The narrator now begins recounting his dream. He thinks that it is the month of May. He hears a great number of birds singing loudly outside his window. The windows of the chamber in which he lies are stained glass, and they depict the story of the Trojan War. The walls are painted with the text and pictures of the Romaunce of the Rose. Through the window the dreamer hears the sounds of a great many horsemen assembling for a hunt. The dreamer, in his dream, goes to his horse and joins the hunt.
He asks one of the huntsmen whose hunt this is and learns that it is the Emperor Octavian's. A young dog, obviously at a loss when the deer give the hunting company the slip, approaches the narrator. The narrator follows it down a green and flowery pathway. The dreamer then describes a primeval forest of great trees, overrun with flowers—more flowers, he thinks, than can be in heaven. It is filled with deer and other animals, more than can be counted. There the dreamer meets a knight dressed in black. The knight is sorrowful, and while he sits he is composing a verse (called a complaint) about his sorrow in love.
The complaint details how his lady-love, whom he "loved with al my might" (line 478), has been lost. When the knight has finished his song, he suffers a kind of emotional heart attack and becomes deathly pale. The knight is insensible, though the narrator greets him. Finally the knight is roused and apologizes. The sorrowing knight is courteous, and the narrator endeavors to learn more about him. The narrator tries to comfort the knight, but he is inconsolable. In fact, the knight is sorrowful unto death. "For y am sorrow, and sorw ys y" ("For I am sorrow, and sorrow is I," line 597).
The knight then begins a tirade against Fortune, who turns her wheel at a whim, making him, a man she has favored before, into a miserable wretch. The knight describes a chess game between himself and Fortune in which Fortune has tricked him and won. The dreamer hears the knight's tale of woe, and he begs the knight to remember the teachings of Socrates. Socrates taught that the philosophical man should be above the vagaries of Fortune.
The dreamer tries to talk the knight out of suicide by enumerating the foolish people in history who killed themselves for love and were judged harshly for it. The knight explains that he has lost more than the narrator knows, and he will tell him the story of it if he promises to hearken to it. The narrator gladly agrees.
The knight says that he was an idle youth, but dedicated to the service of Love, when he met a golden-haired lady who surpassed all other ladies in beauty and perfection. He describes her modesty, moderation, courtesy toward all, and the general integrity of her character. The sorrowing Black Knight also lists her physical charms from her head downward. The Black Knight and Lady White, as she is called, were married and lived in harmony for some years.
The narrator agrees that this was a lovely lady, but he wonders why the Black Knight is still so upset about a game of chess. Finally, after the full explanation of the lady's worth, the knight, under questioning from the narrator, blurts out that she has died. At last the dreamer understands and agrees that the Black Knight has indeed suffered a great loss. The hunting horn sounds, signaling the end of the hunt. The king's hunting party goes off toward a long castle, and a bell tolls twelve hours, the time allotted to the knight to tell his tale.
The dreamer awakens from this fantastic dream with Ovid's Metamorphoses still in his hand. He marvels at the clarity and wonder of the dream, and he decides that it is so good that it should be put into a poem.
The dream of the narrator is replete with classical and biblical allusions. While they mainly come from the Black Knight, both the knight and the dreamer understand them. The allusions serve several purposes: they were standard literary conceits for Chaucer's day; they establish both the knight and the dreamer as of a literate, educated class who read the classical literature considered so important at this time; they elevate the tone of the subject matter of the story, investing the hunt and the knight with a kind of worthiness and status associated with classical things; the reference to Octavian (Caesar Augustus, a long-reigning and very successful Roman emperor) may be a side compliment to Chaucer's patron, John of Gaunt (son of the then-reigning Edward III); the allusions show the poet's extensive knowledge of classical literature, something necessary for an author to be taken seriously during this time; and they give the knowledgeable reader a sort of inclusive feeling of understanding the unexplained references and comparisons without needing each of the stories to be explained. Each reference does correspond well to a comparison that the poet is trying to make.
The depiction of Fortune as a frivolous woman who spins her wheel and wantonly ruins people's lives is not Chaucer's invention. It is taken from Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy, a late Roman philosophical text that was greatly admired during Chaucer's time, particularly by Chaucer himself (who translated it into English with the title Boece). This bemoaning of Fortune's vagaries takes the medieval literary form of a complaint (a "compleynt"), which was usually a short, sometimes musical poem, sung by a lover about his loss of a love, essentially a lyric genre. But Chaucer, while remaining true to the contemporary style, also asserts Boethius's older, more pious reflection (buttressed by the reference to Socrates) that the self-possessed person should be above these up and downs. It is a complicated, thoroughly medieval idea with roots also in the classical Stoics. The lyric emotion of the bereft lover is appreciated and turned into a poetic form, but the philosophical conventions of Christianity and medieval philosophical thought are held at the same time. The medieval mind was able to hold contradictions well, and the conflicts between human feeling and philosophical resolve, or emotion and reason, are the stuff of many poems of this time.
There are two references, in this rather short poem, to chess. The narrator decides not to play chess because he thinks it will not help with his insomnia, and the knight in the dream describes his battle with Fortune as a game of chess. This was another example of class distinction for Chaucer's time, for chess was a game of the middle and noble classes. The game also serves as a rich mine for metaphor: the Black Knight describes the wily gambits that Fortune uses to lure him to his own destruction.
The Black Knight is, ostensibly, an allegorical figure for John of Gaunt, and White is Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, his first wife (who predeceased him). There is a lot of evidence to support this idea: the play on words Blanche=White and, in the last lines of the poem (1318-1319), references to long castle for Lancaster and a rich hill for Richmond, two titles of the families of John and Blanche. Even so, not all scholars agree that this is an elegy for a real person. If it an elegy for Blanche, it is an allegorical one. Notably, readers can appreciate the tale without even knowing of the historical personages who are possibly referenced.
The top-to-bottom physical description of the Black Knight's lady is a poetic convention of the time. The blazon, as this was called, is later mocked by Shakespeare in Sonnet 106, when he puts the parts out of order ("Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow"). But in Chaucer's time, some 250 years before Shakespeare, this method of description was standard and considered poetic.
Describing a nearly inhuman perfection of the lady-love was also a convention of the time. While giving an alarmingly realistic description of Lady White's physical qualities (such as her lack of a visible collarbone ("canel-boon," line 943), he also speaks of the "worship to my lady dere." Courtly love demanded not only the perfection of the lady, but also the deification and worship of her by her lover. Thus, one should not presume that it is merely nostalgia after his wife's death that makes the Black Knight describe Lady White without a fault; most love poetry of the time did the same.
This poem, a slightly rough but still brilliantly conceived example of the dream-vision genre, is a good example of Chaucer's flexibility and vast classical knowledge. The difference between this kind of poetry and, for example, the majority of The Canterbury Tales shows that Chaucer was a master of the forms of poetry of his day. The references to the classics and the touches of irony and humor also mark Chaucer's ability.