Anelida and Arcite

Anelida and Arcite
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1378)
   One of CHAUCER’s most unusual works,Anelida and Arcite is a curious and clearly experimental combination of narrative and lyric, in which the English poet seems to have been trying to find an effective way of combining the lyrical love COMPLAINT of his French models, like Guillaume de MACHAUT, with his newfound passion for Italian narrative poetry, particularly as found in BOCCACCIO’s TESEIDA.Most critics have found the lyric portion of the text far more successful than the narrative.
   The poem begins with not one but two epicstyle invocations, the first to Mars and Bellona (Roman god and goddess of war), the second to the muses, asking for their help in telling the story of Queen Anelida and her false lover Arcite. A narrative of about 200 lines follows, which Chaucer claims to be taking from Statius, author of the Latin Thebaid, and from an unknown (and probably spurious) poet named Corrine. In fact, he bases the first part of the narrative on the Teseida, describing Theseus’s triumphant return from battling the Amazons, then switches the scene to Thebes, where Anelida, queen of Armenia, is wooed and then abandoned by the false Arcite—a name Chaucer also borrowed from a completely different character in the Teseida. No source has been found for this story, which was probably Chaucer’s own invention.
   This Chaucer follows with an elaborate “Complaint,” nearly as long as the narrative, in which Anelida laments her desertion by the false Arcite. The poem consists of a Proem, a Strophe, an Antistrophe, and a Conclusion. The Proem and Conclusion are in exactly the same verse form, while the Strophe and Antistrophe precisely parallel one another, and the poem ends with a line that echoes its beginning. Praised for its metrical versatility, the “Complaint” has also been admired as a realistic exploration of a mind disturbed by grief. A final stanza in which Anelida goes to the Temple of Mars follows the complaint, but the poem abruptly breaks off after this. Most critics have therefore assumed that the poem is unfinished, and some have made conjectures about what the poem would have been had Chaucer completed it (James Wimsatt suggests that a long lyric of comfort would have balanced Anelida’s lament; Michael Cherniss that the poem would have moved into a DREAM VISION). However, as John Norton-Smith has pointed out, only half of the eight surviving manuscripts of the poem contain the final stanza, and it may well be a later scribal addition. If Chaucer meant to end the poem after the “Complaint,” this poem has precisely the same structure as another of Chaucer’s short poems, the “Complaint of Mars.” Like that poem, Chaucer’s concern seems to have been to place the conventional, universal concerns of the traditional lover’s complaint into a narrative context that would give it some specificity.
   Ultimately most readers have found the poem unsatisfactory. The extremely complex verse form shows Chaucer at his lyrical best, though he never attempts so elaborate a form again in any of his shorter poems. Certainly the brief love narrative is disappointing after the epic machinery that begins it, though it gave Chaucer practice in writing the kind of short tale of a woman abandoned in love that filled his later LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN. The use of lyric within narrative that Chaucer practices here is a technique that Chaucer ultimately perfects in TROILUS AND CRISEYDE. If Anelida and Arcite is an experiment, it is one that bears valuable fruit later on in Chaucer’s career.
   ■ Aaij, Michel. “Perverted Love in Chaucer’s ‘Anelida and Arcite,’ ” Medieval Perspectives 14 (1999): 13–19.
   ■ Cherniss, Michael D. “Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite: Some Conjectures,” Chaucer Review 5 (1970): 9–21.
   ■ David, Alfred.“Recycling Anelida and Arcite: Chaucer as a Source for Chaucer,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer: Proceedings 1 (1984): 105–115.
   ■ Favier, Dale A. “Anelide and Arcite: Anti-Feminist allegory, Pro-Feminist Complaint,” Chaucer Review 26 (1991): 83–94.
   ■ Gillam,Doreen M. E.“Lovers and Riders in Chaucer’s ‘Anelida and Arcite,’ ” English Studies 63 (1982): 394–401.
   ■ Minnis, A. J., V. J. Scattergood and J. J. Smith. The Shorter Poems. Oxford Guides to Chaucer.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
   ■ Norton-Smith, John. “Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite,” in Medieval Studies for J. A.W. Bennett, edited by P. L. Heyworth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981, 81–99.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “Many a Song and Many a Leccherous Lay”: Tradition and Individuality in Chaucer’s Lyric Poetry. New York: Garland, 1992.
   ■ Wimsatt, James I. “Anelida and Arcite: A Narrative of Complaint and Comfort,” Chaucer Review 5 (1970): 1–8.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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