The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Dreamer is lamenting his terrible loss, a loss which only one physician might heal. He lost his beloved lady, either through rejection or through death. In either case, the Dreamer is unable to sleep, fearful that death might come upon him. There seems to be no hope for him.
He decides to pass a lonely night by reading in a collection of tales, and there he finds the story of King Ceyx and Queen Alcyone. When Ceyx sailed away, his wife waited patiently yet eagerly for his return, but she was unaware that his ship was caught in a storm and all hands were lost. As the days went by, Alcyone began to despair, and, like the Dreamer, she was unable to sleep and finally prayed to Juno for relief. Juno sent a messenger to the god Morpheus, who inhabited Ceyx’s drowned body and told Alcyone of his death. Alcyone died four days later of despair.
The Dreamer regrets Alcyone’s pain but responds to the story of the god of sleep, Morpheus, and he imagines what rich gifts he will give to that god if only he will confer sleep upon him. In fact, his head begins to nod and he falls asleep over his book. He is instantly transported to a dream landscape. It is May; the flowers bloom, rivaling the stars in the sky in number. The fairies make their abode in the forest, and the whole place resembles a landscaped garden.
The Dreamer finds himself in a beautiful chamber filled with paintings and glazed windows that tell stories of love and romance. Then suddenly he is outside, watching the Emperor Octavian in a royal hunt. The hounds find the scent, but the hart is clever and escapes the dogs. The hunt is recalled, but the Dreamer, stationed by a tree, finds one of the young, untrained dogs coming up to him. He follows the whelp, which takes him deeper into the woods. The forest is beautiful,...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Narrator’s bedroom. The poet’s persona begins by describing the unhappiness in love that prevents his sleep. This introduces the story of Seyx and Alcione, the dead husband appearing to his beloved wife as adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). Rehearsing this myth allows correspondence of the bereaved Alcione and the bereaved Black Prince (Edward, Prince of Wales). Seyx’s ghost appears in Alcione’s bedroom, thus interlocking the locations of the mythic figure and the narrator.
When the narrator awakens, it is a brilliant spring morning, and he sees on his bedroom windows scenes that recall the Trojan War as rendered on Dido’s walls in Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). This creates a linkage with the forest scene through appearance of Vergil’s patron, the emperor Augustus, here called Octavian.
Forest. Location derived from Paradys d’amours in Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose), an Old French allegory. As the narrator’s windows show Troy’s fall, so his walls portray the Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung poem. Octavian appears on horseback to hunt a hart, the lover’s hunt through its wordplay on “heart.” The poem thus moves among literary, dreamlike, and real locations through these interlocking scenic details.
The bereavement of the Black Prince corresponds to the solitary condition of the narrator, but the narrator’s windows and walls make him see his life in literary rather than real terms. This could explain the inability of narrator and prince to communicate, though it is also true that no person can completely appreciate the sorrow of another.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bronson, Bertrand H. “The Book of the Duchess Re-Opened.” In Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Edward Wagenknecht. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Bronson focuses on the apparent inconsistencies and ignorance of the narrator, arguing that these are not flaws but are actually built into the meaning and narrative structure of the poem.
Corsa, Helen Storm. Chaucer: Poet of Mirth and Morality. Toronto: Forum House, 1970. In a chapter examining Chaucer’s early work, Corsa argues that, though the occasion of Book of the Duchess is a sad one, the general tone is one of gladness and mirth.
Hieatt, Constance B. The Realism of Dream Vision: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and His Contemporaries. The Hague: Mouton, 1967. Hieatt examines the ways in which Chaucer raises and uses reader expectations to create meaning in his dream visions.
Lawlor, John. “The Pattern of Consolation in The Book of the Duchess.” In Chaucer Criticism, edited by Richard J. Schoek and Jerome Taylor. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961. Lawlor examines the complex system of consolation which the narrator offers to the bereaved Black Knight, moving from apparent ignorance to assertion of his loss.
Lumiansky, R. M....
(The entire section is 462 words.)