“The Book of the Duchess”: the Dreamer’s Story
Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Book of the Duchess” was written between the years 1369-1372. The poem is a product of Chaucer’s French period. This work was written for Chaucer’s principal patron, John of Gaunt, after the death of his first wife, Blanche. Initially the poem was known as “The Deth of Blaunche the Duchess” and was the first elegy of an English lady. The framework of the poem is a dream motif structured in octosyllabic couplets. Chaucer’s use of the dream motif contributes to the poem’s theme of the brevity of love, the obtuseness of the dreamer, and springtime.
It is not by mistake or accident that Chaucer implemented the dream motif in “The Book of the Duchess.” The dream represents a disconnection from reality; otherwise, Chaucer would have offended John of Gaunt in writing a misrepresentation of the death of his wife. The dream motif also gives Chaucer the freedom to pen a creative and enticing piece. Dreams have no boundaries because they are solely the creation of the dreamer. The action that takes place in a dream cannot be challenged by anyone else because it is what the dreamer created. Therefore, the use of the dream motif opens a door to many possibilities for the writer and the characters of the work.
Although the general subject matter of the poem is accepting loss and the uncontrollability of loss and death, the brevity of love seems to invoke loss in the poem. Upon being introduced to the dreamer, we learn that he is an insomniac and is suffering from an unrequited love affair. The dreamer cannot grasp sleep or the declining lover that can heal him. The dreamer begins to read the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, and it intrigues him because it is a romance. The dreamer continues the story because it is a way for him to hold on to the idea of love. While reading the story with the dreamer, the audience learns that Alcyone has lost her husband and cannot let go of him because of her love for him. Ceyx and Alcyone is a story within a story in which Chaucer also implements the dream motif. Alcyone, stricken with grief, finally falls asleep after calling out to Juno, “Quod she to Juno, hir goddesse, ‘Helpe me out of thys distresse’” (109-110). Juno summons Morpheus, the god of sleep, to help bring closure to Alcyone by presenting Ceyx in a dream in which Ceyx tells Alcyone to let go of her grief.
The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is but a distraction because the actual poem does not start until the story ends. The dream motif also makes the narrator and dreamer two different characters, although at first glance the audience considers them to be one. The narrator tells us a story and then wakes up in a dream after falling asleep, thus transitioning us from the narrator to the dreamer. Initially upon meeting the narrator, we learn that he is in a melancholy state. He has chronic insomnia and is delusional and depressed. He questions why he is still alive since nature usually calls for the end of any creature so full of sorrow and lacking sleep. This further proves John Rivers’s theory that “the poem is a dream vision in which the poet-narrator falls asleep troubled about his own situation and in the dream has an educational experience” (Rivers 565). The dreamer’s thoughts are idle and he takes no note of his surroundings. The narrator finally falls asleep after reading the story and drifts into a dream.
Being aware of the narrator’s state of insomnia, the dream motif contributes to the obtuseness of the narrator. The audience is as ignorant as the dreamer because we learn just as he does, and the poem unfolds before us just as it does for him. The dreamer is purposely dull and na?ve so that he may enter the being of other characters. When the dreamer stumbles upon the Black Knight, he observes the Knight as he grieves. The dreamer approaches the Black Knight and is confused by the Knight’s story of grief until the Knight yells, “she ys ded. — May! — Yis, be my trouthe!” (1309). Because the dreamer could not understand the Knight’s jargon, it shows that he is socially na?ve. The dreamer tries to appear courtly and sophisticated but the insomnia and dream motif have shaped him to be obtuse in character.
According to John Gardner, “Chaucer’s time was one in which official doctrine split human personality in ways we would now call schizophrenic.” Because of this, it would only make sense that Chaucer’s dream motif promotes a theme of springtime. Springtime essentially represents a time of happiness, warmth, growth, and hope — obviously none of the elements of schizophrenia or insomnia. Once again, as seen in the use of springtime in the dream motif, Chaucer disconnects the suffering character from reality and places him in an oasis. The dreamer has left his world of insomnia, and he dreams that he wakes up in May at dawn to the singing of small birds, a significant change from the reality of this life. This springtime is also associated with love, frivolity, and gaiety, although no one in “The Book of the Duchess” ever acquires these things. The dream motif introduces the so-called reverdie tradition, which indicates springtime and the theme of love that is associated with it.
The dream motif allows for an intimacy that Chaucer may not have been able to use in a regular work. This intimacy allows Chaucer to write the most absurd thing and justify it because it is a dream. The dream allows the freedom to explore and gives the work a seal of authenticity because no one can question or contradict the validity of a dream. For example, the obtuseness of the narrator is obvious because there is no other explanation for why he first hears the Knight speak of the death of his lady, but still the narrator does not understand. Chaucer’s use of the dream motif creates the perfect structure for “The Book of the Duchess.” The dream motif creates a story within a story that intimately explores the brevity of love, creates and justifies an obtuse character, and implements the the reverdie tradition, all of which are typical elements of French poetry.
Chaucer, Geoffrey, and John H. Fisher. “The Book of the Duchess.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Theodore Morrison. The Portable Chaucer. New York: Penguin, 1977. Print.
Gardner, John. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009. Print.
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