Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Love

By Geoffrey Chaucer


He cast his eye upon Emelya,
And therwithal he bleynte, and cryede 'A!'

For Palamon, it's love at first sight. The second he sees Emily, he's done for. Courtly love, a system of rules surrounding the love of a knight for a noble damsel, talks about the love for a woman striking the heart of a man like a dart.  That's probably why Palamon cries out, "A!" here: to show he's been struck.

This prison caused me nat for to crye,
But I was hurt right now thurgh-out myn ye
Into myn herte, that wol my bane be.
The fairnesse of that lady, that I see
Yond in the gardyn romen to and fro,
Is cause of al my criyng and my wo.

Palamon speaks of his sudden lovesickness for Emily like a poison or "bane."  It has entered through his eye and made its way to its heart, where it will destroy him. Why will it destroy him? Well, in courtly love language it's common to speak of a love as a sickness that causes one to almost die from sadness at not possessing the beloved. (For more on this, check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")

'I noot wher she be womman or goddesse,
But Venus is it, soothly as I gesse.'
And therwithal, on knees doun he fil,
And seyde, 'Venus, if it be thy wil,
Yow in this gardyn thus to transfigure
Bifore me, sorweful wrecched creature,
Out of this prisoun helpe that we may scapen!'

The courtly lover places his lady on a pedestal so high that she is almost more than human. Here, she's a goddess. And to show that this is not just a metaphor or a manner of speaking, Palamon even prays to Venus, the goddess of love, to help him escape from prison.

And with that word Arcite gan espye
Wher-as this lady romed to and fro,
And with that sighte hir beautee hurte hym so,
That, if that Palamon was wounded sore,
Arcite is hurt as moche as he, or moore.

Arcite's love for Emily strikes him in just like it struck Palamon – Emily's beauty has wounded his heart.  The similarity between Palamon and Arcite's love for Emily makes deciding who should get her all the more difficult.  It's not like one knight deserves her more because of his greater love for her, despite what the knights might believe. (For more on this, check out "Characters: Palamon and Arcite.")

And with a sigh he seyde pitously
'The fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly
Of hire, that rometh in the yonder place,
And but I have hir mercy and hir grace
That I may seen hir atte leeste weye,
I nam but deed, ther is namoore to seye.'

Arcite makes use of all the courtly love conventions in this depiction of his love for Emily. It slays, or kills him. If the lover refuses to take pity on him, the lover will die. Courtly love, then, is a very dramatic (maybe more like melodramatic) way of talking about love.

And now thou woldest falsly been aboute
To love my lady, whom I love and serve
And evere shal, til that myn herte sterve.
Nay, certes, false Arcite, thow shalt nat so!
I loved hire first, and tolde thee my wo.

In a somewhat childish move, Palamon chooses the "I saw her first" school of argument. His declaration that he will love and serve Emily eternally may seem like a huge commitment to someone he hasn't even met.  Then again, this kind of immediate devotion is part of the conventions of the courtly love system.

'Thow shalt,' quod he, 'be rather fals than I.
But thou art fals, I telle thee outrely,
For paramour I loved hir first er thow.
What, wiltow seyn thou wistest nat yet now
Wheither she be a womman or goddesse?
Thyn is affeccioun of hoolynesse,
And myn is love, as to a creature.'

Arcite tries to get the upper hand on Palamon by holding out Palamon's portrayal of Emily as a goddess as evidence of spiritual worship rather than love. Of course, as we students of the courtly love conventions now know, to place one's lover on a pedestal is actually evidence of true love. Part of the point of courtly love is that a person's reverence for his beloved blurs the boundaries between human and divine. In other words, sorry Arcite, that argument won't hold water in the court of courtly love.

So muche sorwe hadde nevere creature,
That is, or shal whil that the world may dure.
His slep, his mete, his drynke is hym biraft,
That lene he wex and drye as is a shaft.
Hise eeyen holwe and grisly to biholde,
His hewe falow and pale as asshen colde;
And solitarie he was and ever allone
And waillynge al the nyght, makynge his mone
And shortly turned was al up so doun
Bothe habit and eek disposicioun
Of hym, this woful lovere daun Arcite.
(500-507; 519-521)

This passage is significant because it gives the classic portrait of a courtly lover separated from the beloved. Unable to sleep, eat, or drink, the lover turns pale and hollow-eyed, and spends most of his time moping about the separation. He is so "up so doun," or upset, by this separation, both physically and emotionally, that even his closest friends hardly know him. This is lovesickness in its classic form.

'The God of love, a benedicite!
How myghty and how greet a lord is he!
Ayeyns his myght ther gayneth none obstacles,
He may be cleped a god for his myracles,
For he kan maken at his owene gyse
Of everich herte as that hym list divyse.'

Theseus says that love has the power to bend every heart to its will. Palamon and Arcite are prime examples of this because they are willing to break their oath of sworn brotherhood and, in Arcite's case, risk death in order to win their beloved. Thus they demonstrate the way in which love trumps every other consideration.

'Se how they blede! Be they noght wel arrayed?
Thus hath hir lord, the God of Love, ypayed
Hir wages and hir fees for his servyse!
And yet they wenen for to been ful wyse,
That serven love, for aught that may bifalle!'

Theseus gently mocks the lovers at the same time as he portrays the god of love as a cruel taskmaster. They've paid this god with their own blood.  Theseus asks: Is the man who faithfully serves such a lord truly wise?

But all moot ben assayed, hoot and cold;
A man moot ben a fool, or yong or oold;
I woot it by myself ful yore agon,
For in my tyme a servant was I oon.
And therfore, syn I knowe of loves peyne,
And woot how soore it kan a man distreyne,
As he that hath been caught ofte in his laas,
I yow foryeve al hoolly this trespaas.

Now the service of love is the action that unites all humanity, however foolish it may be. Having suffered lovesickness himself, Theseus decides to grant the two knights mercy. In this, he proves himself to be in agreement with Arcite, who declared love to be a higher law than all others.

First in the temple of Venus maystow se
Wroght on the wal, ful pitous to biholde,
The broken slepes and the sikes colde,
The sacred teeries and the waymentynge,
The firy strokes, and the desirynge
That loves servantz in this lyf enduren;
The othes that her covenantz assuren.

This passage raises an interesting question: how can all the symptoms of love sickness – the sighs, the tears, the lamenting – be portrayed on a wall? The passage later suggests that this portrayal is accomplished through depictions of the stories of various lovers, both ill-fated and successful.

Thus may ye seen, that wysdom ne richesse,
Beautee ne sleighte, strengthe ne hardynesse,
Ne may with Venus holde champartie,
For as hir list, the world than may she gye.
Lo, alle thise folk so caught were in hir las,
Til they for wo ful ofte seyde 'allas!'

This passage confirms Theseus's depiction of love as the object that trumps all others: not even wisdom, riches, beauty, deception, strength, or endurance can win out over love. The examples on the wall of Venus's temple prove this through telling the stories of those who gave up everything for love, some without successfully winning it.