Book of the Duchess

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

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, orderly, and full of deer.

There the Dreamer finds the Black Knight, who lies beneath a huge oak singing a song of sorrow over the death of his lady. In fact, his sorrow is so deep that, as the Dreamer watches, the Black Knight seems to be dying, the blood draining from all his limbs and leaving him green and pale. The Dreamer greets him, and though the Knight seems unaware of the Dreamer’s presence at first, soon his courteous nature asserts itself and he greets the Dreamer gently. When the Dreamer offers to help bear his sorrow and asks the Knight to reveal its cause, the Knight is at first reluctant, but he then begins a diatribe against Fortune and its wiles. It is Fortune that has brought him low, he argues, by playing chess with him and stealing his lady.

The Dreamer does not seem to understand this image and encourages the Knight to stand firm against Fortune, arguing that no loss of a love should lead to this kind of woe. The Knight responds that the Dreamer does not understand how much he indeed lost, for, since his youth, he was wholly subject to love, and now that to which he devoted himself is destroyed.

The Black Knight tells how he first met his lady, dancing on a green with a company of ladies. She is by far the fairest, the most beautiful and courteous, the best in speech and manner, gentle, good, steadfast, and simple. She is faithful and temperate, unable to do wrong because she loves right so much. The Dreamer concludes that the Black...

(This entire section contains 741 words.)

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Knight could not have bestowed his love on a better woman and asks to hear of their first words together. The Black Knight confesses that for a long time he did not tell her of his love; he simply composed songs about her. His woe increased, however, and finally he approached her and swore his love. At first, she rejected him, and for a year he lived in despair until, gathering his courage, he approached her again. This time he was accepted because of his virtue, and for years they lived happily.

Then, the Knight moans, death took her. At that word, the Dreamer sees the hunters returning through the woods and the king riding homeward to a long castle with white walls. The Dreamer wakes up in his bed and resolves to put his dream into rhyme.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282

Narrator’s bedroom

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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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 Bereaved Narrator in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess.” Tulane Studies in English 9 (1959): 5-17. Lumiansky focuses on the role of the narrator in terms of his parallel bereavement with that of the Black Knight.

Millar, Robert P. Chaucer Sources and Backgrounds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Millar supplies translations of the French and Latin sources that Chaucer used for his dream visions, though this book deals with the entire range of Chaucer’s work.

Muscatine, Charles. Chaucer and the French Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. Muscatine focuses on the dream vision tradition from French literature and Chaucer’s adaptations of those forms.

Robertson, D. W., Jr. “The Book of the Duchess.” In Companion to Chaucer Studies, edited by Beryl Rowland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Robertson provides a general study of the background, thematic meanings, and critical understandings of Book of the Duchess.

Spearing, A. C. Medieval Dream-Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. In a chapter on Book of the Duchess within this general study of medieval dream visions, Spearing argues that, though the poem demonstrates many of the traditional elements of the dream vision, it differs from them in that it was written for a specific occasion and has a great deal of material not included in the actual vision. These differences affect the operation of the dream vision in terms of its overall meaning for the reader.

Windeatt, Barry A., ed. and trans. Chaucer’s Dream Poetry: Sources and Analogues. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1982. Examines the mostly French sources upon which Chaucer drew for Book of the Duchess.


Critical Essays