Geoffrey Chaucer is best known for his The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). Book of the Duchess is one of his minor works, probably his first fully polished long poem. It is generally understood that the poem is meant to commemorate the death of Blanche, the duchess of Lancaster and the wife of John of Gaunt, one of Chaucer’s patrons. If this is true, then the poem was probably meant not only to celebrate her physical and spiritual virtues but also to console John in some measure over the loss of his own beloved. The frequent references to the color white, including the principal woman’s name, suggest that Chaucer was punning on the name Blanche.
If the poem is connected to a specific individual, it is still very much a genre poem. When Chaucer was writing this poem, he was heavily influenced by French poets who frequently used allegories in which a dreamer was suddenly transported to a beautiful, gardenlike setting, as though he had entered into a tapestry. There the lover learns something about the nature of love, usually by meeting a lover who has been rejected by his lady or who has suffered the lady’s death. There are some indications, such as a reference to an eight-year illness, that Chaucer adds to these conventions specific references to the despair of John of Gaunt; nevertheless, he remains firmly within the convention of the dream allegory.
The story of Book of the Duchess is one of increasing woe and a...
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