The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems

The Failure of Poetry in Book of the Duchess College

Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess is a poem largely about what poetry can and cannot do. Poetry, as literature, is inherently removed from life; the written word, for all its power to conjure image and emotion, can never quite be that image or emotion. Chaucer maximizes this effect by the multiple frames through which he tells his story: ‘the dream is used to achieve a particular kind of distance and detachment’ (Clemen, 27). Just as the dream will never be real, poetry itself will always fall slightly short of that which it attempts to capture. When the knight dressed in black tells the story of his lady love, she seems, for a moment, resurrected by his retelling, but when the story ends, she is still dead. The nature of poetry also lends the reader the expectation of exaggeration wrapped around a truth, which can be a weakness when it leads to doubt and miscommunication. In the end, there is no solution. Poetry – words – can soothe for a time, but they cannot ultimately provide an answer to grief.

Firstly, Chaucer plays with the relationship of poetry to reality in his framing of Book of the Duchess as stories within stories. The dreamer is ‘lent a certain detachment not merely by the dream but by the role which he plays in Book...

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