The Legend of Good Women

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Legend of Good Women is a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the great English poets of the Middle Ages. Composed in the 1380s, the poem is a dream-vision that begins with the God of Love chastising Chaucer for writing about women’s betrayal of men. The God of Love tells Chaucer to write about women who are good, departing from his past works that cast women as villains. Alceste, the queen to the God of Love, also appears to stop the narrator from portraying women as evil.

The poem features a narrator whose identity is never revealed in the poem but who is assumed to be Chaucer himself. In the prologue to the poem, the narrator is enjoying a spring day when Cupid materializes and accuses the narrator of committing heresy against love. The poem goes on to detail tragic love stories of the past, like Cleopatra and Dido. These are stories of women who have been abandoned or betrayed by men. Here, Chaucer is switching from women who betray men to men who betray women. The poem presents nine different legends and myths of women who were hurt by men: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra. These nine stories reveal women who have been, in various ways, damaged by men. Here there is a reversal of some of Chaucer’s earlier writings, as women are viewed as morally good and men morally bad. These nine sections work to show the ways that bad men can wrong women.

Scholars suggest that the God of Love in the poem functions kind of like a literary critic. The God of Love is seen as critiquing Chaucer’s portrayal of women but also critiquing his writing. The poem is also significant because it is one of the first to use iambic pentameter, which is now one of the most common literary devices in English poetry.

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