Geoffrey Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess [c. 1369-72]
Specific passages to consider for interpretive possibilities
Chaucer's dream visions are quite similar to one another in form, and they tend to present a fairly consistent set of artistic concerns, especially when contrasted with those written by his closest contemporaries like William Langland ("The Vision of Piers the Plowman") and the "Pearl"-Poet ("Pearl"). Chaucer's poems emphasize the poet-persona's comic social incompetence, especially regarding his capacity to interpret what he sees and hears, and the poems' literal action appears also to contain both highly topical socio-political satire and more profound speculations on the nature of human experience. Scholars often get tangled up in trying to prove that in this or that passage we find evidence the poem is about only one of these kinds of thing. Consider that Chaucer might have layered the poem with both.
1) The RC introduction (330) strives to avert the "autobiographical fallacy" in interpretations of BoD by cautioning that one can find many narrator-personas in French literature of the era who describe themselves as love-sick, depressed to the point of suicide, and even awaiting salvific aid from some mysterious source (lover?, philosophy?, God?) as we see in Chaucer's opening 42 lines. Therefore, Colin Wilcockson concludes that we ought not to consider these evidence of Chaucer's personal situation, but rather an attempt to situate his poem in the French poetic tradition in a claim of poetic authority. (See George Kane's "Autobiographical Fallacy" in Chaucer and Langland for a complete explanation of the problem.) Admittedly, John of Gaunt did not remain celibate, but remarried after the duchess Blanche's death in 1368-9 (to Constantine, 1377) and even before that second marriage he had begun an affair with his children's governess, Katherine Swynford (c. 1376). However, the human heart is not a simple thing, and aristocratic marriages, being political events before they are personal ones, were not like mine, or yours unless you are heir to some great fortune and have envious, controlling relatives. For some interesting complications of the theory that John of Gaunt's memory of Blanche might have been fleeting, click here.
Nevertheless, Chaucer had a choice of many kinds of persona to use when launching the dream-vision, and he picked the "love-sick" one. He could have been perplexed by love, specifically, while denying any personal experience of it (PoF, and the Troilus). He could have been merely suffering from insomnia from no particular cause (House of Fame). He could have been suffering from envious court gossip (Marie de France) or from the loss of a courtly patron (various troubadour lyrics). Why might the "love-sick" persona have been appropriate to the dream-vision which it narrates? Especially, how might its use of Ovid's Metamorphoses' tale of Ceys and Alcyone, and its introduction of the Man in Black's lament, be affected by the peculiar problem the narrator describes in those first 42 lines? Think of them as our "gateway" to the rest of the poem, rather like the gates of the Temple of Venus in PoF. What's written on them and how does it affect our expectations? As a framing device, these layers of introductory material resemble the pilgrimage narrative framing the telling of the Canterbury tales.
2) Students who are not familiar with much Middle English poetry may not realize how intensely personal and direct Chaucer's poem is. Notice, for instance, how often forms of the first-person pronoun are used (I/me). This argues for the need for readers to perform this poem with a very emotional "voice," one which may significantly affect the literal sense of the lines' meaning. For an example, click here to listen to the introduction of "Book," read by Susan Yager (Iowa State U). What emphases does she add to the phrases and clauses she reads, and what warrant can you see for those emphases in the text, itself? Which are "interpretive" emphases and which are mandated by reasonable standards of competent reading? How might you develop Yager's reading emphases into insights about what she thinks about Chaucer's poem?
3) Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of the most popular sources of poetic topics for the late-medieval and early renaissance period in England. The scores of short narratives involving gods' love of mortals and their transformation of mortals into animals, plants, and minerals were plundered for numerous works of literature (e.g., the "rude mechanicals"' play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream). What does the tale of Ceys and Alcyone, chosen from among many possible tales, do to set up our narrator's encounter with the Man in Black? How does its representation of love, loss, and grief connect with the narrator's description of his own condition, and how do these elements affect our reading of the whole poem?
4) The dreamer awakes in an interesting version of the "locus amoenus" or beautiful place, a room much like his own but significantly different. Those decorations are extremely unusual, though "stained glass windows" could be found in most cathedrals in England, and even in not a few of the many tiny "chantries" or prayer-houses scattered around the country as act of charity by rich nobles and merchants. However, the subjects of the scenes depicted "in glassyng" of cathedral windows are religious. With what images does Chaucer decorate his dream chamber and what do those images have in common? What is he telling us by means of this selection, and does his persona appear to realize its significance? Or could this be, in Wayne Booth's memorable phrase, "an unreliable narrator"?
5) "The Hunt" was one of the most common motifs in Medieval secular art, in part because it was one of the activities by which the nobility defined their estate (Mod.E. "class" but inherited, and linked to lands and titles). It was their BMW, their elective cosmetic surgery, and their season tickets to the Redskins games, a thing which brought them into contact with the best transportation (the specially-bred hunting horse), the highest outdoor venue for showing off clothing, jewels, etc., and the thrill of seeing blood-sport competition from a seat only a very few could afford. However, in romance tradition, the "hunt of the hart/heart" had been "overcoded" with another, related but very specialized meaning. It was the Lover's pursuit of the Beloved. How does the hunt of "th'emperour Octovyen" fit into this dream-vision within these social and literary codes? Which does it pay more attention to and how does that relate to the evolving poem's structure?
6) Most dream-visions have only one "guide figure," but this one has two: a little lost dog and the Man in Black. What does that mean? How do their functions differ, and why does one lead to the other? (Ignore for the moment that John of Gaunt could have given his courtier, Chaucer, a puppy in reward for faithful service--those generally are unproveable assumptions and they violate Occam's Razor.)
7) After the dog leads Chaucer to a second "locus amoenus" where all the dear deer the hunt pursued have gathered, the dreamer encounters the Man in Black. The Man in Black's laments are serious parodies of Petrarchan and French troubador conceits regarding love, but in this case "Death" is the Beloved. So what's going on here? Note that this has been a hot source of critical inspiration, though the arguments have finally tended to fall into the dreaded "two camps" of stutification.
8) The body language Chaucer-the-dreamer uses when approaching the Man in Black is wonderfully precise (514-21). In fact, both characters conduct themselves like fencers, offering and returning verbal and gestural moves. How would you interpret the "dance" or "mock combat" of that exchange?
9) The Man in Black is said to have "argued with his owne thoght" (504), a trope familiar to us from Astrophil's debates with himself in Astrophil and Stella, and from Hamlet's soliloquy. What does the trope indicate has happened to the speaker's self-control and how might that help explain his rhetorical dysfunction in the later attempts to enlighten the Dreamer?
10) The refrain line, "Thou wost ful lytel what thou menest; I have lost more than thow wenest," is wonderfully open to interpretation (743-4, 1137-8, 1305-6). The Dreamer's interpretive limitation and the extravagant dimensions of the MiB's loss both conspire to make the truth both unknowable and unspeakable. How does this refrain's logic operate in this poem?
11) The MiB's first extended threnody of explanation (560-619) shows Chaucer fully in the grip of Petrarchanism's love of paradox and oxymoron, balanced repetitions (anaphora), and the occasional chiasmus ("y am sorwe, and sorwe ys y." 997). The effect is dazzling. To my knowledge, nothing like this has been written in Middle English before this poem. The core of it all is the MiB's sense of stasis, a crisis of the soul which paralyzes him with memories of loss. How does the rhetorical form of each major movement dramatize this condition in sentence structures and discursive strategies?
He ends that first outburst with the allegory of the chess game played with "fals Fortune," an extremely popular Medieval characterization of the forces which, according to Boethius, exist to distribute God's providential plan throughout time according to a pattern whose justice only God can see. The theft of the MiB's "fers" or queen ends with Fortune's cry "Chek her! / And mat in the myd poynt of the chekker, / With a poun errant!" (659-61). The RC notes pithily review the chess lore behind this allegorical assassination (972). The "fers" comes from Arabic "firzan" or "counselor." Modern scholars are divided over whether loss of a queen was considered important to Medieval players, but it's certainly a disaster in modern play. However, to treat this as a chess game is to make the same mistake Chaucer-the-Dreamer makes (720-4)! We're talking about John's duchess, Blanche. How might she be his "counselor" and how might her loss "mat" (i.e., checkmate and marry-mate) the king/John to Fortune?
12) The MiB's first explanation of his loss, in the code of chess, ends with the exclamation "I have more sorowe than Tantale" (l. 709), an mythological reference to the origin of "to tantalize" which seems appropriate for our own experience of witnessing this elaborate miscommunication. This effect is intensified by the Dreamer's reply, which appears to respond to that reference to classical myth with six examples of classical characters whose tales are relevant to withstanding ill fortune. Why does Chaucer choose female characters as the five "bad examples" when trying to persuade the male MiB? Does this associate excessive grief with femaleness?
13) In response to the Dreamer's request to tell him "al hooly / In what wyse, how, why, and wherfore" he laments, the MiB swears the Dreamer to a formal oath that the Dreamer repeats twice (ll. 750-57). Ambiguous oaths are a commonplace in late medieval narrative. Can you see anything in the Dreamer's answer that would give you reason to doubt the certainty of his oath?
14) The MiB's second explanation of his condition begins with a new allegorical metaphor, the lordship of Love, in which the lover becomes the feudal servant, or even "thral" (slave), to love, and does "homage" (l. 770) to this lord by agreeing to serve the "lady dere" (l. 774). This metaphor converts the medieval aristocratic household (lord, lady, their vassals and lower servants) into signifiers of an emotional relationship between a man and a woman, but it is a relationship in which neither the man nor the woman rules. What is it to serve the lord of Love? What is it to be served in the name of the lord of Love?
15) Gradually, over 46 lines (ll. 759-805), the allegory fades into realistic narrative ("Hit happed that I cam on a day...," l. 805). This launches an extended description of the Beloved's appearance and character (ll. 817-1111) that overflows with traditional lyric praise formulae adapted to this evocation of the absent woman. Here she is named, "White" (l. 948), the Middle English translation of John's duchess's name, "Blanche." The translated "White" cannot be exactly the same as the real woman, "Blanche." What does her representation in the dream vision's world do to and for her memory? Perhaps harking back to the oath's ambiguity, the Dreamer attempts to say that the MiB's perception of her as the fairest and best of all women was the result of his perception, "trewely / Yow thoghte that she was the beste / And to beholde the alderfayreste, / Whoso had loked hir with your eyen" (ll. 1048-51). The MiB insists, however, that all who saw her agreed it was true. What does this do to our ability to "see" her?
16) At l. 1114, the Dreamer tries to deliver a well-worn quip about the MiB's speech being like "shryfte wythoute repentaunce." Scholars differ about how to interpret this (RC 975), but its bantering tone is clearly intended to shift the intensifying tone of the MiB's speech, much like a joke delivered during a tense confrontation. Does this poem, in some sense, represent the Man in Black's confession to the Dreamer, and does it lead to a contrite cure of the soul for someone? Note that the poem involves more than the Dreamer, and the MiB, because the readers, too, "hear the confession." What do we have cause to repent?
17) The Dreamer tries again to move the MiB toward more comfortable narrative territory by asking to hear how he first revealed to the Beloved that he loved her. This calls forth the second "refrain" from the MiB (see #9 above), which leads the Dreamer once again to misunderstand "lost" as the loss only of her love (l. 1140). The MiB returns to his year-long hopeless servitude of the unattainable "White," until finally he takes his formal oath of service to her (ll. 1258-67) and is rewarded with "hir mercy" and the gift of a ring (ll. 1270 and 1273). This event, nearly parodied in the modern American wedding proposal, is still a feudal ceremony. What exactly has he offered her, and what exactly has she given him?
18) Perhaps because the knight tells the Dreamer that they loved "ful many a yere" (l. 1296), the Dreamer finally asks the question in a way that will deliver an answer he can understand (ll. 1298-1309). Why is "now" the repeated trigger word for this revelation, and what effect does it have on the world of the dream vision? Note that it is not the final word in the Dreamer's contact with the Man in Black's universe--that is "routhe," rhyming with the MiB's "trouthe" (ll. 1310 and 1309). How does that word lead to the end of "the hert-huntyng" and how might it relate to the function of the confession we have been hearing? (See #15 above.) How does the end of the hunt of the heart/hart relate to the end of the poem ("This was my sweven; now hit ys doon," l. 1334).
19) The poem ends with the king's hunting party returning to its court in a "long castel" that lies "on a ryche hill" (ll. 1317-18), phrases which critics long have identified as coded references to John of Gaunt's titles, by which he would have been known. Modern bourgeois identities are reflected in our use of (usually) three names, a "given" name, usually referring to an ancestor, a "middle" name, usually referring to one's kin by marriage, and one's "surname," referring to one's paternal lineage. Medieval aristocrats were known by their titles. So John, the third son of Edward III, is named by historians "John of Gaunt" because Renaissance antiquaries, the historians' professional ancestors, used birthplaces to distinguish the various Johns from each other. In both formal and informal correspondence from the era, his man would have been called "Lancaster" (as in "duke of Lancaster") or "Richmond" (as in "earl of Richmond"), which translate punningly into "long castel" and "rich hill." Why should Chaucer make these coded, aristocratic naming references to his patron at the end of the text? One way to understand this urge would be to look at medieval manuscripts, which often began or ended with the coat of arms of their noble owners, the coat of arms referring visually to the titles they held.
20) A.J. Minnis, in a 1997 article I can't find at the moment, recommends comparing "Book" with a poem by Philip Larkin, "An Arundel Tomb," which (John-Donne-like) speculates upon the difficulties we have penetrating the artifice of an earlier era in search of the real emotions the art embellishes and represents. Try reading Larkin's poem and those by Donne in which he also meditates on the "love vs. death" theme, like "The Canonization," "The Funeral," and "The Relic." In what ways is Donne closer to Larkin's or our view of love's struggle to assert itself against the inevitability of death, and in what ways is he closer to Chaucer's "Book of the Duchess"? It is interesting to speculate upon the high probability that both Donne and Larkin read Chaucer's "Book" as schoolboys, or as poets learning their craft from older masters. Donne, working in the late 1500s and early 1600s, is only about two hundred years after Chaucer and far closer to his Middle English than we and Larkin are, some six hundred years later. What cultural changes have happened in the intervening time to alter our views of love and death? The Larkin poem has been made part of the Chichester Cathedral's display of the tomb, itself.
Click here for Mark Allen's and John H. Fisher's extensive, lightly annotated bibliography of articles on "The Book of the Duchess" published between 1900 and 1984. Scrolling through it will quickly give you some ideas about readings you might want to challenge, since many of them are unreconstructed "old historicist" (source-hunting) articles and others use New Critical or Structuralist methods without asking crucial questions about emotional affect (Reader-Response, Feminist, etc.), the poem's audience (Reader-Response), or its linguistic instability (i.e., Deconstruction / Feminist). Use the MLA Bibliography to give your analysis a foundation in recent criticism.