Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Chaucer: Assignments

Hailey Dee McHadlo
English 383
Washington State University

The Book of the Duchess as a Chaucerian Consolation

According to medieval dream theory and its classification system, the dream experienced by the poet in The Book of the Duchess would seem to belong to that variety wherein the impressions and concerns of the previous day are recycled during sleep (Macrobius 88-90). The poet’s lethargy, combined with certain motifs from the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, then, manifests itself in the externalized form of the knight striken with grief. Hence, the knight’s state of mind is prefigured in the sorrow of Alcyone and in the peculiar insomnia of the poet; and the ability of the characters to emerge from their emotional paralyses establishes a pattern of consolation. Unlike the Boethian model, this Chaucerian consolation works towards a rejuvenation of worldly enthusiasm; it pragmatically seeks to reverse the effects of sorrow rather than to transcend the causes.

In establishing his pattern, Chaucer draws close parallels between the poet’s insomnia and the knight’s grief. The knight’s lack of interest in the hunt and general listlessness recall the apathy experienced by the poet and his own self-confessed loss of vitality and enthusiasm. That the poet takes notice of nothing, “how hyt cometh or gooth” (BD 7), is matched by the knight’s failure to apprehend the approach of the poet in the garden (509-510), for both characters have severed themselves, psychologically at least, from their worldly surroundings. The poet suggests that the external world has become illusory to him (12­13); similarly, the knight has removed himself from court and is caught in “his owne thoght” (504). He remains impervious to the beauty of the garden around him, the garden that has helped revitalize the dreamer. The knight has “yturned his bak / To an ook, an huge tree” (446-447), the symbol of Nature’s strength. In their prolonged states of despair, both the self-engrossed knight and the benumbed poet counter natural law. Concerning his insomnia, the poet states somewhat enigmatically,

… wel ye woot, agaynes kynde
Hyt were to lyven in thys wyse;
For nature wolde nat suffyse
To noon erthly creature
Withoute slep and be in sorwe.
(16-21)

The poet never adequately explains the nature of the “sorwe” which he mentions as an afterthought here. “Sorwe” seems an unlikely symptom of insomnia, but it associates the condition of the poet with that of the knight. The poet’s description of the knight’s condition closely resembles that of his own insomnia:

Hit was gret wonder that Nature
Myght suffre any creature
To have such sorwe, and be not ded.
(467-469)

Both characters, then, are mastered by unnaturally prolonged stupors that replace worldly interaction with apathy and emotional paralysis.

The Chaucerian consolation seeks solely to revitalize the sufferers. The Book of the Duchess offers no intense investigations into the roots of their respective maladies. In fact, as far as is possible, Chaucer ignores the causes. He anticipates the reader’s curiosity about the reasons for the insomnia, but skirts analysis:

… men myght axe me why soo
I may not sleepe, and what me is.
But natheles, who aske this
Leseth his asking trewely.
Myselven can not telle why
The sothe….
(30-35)

The poet addresses himself almost exclusively to the phenomenon of sleeplessness; and although he elliptically suggests that an affair of the heart has caused this “sicknesse” (36-37), this issue is quickly dismissed without ever having been confirmed. That there exists but one “phisicien” to “hele him (38-39) proves to be a false lead: his cure does not involve the grace of a lady, and it remedies only the insomnia while ignoring the psychological reasons behind this malady. Throughout the discussion, the poet shows himself to be much more fascinated with the abnormal state of his mind than with its cause (esp. 41-43). Likewise, in recounting the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone, he dwells upon the anxiety and grief of the queen after passing quickly over the reason for her worries: in his redaction, he omits the explanation for the king’s journey and the issue of Fate, and artlessly reduces the long account of Ceyx’s demise. He focuses instead upon the queen’s state of mind. Again, only the grief and sleeplessness catch his interest. Finally, the Chaucerian consolation downplays the reason for the knight’s sorrow. The reader never discovers the cause of the lady’s death. Even the very fact of her death, moreover, is somewhat disguised until the very end of the dream. The knight’s grief, not the lady’s death, becomes the subject of the poem. While such downplaying on Chaucer’s part is tactful under the circumstances, it also indicates that the consolation treats only the practical symptoms of the sorrow­­the emotional paralysis as divorced from its causes. Unlike Boethian philosophy, it in no way attempts to re-evaluate those causes in order to transcend the affliction.

Nevertheless, the poet obviously disapproves of lethargy and extravagant displays of lamentation. The description of the cave of the sleeping gods may intrigue him, but certain of his editorial comments seem tinged with a slight indignation: the gods “slep and dide noon other werk” (169); they “slepe whiles the dayes laste” (177). These deities, overcome with lethargy, remain useless and unproductive. Perhaps, then, the poet here indirectly expresses disapproval of the knight’s apathetic attitude; but Chaucer is tactful and wise enough to know that moralizing is not an effective strategy against listlessness. Thus, the only direct discourse against grief occurs in the fictional story preceding the poet’s dream. The dead Ceyx advises Alcyone to cease her lamenting, for in it lies no help (202-203). This, of course, is a conventional and rather worthless consolatory argument, but it merits some consideration, since in the poet’s source the dead Ceyx actually advises the queen to weep and lament. Chaucer has rewritten Ovid so that Ceyx tries to arouse Alcyone to an awareness of the futility of her prolonged mourning. In this new version of the story, she ignores his advice. After Ceyx tells her, “let be your sorwful lyf! / For in your sorwe there lyth no red” (202-203), and after he says, “I praye God youre sorwe lysse” (210), Alcyone nevertheless sighs “‘Allas!’ … for sorwe” (213). The poet, impatient with her self-indulgent lamentation upon which “Hyt were to longe for to dwelle” (217), immediately kills off his Alcyone:

… “Allas!” quod she for sorwe,
And deyede within the thridde morwe.
(213-214)

This liberty, another departure from the source, demonstrates the poet’s impatience with the prolongation of grief.

Ceyx’s speech to Alcyone also provides a clue to the nature of the remedy to grief. His first words to her are: “My swete wyf, / Awake! let be your sorwful lyf!” (201-202). His command of “Awake!” must be taken figuratively, for if she actually woke from her sleep, she would hear and see “noght” (212-213). Instead, the poet here equates her “sorwful lyf” with a sort of sleep. Likewise, then, the knight must be shaken out of his trance; the cure will have to “awaken” him. In the case of the poet himself, we find a paradox: because of his prolonged insomnia, his waking life seems to be a dream, as if all were illusory (11-15). And conversely, his dream begins with his awakening, both literally in the commencement of the dream vision and figuratively in his subsequent rigorous involvement and vitality. Unlike the delinquent gods of sleep, who previously had failed to respond to the horn and the command “Awaketh!” (179-183), the poet reacts to the sound of the horn (346) by actively joining the hunt (355-372). Appreciation for his surroundings renews itself, as is evidenced by his enthusiastic descriptions of the choir of birds and the garden. Following the dream, he retains his newly found energy, for he writes The Book of the Duchess very shortly thereafter (cp. 45, 131-133). Therefore, the poet has been restored to the “quyknesse” of spirit and “lustyhede” which insomnia had “sleyn” (26-27). Paradoxically, he has been reawakened.

Since the initial affliction of the poet so closely parallels the knight’s, the means by which he is cured should identify the pattern of consolation. But how, in fact, is the poet cured? It would seem that Nature finally allows him that which he most desires — rest — and that this rejuvenates him immediately. His previous inertia is “agaynes kynde” (16), but as soon as he prays to a pagan god he is granted sleep (270-275). However, we must reject this as a key to consolation; the knight gives no indication at any time that he aligns himself with the forces of Nature. Moreover, the poet’s prayer to Morpheus or Juno or whomever (242-244) is said in “game” and in “pleye” (238-239), not in earnest. But perhaps, then, it is the adoption of this attitude, the lightening of the spirit, which remedies the insomnia. Indeed, the poet makes much of the idea of “pleye.” He chooses to read the romance of Ceyx and Alcyone, thinking “it beter play / Then play either at ches or tables (50-51). More importantly, this theme recurs throughout the scene with the knight. At first, the apathetic knight refuses to join the hunt which the poet calls a “game” (539). Later, the knight cryptically explains that “Fortune hath pleyd a game” (618; cf. 652). He gives every indication that he played energetically until Fortune stole away his queen, whereupon he “kouthe no lenger pleye” (656). Perhaps the poet feels that the knight should continue with his symbolic game of chess, since the loss of a queen, though disastrous, does not terminate the game. As the poet draws out the knight, the latter confesses that one of the reasons for his love of the lady was that “she koude so wel pleye” (961). Ultimately, however, this theme proves to have been another false lead. The knight finally returns to the court but without there being any mention that he is rejoining any “game.” Although we sense that he has begun to heal, he never shows himself “playing” as the poet has done. Hence, while this theme of play may figure indirectly into the pattern of consolation, it does not itself seem to be the cure.

A common denominator of the two healings, however, is the evocation of a mental picture by each of the characters that includes the image of that which he most desires. The entire elegy of the knight serves to call to mind the image of his lady. Thus, a large portion of his discussion he devotes to physical description (821-960), and the remainder to his memories of the courtship. In particular, he remembers being “warished of al [his] sorwe” by the sight of his lady (1101-1105). The knight thereafter can face the blunt fact of her death, undisguised by elaborate rhetoric, and can return to the court (1309-1319). The poet too has opportunity to picture mentally that which he desires most; his book of romance offers him a description of the cave of sleep. Despite some ambivalent feelings towards the gods’ sloth, the poet displays a fascination for the scene in his animated, enthusiastic portrayal of the cave and the variety of sleepers therein. These mental pictures figure in the consolation; and yet, by themselves, they are still inadequate for dissolving the sorrow. An image alone cannot effect a cure, for the gods present Alcyone with the sight of her dead spouse, but even with his comforting epithets for her (210, 204, 206, 209), Ceyx’s appearance fails to relieve Alcyone’s grief.

The mere image of that for which the character longs does not alleviate sorrow. Rather, the sufferer must actively reconstruct in his mind that image. This process becomes apparent in the knight’s description of his lady as he grapples with the accuracy of his account. He experiences some difficulty in describing the shades of her hair (855-858); and, in similar fashion, he frequently prefaces his positive description of a particular trait with a negative description: “hir look nas not asyde, / Ne overthwert, but beset so well” (862-863) since “Hyt nas no countrefeted thyng; / Hyt was hir owne pure lokyng” (869-870). With this mixture of positive and negative (cf. 861, 874-875, 1033), the knight seems to be sculpting the lady on the spot; he seems to recreate her in his mind for the first time, objectively. The dreamer prompts this description and an account of scenes from the courtship until the knight becomes engrossed in this mental activity. In addition, the dreamer is able to inspire even some rebuke from the knight (1115-1117, 1045). Thus, the internal reconstruction of his lady revitalizes the knight, and although he is not cured of his grief, he displays an enthusiasm he formerly did not think possible of himself. Without philosophically re-examining the death of the lady, he nevertheless can finally re-enter court life.

Similarly, the very last activity which engages the poet before he falls asleep involves the mental construction of an ideal bedchamber. This is the one “phisicien” (39) which finally effects a cure. The poet, inspired by the story he has read, describes a surpassingly luxurious chamber containing a featherbed covered with black satin, surrounded by soft pillows and impressive tapestries. He immediately is captured by a “lust” to sleep:

I hadde unneth that word ysayd
Ryght thus as I have told hyt yow,
That sodeynly, I nyste how,
Such a lust anoon me took
To slepe, that ryght upon my book
Y fil aslepe….
(270-275)

The poet is immediately cured of both his insomnia and his lethargy.

The Chaucerian consolation, then, is ultimately a self-induced one. Although it may be prompted externally, as by the dreamer in the case of the knight and by the book in the case of the poet, the image of that which is desired must be internalized by the sufferer. Subsequently, the rejuvenated subject relieves himself from the emotional paralysis through an enthusiasm for that object, whether or not it can be actually granted him. He at once “awakens” himself, both revitalized and at rest.


Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Book of the Duchess. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987.

Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Trans. William Harris Stahl. NY: Columbia University Press, 1951.