The Trouthe / Routhe Rhyme in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde
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The Trouthe / Routhe Rhyme in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Set amidst the buffets and blows of the pagan world, trouthe stands impeachable throughout Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. It also rarely stands alone. It occurs fifty-four times in the poem, and on eighteen of these occasions Chaucer sets it at the end of a line and obliges it to rhyme with routhe. As several critics have noticed, routhe and trouthe coexist and touch upon one another nowhere as extensively in Chaucer’s work as in Troilus. Marie Borroff writes that “this final linking of the words trouthe and routhe underscores yet again the relationship between faithfulness and compassion that is essential to the meaning of the poem.” 1 In her larger argument about Criseyde’s routhe, Kate Bauer takes up the significance of the rhyme only when the word routhe is in Criseyde’s mouth. 2 Most extensively, Myra Stokes discusses it as one of the key “recurring rhymes” in the poem, focusing also on serve / disserve and mente / entente; she might also have included Troye / joye and Criseyde / deyde. 3 For Stokes, the rhyme’s full significance emerges only in the fifth book of the poem, where we can see “the tragically altered application of and relationship between the words,” whereas for “the first four books, there is nothing except its frequency to [End Page 222] suggest to the reader any peculiar significance in the repeated rhyme.” 4 But only by looking at the rhyme as it develops across the entire poem can we appreciate how delicately it relates two of the poem’s chief concepts. 5

In the trouthe / routhe rhyme in Troilus, we see a falling in and falling out of two words to match the falling in and out of the poem’s two lovers. But the affair between the words, like all affairs, has a rationale and a history of its own. At times, there is a disparity between the two words, one uttered with moral idealism, and the other with licentious instrumentality; at times, they cooperate towards the same end; at times, routhe compensates for the deficiencies of trouthe; at times, the two words are antagonistically poised against one another. Routhe and trouthe are rich and capacious in sense, and Chaucer plays the two off one another, accentuating various meanings in each word, valuing different aspects of each at different times, and making an argument about both integrity and the bonds of language. I will examine trouthe and routhe not as two complex words, but as a “complex rhyme,” a rhyme as a fulcrum upon which these two concepts are related to one another. 6

The Words in the Rhyme

In Troilus entire systems of value turn on trouthe and routhe. Before taking up their rhyming partnership in the poem, we must survey each of these words for the senses they contain. This survey is difficult to do in any but a rough and ready fashion, since trouthe is one of the most complex words in Middle English, a word in which social doctrines are compacted (to take up William Empson’s phrase), and routhe, though slightly more manageable, is a plot of ground that Chaucer frequently tills. 7 As Douglas Gray has written, “the words pite and its near-synonym routhe appear so frequently [in Chaucer] that no-one would hesitate to include them in any list of the [End Page 223] author’s favorite words.” 8 But Gray’s focus is on pite, not routhe. Although pite is a source of adjacent critical interest, implying, as does routhe, compassion in a moral and romantic sense, an analysis of pite cannot be neatly applied to routhe, in large part because of its association with the Latin pietas, which routhe lacks. Piety was not available as a separate word in English until the late fifteenth century, remaining instead a “minor secondary sense” of pite. 9 That routhe is related to but distinct from pite can be seen in the pairings of the two words in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. On three of the five occasions that routhe is used, it is conjoined to pite by a conjunction: “Had...


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