Chaucer's The Book Of The Duchess: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:00 Who Was Chaucer?
  • 0:57 Chaucer's First…
  • 1:42 Form of the Poem
  • 2:08 Plot Summary of the Poem
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrienne Maher
'The Book of the Duchess' was Geoffrey Chaucer's first long published poem. This lesson explores the poem's plot as well as its form and the history behind its fantastical visions.

Who Was Chaucer?

Geoffrey Chaucer was the first published medieval poet, and remains one of the most respected poets in English literature. Chaucer was born around 1340, most likely in London. His father was a wealthy wine merchant. He spent most of his career in service as a statesman, working his way up from page, to soldier, to customs comptroller, to parliament member, and finally to diplomat.

Chaucer's career in later life was lucrative. His wife, Philippa, also made a good salary working as a lady in waiting for the queen. Chaucer's various responsibilities for the Court required him to travel a great deal. Through his travels he became acquainted with the great literature of Italy and France. Chaucer died around 1400, and was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in a spot which is still called, 'The Poet's Corner.'

Chaucer's First Published Great Poem

'The Book of the Duchess', also known as 'The Dreame of Chaucer,' is the first major long poem published by Geoffrey Chaucer. It was written sometime between 1368 and 1372. It is believed to have been written to commemorate Duchess Blanche of Lancaster, first wife of John of Gaunt, who was the fourth son of King Edward III.

John of Gaunt was a patron and at some point, a brother-in-law to Chaucer. The poem is believed to have been commissioned by him. The most obvious clue to this is the name of the deceased woman of the poem, which is 'Lady White,' as the name 'Blanche' means white.

Form of the Poem

The poem is mostly written in a syllabic form Chaucer adapted from the French, called French octosyllabic verse, which means there are eight syllables in a line, and every two lines, or couplets, rhyme. This was a form often used for long narrative poems, or poems that tell a story. There is a short poem within the poem, which was written in royal rhyme, a seven syllable rhyming form which Chaucer invented.

Plot Summary of the Poem

'The Book of the Duchess' begins with a man who cannot sleep. His heavy thoughts and fantasies are so disturbing that he hasn't slept for eight years. He fears he will die of his insomnia, so he asks a servant to bring him a book to read, which he calls a romance, a medieval European genre of literature often about knights and their adventures and romances. He says that it's better to read than to play chess to try to fall asleep.

He reads about a fictional king, Ceyx, who sets sail for an adventure at sea and is drowned in a storm. The queen, Alcyone, waits for him to return and when he doesn't, she grieves inconsolably. She begs the goddess Juno to let her see what happened to her husband, if only in a dream. She vows to give her total devotion to the goddess if she grants her wish.

The goddess causes Alcyone to fall into a deep sleep and summons Morpheus, the god of sleep, to go find the king on the ocean floor, inhabit his body, and make him appear to Alcyone in a dream so that she sees that he has drowned. He does so, and Alcyone dies of grief three days later.

The narrator, or the speaker of the poem, figures that if a god helps Alcyone fall asleep and dream, maybe a god would do the same for him. He sends a plea up to the gods that he will reward them with the most luxurious gold-painted bedchamber, with a bed of the finest down, with covers embroidered with the finest threads of pure gold, if they will help him sleep. He immediately falls asleep and has a vivid dream.

First, the narrator hears the birds singing the sweetest symphony he's ever heard. He is lying in a room whose walls have pictures of all the characters of the great European epic poems.

'For the entire story of Troy was wrought in the glasswork thus: of Hector and of King Priam, of Achilles and of King Lamedon, and also of Medea and of Jason, of Paris, Helen, and of Lavinia. And on all the walls were painted with fine colors the entire Romance of the Rose, both text and gloss.'

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