Following the enormous and in many ways unexpected success of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in 1999, it may come as little surprise that Faber have begun to ask a selection of Britain’s other leading poets to produce modern versions of some of the equally important mainstays of the early period canon. Ten years on from Heaney, Simon Armitage produced a thoughtful translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which remained admirably faithful to the complex alliteration of the original. Whilst it would have been enough for these new versions to make Old and Middle English poetry available to a wider audience, these translations have also allowed readers familiar with the originals to see these works in a new light. Both poets did this with an injection of local colour. Armitage’s Gawain had a pronounced Yorkshire accent, whilst Heaney, perhaps more controversially, produced a distinctly Irish Beowulf in which one was encouraged to imagine the poet telling the tale to his mates in a Belfast pub.
Faber’s latest installment in this ambitious project is Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow, a new version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The pairing of Chaucer and Greenlaw tantalises. Both poets are Londoners, and share an interest in scientific enquiry. Chaucer had a keen interest in what passed as astronomy in the fourteenth century whilst Greenlaw, hailing from a family of medics and scientists, was the first Artist in Residence at the National Science Museum. However, readers who are expecting a complete modern translation of Chaucer’s poem may be disappointed. Indeed, the title is not Troilus and Criseyde but, rather, A Double Sorrow, which should alert readers that Greenlaw is doing something a little different from Heaney or Armitage. As the publisher’s notes put it, this is “neither a translation nor a version but something new”. Faber characterises this ‘something new’ as a “pinpoint retelling [which has] drawn out the story’s psychological drama through a process of detonation and amplification of image and phrase into original poems”. Each poem is seven lines long, written in a “corrupted version” of Chaucer’s “rime royal”, and corresponding to passages of varying length in the original.Whilst this may indeed be new, it is not always satisfying.
A Double Sorrow falls between two posts, serving neither as an introduction to Chaucer’s poem, nor as a particularly enlightening re-reading. Though some of Greenlaw’s poems may stand on their own merit, for a reader truly to follow the rather oblique narrative thread, in which the characters simply become “He” and “She”, a working knowledge of Chaucer’s poem is required. The line references to the original poem (and occasionally to Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, Chaucer’s own source) certainly help explain the emotions that Greenlaw tries to capture, but one wonders if readers who are unfamiliar with the poem, or at the very least the story of Troilus and Cressida, will gain much from some of Greenlaw’s verses which can, on occasions, seem rather slight. Moreover, by viewing Troilus as the great story of two people “arguing each other in and out of love”, Greenlaw has over-simplified the original. Whilst Chaucer’s sophisticated meta-textual devices are echoed in poems such as “The Art of Poetry”:
If you must do something now write a letter.
I do not have the art and am sure to offend her.
Use fine words but don’t reiterate.
Neither too neat nor too ornate.
Don’t spin argument or put on airs.
Use the right terms. This is love not war.
Let an inkblot fall – like a tear.
these seven lines simply cannot match the complexity and poetic invention of the thirty-eight they are based on. A Double Sorrow lacks the breathtaking scope of the original, and by this I do not mean that it merely shrinks the epic canvas of the Trojan war. In Greenlaw’s hands, Chaucer’s entire epic becomes but a shadow of its former glorious self.
Jodi Anne George