From ‘Chaucer and His Poetry’ by G L Kittredge

Four dreadful plagues laid England waste in Chaucer's lifetime. In the third of these, in 1369, died Queen Philippa and her daughter-in-law Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Chaucer and his wife, also named Philippa, were both attached to the royal household, and they received an allowance of black cloth for mourning.
So far as we know, Chaucer paid no tribute of verse to the memory of the good queen, whom all men loved.   Probably none was expected. King Edward had but slight acquaintance with the English language, and no interest at all in English literature. His son John, however, be-longed to Chaucer's generation, — they were of almost exactly the same age, — and he doubtless requested the poet to write an elegy: we should rather say, " commanded," since we are speaking of a prince of the blood. That the commission was grateful to Chaucer's feelings we may well believe; for the Book of the Duchess is instinct with sadness. True, Chaucer does not lament this great lady in his own person, but that is due to his exquisite and admirable art.  He detaches himself completely, to concentrate our attention on the theme, which is, as it ought to be, the bitter grief of the despairing husband, who has lost the love of his youth, and can think of nothing but her gracious perfections. 

   This artistic detachment, which becomes from this time forward a marked feature of Chaucer's method, is achieved in the present instance by a skilful use of familiar conventions. The elegy is cast into the form of a vision. The poet tells the story of a dream: how, wandering in a wood, he fell in with a stranger knight in black garments, and asked and received an explanation of his sorrow. The poet expresses the deepest sympathy.  Though himself in trouble, as we leam from the prologue, he ignores his own woes utterly in his effort to console the stranger, and does not remember them when he wakes, so profound is the impression of the haunting dream.

Thoghte I, "Thys ys so queynt a sweven
That I wol, be processe of tyme,

Fonde to put this sweven in ryme
As I kan best, and that anoon."

This was my sweven; now hit ys doon.

Thus, by a delicate and well-imagined fiction, the artist Chaucer can hold his attitude of detachment, so vital to the effect of the composition, while, at the same time, Chaucer the humble friend can suggest, without obtrusiveness, his respectful and affectionate sympathy with the ducal house. 

  The substance of the elegy, by this adjustment, is spoken, not written merely; and it is spoken by the lady's husband, who can best describe her beauty, her charm of manner, and all her  gracious  qualities  of mind  and  heart. Thus we have in the Book of the Duchess, not a prostrate and anxiously rhetorical obituary, from the blazoning pen of a commissioned laureate, but a tribute of pure love from the lady's equal, who can speak without constraint, — from her husband, who has most cause to mourn as he has best knowledge of what he has lost. Let us follow the course of the story in brief, preserving, if we can, that simplicity of language, which is one of its distinguishing traits. The Dreamer is speaking, and he begins his prologue with an ejaculation of artless astonishment: — 

   I have great wonder that I am still alive, for I have had no sleep this long time. Hopeless love gives me no rest.  It amazes me that a man can live so long, and suffer so much, and sleep so little. I should think he would die.  One night, a little while ago, weary from lack of sleep, I bade my servant bring me a book to pass the time away, and I began to read it, sitting up in my bed. It was a volume of old stories, and one of them was Ovid's tale of Ceyx and Alcyone.  It told how King Ceyx was lost at sea, and how Queen Alcyone, in anxiety and distress, prayed Juno to vouchsafe her a dream,  that she might know whether her husband was alive or dead. And Juno despatched her messenger to the God of Sleep, and he, obeying her command, sent the drowned Ceyx to Alcyone in a vision. He stood at the foot of her bed, and called her by name, and told her of his fate, and bade her bury his body, which she should find cast up on the shore: — 

 "And farewel, swete, my worldes blysse!
I praye God youre sorwe lysse.
To lytel while oure biysse lasteth!"

 Alcyone awoke, and mourned, and died ere the third morrow.  I was astonished at this tale, for I had never heard of any gods that could send sleep to weary men- and straightway I made a vow to Morpheus, or Juno or whatever divinity it might be that had such power. Scarcely had I finished speaking when I fell fast asleep over my book, and I had a wonderful dream, which I do not believe even Joseph or Macrobius could interpret. I will tell you what it was. 

   So ends the prologue, which not only serves as a felicitous introduction to the vision that is to follow, but gives us, in perfection, the atmosphere, the mood, of the piece, — love and sorrow and bereavement. It shows us, too, the Dreamer in complete psychic sympathy with the subject; for what could be more natural than that he should dream of some bereavement or other, when his mind was full of the piteous tale of Alcyone, and the background of his thought was his own suffering for hopeless love? 

I dreamt that it was May, and that I was awaked by the singing of the birds upon my chamber roof. My windows were of stained glass, figuring the tale of Troy, and the walls were painted with the whole story of the Romance of the Rose. The sun streamed in upon my bed, for there was not a cloud in the sky. And as I lay, I heard a huntsman blow his horn, and the noise of men  and horses and hounds; and I arose, and took my horse, and rode out into the field, and joined the hunters, who were hastening toward the forest. Then I asked a fellow who was leading a hound in a leash, "Who is hunting here ?" " Sir," said he, " the emperor Octavian, and he is close by." So the hunt began. The hart was found, and the dogs were uncoupled. But soon he stole away, and the huntsman blew a "forloyn" at the last.

   I left the tree where I had been posted; and a little puppy, that had followed the hounds, but was too young to keep up with them, came and fawned upon me, and crept up humbly, with joined ears, as if he had known me; but when I would have caught him, he ran away. I followed down a grassy path, with flowers underfoot, that led through the wood, till at last I was aware of a young knight in black clothes, who sat under a tree, and he was composing a bitter complaint — a kind of song — of the death of his lady. I greeted him courteously, but he neither heard nor saw me, so full of sorrow was he.

By-and-by he looked up, and I asked his forgiveness for disturbing him. But he took no offence, and was very gracious, despite his sorrow, and seemed willing to talk with me. So I begged him to tell me his grief, saying that I would help him if I could, and that even to speak of it might ease his heart. 

  Then he burst out into a piteous lament. Nothing, he said, would do him any good. His laughter had turned to weeping, his glad thoughts to heaviness, his day to night, his valor to shame. For he had played at chess with Fortune, and she had taken his queen, and checkmated him. But he could not blame her: he would have done as much, had he been Fortune; for, said he, "I dare well say she took the best! But by that game of chess, I have lost all my happiness, and there is nothing left for me but death." 

   Now, when I heard this story, I could scarce stay there longer, for pity. I besought him not to kill himself, for then he would lose his soul. And I told him that no man alive would make all this woe, just for losing a queen at chess. "Why!" cried the knight, "you do not understand me! I have lost more than you imagine." 

   So I begged him to leave his riddles, and tell me plainly what had plunged him into such distress. And he assented, if I would promise to hear him to the end. I swore to listen, and to understand, so far as I had wit. Then he told me the story of his life. How from his earliest youth he had served the god of love.  Yet it was many a year before he set his heart on any lady. He had always longed for the time to come, and prayed ever to the god to vouchsafe that he might fall in love with one that should be beautiful and gracious. And once upon a time, so he said, he came into a place where there was the fairest company of ladles ever seen. But one surpassed them all, as the summer's sun outshines the moon or the seven stars. And he took no counsel but of her eyes and his own heart, for it seemed to him that it would be far better to serve her in vain than to win the love of any other woman in the world. 

  Then he told me of her beauty, and all her charming ways. There was no dulness where she was: she was neither too quiet nor too merry; and her speech — how goodly it was, and how soft! She was never scornful; no man or woman was wounded by her tongue, and her word was as true as any bond, and she knew not how to chide. Then the knight told me the lady's name. It was "good, fair White" [that is, Blanche], and well did it accord with her loveliness.

   "Truly," said I, when the knight paused a moment, "your love was well bestowed. I know not how you could have done better." "Better?" cried he. "Nay, no wight so well!" " So I suppose," was my reply, " I am sure you believe what you say."  [For of course, the Dreamer, as a loyal lover, must not admit that any lady can surpass his own amie.} "Why!" cried the knight, "all that saw her said, and swore, that she was the best and fairest. She was as good as Penelope of Greece or the noble wife Lucretia. When I first saw her, I was young, and scarce knew what love meant; yet I gave all my childish mind to the emprise. And still she sits in my heart and verily I would not let her pass out of my thought for all this world." 

   Then I asked the knight to tell me how he first spoke with the lady, and how she knew that he loved her, and then to vouchsafe to explain what the loss was that he had mentioned before. "Nay!" cried the knight again, "you know not what you say. I have lost more than you imagine." "How so?" I asked. "What is your loss? Does she refuse to love you? Or have you done aught amiss, so that she has forsaken you?  For God's sake, tell me the whole story!" 

  Then he told me how he first declared his love. Long it was before he dared, and then he stammered, and forgot his fine speeches, and hung his head for shame, and could utter only one word "Mercy!" and no more. At last his courage came again, and  he besought her to accept his humble service; but it was yet a long time before she returned his love. Then his joy was perfect.

He was as one raised from death to life. "Thus we lived," said the knight, "for many a year in perfect harmony. Our hearts were so even a pair that neither suffered nor rejoiced without the other." 

  Once more I asked the knight a question: "Sir," said I, "where is she now?"  "Now?" said he.  "Alas that I was born! That was the loss that I told you of. Remem ber how I said, 'You know not what you mean. I have lost more than you imagine!'  God knows, alas! That was she!" 

     Therwith he wax as ded as stoon,
And seyde, "Alias, that I was bore!
    That was the los that here-before
     I tolde the that I hadde lorn.
     Bethenke how I seyde here-beforn,
    Thow wost ful lytel what thow menest;
    I have lost more than thow wenest' —
    God wot, alias! ryght that was she!"
  "Allas, sir, how? what may that be?"
"She ys ded!" "Nay!" "Yis, be my trouthe!"
   "Is that youre los? Be God, hyt ys routhe!"
    And with that word ryght anoon
    They gan to strake forth; al was doon,
    For that tyme, the hert-huntyng.
      With that me thoghte that this kyng
    Gan homwardes for to ryde
    Unto a place, was there besyde,
    Which was from us but a lyte.
    A long castel with walles white,
    Be seynt Johan! on a ryche hil
    As me mette; but thus hyt fil.
    Ryght thus me mette, as I yow telle,
    That in the castell ther was a belle,
    As hyt hadde smyten houres twelve. —
    Therwyth I awook myselve
    And fond me lyinge in my bed;
    And the book that I hadde red,
    Of Alcione and Seys the kyng,
    And of the goddes of slepyng,
    I fond hyt in myn hond ful even.
    Thoghte I, "Thys ys so queynt a sweven
    That I wol, be processe of tyme,
    Fonde to put this sweven in ryme
        As I kan best, and that anoon."
        This was my sweven; now hit ys doon.

  The first thing that strikes one in reading the Book of the Duchess is the quality of artlessness or naivete, to which, indeed, the poem owes much of its charm. This challenges instant attention, for naivete is often rated as one of Chaucer's permanent traits. As such, it holds a conspicuous place in ten Brink's classic inventory of his literary characteristics, along with "fondness for the description of psychological states or conditions," "effective pathos," and "a tendency to humorous realism." 

  Now few facts of history, be it sacred or profane, are more solidly established than that Geoffrey Chaucer, in his habit as he lived, was not naif. Whatever one may think of our American practice in the appointment of diplomatists, it is quite certain that, in the fourteenth century, men were not selected by the English king to negotiate secret affairs on the Continent because they were innocent and artless. And even so, a naif Collector of Customs would be a paradoxical monster. 

   Besides, whatever else he may have been, Chaucer was admittedly a humorist, and naivete is incompatible with a sense of humor.  If I am artless, I may make you laugh; but the sense of humor, in that case, is yours, not mine. The source of your amusement, in fact, will be your keen perception of the incongruity between my childlike seriousness and the absurdity of what I have said or done. Hence, if I myself am a humorist, I may assume naivete, from my own perception of the incongruous, in order to lend my words additional effect. This, of course, is the principle which underlies the rule that a jester must look as grave as he can; or, to put the precept in its crudely familiar guise, "Don't laugh at your own jokes!" 

   Real naivete, as everybody knows, gives a person an appearance of innocence and helplessness, and will therefore be amusing, or pathetic, or both at once, according to the subject or the situation. As a trick of art, therefore, we expect to find the ingenuous manner adopted, now for purposes of humor, and now for those of pathos. I should apologize abjectly for parading these truisms, were it not that they have been so continually overlooked in the literary criticism of Chaucer as to lead to frequent confusion between the artist and the man. And this confusion is exhibited at its very worst in the ordinary appraisal of the Book of the Duchess. 

  In this elegy, the device, I need not say, is employed to heighten the pathos. It deserves our earnest attention. For we shall immediately discover that certain supposed flaws—not in the main design, which is unassailable, but in this or that detail—are due to Chaucer's use of this artistic expedient, and not to feebleness of grasp or a wavering vision. 

   In the first place, the effect of artlessness in the poem is produced by extreme simplicity in style and versification. That the simplicity results from lack of skill is, I fancy, a proposition that nobody will maintain, though it has often been taken for granted (may I say naively ?) by critics who ought to know better. Consider the following passage, where Chaucer is describing, with the swift and terse precision of his best narrative art, the apparition of Alcyone's drowned husband:—


          Anoon this god of slep abrayd
Out of hys slep, and gan to goon,
          And dyde as he had bede hym doon;
          Took up the dreynte body sone
          And bar hyt forth to Alcione,
          Hys wif the quene, ther as she lay
          Ryght even a quarter before day,
          And stood ryght at hyr beddes fet
          And called hir ryght as she het
          By name, and sayde, "My swete wyf,
          Awake! let be your sorwful lyf!
          For in your sorwe there lyth no red.
          For, certes, swete, I nam but ded;
          Ye shul me never on lyve yse.
          But, goode swete herte, that ye
          Bury my body, for such a tyde
          Ye mowe hyt fynde the see besyde;

        And farewel, swete, my worldes biysse!
        I praye God youre sorwe lysse.
        To lytel while oure biysse lasteth!"

Whoever hugs the delusion that because the diction and the metre are simple, it is easy to write like this, is humbly besought to try his hand at imitating The Vicar of Wakefield, or Andrew Marvell's Song of the Emigrants in Bermuda. 

   Let us pass to a consideration a little more debatable, but equally certain in the upshot. There are two characters in the Book of the Duchess — the Dreamer, who tells the story, and the Knight in Black. Now the Knight is not naif at all. On the contrary, he is an adept in the courtly conventions, which have become a part of his manner of thought and speech. He is a finished gentleman of a period quite as studied as the Elizabethan in its fashions of conduct and discourse. All the naivete is due to the Dreamer, whose character is sharply contrasted with that of the Knight. The Dreamer speaks in the first person. One might infer, therefore, that he is Geoffrey Chaucer, but that would be an error: he is a purely imaginary figure, to whom certain purely imaginary things happen, in a purely imaginary dream. He is as much a part of the fiction in the Book of the Duchess as the Merchant or the Pardoner or the Host is a part of the fiction in the Canterbury Tales.

  The mental attitude of the Dreamer is that of childlike wonder. He understands nothing, not even the meaning of his dream. He can only tell what happened, and leave the interpretation to us. Let us revert to our summary: " I have great wonder that I am still alive; for I cannot sleep for sorrow and I am ever in fear of death. One night, not long ago, I was reading an old book, and I found a story in it about the God of Sleep. It astonished me, for I had never heard of him before. And so I vowed to give him a feather bed if he would send me slumber.  And straightway I fell asleep over my book; and I had a dream which makes me wonder whenever I think of it. I will tell you what it was."

  When we come to the Knight in Black and his pathetic history, the Dreamer is true to his nature of gentle simplicity — always wondering and never understanding. He wonders what makes the knight so sad; and when the knight tries to tell him, he still wonders, and still questions.  Hints and half-truths  and figures  of speech are lost upon him, until at last the knight, in despair, as it seems, at his questioner's lack of comprehension, comes out plainly with the bare fact: "She is dead."  "No!" says the Dreamer, still with his air of innocent surprise.  "Yea, sir," replies the knight, "that is what I have all this time been trying to tell you. That is the 'loss' I mentioned long ago." Even then the Dreamer has little to say. He can only speak the language of nature and simplicity: "Is that your loss? By God, it is a pity!" And then he dreamt that the hunt was over, and a clock in a tower struck twelve, and he awoke, and there he was — lying in bed, with his book of ancient stories still in his hand.  And so he wonders more than ever. He does not know what the dream means, or whether it means anything at all. But it was a strange dream, truly, and full of charm, and he decides to write it out as well as he can, before he forgets it. 

   This childlike Dreamer, who never reasons, but only feels and gets impressions, who never knows what anything means until he is told in the plainest language, is not Geoffrey Chaucer, the humorist and man of the world. He is a creature of the imagination, and his childlikeness is part of his dramatic character.

  For almost half a century, by record, the literal-minded have rehearsed, over and over again, their obvious censure on the construction of this beautiful elegy. Chaucer, they allege, is ridiculously obtuse. He hears the knight composing a dirge on his dead lady, and sees that he is dressed in mourning; yet he keeps asking him "what he has lost," and is thunderstruck at the final revelation.  Substitute for "Chaucer," in these strictures, "the Dreamer," and they are half-answered already. For the Dreamer is not merely artless by nature; he is dulled, and almost stupefied, by long suffering. So he tells us at the very first: — "I am, as it were, a man in a maze. I take heed of nothing, how it comes or goes. Naught is to me either pleasant or unpleasant. I have no feeling left, whether for good or bad."

   This is not all. The Knight in Black, unaware that the Dreamer has overheard the dirge, takes pains to mystify him at the outset with an allegory of Fortune and the chess-play, and evades his subsequent questions as long as evasion is possible. For the knight, though eager to talk, shrinks from uttering the bare and brutal truth: — "She is dead!" Speech eases his soul. It is a tender joy to describe his lady's beauty, to dilate on his own childish years and his innocent worship of love, to tell of their first meeting among a goodly company, to remember how abashed he was when he tried to reveal his devotion. It is a relief to him that the Dreamer seems not to comprehend.

   But what of the Dreamer? Is he really deaf and blind to what he hears and sees? By no means! Artless he is, and unsuspicious, and dull with sorrow and lack of sleep; but the dirge is too clear for even him to misunderstand. "My lady is dead," so ran the words, "and gone away from me. Alas, death! why did you not take me likewise when you took her?" The Dreamer knows  perfectly well that the lady is dead. What then? Does Chaucer straightway make him forget? The blunder would be incredible. Chaucer may have been an immature artist when he devised this situation, but he was not a fool; and if, in the haste of writing, he had momentarily entangled himself in such a confusion, all he had to do was to strike out the dirge. The excision of thirteen  lines, without the change of a word beside, would have removed the stumbling block — and there are more than thirteen hundred verses in the  elegy!

   In fact, however, there is no confusion. The Dreamer knows that the lady is dead, but he wishes to learn more, not from idle curiosity, but out of sympathetic eagerness to afford the knight the only help in his power — the comfort of pouring his sad story into compassionate ears. And he tells us as much, in the plainest language. 

       Anoon ryght I gan fynde a tale
To hym, to loke wher I myght ought
       Have more knowynge of hys thought.

He owes his knowledge of the lady's death to overhearing the knight, who was too much absorbed to notice either his steps or his greeting. With instinctive delicacy, therefore, he suppresses this knowledge, and invites the knight's confidence in noncommittal terms, on the ground of pity for his obvious suffering. And when the knight speaks eagerly, though not plainly, as we have seen, and the Dreamer notes that words are indeed a relief, as he had hoped, it is not for him to check their flow.  Let him rather hide his knowledge still, and tempt the knight to talk on and on. It is the artless artfulness of a kindly and simple nature.

  Thus, by the interplay of two contrasted characters, — the naif and sympathizing Dreamer and the mourning knight, who is not naif at all, — brought together in a situation in which the Dreamer, impelled by simple kindliness, conceals his knowledge in order to tempt the knight to relieve his mind by talking, Chaucer has effected a climax of emotional suspense which culminates in the final disclosure. The conclusion is beyond all praise.  "Where is she now?" the Dreamer asks.  "Oh!" says the  knight, coming out at last with the hideous fact that he could not bring himself to utter before, "she is dead." "Is that your loss ? By God, it is ruth!" And with that the hunt was over, and a bell struck twelve in the dream castle, — was it a real sound this time ? and he awoke and found his book of Ceyx and Alcyone still in his hand.

This outburst is pure nature: it shows us the Chaucer that is to be when he shall break loose from contemporary French fashions of allegory and symbolism and pretty visions and dare to speak the language of the heart. What can one say in such a case but "Good God, man, I am sorry for you!" The rest is silence.

   The Book of the Duchess belongs to Chaucer's early period, when his technique was almost purely that of the French love-allegory. For his leading conventions, and for a quantity of details, he is indebted to the Romance of the Rose, which he had already translated, and to his distinguished contemporary Guillaumede Machaut. In his use of this material, however, Chaucer shows a high degree of originality, both in applying the dream convention to his specific purpose, and in the imaginative control which he exercises over the traditional phenomena. Here, for the first time, whether in French or English, we find the standard French conventions—the love-vision, and the lover's lament — turned to the uses of a personal elegy. To discern their fitness for this particular purpose was a considerable achievement; for they are, in fact, quite as well adapted to that end as the pastoral device, with which we moderns are more familiar, and which, as in the Lycidas, we accept without a scruple.

  Let us first consider the Prologue, which introduces us to the Dreamer and contains the Ovidian story of Ceyx and Alcyone. The situation comes from Le Paradys d'Amours, a pretty poem by Chaucer's contemporary, Froissart the chronicler, who was no doubt his personal friend.  Here, as in the Duchess, the Dreamer is a woeful lover, whose melancholy will not let him sleep. Froissart also gave Chaucer a suggestion for the mood of gentle sorrow, as well as for what is so essentially bound up with that mood — the Dreamer's artlessness. In the Paradys, however, this trait is not dramatic: it is merely the reflection of the poet's own nature. Froissart was, in deed and truth, the most naïf of men.  Intensely susceptible to impressions from without, he reacted with all the grace of infancy and all its innocent and subtle charm.

This Chaucer felt when he read the Frenchman's poem. His artistic instinct recognized its appropriateness to his own elegiac subject; and his dramatic power enabled him to comprehend and express.  And so he created his Dreamer, and entrusted the story to him to tell.

  I have just said that Froissart gave Chaucer a suggestion, also, for the mood of his elegy; but here again it was only a suggestion. For the Frenchman does not sustain the mood, which to him was merely an introductory convention.

The Paradys is in no wise elegiac. It begins in a melancholy strain, but sorrow is not its theme. It deals with the joy of love, with the comforts and rewards which the god grants to his faithful servants.  In Chaucer, on the contrary, the whole poem is developed out of the Dreamer's mood, which is constant, habitual, and not to be separated from his character.

  In Froissart, then, the situation and the mood are alike momentary, external, evanescent,—the only constant element is the writer's own naivete. In Chaucer, both the situation and the mood are involved in the Dreamer's temperament, which, compulsive in its gentle innocence, unifies the conception, and subdues the whole to a tone of tender and wistful monody.

  Chaucer's  indebtedness  to  Guillaume  de Machaut has long been recognized, but few critics seem to appreciate his skill in adapting the borrowed material to his main design. Machaut, in the Fontaine Amoureuse, hears a lover's complaint embodying the legend of Alcyone and closing with an appeal to Morpheus:—"Let him take my form, as he took that of Ceyx, and visit my lady as she sleeps, and tell her how I suffer. Then I am sure she will relent.  I will reward him with a nightcap of peacock's feathers, that he may sleep the sounder, and a soft bed stuffed with the plumes of gyrfalcons."  The singer is not speaking for himself. He had composed the lament for a great lord, into whose presence Machaut  is straightway conducted.

This lord, who is reclining by the border of a crystal fountain, takes the poet into his confidence. Then they both go to sleep, and have a vision of Venus. She promises the young lord her help, and evokes the figure of his lady, who comforts him with a smile and gracious words, and leaves him full of hope.

   This is a pretty fancy, and the use of Alcyone's story in the lament is undeniably ingenious. We may even discover a psychological link of cause and effect between its presence there and the vision vouchsafed to the lover.  But the psychology is feeble and the connection somewhat remote.

   Froissart, at all events, saw no such link, for when he imitated the Fontaine Amoureuse, as he did in his Paradys d'Amours, he omitted the story of Alcyone altogether.  He retained the vow to Morpheus, however, substituting a ring for the nightcap and the feather bed, — which, in his innocence, he thought undignified, — and in one respect he made a felicitous alteration: his dreamer prays only for sleep, which falls upon him suddenly. But Froissart employs the dream that slumber brings only to transport himself into the conventional garden, where he encounters certain personified abstractions, and is reassured by the god of love, who grants him an audience, and where he finally meets his lady, with whom he has an eminently satisfactory conversation.

  Chaucer's procedure, with these two poems in his mind, is in the highest degree illuminating. Like Froissart, he makes his Dreamer pray to Morpheus, but his sense of humor prompts him to discard the ring in favor of the feather bed. Machaut's story of Alcyone he keeps, recurring to Ovid for some details, but he brings it into vital connection not only with the Dreamer's character, but with the substance of the dream as well. The Dreamer sees the bereaved husband because he has just been reading of a similar bereavement.  The lack of precise conformity between the impression made upon his waking mind and the image that recurs in slumber is true to dream-psychology. We do not look for absolute identity in such cases. Here Chaucer, unlike his predecessors,  shows himself in  immediate contact with the facts and experiences of human life — even with the life of dreams.

  Undoubtedly Chaucer meant this carrying over of the waking impression into the dream-state to be inferred by his readers, though the naivete of the Dreamer suppressed all mention of the inference. The fact of such transmission was commonly recognized, and Chaucer has adverted to it more than once. In the Squire's Tale we are expressly informed that Canace's interest in the wonderful mirror was the direct cause of her dream: 

And in hire sleep, right for impressioun
Of hire mirour, she hadde a visioun —

and there is a very illuminating case in the Parliament of Fowls. The poet has ben reading the Somnium Scipionis, and goes to bed in low spirits: — 

    But fynally, my spirit at the laste,
    For wery of my labour al the day,
    Tok reste, that made me to slepe faste,
    And in my slep I mette, as that I lay,
    How Affrican, ryght in the selve aray
    That Scipion hym say byfore that tyde,
    Was come and stod right at my beddes syde.

The wery huntere, slepynge in his bed,
    To wode ayeyn his mynde goth anon;
    The juge dremeth how his plees been sped;
    The cartere dremeth how his cartes gon;
    The riche, of gold; the knyght fyght with his fon;
    The syke met he drynketh of the tonne;
    The lovere met he hath his lady wonne.

Can I not seyn if that the cause were
    For I hadde red of Affrican byforn,
    That made me to mete that he stod there;
    But thus seyde he, "Thow hast the so wel born
    In lokynge of myn olde bok totorn,
    Of which Macrobye roughte nat a lyte,
    That sumdel of thy labour wolde I quyte."

  Here the connection between the proem and the story, though formally exact, is imaginatively less close and rather more mechanical than in the Book of the Duchess; but it is still quite satisfactory. As Africanus once took his grandson out of this world, and revealed to him the future dwellings of the righteous and the wicked, so now he conducts Chaucer to a park-gate with two inscriptions, one indicating "the blisful place of hertes hele and dedly woundes cure," the other the realm of Danger and Disdain. They enter the park, which proves to be a lover's paradise with the regular landscape, and the usual conventions follow. Africanus is heard of no more — which is very like a dream. The rest of the Parliament does not here concern us.

  Passing from the prologue of the Book of the Duchess to the Dream itself, we find that Chaucer uses his literary models with equal skill, and shows a like felicity in converting the standard forms to his immediate needs. His problem, we remember, was to apply the conventional type of "lover's complaint" to the ends of a personal elegy.  Two recent poems  by Guillaume  de Machaut lay ready at hand, the Judgment of the King of Bohemia and the Remedy for Fortune. Chaucer drew freely from both, as well as from his old favorite, the Romance of the Rose, which he had already translated, apparently entire, and long passages of which he must have known by heart.

   The plan of the Judgment of the King of Bohemia shows an obvious similarity to that which Chaucer adopted for the Book of the Duchess. I may be allowed to repeat a very brief summary which I have used on another occasion.

   On a fine morning in spring, the poet wanders out into a park where there is many a tree and many a blossom. He sits down by a brook, near a beautiful tower, concealing himself under the trees, to hear the birds sing. A lady approaches, accompanied only by a maid and a, little dog.  She is met by a knight, who greets her politely, but she passes on, without heeding.  The knight overtakes her, and addresses her once more. She apologizes for her inattention, remarking that she was buried in thought.  They exchange courtesies, and the knight begs to know the cause of her pensive mood, promising to do his best to comfort her. He himself, he avers, is suffering from bitter grief. The lady consents, on condition that the knight will reveal the origin of his own sorrow. Accordingly, they exchange confidences, in the hearing of the poet, whose presence remains unsuspected. The lady, it appears, has lost her lover by death. The knight's amie, on the contrary, is living, but has forsaken him. They dispute as to which case is the harder. William reveals himself, and at his suggestion the question is submitted to the King of Bohemia, who decides that the knight has the best of the argument.

   Such general resemblances, to be sure, are of little significance. When, however, we study the details of the Black Knight's story, the obligations of Chaucer to Guillaume de Machaut come out in a way that is almost startling. The knight, in response to the Dreamer's questioning, goes back to the memories of his boyhood. As long ago as he could remember, he had honored the god of love as his liege lord and submitted his spotless heart to his control. Love was only a sentiment to him in those days, — an aspiration, a vague dream of something beautiful that might come to pass by-and-by. And so, in devout humility, he had ever besought the god to be propitious, and to entrust his heart, at the appointed hour, to the keeping of some lovely and gracious lady.  His prayer was answered.  He chanced one day to come into an assembly of the fairest ladies ever seen, and one among them surpassed the rest as the summer sun outshines the moon and the seven stars. He "held no counsel but with her eyes and his own heart," and, thus guided, he thought it was better to serve her in vain than to win the favor of any other woman.

Long time he worshipped her in secret, afraid to speak; and when at last he took courage to reveal his adoration, he stammered and forgot everything he had to say. She was hard to win, but at length she had pity upon him, and granted him "the noble gift of her mercy." And thus they lived full many a year, in honorable love and perfect harmony.

  This part of the poem embodies the famous description of the Duchess Blanche and of her character, which Lowell admired so much and declared "one of the most beautiful portraits of a woman that were ever drawn."

  Now there is nothing new in the Black Knight's story, either in form or substance. The experience he describes is typical, and he speaks throughout in the settled language of the chivalric system.  Love was the only life that became the gently nurtured, and they alone were capable of love. Submission to the god was their natural duty; in his grace and favor was their only hope; for no man's heart was in his own control. It was the god of love, not the man's choice, that bestowed it, and none could withstand the god's decree.

  It is not strange, therefore, that parallel passages may be found in both the Remedy for Fortune and the Judgment of the King of Bohemia.

But the facts go far beyond the mere occurrence of stock phrases.  Comparison shows, in the clearest manner, that Chaucer has borrowed from these two poems with absolute freedom. Many lines, both in the knight's story and especially in the portrait, are literally translated, and, when this is not the case, it is often manifest that the language or the sentiments of Machaut suggested the idea. or the particular turn, that Chaucer has adopted.  Still other poems of Machaut are laid under occasional contribution.

A close study of the relations here briefly indicated is a remarkable lesson in literary craftsmanship. It is also a good illustration of the fact — well-known  but  continually forgotten, —that there was no such thing as the crime of plagiarism in the middle ages, for every poet took without hesitation "what he thought he might require," and nobody blamed him.

  I have no wish to minimize the indebtedness of Chaucer to his French predecessor.  Indeed, there is no temptation to err in that way. For Chaucer uses his borrowings with the power of a master, and nowhere in the poem does his originality appear more strikingly than in the description of the Duchess Blanche, — the very place where his indebtedness is most conspicuous. In Machaut, there is much grace and beauty, but the schematism is complete. The lady utters her lament, and the knight responds. There is no genuine dialogue. In the description, Machaut follows the enumerative method so dear to the middle ages, as if he were, in Hamlet's phrase, "dividing" the lady "inventorially." Hair, forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, teeth, chin, and complexion are catalogued in scientific order, with some exquisite touches, but with a total effect of absurd formality. The Elizabethans knew the method well. It was, in truth, inherited from their schematic forefathers, along with many other legacies of thought and style which the sciolists who decry the study of "medisevalism" do vainly misinterpret. Olivia makes merry with such stilted accumulation of details in her " Item, two lips, indifferent red."

  But Chaucer knew that one should not "make so long a tale of the straw as of the corn," and, in the very act of borrowing from Machaut, he has avoided this fault, though it is one to which the rapid and garrulous short couplet might well have tempted him beyond resistance. In the Black Knight's description of his lady, we find the same admirable selective art that distinguishes the later work of the poet.  Chaucer's knight declares that he cannot describe his lady's face—it passes his ability in expression; but he dwells lovingly on her hair, and lingers over the description of her eyes, which were not too wide open:—

            "Were she never so glad,
         Hyr lokynge was not foly sprad,
         Ne wildely, thogh that she pleyde;
         But ever, me thoght, hir eyen seyde,
        'Be God, my wrathe ys al foryive!'"

This trait, one is surprised to discover, is taken from Machaut. Yet we cannot doubt that it was true to the life in the case of the Duchess Blanche. Apparently it was the fashion for ladies to let their eyelids droop a little, with what used to be called a languishing look. In his lady, the knight protests, this was not an affectation:—• 

         "Hyt was hir owne pure lokyng
          That the goddesse, dame Nature,
          Had mad hem opene by mesure,
And close."

This is not in Machaut, where also we miss the exquisite couplet closing with "My wrathe is al  foryive!" The whole description is so broken up, in Chaucer, as to produce precisely that effect of artless inevitableness that the occasion requires. The mourning knight is not describing his lady: he is giving voice to his unstudied recollection — now of her nature, now of her beauty, now of her demeanor, now of her speech — spasmodically, in no order, as this or that idea rises in his agitated mind.

  That Chaucer should adopt the fiction of a dream, both here and elsewhere, needs no explanation; for it was one of the favorite devices of his age, as of the age preceding and of that which followed. What challenges attention is the frequency with which he adverts to the philosophy of dreams. Not that he has anything new to say. The philosophers had exhausted the subject, and he could merely ponder over their theories and observations, at a loss for a solution of problems that still puzzle some of the best heads amongst us. He deals with the topic in the Parliament of Fowls, at the beginning of the House of Fame, with extraordinary vividness in the last book of the Troilus, and with all his wit and humor in the discussion between Chanticleer and Pertelote. Dreams play as large a role in Chaucer as presentiments do in Shakspere.

We may guess, if we like, that Shakspere was in his own person susceptible to presentiments and that Chaucer, for his part, had uncommonly vivid dreams. If so, this consideration reduces the amount of convention and increases the proportion of fact in Chaucer's employment of the device.  All this not by way of apology, where none is needed, but as an observation worth making, whether it is valid or not — a point that is none the less interesting because it can never be decided. The world is well acquainted with inspiration that comes in sleep; and English literary history does not lack its examples, from Caedmon at Whitby to Coleridge and his Kubla Khan.

   Chaucer, then, in casting the Book of the Duchess into the form of a dream, was faithful to a prevalent fashion. When, however, we compare his dream-poem with its predecessors, we are at once aware of an essential difference. Their dreams are a mere device to get the reader into a sort of fairyland, a mediaeval Arcadia, peopled by personified abstractions — Hope and Mercy and Desire and Jealousy and Despair — or by typical lovers scarcely more concrete than the  abstractions  themselves.  The dream-machinery is often handled with no little skill, and there is at times an atmosphere of unreality which appealed to our forefathers as a welcome relief from the tumult and ugliness of every day. But there is no attempt to reproduce the actual phenomena of dreams. The author goes to sleep at the beginning of his poem and wakes up at the end. In the interim, he may be in a strange country, perhaps, but he is not in any dreamland that mortals know.

  But Chaucer had a strong sense of fact, and his Book of the Duchess is really like a dream. This effect, which every reader must instantly admit, is partly due to the naivete of the Dreamer's temperament, which we contemplate, as we read, with something of that tolerant superiority with which we remember, in our waking moments, the innocent faith we have accorded to the irrationalities of dreamland.  In part, however, this effect of dreaming is produced by a number of delicate touches, almost too elusive to isolate, but undeniably significant in their total impression.

  The first of these touches, perhaps, is when the Dreamer joins the chase.  "Who is hunting here?" he asks of a fellow who is leading a hound in a leash. "Sir," replies the huntsman, "it is the Emperor Octavian." "Good enough!" is the Dreamer's only comment, "let us make haste!" This is surely like a dream. There is no surprise at the news—no question who the Emperor Octavian is, or how he happens to be in that vicinity.  Another point concerns the Dreamer's horse. What becomes of it after the hunt? We suddenly find the Dreamer on foot, walking away from the tree at which, though he has not said so, he has taken up his station, and he never thinks of his horse again. This, too, is very like a dream. Then there is the little puppy that has followed the hounds in its helpless fashion, and is now astray in the woods. It comes up to the Dreamer, and fawns upon him as if it knew him, but runs away when he would take it in his arms, and leads him down a grassy ride into the depths of the forest. Like the horse, the puppy drops out of the Dreamer's vision as other objects appear. Thus, we all remember, do dreams behave.

   I do not contend that Chaucer carried out his dream-psychology in a thoroughgoing and consistent manner. That would have destroyed the continuity required in a narrative.  But assuredly, in various details, he brought the experiences of the Dreamer, with admirable art, near to the actual phenomena of the dream-life. Never was there a more conventional situation — a dream, a paradise of trees and flowers and birds, a lamenting lover, an incomparable lady.  We who wander through the middle ages have seen and heard it all a hundred times. Yet somehow the conventions are vitalized. The artificiality of the situation is merged and lost in the illusions of dreamland, which here are genuine illusions, since the dream is really like a dream. Two typical figures — the lover who sighs in vain, and he who has loved and lost have come to life. First, the Dreamer,—innocent, helpless, childlike, a veritable John-a-dreams,—joining a dream-hunt which comes to naught, pursuing a little dog which disappears, and finding under a tree a mourning knight whom he cannot comprehend. And there are greetings, and questions, and half-understood replies.  The Dreamer has the curiosity of a child, and a child's yearning to comfort his incomprehensible elders. The knight has sought solitude, but a child has stormed his fortress, a grown-up child, who speaks the language of the knight's own world. And the knight talks to the Dreamer in transparent riddles, playing with his own sorrow; he can confide in him all the better for not being understood.  And the dream behaves like a dream. Things grow clearer and clearer, until there is the shock of perfect revelation :" She is dead, I tell you! Can't you see what I mean?" "Is that your loss? By God, I am sorry for you!" The intrusion of reality marks the moment of waking.  "A bell strikes twelve! Do I hear it in my dream, or is it the clock in the tower ? Ah! I am awake, and here is my book of Ceyx and Alcyone still in my hand!" 

  The Book of the Duchess, with all its defects, is a very beautiful poem.  There is a haunting charm about it that eludes analysis, but subdues our mood to a gentle and vaguely troubled pensiveness. The mind is purged, not by the tragedy of life, with its pity and terror, but by a  sense of the  sadness which pervades  its beauty and its joy. Ours is a pleasant world of birds and flowers and green trees and running streams, and life in such a world is gracious and desirable, and nothing is so good as tender and faithful love, which is its own reward.  But the glory of it all is for a moment. Alcyone prayed to Juno to send her a dream, that she might know whether her long-absent husband was alive or dead. And the drowned Ceyx came while she slept, and stood at her bed's foot, and bade her bury his body, which was cast up on the shore:—

       "And farewel, swete, my worldes blysse!
        I praye God youre sorwe lysse.
To lytel while oure blysse lasteth!"

   Now this thought—that life and love and happiness are transitory — is not, with Chaucer, a commonplace reflection, with which he has only a concern that is conventional and impersonal and external. Nor is it, again, a dogma of experience, to which he has dispassionately adjusted his philosophic scheme. It is an element in his nature: it beats in his heart, and flows in his veins, and catches in his throat, and hammers in his head. All men are mortal, no doubt, but seldom do we find one in whom mortality is a part of his consciousness. And such a man was Chaucer—yet so sound of heart, so sane and normal, so wholesome in his mirth, so delighting in the world and in his fellow creatures, that no less a critic than Matthew Arnold, speaking with limited sympathy and imperfect comprehension, would exclude him from the fellowship of his peers on the strength of a formula, because he "lacked high seriousness." Whether Chaucer saw life whole, I do not know. One thing I know — he saw it steadily.