The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems

The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems Summary

The Book of the Duchess is a poem of the dream-vision genre, presumably composed as an elegy for the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster (the wife of Geoffrey Chaucer's patron, the royal Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt) in 1368 or 1369. The poem was composed sometime in the few years after this event, and it is generally considered to be flattering to both the Duke and the Duchess. It is composed in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, and it runs 1334 lines.

The poet tells of his insomnia. Finally, upon reading Ovid's Metamorphoses, he falls asleep. He tells the story of his dream, which begins with him awakening in a chamber covered with pictures of the Trojan War. The dreamer hears the sound of a horn signaling the start of a hunt, and he joins it.

While the deer (the quarry) is on the run, the dreamer becomes separated from the hunt and is led down a flowery path by a wayward young hunting dog. There he finds a handsome young Knight dressed in black. The Knight, in a deep sorrow, tells him that he lost his lady-love and lost a game of chess with Fortune. The dreamer tries to console him, but the Knight tells him he has lost more than he knows. The story of the Black Knight and Lady White follows, in which the perfection of the lady is described. Lady White became the Knight's wife, and they lived in harmony for years before she died. The Knight blames Fortune, whose fickle wheel spins until she takes away the happiness she gives. The dreamer at last perceives the true sorrow of the Knight.

The hunt ends with the party returning to a long castle. The dreamer awakens for real and resolves that his dream has been so curious and remarkable that it must be put into a poem.

The House of Fame, a longer poem written about ten years after The Book of the Duchess, runs 2158 lines and was left unfinished. The three extant books begin with the retelling of The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil, as found written on a brass tablet in a temple of glass in the vision of a dreamer. An eagle takes up the dreamer to a point between heaven and earth, which is the House of Fame. There the dreamer, who has written many love poems but has not had much success in love in his own life, may hear of the love stories going on all around the world.

Once in the House of Fame, the dreamer sees the great bards of ancient times. The goddess Fame, of many eyes and tongues, holds court and hears supplicants' pleas. She sometimes grants them and sometimes does not, as she pleases, with no thought to logic or good judgment. Chaucer satirizes fame and the desire for fame as vanity, using the allegorical figure of Fame as a horrible vision of the lies and false reputation that earthly notoriety perpetuates.

The dreamer leaves the House. He comes upon a large house made of wicker twigs. In it every kind of speech and report are mingling together, in a sort of clearinghouse of gossip. Truth and lies mingle together, going out the windows and down to earth. The poem ends abruptly, just as a "man of authority" appears.

The Parliament of Fowls is a much shorter work at 699 lines in rime royal. Chaucer is credited with introducing this form into English. This poem begins with a discussion of The Dream of Scipio, the seventh book of De res publica by Cicero. In it, Scipio the Younger is taken on a tour of heaven and hell by his grandfather Scipio Africanus, where he is lectured on the virtue of leading a good life. After reading this book, the poet falls asleep and dreams that Scipio Africanus takes him on a tour of his own.

Africanus and the dreamer enter a garden in which all the allegorical personages pertaining to romantic love reside. They witness the gathering of birds, for it is St. Valentine's day, the day they choose their mates for the year before Dame Nature. There is a dispute over the favor of a formel (a female eagle), with three tercels (male eagles) in competition for her. Though there is much discussion, the decision is eventually deferred until the next year by the formel herself, for she is unable to choose. The dreamer awakens and resolves to read more books in order to gain more wisdom.