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 search for consolation. The story begins with the Dreamer’s own undefined loss and his suggestion that only one physician will help, suggesting that the physician is in fact his lady, who either will not or cannot help him. (The same image is later used to describe White.) His hopeless despair is so deep that he cannot sleep and fears that he will die.
In fact, the second story of loss suggests that this indeed might happen. The loss of King Ceyx is a mirror image of the loss of the Dreamer’s lady, only here the despair does indeed drive Alcyone first to a lack of sleep, then to a telling dream, and then to death. The story has the potential of leading to a tragic conclusion for the Dreamer. However, this is a poem about consolation, and it does not end with tragedy. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Chaucer is using the story of Ceyx and Alcyone to encourage John of Gaunt to move past his grief, rather than to yield to it.
The third story of grief is that of the Black Knight and his lady, and the Dreamer learns of it as he encourages the Black Knight to tell of his lady, of their first meeting, and of his loss. Like the Dreamer, the Black Knight is physically devastated by his loss, and he can think of nothing else. In fact, it seems that for him to think of anything else would be a betrayal of his lady. The Dreamer leads him to the point of revealing the totality of his loss.
With this admission comes a vision of the return of the king to his white-walled castle set upon a rich hill, and, while the description may once again be a reference to John of Gaunt, it also suggests a heavenly vision, there lying the ultimate—and only—consolation. The recurring theme of each of the stories of loss is that “too little while our bliss lasts,” that happiness is fleeting. The suggestion at the conclusion, however, is that, though this is true while on earth, it is not true in an eternal sense.
If the central issue of the poem is loss and consolation, it deals with that issue on several levels. The poem can be read as an idealized allegorical biography in which the Black Knight clearly represents John of Gaunt and White represents Blanche. The poem can also be read as an elegy meant principally to console John, encouraging him to keep intact his wife’s memory but to move beyond his grief. (Certainly there is no other forum in which Chaucer, the son of a merchant, could have given advice like this to one of the most powerful men in England.) The poem can also be read as an examination of grief in which each of the...
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