|TITLE:||The Chamber, the Man in Black, and the Structure of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess|
|SOURCE:||The Chaucer Review 44 no2 205-23 2009|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.|
Structural coherence has long been a topic of discussion regarding Chaucer's Book of the Duchess (ca. 1368-72). Among the various analyses, Helen Phillips suggests the triptych as a model to provide coherence for the narratives three sections: the narrator's complaint, the story of Seys and Alcione, and the dream.(FN1) Yet no one to my knowledge has systematically noted the structural parallel between the beginning of the dream proper (291-343) and the man in black's autobiography (759-1309).(FN2) The analogies found here complement Phillips's idea of the triptych, reflect a Chaucerian style of multiplying meanings through repetition, and highlight the significance of the images in the chamber in relation to the broader story of grief in the Book of the Duchess.
The narrator begins his dream in a chamber that ostensibly provides a transition into the main part of the dream, as it occurs between his reading of an Ovidian tale and falling asleep, on the one hand, and his entrance into an Edenic landscape and encounter with the man in black, on the other. The chamber fills with images derived from other narratives, which seemingly stall the progress of the story. These images allude, first, to a locus amoenus, with reference to a perfect spring morning; next, to Aeneas, with reference to the story of Troy; and, finally, to fin' amors, with reference to the Roman de la Rose (291-334). They constitute, I argue, a structural analogue to the main scene in the Book of the Duchess, providing commentary on the man in black's autobiography and a cultural perspective on the death of White. More specifically, the images anticipate the man in black's recounting of his youthful idleness and falling in love (759-1041); his understanding of White's excellence (1052-87); and his induction into fin' amors (1088-1297). In effect, his autobiography unfolds and amplifies the significance of the chamber and its images. The parallels between these passages support the long-held interpretative alignment of the fictional White with the actual Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, and of the man in black with the bereaved John of Gaunt, such that the narrative can be seen to center on the man in black's recounting of his loss. Serving as more than a simple transitional device, the succession of images in the chamber contributes to a dual program of encomium and consolation: the images provide a context for framing Blanche's significance and consoling John of Gaunt's grief.
The analogy drawn by the poet between the man in black's autobiography and the images in the chamber highlights the formal structure and craftsmanship of the Book of the Duchess. The plot explicitly connects the dream with the poem's prefatory matter in that sleep relieves the narrator's insomnia. But one of the implicit connections between the dream and what precedes it hinges on the narrative's literariness. Roughly two-thirds of the Book of the Duchess derives from French sources.(FN3) The oblique and overt references to other narratives, that is, the poem's intertextuality, emphasize the power of narrative in and of itself to suggest self-reflexivity, so that what one reads is Chaucer's commentary on his craft. Thus Lisa Kiser connects the narrator's dreaming with his ability to write, and the images with a comment on his poetic debts, while Michael St. John, noting the transitional purpose of the images, argues for the appropriateness of the medium of glass "symbolically" to "present the images as ideological entities" in service of a creative vision distinct from those depicted.(FN4) Occurring throughout the Book of the Duchess, this literary self-reflexivity combines with the architectural structuring of the chamber to emphasize the symbolic importance of the images in the chamber. Robert Edwards has elaborated on Chaucer's technique in terms of poetic emblems that "operate as parts of the text, parts of its imaginative economy," such that "our understanding of them depends, as elsewhere, on interpretive reading."(FN5) According to Edwards, Chaucer favors architectural structures, and the dream chamber constitutes the first emblem in the Book of the Duchess even as it unfolds the narrator's promise to Morpheus that "al hys halles/I wol do peynte with pure gold" (258-59).(FN6) The analogy I propose, between the chamber's images and the man in black's autobiography, suggests that the emblematic architectural image of the chamber provides a scaffold on which to construct the significance of Blanche's life and death in relation to John of Gaunt. As an emblem, moreover, these images transcend the specific occasion of the narrative; they provide a map for Chaucer's attitude toward his literary inheritance and for retrieving that which is lost.
Throughout the Book of the Duchess, many literary echoes and references enable Chaucer to rewrite his French sources.(FN7) These echoes and references both provide a means for the poet to comment on his cultural inheritance and invite investigation into his reworking of his sources for his own purposes.(FN8) For example, much literary criticism has focused on the opening section of the dream and its relationship to the story of Alcione and Seys.(FN9) The detail of birds beginning the dream recalls the metamorphoses at the end of Ovid's version and absent in Chaucer's retelling of the tale. The extent to which Chaucer appropriates other narratives delineates his own emphasis. In this remaking of the Ovidian tale, he substitutes the narrator's metamorphosis into sleep for that of Alcione and Seys into birds, therein marking the narrative as his own at the same time that he dismantles the textual authority he inherits by remaking it.(FN10) Yet the self-reflexivity creates its own kind of consistency apart from the specific narrative that Chaucer co-opts for his own purpose. Narrative references carry over into the dream as a motif, so that the reading of a story before falling asleep provides echoes under the category of stories to form a dream language. For example, the birds from the conclusion of the Ovidian tale that occur in the beginning of the dream are not the same birds as occur in Ovid's tale; the narrative sources shift from a classical legend of Seys and Alcione to that of a locus amoenus, and the description of the perfect May morning derives from the literature of fin' amors and specifically recalls the Roman de la Rose. The dreamer will later name that narrative when he sees it "peynted" with both "text and glose" (333) in his chamber. The change in sources distinguishes the dream from the Ovidian tale, while the undercurrent of sources is thematicized. Chaucer's literary technique relies, then, on the introduction of a source by means of an echo that then becomes a concrete reference.
The beginning of the dream reflects a double-reference to literary sources: it references classical narrative by following up on a classical story, and medieval narrative by introducing a scene from the literature of fin' amors. The chamber houses these narratives in the "now" of the plot as, however fragmented their presentation, the source narratives from the past are painted into the present of the dream. In addition to forming a language for the dream, the images call up their sources, disrupt the plot focused on the narrator, and set the stage for the man in black's revivification of the dead White, that is, for reading the past into the present and the present into the past. The temporal disjunction parallels a discursive one in that the beginning of the dream with its emblematic architectural significance creates an echo chamber within the Book of the Duchess. In addition to the temporal fluidity indicated by the sources inserted into the narrative, the images further reverberate in the man in black's autobiography. The images he creates for his immediate purposes fold into those from the chamber, which have already been received by the audience and in turn echo their source narratives.
After reading and falling asleep, Chaucer's dreamer awakes into a May morning. Dream weather is neither hot nor cold; blue skies indicate perfection. Chaucer's use of secular sources places the beginning of the dream in a literary locus amoenus,(FN11) and this first image emphasizes the harmoniousness of the birds' songs, "al of oon acord" (305). As part of this idealization, the description foregrounds nature as opposed to the artifice of a man-made imitation of nature. The dreamer finds the songs' "noote" (303) distinct from "instrument" (314). The timing of spring, the song of one accord, and the literary echoes from a romance paradise combine to emphasize the birds' mating ritual. This natural scene primes expectations to suggest that a story of desire is to follow, as it eventually does. But the story tells of the man in black and not of the dreamer, partially because the dream is about the man and his loss. Much as Chaucer's narrative takes its cue from other narratives that tell the tales of other personae, so too the love story of the man in black displaces the dreamer's narration of himself and relieves his self-absorption, which has contributed to his insomnia.(FN12) At this point in the Book of the Duchess, the emergent pattern invites a reading inclusive of the dreamer but pointing away from him. Literally, the dreamer attends not to himself, but to his environment, to the morning, and to his chamber. The dream follows the same pattern. It draws attention away from the dreamer to focus eventually on the man in black and on the man's desire for and loss of White.
The man in black's description of his carefree youth reflects the chamber image of a May morning. The repetition of "first(e)" in his self-description emphasizes youth when love was foremost in his thoughts (789, 791, 799), so that his beginnings in love correspond to the dream season of a May morning. He describes his impermanent work as "flyttynge" (801), a word that recalls the birds in the dreamer's chamber. His description of his self-absorption emphasizes the youthful delight when, "throgh plesaunce," he became Love's "thral/With good wille, body, hert, and al" (767-68). As with the image of the birdsong, the youthful encounters accentuate cyclical time and an individual's beginning point within it. In effect, the dreamer's wakening in his chamber corresponds to the man's youth in that each consists of awakened sensibilities. From the perspective of his current maturity, the man in black understands himself to have exploited his natural tendency (778) to learn of love and live in "ydelnesse" (798).
An additional parallel between the images in the chamber and the man in black's autobiography occurs in his reference to a conventional simile for learning. As an initiate in love, he "was therto most able,/As a whit wal or a table," to "cacche and take/Al that men wil theryn make,/Whethir so men wil portreye or peynte" (779-83). Beyond indicating the beginning of the man in black's education, the simile invites a comparison between his situation and the dream chamber with its "painted" walls. In the ensuing dialogue with the dreamer, the man in black displays his learning, naming literary heroes and providing references, such as that to the "Romayn, Tytus Lyvyus" (1084), to describe the process by which he was educated in love. The comparison of his educational process to a "white wall or a table" ready to be imprinted by texts suggests that his discourse is as culturally determined by sources as are the images in the chamber. If the man in black formed himself into a lover through literary learning, so, by the same means, the dreamer forms himself into a writer.(FN13) Indeed, the beginnings of the dream and the autobiography echo the same source narratives: the openings in the literature of fin' amors. Both the dreamer's awakening into a spring morning and the man in black's description of the spring of his life reflect an element in the beginning of Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la Rose, where a young man sets out on a spring morning.
Already dedicated to the youthful concept of love, the man in black now focuses his feelings, noting the moment when he "sawgh oon/That was lyk noon of the route" (818-19). For 225 lines (until the dreamer's interruption at line 1042), he describes White based on his first sighting of her (805), relying on literary conventions of praise to do so:
That as the someres sonne bryght
Ys fairer, clerer, and hath more lyght
Than any other planete in heven,
The moone or the sterres seven,
For al the world so hadde she
Surmounted hem alle of beaute.
Rather than particularize White, the man claims that her beauty surpasses celestial elements. Just as the dreamer invoked "heven" to describe the sweetness of the bird's song in the chamber (308), here the man in black describes White as "fairer, clerer," and with "more lyght/Than any other planete in heven." On the one hand, the man's insistence on Whites superlative qualities is consistent with literary descriptions of the beloved, while on the other it enables him to begin to re-member her, to put her parts back together:
Ryght faire shuldres and body long
She had, and armes, every lyth
As Aranye Fradenburg argues, Whites "exemplarity" also enables her to "be 'made' according to the law of the group," to the effect that she "represents the very value of specificity made sublime."(FN14) As such, White participates in the late medieval rhetoric of "female sovereignty" that "aristocratic communities" might attribute to a queen, at once claiming her as a member of their own superior group and ascribing a transcendence to her that makes her capable of uniting political division.(FN15) The very conventionality of her representation thus suggests the political economy in which John of Gaunt acts, even as it lauds Whites impact as beyond the mundane.
In his recollection of White, the man attempts to perform the same activity that Sleep does when he takes up the "dryente body" (195) of Seys and makes him talk to Alcione.(FN16) Just as Sleep draws up Seys, the dreamer's questions draw out memories of the dead White. Chaucer's doubling of narrative events suggests that the first shock of grief is the loss of the beloved body: it cannot be located among the living. Yet Sleep has an easier job than does the man in black because Sleep can find the body and activate it. Unable to make White speak, the man can only recall her. The similarity between the revivification of Seys and the memorialization of White highlights Chaucer's method of multiplying meaning by juxtaposing events that complement, but only partially duplicate, each other. In much the same way, the man in black's display of his learning reflects the dreamer's display in describing the images in the chamber. The inexact correspondences invite the reading of one section of the narrative in terms of the other.
Even in his generic praise, the man in black insists on White's authenticity. She is no "countrefeted thyng" (869), but presents the best of Nature in her appearance and manner:
For certes Nature had swich lest
To make that fair that trewly she
Was hir chef patron of beaute,
And chef ensample of al hir werk,
Following the recommendations of rhetorical handbooks, the man's praise moves from her physical description to abstract qualities. Her not-too-wide eyes, for example, create a "look" that "nas not asyde/Ne overthwert" (862-63), denoting a forthrightness and honesty that lead, in turn, to her capacity to "Have mercy" (867). The man in black's mention of White's singing (849) functions in a similar way: the parallel between the descriptions of his first sighting of White and of the birdsong in the chamber lies not so much in the details as in the emphasis on the harmonious integration and ideal, natural perfection that such conventions imply.
Even as they create the ideal morning and the ideal lady, neither the dreamer nor the man in black names his source narrative. The lack of explicit reference suggests that experience for the dreamer as he wakens in the chamber is as diffused as that described by the man in black in reflection upon his youth. Neither one voices a solidified vision. Kathryn Lynch has persuasively argued that the conventions espoused in the man in black's dialogue with the dreamer eventually lead the narrative from universals to a particular understanding of White and of loss.(FN17) In the beginning of the dialogue, for example, the exchange between the dreamer and the man in black proves inadequate to conveying the speaker's meaning, while at the end of the dialogue the man in black's blunt statement regarding Whites death leaves no doubt. This movement toward specificity links the chamber images and the dialogue. Each section moves from generic echoes "translated" from other recognizable narratives to overt reference, by the dreamer in the chamber and the man in black in his dialogue.
In the chamber scene, after describing the weather and birdsong, the dreamer turns his attention to the "glas" that portrays "al the story of Troye" (322, 326). The reference to Troy introduces history based on classical examples into the dreamer's description of a May morning, permitting the dreamer to display his familiarity with his inherited literary culture. Along with the mention of heroes and kings -- he speaks
Of Ector and of kyng Priamus,
Of Achilles and of kyng Lamedon,
And eke of Medea and of Jason,
Of Paris, Eleyne, and of Lavyne
that is, of people in positions of high political responsibility -- the allusion to the story of Troy suggests a national scope to the poems ostensibly personal message.(FN18) By means of implicit analogy, the listing of the Trojan heroes aligns the man in black with political leadership. As Fradenburg points out, Blanche's death (in 1368 or 1369) occurred "when Gaunt's prominence in national and international affairs was reaching a certain zenith" with his and Chaucer's travels to Spain.(FN19) The list of names opens with two lines, each of which introduces first a hero and then a Trojan king, and doses with a woman, figures suggestive of John of Gaunt and Blanche.(FN20)
The story of Troilus and Criseyde contained within that of Troy could evoke the man in black's loss of White, but, presumably because Troilus's loss implies female betrayal, these figures go unmentioned. Instead, Chaucer concludes the passage with Lavinia, Aeneas's Latin bride. Fitting for a commemoration of Blanche, Chaucer emphasizes the instrumentality of women in nation-building. Although Aeneas triumphs militarily, it is Lavinia who ensures the succession of Trojans in Rome. In the Old French Aeneas, she bespeaks fin' amors, so as to make romantic love a component in Aeneas's leadership and empire-building. Rather than privileging politically historical over amorous relationships,(FN21) Chaucer emphasizes the interrelationship between these two components of romance. The reference to Octavian's hunt a few lines later (368) resonates in the figure of the man in black who, as we will discover, sits in proximity to the hunt, but due to grief for White, fails to participate in it. His grief not only separates him from the hunting of the heart/hart; by implication, he is also bereft of a dynastic promise.
The depiction of Troy in the chamber thus serves a double function. On the one hand, the images amplify the leadership and conventions of courtesy that the man in black embodies, and they authenticate his experience. On the other hand, they create a tableau to complement White before the man in black introduces her into the narrative. If, as is generally assumed, the narrative was performed at a memorial for Blanche the Duchess of Lancaster, the occasion may have made explicit and dominant the connection between the images in the chamber and John of Gaunt. Chaucer's audience would have understood the allusions even before the man in black unfolds their meaning in terms of his personal loss.
The man in black's defense of his love for White in his dialogue (1052-87) corresponds to the introduction and brief description of Troy in the chamber. When the dreamer implies that White might have seemed outstanding only because of the man in blacks love for her, the man expands his praise to include classical examples. Up until the dreamer interrupts him (1042), the man in black seeks comparisons to approximate the extraordinariness of White. To him, she is as the "soleyn fenix of Arabye" (982), and she has the goodness of "Hester" (987). After the interruption, however, the man in black changes his mode so that narrative agency focuses on him. Defending his description of White, he becomes the subject of the comparison:
Thogh I had had al the beaute
That ever had Alcipyades,
And al the strengthe of Ercules.
The man in black's assertion suggests growing self-awareness as he inserts himself as a point of comparison in determining White's value. After re-membering her by piecing together her appearance, he focuses on her meaning to him. The classical references here reinforce the alignment between the story of Troy in the chamber and the man in black's clarification of White's extraordinariness, because he relies on some of the same names that appeared in the dreamer's description of "al the story of Troye":
As was Ector, so have I joye,
That Achilles slough at Troye-
And therfore was he slayn alsoo
For love of Polixena.
"Ector" and "Achilles" occur in the same metrical position that they did in the previous description supplied by the dreamer. Rather than the kings listed in the chamber, the man in black names only the heroes and compares their experiences in love to his own so as to emphasize his part in the affair. The man in black's comparisons enable Chaucer to maintain a focus on loss within a learned context of classical references. The heroes suffer joy followed not just by sorrow but also by death, so as to liken the man's grief to a kind of death. Likewise, Chaucer highlights how those heroes were instrumental in the success of kingship. Whereas the man in blacks comparison of himself with the heroes stresses his metaphorical death in his grief, the similarities between the two passages recalling Troy suggest that they refer to John of Gaunt's political position as well as to his loss of Blanche.
The passages also parallel each other structurally. After speaking of heroic lovers, the man in black ends his response to the dreamer by comparing White with classical women:
She was as good, so have I reste,
As ever was Penelopee of Grece,
Or as the noble wif Lucrece.
In closing with Lucrece, the Roman paragon of virtuous women, the passage follows the same structural pattern as the dreamer's description of Troy, which concludes with Lavinia. There is a difference, though, in that the dreamer points to a woman of political significance, while the man in black emphasizes one of moral virtue. In this, the references bespeak the perspectives of their respective narrators: the dreamer places the historical Blanche in a civic context, and the man in black places her in an ethical one. Although the point is not elaborated on in the passage, Lucretia seems especially pertinent because she committed suicide after being sexually assaulted. That is, her story dramatizes raptus in two different ways: her virtue is violated, and she is taken by death. This perspective reflects the man in black's self-absorption in understanding White's death only in terms of his own loss.(FN22) In that the dreamer concludes his description of the story of Troy with reference to Lavinia, he maintains an appropriate distance from the subject of exemplary women with political status. The man in black's reference to Lucretia amplifies the impact of woman in that the violation of Lucretia and her subsequent suicide changed the ethical and political landscape of ancient Rome. Taken together, all of the references to classical women insert White into their company, so that she becomes the subject of legend even as the Book of the Duchess ascribes that status to her.
The man in black then turns from telling of his first fall into love to explain the process by which he became educated in fin amors (1088-1297). The change is marked by a temporal regress seemingly to the period following his first sighting of White: "I was ryght yong, soth to say,/And ful grete nede I hadde to lerne" (1090-91). His resolution at that time "To do hir worship and.., service" (1098) corresponds to the appearance in the dreamer's chamber of the Roman de la rose "peynted, both text and glose" (333). The phrase "text and glose" has been understood to be formulaic in denoting the text in its entirety, to be pictorial in denoting illustrations, and to be textual in denoting the narrative and commentary.(FN23) While no manuscript source for Chaucer's depiction of the Roman has been found to date, his descriptive phrase most commonly refers to a discourse and its commentary. In this sense, "text and glose" paradigmatically occur in the man in black's mode of discourse. For although the dreamer does not explain his meaning of the phrase when he describes the chamber, the man in black presents his dedication to White with "both text and glose": he describes his actions and elaborates on his symptoms throughout this section. When he finally approached her to tell her of his feelings, for example, he turned "bothe pale and red-/Bowynge to hir, I heng the hed" (1215-16). He includes not only the event (the text), but also, an interpretation (the gloss) of his youthful behavior from the perspective of his current maturity: "So at the laste, soth to seyn/.../I gan hir beseche/.../As I best koude" (1221, 1224, 1231). His education in fin' amors personalizes the topic of Guillaume de Lorris's section of the Roman; each narrative records similar symptoms of lovesickness. In naming the Roman in the dreamer's chamber, Chaucer provides an image to depict the process by which fin' amors displaces the mating rites of birds, as if a cultural construction may grow seamlessly from a biological one. He then repeats the pattern in the dialogue, which narrates the progression from youthful love to fin' amors as a process of maturation for the man in black, who, in turn, unfolds the process as though he were quoting from such books as the dreamer imagines in his chamber. In other words, what is "in the glasynge ywroght" (327) glosses the man's life and loss.
The memory of White's initial rejection instills such sorrow in the man in black that he once again brings up the destruction of Troy, but now as if he were Cassandra:
Allas, that day
The sorowe I suffred and the woo
That trewly Cassandra, that soo
Bewayled the destruccioun
Of Troye and of Ilyoun,
Had never swich sorwe as I thoo.
Ostensibly, the comparison is intended to approximate the depth of sorrow that the man in black felt at White's initial rejection of him. Still devastated, he couches his loss in terms of losing a homeland and nation. The comparison also validates the sureness and sincerity of his love, for, like Cassandra, he speaks truth, but no one -- namely White -- responds the way he thinks appropriate. Like the prophetess, he also predicts an actuality, the loss of White, which has not yet occurred except as an emotional experience.
Following as it does upon his invocation of classical heroes with respect to himself and heroines with respect to White, the mention of Cassandra warrants comment because the comparison genders his sorrow as female. The man's identification with Cassandra disrupts the narrative so as to contribute to Chaucer's dismantling of authoritative texts, as if she were detached from her gendered referent. Since the man's experience finally turns out to be similar to that of Alcione, his identification with Cassandra here invites a comparison between suffering females that connects Ovid's heroine with the man in black. Among others, Steven Kruger has addressed the propensity of love to feminize its participants.(FN24) In this context, the man in black projects himself as like Cassandra in having being victimized, taken off, and captured by love for White rather than by an enemy. This comparison of himself to Cassandra is at once a ridiculous hyperbole and a jarring approximation of his experience that locates him in the terrible grief of his loss. In effect, his nature was changed. In the time frame of his autobiography, he suffered loss at White's rejection of him. He was no longer the carefree youth of awakened sensibilities. In his present, he still suffers the actual loss of her, the very thing that threatened his youth. The comparison to Cassandra, therefore, marks his metamorphoses in his autobiographical narrative, but also signifies his present state of sorrow. He is separated from the hunt, made anomalous in the landscape, and trapped in a discourse on White and loss, the meaning of which he must recreate in order to attempt to convey it. The man in black's final return to the castle contributes to the narratives goal, as Kruger puts it, of "straightening gender and sexual anomalies,"(FN25) because the puns invoked in the man in black's return allow him to take up the titles associated with the masculinity of his social persona. The images in the chamber thus provide, retrospectively, a bookend to the return to the castle, by offering cultural representations of masculinity, however feminized by love, to introduce the dream.
The reference to Cassandra brings her legend in general, and her ability to interpret dreams in particular, into Chaucer's narrative.(FN26) By comparing himself to her, the man in black testifies to the dream's truthfulness. His near-loss in the past becomes a reality in his present, authenticating the dream's status as a somnium coeleste, one of the three classifications indicated by medieval physicians to convey truth and applied to the Book of Duchess by A. C. Spearing.(FN27) The genre of the dream vision enables Chaucer to present such truth as accessible and verifiable in actuality. Kruger's term "middle vision" further differentiates the literary from a truth-telling dream: the dream framework enables ambiguity in relation to truth and falsehood without relegating its message either to fantasy or to revelation.(FN28) Coded references to John of Gaunt's position and his actual loss substantiate the dream and connect the dream to an actual aristocratic community. The Book of the Duchess does not conclude with the unity found in early literary visions such as Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae,(FN29) but Chaucer nonetheless formulates the dream to convey the truth of the man's personal experience, even if that truth is ineffable, even if White exists only as an image subject to interpretation.
Cassandra marks the final reference to Troy and the last of the man in black's classical examples. The reference also signals his mastery of fin' amors, for in the following year he vowed his appropriate service to White (1248-67). Like the lover in Jean de Meun's portion of the Raman de la Rose, the man in black won his lady. The tragic image of the destruction of Troy, introduced in the chamber and brought up with reference to Cassandra, is supplanted by the mans joy when White finally accepted him, a happiness that turned to sorrow at her death. Joy followed by sorrow characterizes the emotional experience of the heroes to whom the man in black previously compared himself. At this point, however, classical examples no longer serve their purpose for either the man in black or the dreamer, because they have accomplished their goal of bringing out the dead images -- those of classical legend, that of the deceased -- and the lost images of dreams and of selves.
The measure of the man in blacks loss is punctuated by his final, simple statement: "She ys ded!" (1309). He speaks no more, but is absorbed into the landscape as the dreamer says that the "kyng/Gan homwarde for to ryde" (1314-15). The focus on the background scenery to their dialogue parallels the earlier passage in which the dreamer mounts a horse to leave the chamber and then hears a hunting horn just after he has noted the Roman and described the sky (344-58). A horn sounds again after the dialogue to signal the end of the hunt (1313). At each of the two points in the narrative, the refocus to a background landscape substitutes for interpretative guidelines. Instead of describing the effect of the dialogue on the man in black or specifying the meaning of the images in the chamber, Chaucer in each case turns his narrative to describe movement from one location to another. The dreamer walks from his chamber out into a landscape. The man in black returns to the castle. As the poem nears its end, a bell seeming to come from the castle tolls twelve hours, and the narrative relocates to the dreamer awakening in his bedroom with "the book... Of Alcione and Seys" in his hand (1326-27). His decision to put "so queynt a sweven" (1330) in rhyme conducts the narrative back to its inception. Even at the conclusion, the movement to another locale substitutes for interpretative directions. The technique of analogy throughout the narrative reifies recursiveness, so that the structure of the narrative mimics the process of grieving in its process to "resist closure."(FN30)
The images in the chamber from the beginning of the dream supply a subtext and a context for the man in blacks autobiography. The structural analogue complements the narrative's rhetorical figures of pamnomasia (word play on names) and polyptoton (repetition of a word in different forms).(FN31) These figures contribute to a stylistic consistency as the scenes of the plot change. At the same time, Phillips's idea of the triptych as a model enables the reading of each of the narrative sections in terms of each other. My argument that the man in blacks autobiography unfolds and amplifies the images the dreamer first encounters in his chamber provides an interpretative strategy to complement Phillip's analysis, for each of the narrative sections is determined by a change in focus held together by repetition not only in language but also in images and motifs. Although not as radical as the movements differentiating the three sections, the dreamer's exit from the chamber and entry into the landscape provide a transition in the narrative that signals the need to connect thematic echoes in much the same way as the overall triptych invites connections among its sections.
The alignment of the chamber images with the man in black's autobiography lends coherence to the structure, but it also implies that the narrator functions instrumentally: he records the images but offers no explanation as to how they might relate to him. In contrast to the narrator's self-presentation in the prologue, the dreamer's reactions are not psychologized in the dream. He simply describes what he sees in the chamber. As an interlocutor, the dreamer provides the instrument by which the man in black re-experiences his joy and sorrow. In this sense, the dreamer embodies the critical interpretations that find him "manipulated for rhetorical emphasis."(FN32) Just as the dreamer's responses aim to keep the man talking about his loss, the images in the chamber and not the dreamer's reception of them matter because their primary purpose is not to provide insight into the dreamer's situation and into his characterization, but rather to provide a context for the man in black in relation to White. This argument is not to deny either the value of the dreamer's literalness or the effects of his misunderstanding the man. The dreamer's inability to allegorize and his failure to make connections between what he sees and hears suggest, as Deanne Williams puts it, alienation from his own culture's artifacts.(FN33) But the analogy between the man's autobiography and the images in the chamber also suggests that the artifacts serve different purposes. The man in black draws from his learning to convey what his loss means to him; the same names in the dreamer's vocabulary do not indicate the same meaning. "Ector" is a story figure in the glass for the dreamer, but "Ector" represents an emotional reality for the man the black. The heroic names of their shared culture constitute a coin of exchange that has different value depending on its context and reception, that is, on the speaker's/listener's respective experiences and interpretations. If the Book of the Duchess represents a truth-telling somnium coeleste, then truth is radically personalized and circumscribed by the ability to make connections between individual actuality and cultural learning. The structure of the narrative invites rather than imposes such connections.
Chaucer's strategy suggests that cultural artifacts do not in and of themselves provide a shared meaning that completely conveys either the man in black's meaning to the dreamer or the dream narrative's meaning to the audience. The man in black and the narrative both struggle to express particular emotional realities that resist redirection to language or convention. The dreamer's dialogue with the man in black logically moves the dreamer to an understanding of the man's loss since the dialogue tracks the meaning of White to him. The unfolding of the entire narrative with the purpose of memorializing Blanche likewise moves the audience gradually to understand her significance and the process by which grief moves toward mourning. Events in the man in black's relationship to White form the timeline for the dialogue: his sighting of her, his pursuit of her, her acceptance of him. But his description is fractured by the fact that White is dead and can only be represented in a living memory. His loss colors his depiction of the past; she exists only in relation to him. To those who did not know her, she is simply a name, like that of Lavinia, made into an emblem in the Book of the Duchess. In the same way, the narrative is fragmented by the narrative sources and overt references. The legends of Troy and of the Roman de la Rose exist in a dream. They too become emblematic of cultural loss, of that which is not present except in a living memory.
The narrative is structured, however, to allow interpretations beyond those of personal relevance.(FN34) In the chamber, both the May morning and the Roman de la Rose frame the reference to Troy as if to highlight it and draw attention to its cultural implications. The May morning sets a location for love, and the Roman de la Rose articulates a story of love. But the image of Troy disrupts the coherency of the love theme even as it includes a reference to Aeneas's bride Lavinia. As a representative of cultural devastation, Troy strikes a discordant note in the chamber, and its discordance is similar to that of the dour man in black within the spring landscape. Linked to the building of empire and suggesting the political power of John of Gaunt, the image of Troy represents an entire civilization lost in the east and reborn in England, at least according to legend. Lavinia is just one piece, as lost as the "fers" (650) that Fortune steals from the chess game. In the context of England's plague years, which took the life of Blanche in September of 1368 or 1369, Troy's history suggests a fourteenth-century social fear that entire civilizations can be destroyed. A population can disappear. The image also offers the hope of return: survivors can recreate that civilization elsewhere and in a different language; Aeneas came to Rome, and Lavinia became the subject of legends. The reference to the story of Troy thus places the Book of the Duchess's narrative in a romantic context inclusive of love found and lost, but does not limit it to that context. Troy absorbs and elevates personal loss within a cultural landscape as it calls up generations of loss that survive not only in their biological issue but also in the narratives that recall their names. Given its popular analogy with London, Troy provides a backdrop to grief and a political stage to contextualize loss. The reference suggests a paradigm for renewal.
The analogy between the images in the chamber and the autobiography of the man in black provides insight into Chaucer's early method of composition because it marks an investigation into the relationship between art and life. In the earliest of his surviving narratives, Chaucer makes central to his fiction the relationship between cultural inheritance (as represented in the chamber) and life (as recalled by the man in black). The images in the chamber concretize literary authorities and surround the dreamer. They enable Chaucer to own them, to rewrite them for his own purposes, to stake his claim on them, The figure of the man in black enables Chaucer to connect his remaking of other narratives to a fictional persona looking back on his loss. Only by connecting the images to the man in black's story do they become the pivot on which the narrative turns. Yet even as they strategically provide assonance for the man in black's authority, they also suggest an anxiety about the relevance of any narrative. In other words, the dream, in its method of representation and in its structure of events, factors in the problem of literary inheritance, of communicating, and of understanding.
Deriving from other narratives, the images in the chamber denote aesthetic consistency in the Book of the Duchess, Given that roughly two-thirds of the Book of the Duchess "translate" excerpts from French models, the dreamer's response to the chamber "glas" presents a moment of recognition that offers a paradigmatic response for the entire narrative. The "glas" transliterates the narrative language of other poets into the dreamer's visual images, and in so doing, back into language. Chaucer takes stylus to blank parchment to produce the Book of the Duchess, but the parchment fills with images from other writers who have taken a stylus to blank parchment in a kind of regress that undercuts the absolute blankness of any parchment. In this way, Chaucer enacts the literal translation of cultures, as implied in his reference to the story of Troy as English national heritage -- a theme he will exploit in Troilus and Criseyde. Thus the echoes and references to other narratives in the Book of the Duchess belie the parchment's single dimensionality. They testify to the possibility of personal and public regeneration, figured in the emblematic structure of the chamber.
University of Colorado Denver Denver, Colorado (Nancy.Ciccone@ucdenver.edu)
1. Helen Phillips, "Structure and Consolation in the Book of the Duchess," Chaucer Review 16 (1981): 107-17.
2. All quotations from BD are drawn from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987), 330-46.
3. R. Barton Palmer, "Rereading Guillaume de Machaut's Vision of Love: Chaucer's Book of The Duchess as Bricolage," in David Galef, ed., Second Thoughts (Detroit, 1998), 169-95, at 185.
4. Lisa J. Kiser, "Sleep, Dreams, and Poetry in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," Papers on Language and Literature 19 (1983): 3-12; and Michael St. John, Chaucer's Dream Visions (Burlington, Vt., 2000), 27.
5. Robert Edwards, "Categorical Concerns," in William A. Quinn, ed., Chaucer's Dream Visions and Shorter Poems (New York, 1999), 85-112, at 92.
6. See, for example, Edwards, "Categorical Concerns," 92; and L. O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love (Minneapolis, 2002), 79-112, at 96.
7. The sources have been well documented. For the images in the chamber, see James Wimsatt, Chaucer and the French Love Poets (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1968), 157; B. A. Windeatt, Chaucer's Dream Poetry: Sources and Analogues (Totowa, N.J., 1982); The Riverside Chaucer, 968n291-343 (note by Colin Wilcockson); W.H. Clemen, Chaucer's Early Poetry (London, 1968), 38n; and A. J. Minnis, with V. J. Scattergood and J. J. Smith, Oxford Guides to Chaucer. The Shorter Poems (Oxford, 1995), 100-112.
8. Barbara Nolan, "The Art of Expropriation," in Donald Rose, ed., New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism (Norman, Okla., 1981): 203-22.
9. See, for example, James Winny, Chaucer's Dream-Poems (New York, 1973), 50-53; and James Wimsatt, "The Sources of Chaucer's 'Seys and Alcyone,'" Medium AEvum (1967): 231-41.
10. For wordplay that relies on Ovid's Metamorphoses and so suggests Machaut's version was not the only one Chaucer read, see Carol A. N. Martin, "Mercurial Translation in the Book of the Duchess," Chaucer Review 28 (1993): 95-116.
11. Bernard Huppé and D. W. Robertson Jr. have offered a reading of the images in terms of Christian ideology ("The Book of the Duchess," in William A. Quinn, ed., Chaucer's Dream Visions and Shorter Poems [New York, 1999], 131-82, at 138-39).
12. For an argument that the man in black centers the narrative, see Dieter Mehl, Geoffrey Chaucer (Cambridge, U.K., 1973), 28.
13. On learning the craft of love, see Judith Ferster, Chaucer on Interpretation (Cambridge, U.K., 1985), 84.
14. Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love, 108.
15. Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love, 109.
16. For an excellent discussion of the gender analogies for the dreamer, the man in black, and Alcione, and of the resurrection of Seys, see Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley, 1992), 60-74.
17. Kathryn L. Lynch, "The Book of the Duchess as a Philosophical Vision: The Argument of Form," Genre 21 (1988): 279-306. Phillipa Hardman addresses the elaboration of White's qualities in "The Book of the Duchess as a Memorial Monument," Chaucer Review 28 (1994): 205-15.
18. For references to Troy in relation to Chaucer's London, see, among others, A. R. Myers, London in the Age of Chaucer (Norman, Okla., 1972); D. W. Robertson, Chaucer's London (New York, 1968); and Sylvia Federico, New Troy: Fantasies of Empire in the Later Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 2003), 1-28.
19. Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love, 92. See also Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison, Wisc., 1991), 51.
20. Chaucer's wordplay on names -- indicated in the narrative by White/Blanche and by the concluding puns connecting the man in black with Chaucer's patron, John of Gaunt ("A long castel with walles white,/Be Seynt Jon, on a ryche hil" [1318-19]) -- supports the association between these fictional persona and the actual personages. See Wolfgang Clemen, Chaucer's Early Poetry, trans. C. A. M. Sym (London, 1968), 61-62.
21. See Richard Rambuss: "the historical is thus invoked, but only in the service of the private concerns of love" ("'Processe of Tyme': History, Consolation, and Apocalypse in the Book of the Duchess," Exemplaria 2 : 659-83, at 673).
22. Ferster refers to the man in black's "self-enclosure" as an indication of his ability to see events only in terms of himself and of his inability to engage in social discourse (Chaucer on Interpretation, 88).
23. Whereas "text and glose" refer to text and commentary, a scribal note to a manuscript of the Roman de la rose suggests that illustrative miniatures, rather than textual explanations, were meant to accompany the narrative (Ernest Langlois, Les Manuscripts du Roman de la rose [Lille, 1910], 211). See Wilcockson's note in the Riverside Chaucer, 969n333-34, and also Michael Norman Salda, "Pages from History: The Medieval Palace of Westminster as Source for the Dreamer's Chamber in the Book of the Duchess" Chaucer Review 27 (1991): 111-25; and Martin Irvine, "Bothe Text and Gloss': Manuscript Form, the Textuality of Commentary and Chaucer's Dream Poems" in Charlotte C. Morse, Penelope R. Doob, and Marjorie C. Woods., eds., The Uses of Manuscripts in Literary Studies, (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1992), 81-120.
24. Stephen Kruger, "Medical and Moral Authority in the Late Medieval Dream," in Peter Brown, ed., Reading Dreams (Oxford, 1999), 51-83. Martin also discusses gender-switching in relation to Juno's messenger in the story of Seys and Alclone ("Mecurial Translation," 97-99).
25. Kruger, "Medical Authority," 83.
26. In Tr, where Chaucer calls her Sibille (V, 1450), Troilus asks Cassandra to interpret his dream of the boar. Her accurate explanation, which relies on old stories and legends, sends him into sorrowful madness. Although Tr was written after BD, Cassandra's repeated presence in a dream landscape subtly invites interpretations that bring the legendary to bear on actuality.
27. A. C, Spearing, "Chaucer," in Quinn, ed., Chaucer's Dream Visions and Shorter Poems, 13-84, at 25, See also Stephen Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, U,K., 1991), for an argument that dream categories derived from Macrobius were not entirely displaced by the Aristotelian models in the late Middle Ages.
28. Kruger, Dreaming, 135.
29. For a discussion that addresses Chaucer's handling of genre and the philosophical concerns and issues of cognition in BD, see Kathryn Lynch, Chaucer's Philosophical Visions (Cambridge, U.K., 2000), 31-59.
30. Rosemarie McGerr, Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse (Gainesville, Fla., 1998), 44-60, at 46. For discussions related to closure, see Robert Payne, The Key of Remembrance (New Haven, Conn., 1963), 111-15; Laurence Eldredge, "The Structure of the Book of the Duchess" Revue de l'Université d'Ottowa 39 (1969): 132-51, at 150; Hansen, Chaucer, 74; Denis Walker, "Narrative Inconclusiveness and Consolatory Dialectic in the Book of the Duchess" Chaucer Review 18 (1983): 1-17; and John Burrow, "Powers without Endings," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 13 (1991): 17-37, among others. Some issues addressed in these discussions include the circularity of the narrative (in that it concludes with the writing of the narrative just read); the unanswered questions (such as whether or not the narrator is cured); and the effect on the man in black as a result of his disclosure of grief.
31. Clemen, Chaucer's Early Poetry, 61-62.
32. Robert Edwards, The Dream of Chaucer (Durham, N.C., 1989), 43. John Finlayson understands the narrator to demonstrate neutrality rather than instrumentality, when compared with Chaucer's models ("The Roman de la Rose and Chaucer's Narrators" Chaucer Review 24 : 187-210).
33. Deanne Williams, "The Dream Visions," in Seth Lerer, ed., The Yale Companion to Chaucer (New Haven, 2006), 147-78, at 152.
34. For the idea that dream visions provide a vehicle for social analysis, see Stephen Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford, 1986), 7.