A Double Version: Lavinia Greenlaw

I’ve neglected this blog for the past month while I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed with other poetry stuff: some great poems have started to come in for Rewiring History (and there’s still time to submit yours up until the 30th June); work on November’s poem/painting collaboration with artist Nick Maitland is progressing apace; and I’ve been busy revising the libretto for a children’s opera with composer Philip Sunderland (who has also just won an Olivier award for conducting ETO’s Paul Bunyan – congratulations, Philip).

The flip side of all this activity is that I’ve built up a backlog of books to review, and Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow is the one that’s been tugging at me most insistently. On one level it is a reworking of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: the book’s title comes from Chaucer’s poem (“The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen”); its verse form is a pared-down homage to Chaucer’s rime royal (a “corrupt version”, as Greenlaw has it in the introduction); and the story follows the same narrative arc. But this new poem is also an interrogation of Chaucer’s original; a demolition, a mutation, a fabulous re-fashioning. It emerges from the gaps between Chaucer’s own stanzas and the omissions in his narrative. It is a deeply complex, multi-layered modern poem.

Where Chaucer uses rime royal as the building block for a complex narrative, Greenlaw sets each of her seven-line stanzas in isolation on a single page. Instead of connecting one to the other, each is a vignette – often a single moment or emotion; or else a dislocated fragment of narrative, and each with its own discrete title. Many of the stanza-vignettes deliberately slip to the side of the action, describing the moment after or around a key event and leaving marginal notes at the bottom to tell the basic story (a device from which Greenlaw teases wonderful levels of nuance, allowing the bottom-of-the-page notes to offset or undercut the main poem – as if the marginal notes in the Ancient Mariner suddenly started trying to pull the poem in a different direction).

Each stanza is also referenced back to the corresponding passage in Chaucer’s original (and/or Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, Chaucer’s own source). This not only allows up to five elements to play off each other at once (the title, the stanza, the maginal notes, the Chaucer source and the Boccaccio source can all tell subtly different stories), but can cause the text to shimmer with instability and contradiction. The following stanza is titled “She turns the colour of the morning air” and foot-noted “Criseyde reddens”:

This is it? My great good luck?
Were I misguided enough to declare a passion
For a man of royal blood, for any man
Given who I am, you would be merciless
And I would be a laughing stock.
What is this painted process?
You call this a happy ending. In what version?

The references for this stanza point to the following eighteen lines in Chaucer:

For of this world the feith is al agoon!
Allas! What sholden straunge to me doon,
Whan he, that for my beste freend I wende,
Ret me to love, and sholde it me defende?

`Allas! I wolde han trusted, doutelees,
That if that I, thurgh my disaventure,
Had loved other him or Achilles,
Ector, or any mannes creature,
Ye nolde han had no mercy ne mesure
On me, but alwey had me in repreve;
This false world, allas! Who may it leve?

`What? Is this al the Ioye and al the feste?
Is this your reed, is this my blisful cas?
Is this the verray mede of your beheste?
Is al this peynted proces seyd, allas!
Right for this fyn? O lady myn, Pallas!
Thou in this dredful cas for me purveye;
For so astonied am I that I deye!’

Greenlaw’s poem cuts the majority of Criseyde’s original argument (using 55 words vs Chaucer’s 140, and most of them new), but the original is still there in the background. The poetic title “She turns the colour of the morning air” is undercut (or at least offset) by the prosaic note “Criseyde reddens”. The “painted process” is carried over from Chaucer, but reads more like a knowing allusion than something that got preserved in translation (since Greenlaw is quite explicitly making a new poem rather than a version of Chaucer). If this virtual palimpsest isn’t complex enough, you can head to the library and look up Chaucer’s own source in Boccaccio to compare all three. In the light of which, Greenlaw’s wonderful closing line (“You call this a happy ending. In what version?”) becomes not just a metatextual flourish but a direct challenge to the reader (and somewhere just out of sight we are dimly aware not only of Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s “versions”, but Shakespeare’s, Henryson’s, and the original Chryseis and Briseis in the Iliad).

If this makes A Double Sorrow sound like some kind of academic intertextual game then the experience of reading it is anything but. The first few times I read it without bothering with the references at all, before dusting down my undergraduate Riverside Chaucer (last seen in action sometime in the mid-1990s) to see what Greenlaw had done with specific bits of her source material. But you could happily read – and be enchanted by – the book without referencing Chaucer or Boccaccio at all. As a fresh, modern, standalone English poem it is wonderful. The poem is shaped from two hundred stanza-vignettes, each one a stop-frame emotional moment. Imagine an expressionist film of a cubist painting of the original narrative, producing a story where all of the tiny individual episodes have been extracted and laid side-by-side to form a time-less sequence. The result is both deeply moving and strangely detached – and stunningly good. We are in the story and yet out of it, dislocated in the centre of Boethius’s wheel but still moved by what we see. Here is the moment of Troilus’s death (“When Achilles comes across the crazed prince / And slits his throat / Almost as an afterthought”), under the title “What he notices”:

How lightly his spirit escapes his body
And lifts into infinite space.
How clearly he can now see
The scale and alignment of all things
And that this is the music
That has lain for so long
Beyond him.

Ultimately it is this double clarity – of vision and of writing – that makes A Double Sorrow stick in the mind long after the footnotes and references are forgotten. Not once in the book does Greenlaw strain after an emotion or effect: the tone is perfectly-judged throughout. And the poetry is simply magical.

Enough: please go to a bookshop and buy this wonderful litel bok.

A Double Sorrow, Lavinia Greenlaw, Faber & Faber

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One thought on “A Double Version: Lavinia Greenlaw

  1. Ailsa Holland

    Great review. I’m a reader and fan of Chaucer and particularly of Troilus and Criseyde and thus was looking forward to A Double Sorrow but also a little nervous about it. But I agree with you: a wonderful book of poems which are enhanced by the intertextualities you refer to.

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