Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


The first wife, Blanche, of Chaucer’s patron, John of Gaunt, died 12 September 1368. This elegy was probably composed for one of the later commemoration services. A simplistic but handy division of Chaucer’s career involves the early French period, into which this work falls (with its echoes of Guillaume de Machaut’s Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne and Jugement dou Roy de Navarre). The verse form is the French octosyllabic couplet (vs. the native English alliterative stress), and this form can easily lead to doggerel, which Chaucer avoids by using

  • sentencing to break the couplets (e.g., 15-16, 21-22, 27-28, 29-30, etc.)
  • enjambement (e.g., 6-7, 34-35, etc.)
  • irregular lines (e.g., 905, 942, etc.)

Other features include the use of rime riche, or rich rhyme (e.g., 27-28, 93-94, 615-660); a jingling effect (e.g., 265-266 — Morpheus / moo fees thus); and wordplay.

Traditionally debate focused on the quality of the work: is it youthful and not thoughtful, or purposeful and surprisingly mature, at least for its function in consoling a self-indulgent knight? A dismaying number of features — the lovesick narrator and his incompetence, for example — are conventions of French courtly poetry. But Chaucer will come into his own. I swear.

I. The Narrator-Persona

Insomnia — The narrator’s insomnia, announced in the opening lines, seems to generate a type of apathy in which all seems illusory. Sorrow is presented as a symptom of insomnia (21) instead of vice versa.

And wel ye woot, agaynes kynde
Hyt were to lyven in thys wyse,
For nature wolde nat suffyse
To none erthly creature
Nat longe tyme to endure
Withoute slep and be in sorwe.

The lesson may be that it goes against Nature to prolong emotional paralysis: something that applies to the elegiac dimension of the poem. What is the cause of the narrator’s insomnia? Lovesickness?

I holde it be a sicknesse
That I have suffred this eight yeer;
And yet my boote is never the ner,
For there is phisicien but oon
That me may hele; but that is don.

See the explanatory notes (p. 967). The relevance of all this is ultimately dismissed by the narrator (30-35, 40-43).

Reading — What is the function of reading set forth in the poem?

“Ceyx and Alcyone” — Are the narrator’s own bias and interests operating in this selection? Compare the story as given by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Book 11 (although the story probably comes via the French Ovide Moralisée). Among other changes, Chaucer

  • omits the sea storm and death of Ceyx from the narration — though the mention of the tempest (70-72) may have interested Shakespeare;
  • focuses on Alcyone’s state of mind (her worry is not in Ovid);
  • has Alcyone praying to Juno, goddess of marriage (whereas in Ovid she prays to all the gods);
  • has Alcyone asking for a dream (in Ovid, Juno initiates it);
  • makes the messenger to the god of sleep an unnamed “he” (Ovid has Iris in this role);
  • and, perhaps most drastic of all, Chaucer omits the metamorphosis!

Instead we get some odd names and some slapstick. But Guillaume de Machaut’s Dit de la fontaine amoreuse contains a version of the story of Ceyx where the queen is worried and prays specifically to Juno, Juno originates the dream idea, the god of sleep selects Morpheus, the god opens one eye (a detail also in Chaucer), and Machaut’s story concludes quickly, like Chaucer’s. (Despite all this source work, G.L. Kittredge declared Chaucer’s work original in that it functions as an elegy in the form of a dream vision.)

The changes to the story of Ceyx and Alcyone minimize the distasteful (such as the death scene), except for the puppeting of the body, which is lurid and unpleasant in its grotesque focus on physical death. More tellingly, the story minimizes any potential romanticizing of grief. For example, Alcyone dies quickly with no metamorphosis. There may be enthusiasm in the personifications, but also disapproval of Sloth (173, 177)? There is no lament, no tolerance, or at least space given to, self-pity.

The call “Awake” (179, 181) and “Awaketh” (183) comes in abruptly to the cave of sleep, but the one levelled at Alcyone is not literal:

Awake! Let be your sorwful lyf,
For in your sorwe there lyth no red;
For, certes, swete, I am but ded.

Here is a connection to the elegiac purpose, perhaps. But Alcyone doesn’t get the message: “‘Allas!’ quod she for sorwe, / And deyede within the thridde morwe” (213-214).

In a kind of preface to the dream, the literal-minded (233-237) and goofy persona undergoes a self-hypnosis into sleep with the cataloguing of the bedding (250ff).

II. The Dream-Vision

Innumerable benefits of this medieval genre can be listed. First, no matter what time of year it really is, the dreamer says he thought it was May in the dream (291). This automatically introduced the reverdie (literally re-greening) tradition: the springtime setting indicating love as the theme.

The dream-vision provides safety, freedom, the veneer of authenticity, it allows for more intimacy, and it gives poets a chance to write about the bizarre in a justifiable way. The Romance of the Rose is the primary medieval influence with its reverdie setting and horticultural artifice. But Chaucer’s unrealism is much more real, because of his bizarre considerations:

  • the “smale foules a gret hep” (295) that “wake” the dreamer up into the dream, and even their polyphony (304-305), may be standards from The Romance of the Rose, but it occurs only to Chaucer that maybe not all the birds may be singing: “ther was noon of hem that feyned / To synge” (317-318). Good. None of the birds was beak-synching.
  • “I was ryght glad, and up anoon / Took my hors, and forth I wente” (356-357). Huh? It’s a dream, so even though he was naked a moment ago in his bed, here’s a horse suddenly out of nowhere.
  • the puppy appears (389), serves as a sort of guide, and disappears.

It’s a realistic portrayal of a dreamscape. The hunt fails.

III. The Black Knight

The dreamer discovers “a man in blak” (445). The big question is this: how do you explain the fact that the dreamer/narrator hears first thing of the death of the lady, but subsequently seems not to understand? The dreamer overhears the knight’s love complaint before the knight is aware of the dreamer’s presence:

I have of sorwe so gret won
That joye gete I never non,
Now that I see my lady bryght,
Which I have loved with al my myght
Is fro me ded and ys agoon.

(Cf. 740f, 1135f, 1305f). Highly stylized rhetoric of this whole section of the poem may be the problem, but may also actually be psychologically realistic in this case, and human. The central difficulty can be seen as the problem of rhetoric, the difficulty or impossibility of conveying meaning, especially as regards grief or love. Note the struggling with language (1075f). The process of love is a subjective event, and the typical cataloguing of attributes can’t suffice. Love complaints are so full of hyperbole that asserting a literal fact becomes nearly impossible. The Art of Love involves hyperbole in the complaint genre and the dreamer/narrator knows about the art of love if not love itself: he doesn’t sleep, the illness lasts eight years, he knows the term “physician” and the cure metaphor). So perhaps he assumes that “death” is an exaggeration.

The lady’s name is given as “White” (948) — clearly a translation of Blanche, and a detail imitated by one of the poets in Tottel’s Miscellany in the 16th century. Shakespeare would also perhaps have been interested in the reference to the “fenix” (982) and the mention of “Tubal” (1162).

The figure of the black knight works as both general and particular. And through the interaction between this character and the dreamer, the tribute to Blanche does not have to be given artificially by the narrator this way. The obtuse persona is discussed in a 1974 PMLA article by Thomas Garbaty. The obtuse persona keeps appearing in juxtaposition with a dominant individual such as the Black Knight (or the eagle, or Scipio Africanus, or the God of Love). Worse than “the reasonable man” who acts on a prosaic level, the obtuse reasonable man may occasionally think the dominant individual is addled: the Black Knight would kill himself over a game of chess? This third level (beneath Chaucer poet, beneath the reasonable man) is implied in The Book of the Duchess but is incarnate in Chaucer pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales. Integrating humor with sorrow offers a larger conception of the transitoriness of things. Perhaps Chaucer cannot sustain the seriousness without resorting to the comic. This temperament explains the mixed diction and the anticlimax. The section of the poem terminates suddenly at the point of pathos (1305ff), before it turns to bathos and oversentimentality (?). In fact, the whole poem essentially boils down to this exchange:

“Allas, sir how? What may that be?”
“She ys ded!” “Nay!” “Yis, be my trouthe!”
“Is that youre los? Be God, hyt ys routhe!”

“She is dead.” “No!” “Yes.” “Jeez, that’s a shame.”

Perhaps the dreamer has been attempting to draw the knight out, offering catharsis through talk therapy. The tradition often provides someone trying to the the lover’s confidante. And it works, although it’s unclear what’s in it for the dreamer himself. His interest in love and getting over it (and curing the insomnia)? “[B]ut that is don” (40); now this “ys doon” (1337).

For more commentary in the form of a formal paper on the Book of the Duchess as consolation, see this.