|AUTHOR:||GWEN M. VICKERY|
|TITLE:||The Book of the Duchess: The Date of Composition Related to Theme of Impracticality|
|SOURCE:||Essays in Literature v22 p161-9 Fall '95|
Chaucer's Book of the Duchess has long been considered an elegy for John of Gaunt's wife Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster. However, its categorization has left many critics uncomfortable. As an elegy, many would agree that it leaves something to be desired. The comfort and consolation given to the Black Knight (John of Gaunt) by the bumbling dreamer seems negligible, if not ambiguous and ineffective. Furthermore, the movement of the poem emphasizes practicality as opposed to idealism, an aspect which is not in accordance with courtly poetry. The key to understanding these incongruities may be directly linked to Gaunt's marital status at the time of composition. I believe that a re-examination of the elusive and controversial date of composition is an absolute necessity, for our assumptions about this date undeniably influence our reading. A later date of composition presupposes Chaucer's knowledge of Gaunt's marriage plans at the least, if not of the actual marriage itself. Therefore, the Book of the Duchess is not simply an elegy, but a carefully argued justification of Gaunt's second marriage as well, for it defends and promotes a world view which favors practicality as opposed to idealistic sentiment. Ironically, although Chaucer was obligated to present a favorable portrait of his patron and his actions, the poem contains subtle commentary that suggests that Chaucer did not approve of the situation.
As an elegy, the Book of the Duchess is a literary oddity. Many critics have voiced their skepticism at the consolatory power of the poem. John Friedman's response to the poem sums up the various misgivings:
If, as most assume, the Book of the Duchess was elegiac in intent ... we are forced, upon putting down the poem, to wonder at the small consolation it could have afforded John of Gaunt. The Narrator's apparent rudeness to the Black Knight, or insensitivity to his grief, does not square easily with such an intention, while a large part of the poem seems not to be concerned with the Knight or his lady White at all. (145)
This is a fair statement of the deficiencies of the poem when taken as a traditional elegy. But is this poem a traditional elegy? Perhaps David Lawton comes the closest to identifying the difficulty. He states, "On my reading, Chaucer does not presume to console Gaunt for his loss but presents him with a poetic monument to his grief" (56). Since the consolatory effect of the poem is so suspiciously ambiguous, one begins to wonder if that traditional aspect of the elegy is not being ignored for a reason. If we assume a later date of composition, the appropriateness of this approach can be seen. Since the need for consolation is negated by the upcoming or already actualized marriage, the emphasis shifts to embody the concept of survival and continuation for the husband. In this manner, the beauty and goodness of the former wife can be praised and preserved in an idealistic fashion, while the realistic needs of the husband are recognized and promoted.
Most critics would like to believe that the Book of the Duchess was composed within a few months of Blanche's death, which occurred on September 12, 1368 (Palmer 257). The reason for such bias is clear. In September of 1371, the Duke married Constance of Castile (Armitage-Smith 93). If the elegy had been composed after this second marriage, it would be a virtual tribute to hypocrisy. Dismissing the satiric implications of that possibility by assuming a pervading sincerity of grief, many critics argue the date of composition to be prior to 1371. But is it safe to make such assumptions, to take such a leap of faith? Howard Schless aptly observes, "logical sentiment appears to have run into historical fact" (274). Judging from line 1314, he believes the poem could not have been written before 1371 or 1372 (274). In a recent article Phillipa Hardman argues for an even later date. Connecting the poetic strategy with that of tomb sculpture, she argues for 1376, a date which corresponds to the completion of Blanche's tomb (206).
Even if these dates are extreme, another complication enters upon our consideration. Palmer points out that "[Gaunt's] father was planning a second marriage for him within a few weeks of the death of Blanche. It is virtually certain that Chaucer would have known of this" (259). He concludes that this fact "highlight[s] in the starkest manner the contrast between the conventions of aristocratic amour courtois on the one hand, and the political realities which shaped the marriages of the aristocracy on the other" (260). Whatever the exact date, it becomes clear that the Book of the Duchess was composed after Chaucer learned of the proposed marriage.
In reality, the demise of Blanche left the politically ambitious John of Gaunt free to remarry (Robertson 466). However, in 1371 he not only married Constance, but he took Katherine Swynford to be his mistress as well (Howard 342). Although the marriage was mutually beneficial in regard to political practicalities, it was devoid of love on either side. Gaunt's biographer states that "there was no pretence on either side of any motive but convenience" (Armitage-Smith 93). George Williams also adds some important insight into this complicated state of affairs:
Perhaps [Constance] even blessed the affair of Gaunt and Katherine; for though she could not have been ignorant of the liaison between the two, she named her own daughter Katharine. (54)
With all of these facts in mind, we are left with a less attractive, and brutally realistic, portrait of John of Gaunt. Furthermore, the extremely precarious and delicate position of Chaucer becomes clear. He must portray John of Gaunt as a bereaved husband who has lost the will to live, while keeping in mind that Gaunt has already replaced Blanche, or is about to, with another woman. Whether or not Gaunt was actually remorseful does not really matter here. What is important is that the circumstances demand the utmost tact and caution from the poet, and that his theme of bereavement must be modified as not to offend his patron. The result is a poem that emphasizes practicality, and in doing so, the Book of the Duchess justifies John of Gaunt's second marriage in human, as well as courtly, terms.
The poem begins with a languid narrator suffering from insomnia, presumably due to unrequited love. In order to get through the night, he reads the tale of Seys and Alcione from Ovid's Metamorphosis. His rendering of the story is drastically altered from the original. He emphasizes minor details, neglects to mention major aspects, changes settings, and even invents items which are never mentioned in the classical version. Every alteration or modification, however, consistently reflects a bias of practicality over idealism. This attitude will be further developed in the dreamer's conversation with the Black Knight. Every attempt is made to show the uselessness and danger of emotional extremism when compared to the reality of everyday (political) concerns.
In Chaucer's version of the story, Alcione, worried and rather frantic because her husband has not returned from sea, sends ships out to search for him "bothe eest and west" (87). Finding nothing, she then prays to Juno to send her a dream that will tell her the fate of her husband. Up to this point, Chaucer more or less follows the Ovidian source. After this point, however, the story becomes more and more Chaucer's own invention. Juno instructs an anonymous male messenger (not the female Iris beautifully clad in rainbow colors) to seek out Morpheus: "'Go bet' quod Juno, 'to Morpheus-- / Thou knowest hym wel, the god of slep'" (136-37). In carrying out her orders, the messenger descends into the valley where the cave of sleep is located.
In Ovid, this valley is characterized by its profound silence:
No crested cock summons the dawn with wakeful crowings, no anxious dogs break the silence, or geese, shrewder still than dogs. No wild beasts are heard, no cattle, nor is there any sound of branches swaying in the wind, or harsh quarrelling of human tongues. Voiceless quiet dwells there. (262).
Chaucer's scenery is much more dismal. The calm and tranquil setting of Ovid is transformed into a dark, sterile, lifeless wasteland:
Til he com to the derk valeye
That stant betwixe roches tweye
There never yet grew corn ne gras,
Ne tre, ne noght elles. (155-59)
James Winny notices this point and relates it to the following description of the sleepers within the cave:
Somme henge her chyn upon hir brest,
And slept upryght, her hed yhed,
And somme lay naked in her bed
And slepe whiles the dayes laste. (174-77)
Winny maintains that there is a "perceptible hint of moral disapproval at the sleeper's wasting of time; a hint made easier to catch by Chaucer's picture of the sterile landscape about the cave" (48). I agree, and this disapproval marks the first instance of a reoccurring theme: practicality and reality must triumph over idealism.
This theme is manifest in the insensitive, realistic remarks of the ghost of Seys when appearing at the bedside of his sleeping Alcione. In Ovid, this is a tender scene, and ends with Seys's plea for her to mourn for him:
O Alycone, your prayers for me were of no avail. I am dead. Indulge no false hopes of my return.... Come now, rise up, shed tears for me, and put on mourning garb. Do not send me unwept into the void of Tartarus," (263)
Chaucer's Seys, on the other hand, seems to chastise his wife for her indulgent lamentations. He shouts, "My swete wyf, / Awake! Let be your sorwful lyf, / For in your sorwe there lyth no red; / For, certes, swete, I am but ded" (201-204). Seys is clearly directing Alcione to move out of her mournful, sterile self-made cave of remorse into the sunlight of practical life. Furthermore, the plea for Alcione to weep has been replaced by the command, "Bury my body" (207). As J. J. Anderson has pointed out, this request has no parallel in any of Chaucer's sources (222). Through his reconstruction of the classical myth, Chaucer delicately shows how self-indulgent grief is a sterile, unproductive state of mind which must be replaced by an active participation in life. The applicability to remarriage can be seen at once. The remorse attending the death of the first wife, like the body of Seys, must be buried in order to proceed with other earthly considerations.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find the dreamer chastising the Black Knight for his suicidal tendencies. He lists several women who are examples of this folly, women who were motivated by idealistic love to slay themselves: "Another rage / Had Dydo, the quene eke of Cartage, / That slough hirself for Eneas / Was fals-- which a fool she was!" (731-34). Ideal and supreme love cannot, and must not, be maintained in the face of earthly reason. The result of such a foolish attempt would be death, and this consequence of idealism must be avoided. Realistic considerations and the acknowledgment of limitations are emphasized instead.
By considering Gaunt's marital status, aspects of the Book of the Duchess which have puzzled critics can be seen in a new light. The complete absence of a possible afterlife is one such aspect. In the Ovidian myth, Alcion's sincere grief is rewarded: "At last the gods had pity on them, and both were changed into birds" (265). Chaucer neglects to mention this detail. In a similar fashion, the dreamer never mentions to the morose Black Knight the possibility of a Christian afterlife, where he and his beloved will once again be united for all eternity. This absence has bothered many critics. Comparing Alcione and the Black Knight's position, Hugh White finds this lack of immortality disturbing:
Christian hope and resurrection may make the Black Knight's situation very different from that of the pagan Alcyone. However, the absence of explicit reference to the after-life in the poem then seems rather strange. (162n)
Constance Hieatt also comments on this peculiarity: "Both the eulogy and the consolation are in purely human terms; Christian views of death and the afterlife are not so much as mentioned" (73). In light of Chaucer's precarious position, this seeming negligence cannot be seen as an oversight, but a conscious, deliberate choice on the part of the tactful poet. An afterlife would link Gaunt and Blanche in an immortal realm. Gaunt's hasty remarriage for political gain and his affair with Katherine (whom he really did love as evidenced by their eventual marriage, despite problems, in 1396) certainly justifies Chaucer's indirect approach. Perhaps Gaunt does not want to spend all of eternity with Blanche. This is a tricky situation, and it is for the best that it is not mentioned at all. In this manner, Chaucer is not in danger of offending his patron by assuming too much.
Like the altered Ovidian myth, the narrator's dream continues to support an everyday practicality as opposed to an idealistic, courtly, and impotent pining away for love's sake. He awakes to birds chirping and sunlight, a virile world which contrasts sharply with the dark cave of Morpheus. Hearing the horn for the hunt, he leaves his bedchamber to interact with the outside world:
Anoon ryght whan I herde that,
How that they wolde on-huntyng goon,
I was ryght glad, and up anoon
Took my hors, and forth I wente
Out of my chambre; I never stent
Til I com to the feld withoute.
Ther overtok y a gret route
Of huntes and eke of foresteres,
With many relayes and lymeres,
And hyed hem to the forest faste. (354-63)
Although many critics comment on the progression of the narrator from insomniac despondent to an active participator, none have recognized this movement as a justification of Gaunt's marriage. For example, Winny claims that the narrator exchanges "his initial depression and outlook for a more workaday standard of behavior" (59). True, but this observation takes on added significance if we realize that the dreamer is mirroring the actions of Chaucer's patron. The fact that the dreamer emerges into a green forest as opposed to an ideal garden as in the Romance of the Rose has also been noted (Martin 111). This natural setting is more consistent with the overall theme of practical concerns and behavior.
This emphasis on the practical occurs again and again, often in strange places. If we accept Friedman's argument that the whelp that leads the dreamer to the Black Knight is a symbol of reason, we find yet another encouragement to replace extreme emotionalism with a reasonable, philosophic outlook (159). Furthermore, the description of the Black Knight lends credence to this interpretation:
Than found I sitte even upryght--
A wonder wel-farynge knyght--
By the maner me thoghte so--
Of good mochel, and ryght yong therto,
Of the age of foure and twenty yer,
Upon hys berd but lytel her,
And he was clothed al in blak. (451-56)
Chaucer dwells upon the youth of the Black Knight in order to strike a sharp contrast with the death-wish he expounds. In arguing the femininity (hence the scanty beard) of courtly lovers, Hanson argues that this "male adolescent ... is the opposite of the proper role of the husband in medieval society" (76). Although I think she is correct, her emphasis is different from mine. Hanson stresses the lack of virility in the youth, while I see a depiction of unused virility. There is a dormant potency in the young Black Knight which will waste away if he continues on his present course. The eventual movement of the Black Knight toward the castle parallels the earlier movement in the poem from the sterile cave to the animated woodlands. Thus, when he "Gan homwarde for to ryde / Unto a place, was there besyde, / Which was from us but a lyte-- / A long castel with walles white" (1315-18), he is emerging from his sterile grief and heading toward a life of vitality, in both senses of the word. He moves into the world of the living: "His going home to his castle indicates that he is able to return to the world. He emerges from reflection into action, however limited, and says no more" (Anderson 233). The exaggerated youthfulness helps to convince the reader of the impracticability and wastefulness of his yearned for death. The approach is successful, for we find ourselves wanting him to find happiness and purpose again, even though this runs contrary to the notions of courtly love.
Although Chaucer is obligated to justify the actions of his patron, one wonders what he really thought about the whole situation. This question is not merely speculative, for there are subtle clues within the Book of the Duchess which show that Chaucer was not at all pleased with John of Gaunt. This crafty yet noticeable undercurrent has hitherto gone unmentioned, partly due to Chaucer's ingenious use of a dull-witted narrator/dreamer. His seemingly obtuse nature sidetracks our attention, and his deprecating hints are interpreted as merely humorous consequences arising from his stupidity.
By portraying a humorously simple narrator/dreamer, Chaucer is able to disguise his hostility toward, or disapproval of, John of Gaunt. The most notable instance of this approach occurs in the famous chess metaphor. The Black Knight explains to the dreamer that he has been playing against Fortune:
At the ches with me she gan to pleye;
With hir false draughtes dyvers
She staal on me and tok my fers
And whan I sawgh my fers awaye,
Allas, I kouthe no lenger playe,
But seyde, "Farewel, swete, ywys
And farewel al that ever ther ys!" (652-58)
Whether the dreamer is feigning ignorance to the knowledge of the dead lady or whether he really does not know is one and the same. What is important is the word choice of the Black Knight in the speech. Through word choice, Chaucer has spoken his attitude toward John of Gaunt in this seemingly ornamental metaphor. This commentary is revealed by the designation of the chess-piece as a "fers" as opposed to a "queen." An analysis of each choice will show that the former carries with it several negative connotations.
A "fers" is not simply a lingual equivalent of "queen." A queen is majestic, irreplaceable, and her loss ends the game, both of chess and life. The word's primary significance lies in the world of human interaction, where the queen is a leader to be respected and admired. A fers, on the other hand, is a term restricted to the game of chess and has no significance apart from the board with which it is connected. Like the pawn, it refers to a manipulated instrument of strategy. In her analysis of the rules and nomenclature associated with the fourteenth-century game of chess, Ruth Morse makes an important discovery. She states, "If Chaucer had wanted to say 'queen' there was nothing to stop him; the choice of 'fers' must then have been for a purpose" (206). She does not speculate on the exact nature of that purpose, but I believe it reflects Chaucer's attitude toward the hypocritical John of Gaunt. Chaucer sees Blanche reduced to a game piece, just as Constance will be the next fers when the game is replayed, for games are always replayed.
This interpretation gains credence when it is juxtaposed with the dreamer's reaction to the Black Knight's speech. The dreamer expresses a literal belief in the story and exclaims, "Ne say noght soo, for trewely, / Thogh ye had lost the ferses twelve" (722-23). This advice is admirably cunning for it carries a double meaning. It stresses the practical need to move on, to replay the game as it were, while simultaneously commenting on how cold and callous that practicality can be. We are tempted to smile and dismiss the dull-witted dreamer's advice because it is based on a misinterpretation of the facts. A close reading will show, however, that it is a poignant commentary conveyed by deceptively simple means.
These hints of disapproval occur throughout the poem, even at the very beginning, before the dreamer even meets the Black Knight. While the narrator is relating his version of the Seys and Alcione story, he invents a strange and unprecedented addition to the plot. In Ovid, Sleep selects his son Morpheus to deliver the dream to Alcione. He does this because Morpheus is skilled at imitating human shape: "None was cleverer than he at reproducing a way of walking, an expression, the sound of a voice. ... he used the words and wore the clothes most typical of each person" (263). In Chaucer's version, Juno bids Morpheus to "crepe into the body" (144). Morpheus obeys: "And dyde as he had bede hym doon: / Took up the dreynte body sone / And bar hyt forth to Alcione" (194-96). Chaucer replaces the harmless illusion with a virtual case of body-snatching.
This aspect has bothered many critics. Winny states, "The notion that Seys's body must be brought to the bedside to induce a prophetic dream seems curiously alien to medieval thinking on the subject" (47). Hanson believes the penetration and abduction "violates the integrity of the body as a container of the living spirit and the intactness of the identity it putatively dictates and ensures" (69). Hewitt recognizes the implicit horror of the situation. Commenting on Seys's speech, she declares that "these are the words of an impostor. In fact, Chaucer's narrator here registers the effects of an authentic but non-genuine speech, a sort of poetic vampirism" (24). I agree, and I believe we can extend and carry this idea of the impostor over into the dream segment. If we do, we realize that what we have is a foreshadowing commentary on the sincerity of the Black Knight's mournful speech. The realistic husband, the one who will not die of grief but will remarry, is speaking from within the body of the ideal husband, who is suffering untold agonies due to his loss and has given up all hope of regaining any consolation.
The historical context, combined with the overall emphasis and internal clues present in the Book of the Duchess, suggest that the poem was written after John of Gaunt's plans for a second marriage were known. Its justification of that marriage is very effective. A bereaved husband mourns the memory of his beautiful, good, and true wife. Through his verbal exchange with the dreamer, however, he comes to understand that such excessive grief, although ideal in its sincerity, has no place in the natural, real world. He must accept the limitations of grief, consider the affair in a practical manner, and leave his grief behind as he moves forward into the future.
GWEN M. VICKERY
Ball State University
Gwen M. Vickery is completing a doctoral program at Ball State University. Her main areas of interest are Victorian and modern British literature.
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