Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Geoffrey Chaucer

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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Christian Cotroneo
September 28, 1997

Detail of a Woodcut from a title-page of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess

The Book of the Duchess:
An Elegy for the Living?

        An elegy, as defined by the seventh edition of "A Handbook To Literature", is a "sustained and formal poem setting forth meditations on death or another solemn theme," (178). According to this general criterion, Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess may stake a claim to this genre of literature. The ostensible occasion of Chaucer's poem is the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster and wife of the author's benefactor, John of Gaunt. It would seem fitting and natural that Chaucer commemorate the Duchess, as a measure of consolation to his powerful patron. There is, however, historical evidence that hotly contests this interpretation. It will be beyond the scope of this essay to explore Chaucer's historical context. Most importantly, evidence may be found within the poem itself. By extolling the "gentlemanly sensibilities" of the Black Knight, Chaucer reveals an inclination to depart from the strict bounds of the elegy to produce a more universal theme. What does Chaucer mean to suggest by his preoccupation with the Black Knight's code of conduct? This essay will focus on the very flexible line Chaucer draws between the subjects of loss and virtue. While loss remains at the heart of the work, there are very clear indications of a second ascendant theme that eludes the confines of elegy.
        As an elegy, The Book of the Duchess has several cards in its favour. Its central preoccupation, as seen in both Alcione's and the Black Knight's experiences, is loss and its ramifications upon the living. Both characters are of the nobility. Alcione is a queen and the other is described as, "a wonder wel-farynge knyght". They each have a story to tell of the loss of their loves. By itself, this mourning nobility may be tied to the powerful John of Gaunt. Chaucer's visit to Alcione's woe is relatively short, alongside the long-winded tale of the Knight. He, like Gaunt, is left alone with his grief.
        However we may attempt to associate the Black Knight with Gaunt, there are problems that even a surface reading will reveal. The Black Knight's tale comprises much of the poem, but the actual status of his beloved is left somewhat murky. Is she, in fact, his wife? Did she ever consent wholly to his ardent suits? Chaucer shies away from an obvious answer. Readers of a proper elegy would like to assume that she is. However, without an explicit indication, it would be an unsafe assumption. Instead, the poet draws the reader's attention to the elaborate process by which the Knight presses his suit upon the White Lady. It is within this process that Chaucer's second agenda may be realized.
        After going into considerable detail of his woeful experience with the White Lady, the Knight's narrative abruptly concludes with the exclamation, "She is dead!" at which the dreamer effectively replies that it is a shame. Why would the Knight recount such a lengthy tale only to conclude it with such a pithy exchange? It certainly betrays the strictness of an elegy. Rather than meditating upon death, the Knight's tale involves a complex system of courtship and love based upon worthiness. Indeed, far from a dirge, this section of the poem teems with life. Much like a Petrarchan courtship, the Knight idealizes his White Lady, and makes every effort to increase his worth in her eyes. This is a chronicle of love, and in Chaucer's glowing terms, this is a pure, elevated love. What could be farther from death?
        The Black Knight's love for the White Lady is rendered as a perfect courtship, and as such, his grief is also of the noble variety. When first encountered, the Knight pays no heed to the dreamer. He is wrestling with whether, "hys lyf myght laste." By making his lady the sun of his existence, the Knight is appropriately blind to his fellow inhabitants. In his darkened mood, he can see no life without love. This sentiment is the sincere extension of how the mourner applied his courtship of the White Lady. The latter has been brought to a commanding level in the Knight's life, and, with her loss, he consistently adheres to his formerly espoused words. He does not hunt and savour the trappings of a youthful member of the nobility. Such behaviour would constitute an insincerity that is out of keeping with the ideal of the gentleman. When he declares to her, "youres is alle that ever ther ys," he speaks most truly.
        The courtship, like a well pruned tree, bears blessed fruit. The suitor increases in virtue. He declares, "when I saugh hir first a-morwe, I was warished of al my sorwe". A love that has such immediate and palpably benevolent consequences is clearly a blessed affair. There is no evidence of spontaneous action, only of spontaneous emotion - a blueprint for the ideal suit. The Knight does not aggressively or immediately spring a proposal on the lady. Instead, he shrewdly takes the time to observe her character, which he deems to be worthy of the tribute of his life. After the initial rejection he must meet a rigid criteria before he may lay claim to her. A painstaking process ensues, at the end of which the Knight emerges ennobled by love. Not incidentally, the close of the Knight's suit is marked by the close of his tale.
        Chaucer has focused with intensity upon the Knight's struggle for worthiness and his personal integrity, the terse closure, "She ys ded," is hardly a disappointing conclusion, if one is looking for a noble aesthetic. The Knight is virtue incarnate and his behaviour is consistent. Death may be slighted here, but only if one is looking for a solemn meditation on death - if the poem is treated as an elegy. Such a treatment is limiting and it is clear that Chaucer had other intentions. The Book of the Duchess is aimed at the living. Under the guise of the elegy, could Chaucer be expressing a sycophantic zeal to pay homage to his benefactor? Whatever Chaucer's motives may have been, he is plumbing deep into the heart of the elegy to bring the crux of the matter to light. The elegy is concerned with life.
        Chaucer, by availing himself of this liberty, lends credence to the theory that he did not write The Book of the Duchess with the sole intention of fulfilling a commission for his benefactor. The evidence of free expression is far too ample for confinement to the realm of duty. Has this expression completely overturned, or effaced the elements of elegy? Ostensibly not. The poem retains the structure of its intentions, but infuses, rather than effaces, the theme with a sense of life. The Black Knight's sad saga culminates in death, but meditates upon life. If Chaucer is mourning loss, he is simultaneously exalting life. By grafting the sensibilities of life to his lament, Chaucer succeeds in emphasizing the great tragedy of its loss.

©1997 Christian Cotroneo. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on November 4, 1997. Last updated September 5, 2009.


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