Before the Knight's Tale: Imitation of Classical Epic in Boccaccio's Teseida

Before the Knight's Tale: Imitation of Classical Epic in Boccaccio's Teseida

Before the Knight's Tale: Imitation of Classical Epic in Boccaccio's Teseida

Before the Knight's Tale: Imitation of Classical Epic in Boccaccio's Teseida

Excerpt

By the end of the nineteenth century a consensus had developed among literary historians that Boccaccio's Teseida was a conspicuously unsuccessful experiment in the imitation of classical epic. Guglielmo Volpi's chapter on Boccaccio in the scholarly Literary History of Italy stated the case this way: "With the Teseida, Boccaccio had the idea of giving Italy a vernacular poem that would be what the Aeneid and the Thebaid had been for the Romans; it is hardly necessary to point out that he was deluding himself if he thought he had attained his goal." The chronology of Boccaccio's works, which had been an object of minute attention during the later nineteenth century, placed the Teseida early in his career: together with the emerging critical view of the poem's failed epic design, this dating suggested that its author had been young and ambitious and had overreached his powers. There was "tension" between classical and nonclassical elements. "His learning and culture were not of the sort that would permit him to compose a true epic according to the classical models." And while the Teseida failed to recreate its august models in several respects, the main problem could be seen in Boccaccio's terribly indecorous choice of a main action: "A love story makes up...the substance of the poem. Two friends become rivals in love, they have a scuffle but the fight is interrupted and postponed, the duel converted into a joust: this is the skeletal outline, one more suited to a novella than to a long poem, which Boccaccio fleshed out as best he could to give it the majestic shape of an epic." By 1912 this conventional opinion, if not in Volpi's summary version then in one of its many analogues, had already been adopted in England as the basis for comparing Boccaccio's work with the Knight's Tale, and for the Chaucerians it led directly to the simple and (I suppose) satisfying thesis that Chaucer had returned the misconstrued "romance" to a more appropriate generic form; that he had . . .

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