A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde, Lavinia Greenlaw, Faber and Faber, 2014, 240pp, £16.99 (hardback)

The poetic image can involve an appeal to the ear, the tongue or the skin, and yet ever since Walter Pater’s praise for poetry that creates little pictures in the mind, the visual has become the default mode. Ezra Pound had his part to play in this of course, and his energetic advocacy of Imagism can be traced right down to the present.

Pound’s insistence that the most effective image is one cast on ‘the mind’s retina’ is also reflected in his contemporaries’ attitude towards the poetry of the past. When T. S. Eliot praises Dante, for example, it the intensely visual qualities of the Divine Comedy that he admires as opposed to what he calls Milton’s auditory imagination.

Dante was important for Pound too, alongside Shakespeare and, more to the point, that well-known Imagist Geoffrey Chaucer. Perhaps it was Chaucer’s eye for the vivid and unsettling visual detail that drew his attention. That certainly seems to have been one of the attractions for Lavinia Greenlaw: ‘A Double Sorrow’, her magpie retelling of Troilus and Criseyde reinvents the great fourteenth-century epic as a sequence of scintillating fragments that dramatizes modern poetry’s love affair with the eye.

Greenlaw has long been one of the most interesting poets published by the big presses, unafraid to broach scientific ideas or to work conceptually but all the time remaining accessible to the reader. A good example of her range is the way she engages with contemporary theories of perception while evoking perennial issues of love, desire and the affections of the body. It is this combination that is at the heart of a ‘Double Sorrow’. Greenlaw channels Chaucer’s love story through a twentieth-century optic, seizing on the visual aspects of the original and drawing them into alignment with very contemporary anxieties about the fate of human sensibility in a society dominated by the spectacle.

The effect is of a glinting scree of instants and anecdotes, with Chaucer’s poem reduced to 212 seven-line stanzas. At the end of each of these we are given the exact reference in the original, and so the diverse tactics that Greenlaw deploys can be easily traced. Some individual stanzas combine moments relatively distant in Chaucer’s text, others condense long passages of over fifty lines. Others still are relatively faithful line-by-line adaptations, though two of Chaucer’s might be chopped up into seven of Greenlaw’s clipped and sometimes heavily enjambed lines.

One example will serve to give a flavour of all this. The poem ‘Deep in his heart her image is fixed’ and the two preceding it are tied to three consecutive stanzas in Chaucer. These cover the moment at the temple where Troilus sees his lover for the very first time. In the first poem of the sequence, ‘As if already’ Criseyde ‘draws her veil about her face/ and turns away’, and in response Troilus ‘feels the pull of himself/ propelled towards her, outside himself/ If not beside her.’

Two poems later, in the aforementioned ‘Deep in his heart’ the image of the veil returns:

Her veil slips. He looks no further.
His men are forgotten.
His attention folds like a dying star
As he takes her – black and white – to his core.

This makes very free with the original. The business with the veil is completely invented for example, as is the implicit reference to a black and white photograph (not to mention the dying star). But such interpolations bring the poem much closer to contemporary concerns about the visual. The fleeting glimpse in a busy public place that is imprinted on the heart like a photographic negative is a standard of modernist writing, from Baudelaire to Ballard.

By driving Chaucer’s great poem in this direction Greenlaw reinvents Troilus and Criseyde as lovers at the mercy of the image, helplessly goaded onwards towards their fate by shards of fantasy. In doing so she brings Chaucer’s great poem to a fitful, fragmented life which sent this reader back to the original with rejuvenated eyes.

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