A Double Sorrow

Written by Lavinia Greenlaw
Review by Cecelia Holland

This rewarding little book is an ambitious sheaf of verses, each seven lines long, retracing the story of Troilus and Cressida—not Shakespeare’s play, but Chaucer’s late medieval poem, written in seven line stanzas in a rhyme scheme Greenlaw also picks up.

The story of Troilus and Cressida, while part of the Matter of Troy, doesn’t come from the Iliad: a medieval spin-off, as it were. In the late years of the Trojan War, the Trojan prince Troilus falls in love with Cressida, and his friend Pandar helps him lure her into his arms; but then Cressida is packed off to the Greek enemies in a prisoner swap. A practical (or helpless) woman, she takes up with a Greek, breaking Troilus’ heart.

Greenlaw is not retelling this story, so much as hitting the high spots: a kind of lyrical commentary. Where Chaucer is lavish and courtly she is lean, taut, understated. Reading through bit by bit, along with the Chaucer, brings up some stunning contrasts:

Chaucer, from Gutenberg:

Criseyde was this lady name a-right;

As to my dome, in al Troyes citee

Nas noon so fair, for passing every wight

So aungellyk was hir natyf beautee,

That lyk a thing immortal semed she,

As doth an hevenish parfit creature,

That doun were sent in scorning of nature.

Greenlaw:

Her beauty, so bright as to blank our gaze,

Empties the room.

In her presence we know ourselves most

Ordinary. She stands apart, is left alone.

The comparison reveals the two different cultures like a palimpsest: Chaucer is all about angels and heaven and immortals scorning nature, while Greenlaw goes entirely for how Criseyde makes other people feel. A Double Sorrow is a pleasure to read, if a little demanding, and at a time when poetry seems to gasp for life, an affirmation of its old and ongoing power.