Book Of The Duchess The Geoffrey

Chaucer (ca. 1368-1372) The Book of the Duchess is the first major work by Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote it sometime during the years 1368-72. Written in octosyllabic couplets, the 1,335-line poem is a veritable mosaic of several genres—including allegory, dream vision, elegy, and romance—infused with themes of love, loss, and consolation. It was most likely written as an occasional poem (a poem written to commemorate an event) commemorating the death of Blanche, duchess of Lancaster and wife of John of

Gaunt; she perished from the Black Death on September 12, 1368. Gaunt had been Chaucer's patron since the late 1350s, and it is possible that the annuity the duke issued to Chaucer in 1374 was payment for writing The Book of the Duchess.

Because it has been so pervasively presumed that The Book of the Duchess was written as both an elegy to Blanche and a consolation for Gaunt, most readers have assumed that its principal characters are allegorized figures modeled on real-life personages—that is, the Black Knight represents John of Gaunt, White represents Blanche of Lancaster, and the unnamed male Narrator represents Chaucer. Also prominent within the poem are the intertextual connections between these three characters of Chaucer's invention and those he borrows from other sources—namely Ceys and Alcyone, the protagonists of a "romaunce" (l. 48), derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which the Narrator reads prior to his dream vision. Many critics have suggested that rather than elegizing Blanche explicitly and addressing John of Gaunt directly, Chaucer instead elected to portray the fictional Black Knight eulogizing White/Blanche within the Narrator's vision—a scenario anticipated by the Narrator's bedtime reading, wherein Alcyone mourns the death of Seys.

Chaucer refers to The Book of the Duchess in two of his other major works. In the prologue to Legend of Good Women, Queen Alceste includes "the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse" in a list of the male Narrator's writings (l. 418) and in the (in)famous Retraction to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's narrator mentions "the book of the Duchesse" (l. 1087) in a repentant catalogue of his own writings. Thus, though none of the four known manuscripts of the text name Chaucer, a 15th-century source, John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, attests to Chaucer's authorship.

Though influenced by Virgil, Ovid, and Boethius, The Book of the Duchess remains primarily indebted to Middle French literature. The insomniac Narrator and the poem's dream-vision frame parallel Jean Froissart's Le Paradys d'Amours (The Paradise of Love, ca. 1369) a dream vision that in turn was influenced by the writings of Guillaume de Machaut, including his Le Dit de la fonteinne amoureuse (Story of the amorous fountain), which also retells the Ovidian Seys and Alcyone story.

of pivotal significance, however, is the French Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), of which a partial English translation has been attributed to Chaucer.

The Book of the Duchess does not feature a conventional guide figure. Instead, the poem begins by bringing the narrator's central dilemma to the forefront—he is a "melancolye" (l. 23) insomniac whose numbing sadness and unnatural ("agynes kynde," l. 26) condition have brought him to the brink of death. Though the source/cause for his near-death circumstance is not named, he conveniently provides his own self-diagnosis: "I holde it be a sicknesse / That I have suffred this eight yeer" (ll. 36-37). He goes so far as to suggest that "there is phisicien but oon / That may me hele" (ll. 3940) but immediately adds "that is don. . . . our first mater is good to kepe" (ll. 40-43). Thus, the Narrator acknowledges that there is an individual who can heal him, but he then refuses to name or even describe that person. Instead, the narrator bids his servant "reche [him] a book / A romaunce" (ll. 47-48) to read.

This tale is a truncation from ovid's Metamorphoses and recounts the story of King Seys and Queen Alcyone: Seys is drowned at sea, and Alcyone, not knowing what has happened, laments intensely over his disappearance. Alcyone pledges herself to Juno, begging the goddess to send her a dream in which the fate of Seys will be revealed to her. Juno sends a messenger to Morpheus, the god of Sleep, who then, as per Juno's instructions, "crepe[s] into the body" of the dead king (l. 144) and speaks to Alcyone through the corpse to inform her that Seys is dead. Seys/Morpheus advises Alcyone that though temporal "blysse" is temporary and fleeting, holding on to sorrow is not a viable alternative. Alcyone's response, as recorded by the narrator, is telling: "With that hir eyen up she casteth / And saw noght. 'Allas!' quod she for sorwe, / And deyede within the thridde morwe" (ll. 212-214).

The narrator empathizes with Alcyone, whose sorrow and unknowingness reflect his own position at the beginning of the poem; however, when he recognizes the chance to tell his audience what she said while in her state of anguish, he chooses to silence her. Explaining his reasoning for doing so, he submits this excuse, which becomes all too familiar throughout Chaucer's oeuvre: "I may not telle yow now; / Hyt were to longe for to dwelle" (ll. 216-217). In this instance, the narrator withholds information about a female character in favor of returning the focus of his narrative back to himself, saying: "My first matere I wil yow telle, / Wherfore I have told this thyng / Of Alcione and Seys the kyng" (ll. 218-220). Though for the next 70 lines, the narrator explains how "this thyng" has saved his life. Subsequent readers of this Ovidian episode have been far less appreciative. Feminist critics have taken the figure of the poet to task for silencing and exploiting Alcyone in his appropriation of a fictional female experience. Alcyone awakens from her dream vision, sees nothing, and dies; by contrast, the Chaucerian narrator who reads her story presumably awakens from his dream, recovers from his sleepless melancholy, picks up his pen, and moves on with his life and career as a poet.

In the next section of the poem, the narrator further laments his sleeplessness, although still asleep. Lines 291-343 capture the Narrator's surroundings in the dream world with acute aural and visual details. It is a sunny day in May, and the narrator is awakened within his dream by small birds, only to find himself "in [his] bed al naked" (l. 293). Significantly, the walls of this space are decorated with scenes from "the story of Troye" (l. 326) and painted with "bothe text and glose, / Of al the Romaunce of the Rose" (334). Blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, birdsongs resonate throughout the room and "bryghte bemes" (l. 337) of sunlight pour through the windows and onto the narrator's bed.

The next section describes the hunt in conventional garden imagery (ll. 344-443). Hearing "an hunte blowe" (l. 345), the narrator moves outdoors, mounts a horse, and rides off into the surrounding forest. Upon encountering a young man with a hound, he learns that the hunting party is with the ancient Roman "emperour Octovyen" (l. 368). Together, the Narrator and the lad travel until they meet up with the hunters, who forfeit their sport when their quarry—the "hert" (l. 381), or male red deer—outsmarts them and disappears. Now on foot, the Narrator walks through the forest and is approached by a lost "whelp" (l. 389). He follows the puppy deeper into the woods, traipsing through the shadows cast by the gigantic trees, until he finally becomes aware of "a man in blak" (l. 445) who is standing with his back to "an ook, an huge tree" (l. 447).

It takes over 100 lines for the Narrator to describe the Black Knight (ll. 444-559). As he voyeuristically gazes at (and into) the Knight's body, he infers that the "man" is a virtually beardless, but "wel-farynge knyght" (l. 452) of about 24 years old. Like the Narrator and Alcyone, the Black Knight is suffering in a state of acute sorrow that the Narrator labels as unnatural, thereby aligning himself with the man's condition. By eavesdropping on the Black Knight's love plaint, delivered as an unmelodious lay, the Narrator discovers the Knight's love, his "lady bryght" (l. 477), has died—or, rather, this is the information that the Knight unmistakably discloses, and which the Narrator, for ambiguous and ultimately unknowable reasons, somehow forgets, or pretends to forget, as soon as he records it.

The Narrator eventually steps out of the shadows and approaches the Knight. As the two engage in a cordial and courtly conversation, the Narrator notices "how goodly spak thys knyght, / as hit had be another wyght" (ll. 529-530), and feminist readers have since noted that the Black Knight speaks like a woman and occupies a position filled elsewhere in medieval romances by fairy ladies. When the Narrator brings up the appropriately manly topic of the hunt, the Black Knight admits that he does not care about hunting— his mind is elsewhere. The Narrator acknowledges the Black Knight's sorrow and offers to listen to his companion's story and do whatever he can to "make [him] hool" (l. 553). From the Black Knight's monologue that follows, the audience learns more about him and the lady he loved and lost than is ever revealed about the Narrator and the unnamed object of his desire.

Lines 560-709 are spent explicating the Black Knight's sorrow. After a lengthy diatribe about all that is backward and unnatural about his existence, the Black Knight says the figure responsible for his sorrowful state is FoRTuNE, an immortal female figure whom he describes disparagingly as a "trayteresse fals and ful of gyle . . . I lynke hyr to the scorpioun" (ll. 620, 636). The Black Knight's condemnation of Fortune says more about his character than hers: He played a metaphorical game of chess with her, lost his queen, and lost the game. Many critics have scrutinized this use of the chess metaphor, which Chaucer gleaned from his French sources and apparently did not understand. The Black Knight is an inept player and a sore loser: in one breath he condemns Fortune for defeating him, and in another exonerates her, saying he would have done exactly the same thing if he had been in her position (ll. 675-676).

Lines 710-757 take a comic turn, as the Narrator tries to tell his companion that his life is not as bad as it seems, and he subtly insults the Black Knight by implying that he is behaving like the irrational, suicidal women of literary tradition who have been abandoned by their lovers. According to the Narrator, only a fool would kill himself over a woman. In his own defense, the Black Knight suggests that the Narrator does not know what he is talking about, insisting: "I have lost more than thow wenest" (l. 744). The Black Knight proceeds to take charge of the conversation, and in lines 758-1311, he explains how he dedicated himself to the service of love, and how he fell in love with a "fair and bryght" lady called "White" (ll. 948, 950). The Black Knight recounts how he wooed White—loving her in secret, making a first supplication to her and being rejected, and making a second supplication a year later, which she accepts (ll. 1144-1297). All of this love talk is punctuated by humorous banter between the bumbling Narrator and the defensive Black Knight, leaving White's words noticeably out of the conversation. In fact, the one line attributed to White, "'Nay'" (l. 1243), is actually a paraphrase of her initial response to the Black Knight, who says he can only restate "the grete / Of hir answere" (ll. 1242-1243). The Black Knight, like the Narrator, silences the woman.

In the final 35 lines, the Narrator, for ambiguous reasons, forces the Black Knight to divulge the source of his sorrow: White "ys ded" (l. 1309). Afterward, the dream abruptly ends, and the narrator wakes to find himself in bed with his book about Seys and Alcyone in hand. The urgency of his near-fatal insomnia is replaced by incongruous carelessness. Waxing laconic about his unusual dream, he decides to someday translate it into "ryme" (l. 1332).

Most dream visions include an obligatory post-dream exposition in which the Dreamer reveals what special insight he or she has gained. Chaucer's text, however, noticeably omits any such explanation about just what made the Narrator's dream so "inwardly sweet" and therefore calls the very genre and purpose of his dream vision into question. Moreover, many romances and love visions tell the story of a man who seeks the love of a woman—but in this case, the courtly lady is dead.

The fictive White, like the actual Blanche, does not appear as a living and speaking subject in Chaucer's text. Instead, her character is reconstructed through a discourse between two men, the Narrator and the Black Knight, prompting feminist and gender critics to wonder if anyone—the narrator, Chaucer, John of Gaunt—is actually in pain and sorrow over the duchess's death. The tale has less to do with Blanche than it does with the men involved, revealing their relationships and alliances. Thus, its primary concern is the development of male textual and (hetero)sexual identity, not marriage or mourning.

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