,” and “a changeable heart," such are the two interesting and novel details in this description, all the rest of which is simply borrowed from Dares. Briseida has now become the daughter of Calchas, and her history is the same as that related by Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida love, and are happy ; but one day Calchas reclaims his daughter, and she is conducted to the Greek camp, where she soon consoles herself with Diomedes for the loss of Troilus. Leaving aside the well-known facts of this little romance, it is to the indications given of her character that attention must here be paid.
Benoit de Sainte-More begins his account at the time when Troilus and Cressida have to part; but it is very difficult to convey in a modern translation any of the quaint grace of the old French story * " Whoever else
be merry and joyous, Troilus is sorely grieved for the daughter of Calchas, for he loved her with all his heart, and she him. And when the damsel knew that she must depart to the Greek camp, she began to make great lamentations! “Alas !' said she, ' what sorrow is mine, that I must leave the land where I was born, and all the people among whom I was brought up, and must go amongst a strange folk! Ah, Troilus ! my own sweet friend, who hast loved me above all things, and whom I have loved with all my heart ; so that I know not how I can live without thee. Ah, King Priam! since it has pleased thee to send me away out of the land where I have had all the good things of life and all its honours, God grant I may not live till day. Come, Death! for that I desire above all things.' Troilus came to her .. and they wept together bitterly and very tenderly, for they well knew that the next day they would be far apart, the one from the other, and perhaps never again might it chance for them to be even as they would together. . . . And they told the one to the other what great grief and sorrow he caused them who thus divided them. . . . And thus they remained until the coming of day. And when Troilus had left, the damsel made ready to depart, and had all her rich treasures and apparel gathered together, to take with her, and then took leave of many, who were sad at her departure.” Then follows a long description of how Cressida was dressed—a detail not without its psychological interest,
* The quotations are taken from a translation into French prose made in the Middle Ages.
for although it is probable that the poet wrote it simply in obedience to the taste of the Middle Ages for interminable enumerations, yet it discloses, unconsciously and instinctively, a feature of the character of the coquette. The absence of conscious intention on the part of a poet, especially in early and primitive times, has never been held by any critic who understood his task aright, as a reason for abstaining from seeking a thousand meanings that the author himself never suspected.*
“The damsel was dressed and apparelled very richly, and wore a mantle that had been made in India with great skill, and with the aid of magic arts. And it was rosy-red and white, and changed its colour many times a day, according to the course of the sun. And a wise poet of India had sent it to Calchas out of great love for him. The fur of the mantle was of great richness and rarity, for it was made of the whole and entire skin, without a seam, of an animal, called dindialos, which inhabits the East. And it was of so many colours, that there is no colour, either in stones or in flowers, that it did not possess. And this animal is caught by a strange kind of people, called Cynocephales, who have heads like unto a dog. ... The hem of the mantle was made from an animal of great price, that lives by the river of the Earthly Paradise, and it was adorned right richly with precious stones. So seemly and beautiful a mantle was never seen before, and it became her well; and with other garments, also, she was daintily arrayed."
Briseida sets out on her way, and here the simplehearted poet feels constrained to give us a warning beforehand, of which the consummate art of Shakespeare had no need, and foretells that the little beauty will prove faithless to Troilus. This precaution on his part is certainly somewhat wanting in dexterity of touch, but at all events, with Benoit de Sainte-More, our attention having been first awakened by certain hints in the description of the young girl's character, and by a knowledge of her sensual tastes, and having then bèen duly warned of her future behaviour, we are not taken by surprise when the catastrophe occurs ;-when one is not a great poet, it may be as well to be fairly logical. But logic and art are alike wanting in Boccaccio and Chaucer; with them, Cressida's unfaithfulness bursts upon the astonished reader like a thunderbolt, without preparation of any kind, and the writers themselves loudly express their own surprise. This amazement on the part of an author at his own narrative bespeaks, perhaps, still less skilful handling than the naïve precautions and somewhat clumsy transitions of earlier poets.
* For the explanation of this paradox, see the beginning of the chapter on Brutus.
“The damsel,” sings the trouvère, “is in despair, but her grief will soon be quieted. Soon she will have forgotten, and her heart be so changed, that she will remember but little about Troy. Though now she mourns, joy will return to her, and she will soon have given her love to one whom she has never yet seen, soon she will be comforted. With women, sorrow lasts but a little while; they weep with one eye and laugh with the other. The hearts of most of them are quick to change, and the wisest of them is giddy enough. All that she has loved for seven years, has she in one day forgotten. Solomon, he who was so full of wisdom, says in his writings, that the man who can find a virtuous woman should praise the Lord: to meet beauty and virtue joined together is a mighty rare thing it seems; a treasure far above precious stones and vessels of gold.”
The coquette, perceiving that she is loved, resolves to play off all her baughty pranks, as in the soliloquy given her by Shakespeare, to increase the ardour of her lover and make her dominion doubly sure.
“ The damsel is full of merriment and joy because she has got him in her net. Fair dames are ever of this nature: if one of them sees you love her, forthwith she begins to show herself proud and haughty."
Briseida is received in the Greek camp as she is in Shakespeare's play.
“Greatly was the damsel praised, and much did the Greeks look at her
· Moult est belle, disent-ils tous.'”