To what extent should the planetary gods be blamed for Cresseid's downfall in Henryson's "Testament of Cresseid"? - English Literature Essay Example

Here, the problem is posed as to how far the planetary gods can be seen as responsible for the infliction of leprosy and ultimately the death of the poem’s heroine, Cresseid, the beautiful yet unfaithful lover of the Trojan knight Troilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to which this poem is a sequel - To what extent should the planetary gods be blamed for Cresseid's downfall in Henryson's "Testament of Cresseid"? introduction. However, it might be questioned whether the planetary gods can be blamed at all for Cresseid’s downfall.

The poem outlines how Cresseid, rejected by her lover Diomede, blasphemes against Venus, the goddess of love, and her son Cupid. She then falls into a swoon in which she dreams that she observes a counsel of the planetary gods as they decide her punishment, and when she awakes she looks in the mirror to find she has been inflicted with leprosy:


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. . . than rais scho vp and tuik

Ane poleist glas, and hir schaddow culd luik;

And quhen scho saw hir face sa deformait,

Gif scho in hart was wa aneuch, God wait! (lines 347-350)

Nevertheless, it could be argued that Cresseid deserves such a cruel punishment for her arrogance in refusing to accept responsibility for her own actions, instead blaming the gods; it would almost certainly have been understood by a medieval audience that the planets represented their creator and controller; that is, the God of Christianity. Thus Cresseid is guilty of blasphemy and deserves a harsh penalty, a fact which even she acknowledges towards the end of the poem, though she has blamed everyone but herself previously, remarking Nane but my self as now I will accuse (line 574).

Furthermore, it is hinted in the text that after her rejection by Diomede, Cresseid becomes a prostitute (Than desolait scho walkit vp and doun,/And sum men sayis, into the court, commoun. [lines 76-77]). In the middle ages, leprosy was commonly regarded as a sexually transmitted disease; hence it can be seen that Cresseid may have contracted leprosy through her prostitution, and consequently her downfall is directly caused by her own carnal sins.

In spite of this, it has also been argued that the planetary gods are unnecessarily harsh in their punishment of Cresseid. She has been shamed and rejected by her lover, forced to return in secret to her father’s house, and it is natural that, having had a rough time and feeling angry and upset, she should look around for someone to blame other than herself; this causes her to cry out against the gods of love. The fact that the gods, in their own egotistical self-importance, are unwilling to be more understanding of human nature and forgive Cresseid’s trespass might suggest that their punishment of her is both capricious and cruel. Mercury unsympathetically appoints Saturn, the most hostile of all the gods towards mankind, and Cynthia the moon, who adopts the characteristics of the planet she is with (i.e. Saturn), to sentence Cresseid to the living death of leprosy.

It is certain that the poet’s narrator feels that the gods are overly harsh towards Cresseid; he remarks:

O cruell Saturne, fraward and angrie,

Hard is thy dome and to malitious!

On fair Cresseid quhy hes thow na mercie,

Quhilk was sa sweit, gentill and amorous?

Withdraw thy sentence and be gracious –

As thow was neuer; sa schawis th[rough] thy deid,

Ane wraikfull sentence geuin on fair Cresseid. (lines 323-329)

However, it can be questioned where the poet’s sympathies truly lie, and what his moral message is in writing the poem. It is not necessarily the case that the persona of the narrator is equivalent to that of the poet, just as Chaucer’s narrator differs from the poet himself in The Canterbury Tales. The narrator of the Testament might rather be seen as a parallel to the heroine; he describes himself as a servant of Venus, yet he is now too old and impotent to enjoy the physical act of love. Like Cresseid at the start of the poem, he is superficial and materialistic, equating love with lust just as Cresseid does. His pity for Cresseid rests on her misfortune in losing her good looks and physical comforts.

However, while the character of Cresseid changes and develops throughout the poem, the narrator does not, and in the later part of the poem he disappears, ceasing to make personal comments on Cresseid’s misfortune. It can be observed, therefore, that the narrator is not an accurate representation of the poet but rather a device; his outcry against the gods can be interpreted as an ironic statement to emphasise the foolishness and superficiality of both Cresseid and the narrator, in which case the poet can be viewed as condemning Cresseid and condoning the judgment of the gods. However, it is my opinion that the narrator serves as a point of contrast; by paralleling him with Cresseid at the start of the poem, the author further emphasises the change in her character and values by the time of her death at the poem’s conclusion.

In dealing with the subject of the pagan gods represented in this poem, it is necessary to consider not only their position within the poem but also their wider significance; that is, their symbolic purpose and how far they can be seen as representing the God of Christianity. The poem was directed towards a medieval Christian audience, who would have understood that these pagan gods represented the planets, which were created and aligned by God, and thus represent God himself.

This not only makes Cresseid’s blasphemy a more serious matter, it also brings controversy to the question of blame; if the poem’s purpose is to condemn the gods for their harsh treatment of Cresseid, which the narrator’s outcry against the gods, if taken at face value, might suggest, the entire poem could be viewed as a criticism of the unfairness and caprice of divine “justice”, and thus is itself a work of blasphemy. However, it is my opinion that this is not the case. Rather than condemning divine justice, I would argue that the moral message of the poem is that it is impossible to understand the ways of the divine, but these always work out ultimately for the benefit of those involved.

In order to explain this concept it is first necessary to define what is meant by the “downfall” of Cresseid. In the question given, it is suggested that this refers to her contracting of leprosy followed by her death; that is, a purely physical downfall. It can certainly be seen, then, that this physical downfall is the fault of the gods, since they are responsible for inflicting Cresseid with leprosy, although it is her blasphemy which causes them to do so. However, I would suggest that more important than this physical downfall is the moral and emotional downfall which Cresseid undergoes, a downfall which took place even before her blasphemy and contraction of leprosy; her unfaithfulness to her lover Troilus in the fifth book of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, followed by her rejection by Diomede and descent into prostitution at the start of the poem, indicates the decline of Cresseid’s virtue.

If one considers this interpretation of Cresseid’s “downfall”, it can be seen that the gods punished Cresseid wisely; by depriving her of her physical, earthly possessions – her good looks, her comfortable home and nice food, the lack of which she bemoans on first entering the leper-house – she eventually comes to recognise the transience and triviality of these things, just as Troilus does after his death at the end of Chaucer’s poem, and achieves a greater understanding of Self.

Her rejection of material things at the poem’s conclusion can be observed through her actions – her generosity in her will, for example – and also through her words as she acknowledges the virtue of her Troilus, her spurned lover; she sets herself up as an example to Trojan and Greek women where before she would not acknowledge her identity, shamed into going in secret to her father’s house after her rejection by Diomede and later to the leper-house; and finally accepts what before she could not, her own responsibility for what has happened. She ends by making peace with the gods, commending her soul to Diana, the goddess of chastity:

My spreit I leif to Diane, quhair scho dwellis,

To walk with hir in waist woddis and wellsi. (lines 587-588)

I would argue, therefore, that no blame can be placed on the gods for what in the true sense of the word can be called Cresseid’s downfall – that is, her moral decline – since it happened before their interference. Rather, though their punishment of her with leprosy at first seems harsh, the gods are ultimately responsible, through this same punishment, for implementing Cresseid’s redemption.

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