THE BOOK OF THE DUCHESS
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.
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.
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: —
farewel, swete, my worldes blysse!
I praye God youre sorwe lysse.
To lytel while oure biysse lasteth!"
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
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.
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."
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
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!"
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
"Hyt was hir owne pure
That the goddesse, dame Nature,
Had mad hem opene by mesure,
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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!"
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:—
farewel, swete, my worldes blysse!
I praye God youre sorwe lysse.
To lytel while oure blysse lasteth!"
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.