|Mid 14th Century
|Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)
Written in 1368, Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess commemorates the death of Blanche of Lancester from the plague and offers consolation to her widowed husband, John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. Though less metrically sophisticated than some of his later works, The Book of Duchess is Chaucer’s earliest significant narrative poem, entrancing readers in its emotionally powerful and awe-inspiring meditation on the death of one’s beloved.
The poem begins with the poet lamenting his lack of sleep due to a siknesse which he leaves unaddressed. One night, seeing his suffering from another bout of insomnia, someone fetches him a book that tells of Alcyone’s mourning over the absence of her husband, Ceyx. Alcyone prays to the goddess Juno for a dream vision to ascertain Ceyx’s fate, and Juno, answering Alcyone’s prayers, sends a messenger to Morpheus to bring Ceyx’s body to Alcyone. After the deceased Ceyx instructs Alcyone to bury him and to cease her sorrow, Alcyone wakes up to find Ceyx gone. Breaking off from the tale, the poet interjects his wish for a god like Morpheus to grant him sleep, and – as if the gods did hear his plea – falls asleep and begins dreaming.
He finds himself waking up in a chamber with stained glass depicting the tale of Troy and the walls scenes from The Romance of the Rose (a medieval French poem that takes the form of a long allegorical dream vision). He hears a hunt, and leaves the chamber to seek out the hunter(s), who is revealed to be the first Roman emperor, Octavian. While the hunt begins, the poet follows a small dog into the forest and stumbles upon a clearing where a knight, dressed in black, is composing a song for the death of his lady. Upon the poet’s inquiry, the black knight metaphorically explains that he lost his queen and was checkmated when playing a game of chess with Fortune. The poet takes the message literally, and begs the black knight to cease his sorrow over a game. Remaining oblivious to the poet’s misunderstanding, the knight goes on to explain that he met his Love after waiting his entire life, and praises his love – “goode faire Whyte she hete” (good fair White she was called) – at length (line 948). Only when the poet asks for White’s whereabouts did the knight finally say that “she is deed” (line 1309). The poet, aghast at his misunderstanding and at the knight’s loss, wakes up with his book still in his hands. Upon reflection, he decides to set his dream in rhyme – the very one that he has just narrated.
The Book of the Duchess is, as the condensed summary above may have suggested, an embedded prosimetrical work that is highly intertextual. In fact, the opening of Chaucer’s poem (that is, the poet’s melancholia and the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone) is a translation of Guillaume de Machaut’s Dit de la Fonteine Amoureuse, or, “Story of the Amorous Fountain” published in 1361, while the poem’s very form – the embedded philosophical dream vision – is informed by Guillaume de Machuat’s Fountain of Love and Boethius’s prosimetrical text The Consolation of Philosophy1. Other literary references include Guillaume de Mchaut’s Judgement of the King of Bohemia, Fortune’s Remedy and the Fountain of Love, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as references from other fields such as Aristotelian epistemology, medieval dream theory, and the rules of chess. Where the poet wakes up in his dream to the stained glass images of Troy and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, the poem’s philosophical dream vision form is literally recast and refracted through the canonical works of Latin past and the popular European works during the Middle Ages.
Chaucer’s engagement with this double literary lens to construct his narrative is precisely what demonstrates an independent use of form and originality in thought. By introducing his poet’s psychological state with the translation of the “Story of the Amorous Fountain” (which includes the retelling of Ovid’s tale of Ceyx), Chaucer extracts from Machaut’s tale the classical theme of love-sickness, melancholy, and death. Following the medieval belief that the imagination makes use of images processed by the mind that it later translates to “phantasms” in dreams, the poet’s melancholic imagination that is “alway hoolly in [his] minde” (line 15) translates to his dream, in which his melancholia (his having “lost al lustihede” (line 27)) parallels the knight’s pale complexion (“the blood was fled, for pure drede” (line 490)). While Boethius is consoled by personified philosophical guides in the discourse of natural philosophy, Chaucer instead has the melancholic knight narrate metaphorical references to Love and Fortune that are lost upon the likewise melancholic poet. In this sense, Chaucer’s poet’s somnium, an enigmatic dream considered to express a truth veiled in fiction, escapes Boethius’s humanist philosophical engagement with Nature – that is, death is unveiled as entirely inconsolable.
Chaucer’s sophisticated interweaving of references to tell of a dream, of another time and space, perhaps did fulfill the poet’s cryptic promise to address the cause for his sickness “eft” (that is, another time) (lines 41-43). By perceiving the dream as part of the poet’s furtive expression of loss on a narrative level, the plot’s metonymic movement from one deathly narrative to another may be understood as the poet’s intentional prolonging of our understanding of his sickness to give him space to suggest the loss of his beloved as the cause of his illness. Just as the prolonged misunderstanding over the knight’s metaphorical reference allowed the knight time and space to reconstruct his beloved through words, both men can only resort to furtively expressing their loss in face of their beloved’s death. Moreover, the parallel between the poet’s cryptic “that wil nat be, mot nede be lefte;” (that is, “that which will never be must be left behind” (line 42)) and the accelerated collapse of words – “al was doon” (line 1312) – upon the confession of White’s death in the somnium abruptly silences any further consolations. The Book of the Duchess, then, seems to demonstrate mourning as a furtive expression of loss, which the mourners deflect when confronted by inexpressible grief, for death’s finality is such that “will never be [again and] must be left behind.”
Indeed, despite his youth, Chaucer’s exploration of this difficult and ambitious topic provides insights that are not only humanist, but human. Through the poet’s dream-like fluidity in his narration, Chaucer is able to situate us in the literary space opened up by the protagonists’ furtive narration and thus, by extension, situate us in the experience of being unhinged by death. Where the poet’s deliberate circling back to the beginning at the end of the poem prompts re-readings, The Book of the Duchess compels us to be reminded and reflexive of our mortal condition.
1 Chaucer provided the very first Middle English translation from the original Latin, and Boethius’s thought became foundational to many authors.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Book of Duchess.” Dream Visions and Other Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.
Weaver, Erica and A. Joseph McMullan. “Reading Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation of Philosophy from Alfred to Ashby.” The Legacy of Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation and its Afterlives, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
[Featured Image & Fig. 1] http://www.strangehistory.net/2014/11/17/daily-history-picture-playing-medieval-chess/
[Fig. 2] https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/chaucer/works.html
CONTRIBUTED BY YAP JIA YI (’21)