The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems

The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems Themes


The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, and The Parliament of Fowls are all to some extent concerned with springtime. This theme was a convention of the type of poetry written by the French poets of this time, who heavily influenced Chaucer. But the season of spring is also indicative of the mood of these poems. The feeling in these verses, even when weighty subjects are discussed, is light and sometimes even frivolous. The aspect of comedy is evident everywhere in Chaucer, especially in the person of the narrators, and the season of the year (or the coming season, as on February 14th in The Parliament of Fowls) to which frivolity, gaiety, and love are traditionally associated is fitting with this mood. It can also be interpreted as part of the message of hope that Chaucer communicates in his poetry. Though the dreamer or narrator may be seeking love and not actually finding it, he nevertheless tries to learn from his dream-guide and goes off into the springtime on his optimistic search.

Formal judgments about love

That someone (such as a king, queen, goddess, or allegorical personage) is responsible for conveying judgments about virtue or blame in a matter of personal romantic love is a recurring theme, common in Chaucer's poetry and other poetry of the time. The conventions of courtly love, begun in the eleventh century by Continental troubadours, were still being developed by a changing society, and the literary idea of an infallible arbiter of behavior in love appealed to Chaucer's readers. It was also indicative of the time that despotic rulers or overlords, both secular and ecclesiastical, were able to give judgments about every kind of behavior, not just those pertaining to explicit laws.

The brevity of happiness in love on earth

"To lytle while our blysse lasteth!" (The Book of the Duchess, line 211) is a common idea in this poem and the rest of Chaucer's love poetry. The poignancy of love lost (and the value judgments placed on sorrow in type and manner of love lost) is a very important idea in these poems, and it occurs in various forms. Similarly, the hazards taken when one loves (such as the two conflicting poems upon entering the garden in The Parliament of Fowls) is another of Chaucer's themes.

Classical references

Each of these poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, and The Parliament of Fowls) contains many references to classical books and authors, especially Roman ones. The culture of the Middle Ages held the Latin classics in high regard, and no one was considered educated without a thorough knowledge of this literature (although most of the Greek authors were known in Latin translation). Chaucer was no exception. The classical references provided not only a display of the author's knowledge, but also a field of ready-made metaphors and allegories, which to the knowledgeable contemporary reader would not have to be explained.

Classical stories depicted on walls

In all three poems, Chaucer puts classical stories, messages, or allusions written or shown in pictures on chamber walls. This device is common in the dream-vision poems of Chaucer's period, and it serves several purposes.

The device creates a sense of wonder in the reader, just as the dreamer waking up in a fantastically decorated room is likely to do. At this time, before television, radio, computers, the printing press, and even the general literacy of most people other than the clergy, the main media were pictures in churches--stained glass windows and paintings--signs (outside taverns, blacksmiths, apothecaries, and so on), and representations in houses (in carvings or, most commonly, woven into tapestries. In a time of few readers and no mass communications of any kind, figurative art was one of the only means of expression and consumption of ideas, stories, or values. Therefore, a room filled with pictures would not only be familiar to most of the readers, but also especially full of meaning.

The meaning conveyed in the classical stories depicted on the dreamer's room points directly to the overall meaning of the poem. For example, in The Book of the Duchess the dreamer awakens in a room showing the Trojan war. Though a glorious story in the medieval mind and well known to Chaucer's readers, the story of the war (particularly Homer's version, not including the story of Aeneas founding Rome as told by the Roman poet Virgil, and used in The House of Fame) is a tragedy. Then, as the dreamer learns, the Black Knight tells him the tale of the death of his wife, Lady White--another tragedy.

The classical stories either alluded to or fully told by Chaucer in his poems all had meaning for his readers, and they were considered lessons in themselves. This was another way for the poet to show his erudition and a way to make the dream told in the poem even more unearthly and magnificent.

Biblical allusions

Chaucer's poems are rife with biblical allusions, especially from the Old Testament. Most of the references are for the purpose of comparison (consider The House of Fame, Book II, Invocation, and The Book of the Duchess, line 738). These Hebrew Bible references were to show the erudition of the author and give him credence with his readers, and they provided a ready-made set of comparisons and stories for the reader, which would not have to be explained, at a time when there was overall agreement on Christian theology among most readers.


The dreamers in Chaucer's poems are continously waking up in or going to different buildings. The House of Fame, the long castle, the wicker house, and so on, all are allegorical representations of ideas. The buildings' appearance and the materials of which they are made point to the meaning of the allegory. For example, the House of Fame is built on ice and made of a distorting gem. Since these poems are dreams, the wonder of these rich and well-made buildings is part of the wonder Chaucer is trying to evoke, and their meaning is much beyond mere description and locale. They are representations of meaning that tie into the story and message of the poems.