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The Book of the Duchess:
An Elegy or Ate Deum?

Zacharias P. Thundy, Northern Michigan University

"Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo" (Aeneid VII, 312)

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Every student of Chaucer repeats the truism that The Book of the Duchess (BD) is an elegy for Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster, who died of the plague in 1368/69. Indeed, there is evidence, both internal and external, that supports this claim, as the standard Riverside Chaucer would attest:

In the prologue to The Legend of Good Women Chaucer says that he wrote a poem called "the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse" and this almost certainly is what he later calls "the book of the Duchesse" (Retr. X.1086). A note in the Fairfax Manuscript, evidently in the hand of the Elizabethan antiquary John Stow, says that this poem was written at John of Gaunt's request. In the poem it seems likely that the word white is a translation pun in several instances, notably in line 948, "And goode faire White she het." There is also an apparent series of word plays in 1318-19, where white appears and John of Gaunt is hinted at in "seynt Johan" and where there are probable references to Richmond and Lancaster (Gaunt was Earl of Richmond and Duke of Lancaster). [1]

The date of the poem is conservatively placed between 1369 and 1372, again according to the authority of The Riverside Chaucer (329). D. W. Robertson, Jr., suggests that "Chaucer's poem was probably (although not certainly) used in connection with one of the annual services, perhaps in 1374, when the Duke was able to attend for the first time" [2] Be that as it may, I suggest that, since the poetic text as we have it now is not only a memorial to Duchess Blanche and an exercise in Boethian consolation but also a celebration of the homecoming of Henry IV, it should rather be retitled "The Dream of Chaucer." As a dreamvision, Chaucer probably recited the poem in its present form for the last time at the court of Henry IV to celebrate the Lancastrian ascendancy. Isn't it true that every title of this poem is the result of an interpretative stance?

Briefly, the sleepless poet, after reading the Ovidian story of Ceys and Alcyone, miraculously falls asleep. Hearing birds singing, he wakes up dreaming in a chamber adorned with scenes of the Trojan War and of the Romance of the Rose on windows and walls. Riding out in the company of hunters, the dreamer happens to meet a young knight in black lamenting his deceased love. In the ensuing dialogue the knight confesses that he has lost his bliss in a chess game with Dame Fortune and then recounts the story of his tragic love. Meanwhile, the "hert-hunting" being over, the dreamer awakens as the king rides to a "long castel" on a rich hill wherein a bell strikes twelve.

The understanding of the poem as a commemoration of the death of Duchess Blanche has inspired critics to deal with the elegiac aspect of the poem. First, in the general allegorical scheme the Black Knight is identified as John of Gaunt and the deceased lady "goode faire white" (948) as Duchess Blanche. Second, the poem as a dream vision is seen to owe much to its three main French sources: Froissart's Paradys d'amour, Machaut's Dit de la Fonteinne amorese and his Remede de Fortune, which are poems of complaint and comfort, though none of them furnishes a complete model for the overall structure of the Chaucerian poem.

In 1915, G. L. Kittredge, while saying that Chaucer portrays John of Gaunt as the bereaved knight and the stupefied dreamer as full of childlike wonder, suggested that the dream in the poem is in many details near to the phenomena of actual dream life.[3] New Criticism and comparison of the poem with its French sources have generated some adverse criticism of and dissatisfaction with it. Bennet, for example, asserts that the poem is structurally faulty, containing much that is "derivative and crude," and lacks in "profound emotion or any piercing thought."[4] Tatlock sees the poem repetitious and dilatory and indifferent to "human reality."[5] Malone views the dreamer as an inconsistency on Chaucer's part and asserts that Chaucer turned he marriage of John of Gaunt ( the Black Knight) into "an extra-marital love affair for the sake of the conventions of courtly love ."[6] Muscatine also finds discordance in the range and variance of style in the poem.[7]

There are more defenders than detractors of the poem, especially of Chaucer's naive dreamer whom Patch calls a "poor dolt."[8] According to Kean, the Book of the Duchess is "Chaucer's longest and most successful essay in pure urbanity."[9] Kreuzer denies the dreamer's naiveté altogether and argues that the dreamer's lack of awareness was "consciously construed" to enable him to be an effective comforter.[10]Bronson dwells on the idea of the dreamer's "tact" and describes the Knight and White as "ideal courtly lovers."[11] Lawlor responds to Malone's observations on "extra-marital" courtly love by stating that courtly love could rightly exist between married persons in the English tradition.[12] In 1965 Robertson suggested that the situation of the dreamer-narrator and the knight resembles that of Boethius and Philosophy in the Consolation.[13] Robertson and Huppe argue further that the Black Knight and the dreamer are not characters but exemplifications of attitudes; that is, "the Knight is not the Duke but a kind of alter-ego of the dreamer, expressive of grief over the loss of Blanche as a merely physical object of desire";[14] the theme of the poem is funerary consolation as implicit in Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy and the Mass for the Burial of the Dead.[15] In 1969 Cherniss tried to show that "the dialogue [between the dreamer and knight] deliberately and closely follows the pattern of the first two books of the Consolation.[16] Later he developed at length the Boethian dimensions of the poem in the larger context of Boethian influences in the Middle Ages (170 ff). Indeed, other scholars also correctly emphasize the Boethian dimensions of the poem.[17] In sum, the main issues that continue to concern scholars are three: (1) Does the speaker at the opening of the poem suffer from misguided love or from grief resulting from loss? (2) Is the dreamer naive and doltish or courteous and tactful? (3) How well does the dreamer-poet administer consolation?[18]

My recent rereading of the poem has convinced me that we should go beyond received interpretations. Past critics are right in focusing on the elegiac and consolatory elements of the poem. However, there are several ambiguities in the poem that seem to call for revisionism in the interpretation of the poem regarding its message, date of composition, its occasion, and its form.

Seemingly, the most incongruous element of the poem is its humor in an elegiac context. For example, the poet's reference to the eight-year-old sickness and physician (36-40) alludes obviously to love-sickness rather than to the eight-year-long illness of Aeneas in the Acts of the Apostles, as Robertson and Huppé would have us believe. Juno's messenger's frantic efforts to wake up Morpheus would elicit laughter in the audience. The poet's prayers to Morpheus and to Juno and his offer of pillows and featherbed in return for the gift of sleep are all said in game (238-64). The game of chess played with Fortune is rather incongruous in a highly serious elegiac poem. The characterization of the Black Knight as an allegory of John of Gaunt in the context of courtly love is at best unrealistic. The dreamer's playful treatment of the Black Knight as a beardless youth would not be very flattering to John of Gaunt--if he were in the audience. The dreamer's irreverent behavior toward the Knight reaches its apogee of absurdity in the dreamer's response to the Knight's announcement:

"Thow wost ful lytel what thow menest;
I have lost more than thow wenest
God wot, allas! Ryght that was she!"
"Allas, sir, how? What may that be?"
"She ys ded!" "Nay" "Yes, be my trouthe!"
"Is that youre los? Be God, hyt ys routhe!" (1305-11)

In fact, the omniscient dreamer who has overheard the Knight's earlier announcement of his lady's death (471-9), seems to have known all along that the Knight's fers was not lost because the Knight confusedly identified the fers with his wife. That is why at the end of the poem, the dreamer celebrates the homecoming of the fers as king after the "hert-huntyng."[19] This celebratory attitude of the dreamer contradicts the elegiac mood of the Knight. This is very much like Chauntecleer's statement to Dame Pertelote: "In principio/ Mulier erat hominis confusio--/Madame, the sentence of this Latin is/ "Womman is mannes joye and al his blis" (VII: 3163-7). The dreamer means something other than what he says he means. Briefly, if the poem were recited at the memorial service of Blanche in the presence of John of Gaunt, it would be inappropriate and probably dangerous to portray one's powerful manly patron as a beardless wimp. The upshot of this argumentation is that the poem as it stands was recited probably at a later date when John of Gaunt was not present.

Currently, there is a good deal of critical debate about the historical grounding of the poem.[20] It could be argued that the poem was recited before 1372, the date of the remarriage of John of Gaunt , since it would be inappropriate to represent the Duke to be grieving for his first wife after his remarriage.[21] On the other hand, the Duke was away from England till 1374. Further, the riddling reference to a rich hill--a possible allusion to John of Gaunt's title Earl of Richmond--would be anachronistic after 1372 since Gaunt did not hold that title after 1372. In view of these and other objections, the poem could be considered rather as a "poetic monument" to John of Gaunt's grief, according to David Lawton:

It has always seemed puzzling, on grounds of social as much as literary structures, that Chaucer should have tried in this way to console one of the most powerful members of the royal family for the loss of his wife, especially as the poem appears to have been composed some considerable time after Blanche's death and there is no strong sense of occasion in the poem. On my reading, Chaucer does not presume to console Gaunt for his loss but presents him with a poetic monument to his grief. The Book of the Duchess is...a tribute to both the living husband and the dead wife.[22]

Indeed, some critics prefer a later date for the poem such as 1374/75, when, according to documents, John of Gaunt commissioned and had a double tomb built for himself and Blanche by the mason Henry Yevele.[23] Edward Condren prefers 1377 as the date composition for this flattering poem to coincide with Edward III's death and John of Gaunt's rise in power.[24]

I suggest that it may even be necessary to push the date of composition of the present text of the poem later in time for two reasons: One, Chaucer refers to John of Gaunt by the expression "seynt Johan" (1320); to refer to someone as saint is anachronistic to medieval sensibility and anomalous in Christian theology. If that be the case, the last lines of the poem were composed after the death of John of Gaunt in 1399. It sounds like Chaucer is consoling Henry IV by saying that his father is in heaven. The praise of John of Gaunt was already preceded by the apotheosis of Henry's mother in the poem. As James Wimsatt has points out, through the use of biblical references and symbolism Chaucer implicitly identifies Blanche with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Black Knight's long description (283 lines) of his lady.[25] Since the poem is also a celebration of the celestial homecoming of Blanche, undoubtedly there existed an earlier version of the poem long before the death of John of Gaunt in 1399. The date of the composition of that version could very well be 1369 or 1374. I like to think that Chaucer himself refers to this version as "The Death of Blaunche the Duchesse." However, the present text of the poem may not be that version in all details.

The second reason for postulating a later date for the poem is Chaucer's perplexing reference to the fers in the game of chess. Traditionally, most critics translate fers simply as queen to equate the piece with the lady as in modern chess.[26] This, I believe today, is a misreading and mismeaning of the text. Most people seem to think, as I used to, that the Black Knight is the king with the fers as the queen, that the king loses his queen in the game, and that consequently the king is checkmated. Two problems are embedded in this reading, as Margaret Connolly points out (40). The first problem is that the marriage relationship is represented between the fers and the knight and not between the king and the queen. The second problem is that the queen is white while the protecting knight is black, which means he is playing on the opposite side. This misreading is the result of the mismeaning of the word fers in the re-envisioned context of the poem.

In Indian, Persian, and early medieval chess, fers is not queen but wise counselor or prime minister, who is second to king and whose function it is to protect the king and not vice versa. The word fers (from French fierge) is derived from Arabic firzan and Persian wazir. If the Black Knight is Gaunt and the king is Richard II, the fers is not Blanche but Henry, Gaunt's son and the king's counselor. Gaunt is in mourning because he has presumably lost his son Henry to exile:

She staal on me and tok my fers.
And whan I sawgh my fers awaye,
Allas, I kouthe no lenger playe (654-6).

In this reading, the checkmate by an errant pawn would refer to Richard II's death:

Therwith Fortune seyde "Chek her!"
And mat in the myd poynt of the chekker
With a poun errant! Allas! (659-61)

My punctuation of the three lines above are significantly different from the punctuation of the Riverside and other editions, where the closing quotation marks are placed after Allas. I translate: "Immediately Fortune said, `The king [is] here!' and, alas, she killed [him] in the middle of the board with an errant pawn." Chaucer uses the words chek and mat in their literal sense: chek is "shah" or "sheik" (king) and mat means "dead" or "killed." According to my reading, the knight, king, and the fers are all black pieces and "White" is not a player at all in the game. Chaucer seems to be referring here to the mysterious death of Richard II at the hands of a common soldier rather than in the custody of Henry IV. The enemies of Henry blamed him for Richard's death; if Henry were actively involved in the assassination of Richard, according to the Ricardian apologists Henry would forfeit his kingship on account of the crime of regicide--one cannot validly become a king by killing the legitimate ruler just as one cannot validly marry a man/woman after murdering his/her spouse. In one dispute between a Master friar and Henry regarding his election by the Parliament, the friar argued: "Electio nulla est, vivente possessore legitimo. Et si mortuus est, per vos mortuus est. Et si per vos mortuus est, perdidistis titulum, et omne ius quod habere potestis ad regnum " (While the lawful king is alive, election to kingship is invalid. If he is dead, he died through you. If he died through you, you have lost your title as well as all right you may have for kingship).[27] Indeed, Chaucer seems to have recognized the problem of Henry's rightful succession to the English throne: it was not enough to prove that Richard was dead; it was also important to prove that Richard did not die while in Henry's custody!

The chess allegory of Chaucer comes from The Romance of the Rose (RR)6620-726, where the games of chess are actual battles between the Angevin Charles and his enemies Henry and Conradin. The passage from RR is quite pertinent to the BD:

As for Henry, brother to the King of Spain and filled with pride and treason, Charles put him in prison to die. These two like foolish boys, lost rooks, fools, pawns, and knights in the game and scrambled off the board, such fear did they have of being captured in the game that they had undertaken. For if one considers the truth, one sees that they took no precaution against being killed; since they fought without a king they had no fear of chek and mate.... If I dare tell the truth... it must be a king that one puts in check or mates.... One cannot check or mate any other man.... If anyone had said `check' to them, there was no one to protect against it, for the queen (?) [fierche/fierge] had been captured in the moves of the first attack(6658 ff).[28]

Thus, support for viewing King Richard's death as alluded to by Chaucer in the chess metaphor comes from The Romance of the Rose, the direct source of this particular passage in the BD. However, the clever Chaucer even seems to introduce artfully the idea that King Richard perhaps did not die, as the Ricardians liked to believe, but rather escaped the hunt in lines "This hert rused and staal away/Fro all the houndes a privy way(381-2).[29] The white hart, historically speaking, was Richard's favorite emblem.[30]

Thus, the identification of fers with Henry IV answers the two objections raised by Connolly. Indeed, I am impressed by Chaucer's learned use of the words chek and mat as two separate words rather than as one as in the RR; the more I read Chaucer the more I am impressed by his knowledge even of Arabic and of the many Oriental sources of his works. Indeed, Chaucer was a good linguist who deserves the benefit of the doubt as to his knowledge of the meaning of the words check and mate.

The Knight's lament "I shulde have pleyd the bet at ches/And kept my fers the bet therby (668-9) simply refers to Gaunt's failure in keeping Henry from exile; Gaunt only partially succeeded in having the king reduce his son's exile from ten years to six years. On October 13, 1398, Henry left London for Paris; about four months later, on February 13, 1399, John of Gaunt expired in Leicester Castle. Eight months later, in July (probably on July 5), Henry returned to England from his exile.[31] In the numerical context of eight, I am inclined to read the eight-year-long sickness of Chaucer to the eight-month-long exile of Henry and the physician as Henry. Also, Octovyen (368) makes good sense in this reading: octo + vyen (eight = coming) simply means that Henry will be returning in eight months to become king: "With that me thoght that this kyng/Gan homwarde for to ryde" (1314-5). In this reading, the dreamer who stands outside time--past, present, and future--in dream duration, is omniscient; the one who is ignorant is the time-bound mourning knight who allegorically tells the story of the exile of Henry and the death of Richard without understanding the meaning of the chess metaphor. What Chaucer is implying here is that Gaunt died grieving for the love of his exiled son and that Gaunt would not have died so soon had he known that he had not really lost his son.

I realize that this plausible rereading of the poem postulates several versions of the Book of the Duchess. The troubled history of the title of the poem lends support to the hypothesis that there have been several versions of the poem and that the version we have now is the last version. The various titles of the poem are "Ceys and Alcione" as in the words of the Host found in the Introduction to the Man Law's Tale: "In youthe he made of Ceys and Alcione" (II: 57). I like to think that this early version was simply a retelling of the Ovidian story, composed to entertain and instruct children in a school or at the court at the request of a schoolmaster or of a patron; perhaps the work was used as part of an English anthology of poems in school/court. In the prologue to the Legend of Good Women (F Version, 417-9), there is reference to another version called "The Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse"--referred to also by Lydgate in his Fall of Princes. This version was probably an expansion of "Ceys and Alcione" with a different introduction and explication than necessarily the one found in the present version and was probably recited soon after the death of the Duchess. In the "Retractation" ascribed to Chaucer, there is reference to the "Book of the Duchess," which was recited probably at a special commemorative service conducted at the dedication of the double tombs of the Duke and the Duchess. The last version that is known today under the title "The Book of the Duchess" was called in 1532 in Francis Thynne's edition of the Works as "The Dreame of Chaucer."[32] The main reason the poem is called "The Book of the Duchess" is the authority of the fifteenth-century Fairfax 16, the major source-text of the poem for every modern edition, of Bodley 639, and of the "Retractation"; however, as Ellis notes, "Thynne's edition has many unique readings that point to a lost manuscript source that may, presumably, have carried the title The Dreame of Chaucer" (250). In view of all these titular ambiguities, I suggest that the final version of the poem was called "The Dreame of Chaucer" and was recited probably in or even after 1400. Of course, a post-1400 date for the composition of the last version of the poem may appear anachronistic since Chaucer reputedly died in 1400. Incidentally, there is no compelling evidence to claim 1400 as the death-year of Chaucer. The unconvincing arguments in favor of 1400 as the year of Chaucer's death are two: one, the now-illegible inscription on Chaucer's tomb in Westminster Abbey gives the date of his death as 25 October 1400; two, there are no life-records on Chaucer after 1400. The tomb was probably erected as late as 1556, and there is no other evidence as to the exact date of Chaucer's death.[33] We know, on the other hand, that on December 24, 1399, Chaucer took a fifty-three-year lease on a house near the lady chapel of the Westminster Abbey. The absence of any life-records on Chaucer does not necessarily indicate that he died in 1400; incidentally, there are no Chaucer life-records from 1360 to 1366, which time Chaucer probably spent in the Benedictine Abbey on Mont St.-Michel on the Continent as a monk.[34] From 1400 to his death day Chaucer probably spent his days in a life of prayer and literary work in the environs of the Westminster Abbey, which afforded him sanctuary from possible political persecution and execution on account of his lengthy association with the court of Richard II. [35] It is likely that Chaucer even had a genuine conversionmystical experience, like Thomas Aquinas's, not only on his deathbed--as mentioned by Gascoigne-- but also during his last days, which would account for his retractation and his palinode in Troilus and Criseyde. It is more than likely that the poem we have now was recited some time between 1399 and a slightly later date at the court of Henry IV to celebrate the victorious homecoming of Henry IV, the Octavian-like conqueror. It may also be useful to remember that Henry's triumphal progress was described as resembling the coming of the Lord by one contemporary.[36] The poem, The Dreame of Chaucer, was a Te Deum, a poem of thanksgiving, a paean of praise not only of Henry IV but also of John of Gaunt, Duchess of Blanche, and the Lancastrians. I may add here that the mysterious reference "ryche hill" in line 1319 may refer to Henry's gift in October, 1399, of the Richmond Castle for life to the Lancastrian Ralph Nevill, Earl of Westmorland, whom Henry always described as "the king's brother."[37]

I recognize that my rereading the poem, retitling it, revising its date of composition, and attempting a concordance of discordances are all permissible and justifiable only if we look at the poem as a dream, as Chaucer's own dream. Chaucer is giving us here an ekphrasis of his own dream, which he thinks no man, not even the biblical Joseph, may have the wit to interpret (278-80)! Nonetheless, Chaucer narrates the dream and nudges his audience to interpret it; otherwise, the narration of the dream would not be worth the while of his audience. Chaucer , as in Troilus and Criseyde and the Nun's Priest's Tale, does deem dreams as meaningful. In fact, he composes his four dream poems in an intelligible language to encourage the audience to interpret them; he includes dreams and their interpretations in several poems as in Cassandra's interpretation of Troilus' dreams and in the serious-comic discussion of the nature of dreams between Chauntecleer and Pertelote in the Nun's Priest's Tale. Though it is difficult to claim the poem contains a real dream, Chaucer recounts it as a real dream, personal and intimate in details. As A. C. Spearing puts it,

In looking at Chaucer's dream poems, we shall see again and again that he is making use of his understanding of real dreams in producing works which are dreamlike, not only in superficial details, but in matters of method and structure.[38]

Sigmund Freud, that genius of the nether world of the unconscious, is probably our best guide who can help us understand the nature and meaning of Chaucer's literary dreams in the absence of any celestial revelation from Chaucer himself.[39] Freud gives the guiding principles in his classic works The Interpretation of Dreams and On Dreams, which will help us interpret this dream of Chaucer. In this short paper I can only give some indistinct contours of a future monograph, "Freud Meets Chaucer."

  1. The manifest content of the dream is what is retained in the memory or as it is reported by the dreamer. The relevant material discovered by the analysis of it is the latent content of the dream.

  2. The process which transforms the latent into the manifest is the dream work. The activity which transforms the manifest into the latent is dream analysis, which is what critics have been doing with The Dream of Chaucer.

  3. Most dreams, including the dreams of Chaucer, are disconnected, confusing, and apparently meaningless. The Knight in The Dream of Chaucer is confused; the dreamer himself is confused; the saying that Octavian is hunting is disconnected in time and place; the inconsolable Black Knight's sorrow at the loss of a piece of chess seems meaningless. These riddles found in the manifest content of the dream are solved by means of dream analysis. In fact, there is even an attempted analysis of the dream--explanation of the game of chess in the dream itself--which only confounds the confusion of literary critics. The evidence of this growing critical confusion can be found in the plethora of published and unpublished analyses of the dreams of Chaucer. One way to interpret this dream of Chaucer is to view it as a series of dreams, which it is. The point has been made by Jung:

    Every interpretation is hypothetical, for it is a mere attempt to read an unfamiliar text. An obscure dream, taken by itself, can rarely be interpreted with any certainty, so that I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. With a series of dreams we can have more confidence in our interpretation, for the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before. We are also better able, in a dream series, to recognize the important contents and basic themes.[40]

    This means that various elements of this particular poem are interconnected; for example, the eight-year-old sickness, Octavian, one King's death in the game of chess, and another king's coming after the hunt are parts of a large puzzle.

  4. The dream is a series of fulfilled wishes. First, the eight-year old sickness is Chaucer's desire for the return of Henry to England; the physician is Henry who is expected also to fill the purse of Chaucer. Second, White's death is the wishfulfilment of the Black Knight, which explains why the dreamer is bemused at the knight's effusion of excessive grief at the death of his beloved. Checkmate fulfills the desire of the entire Lancastrian faction for the death of Richard II.

  5. The wishes which are fulfilled are carried over from daytime. Checkmating and the death of White, for example, fulfill the daytime thoughts of the enemies of Richard II and of John of Gaunt's wish to marry his mistress.

  6. Sometimes there is opposition between the manifest and latent contents of dreams. The Knight's loss of his fers could also be at once a wishfulfilment of the death of a spouse. Most critics would like to eliminate this opposition by the identification fers and spouse, but that is not necessary since opposition is often at the center of dreams.

  7. The dream work contains large-scale compression or condensation. Freud writes: "From every element in a dream's content associative threads branch out in two or more directions; every situation in a dream seems to be put together out of two or more impressions or experiences."[41] In his analysis of his own dream of scattering bathers, Freud sees three experiences condensed in one dream (648-9). The only requirement for condensation is that there must be common elements in these components which are superimposed like images upon one another as in a superimposition of family photographs resulting in varying degrees of vagueness in the content of the dreams. My analysis of the dream of Chaucer includes scenes from the turbulent political and personal lives of Richard II, John of Gaunt, Henry IV, and Chaucer.

  8. The process of condensation in dreams can fuse the features of two or more people into one figure. That is, in analyzing a dream uncertainty is resolved not by an "either-or" but by an "and." For example, the grieving knight is at once the grieving Chaucer, the grieving John of Gaunt, the grieving Henry, and the grieving audience. Freud is emphatic on this point:

    Each element in the content of a dream ... is not derived from a single element in the dream-thoughts, but may be traced back to a whole number. These elements need not necessarily be closely related to each other in the dream-thoughts themselves; they may belong to the most widely separated regions of the fabric of those thoughts. A dream-element is, in the strictest sense of the word, the "representative" of all this disparate material in the content of the dream (652).

  9. The process of displacement conceals the meaning of a dream and makes the connection between dream-content and dream-thoughts unrecognizable. Freud writes: "There are dreams in which not a single piece of the dream-thoughts has retained its own psychical value, or in which everything that is essential in the dream-thoughts has been replaced by something trivial" (655). For example, in Chaucer's dream fers displaces White in the Knight's perspective; Octavian displaces Henry IV; the clock striking twelve, while waking up the dreamer, stands for the Lancastrian claim on the throne of England for perpetuity.

  10. Dream thoughts are represented symbolically and pictorially in poetic images. Freud puts it, "The manifest content consists for the most part in pictorial situations" (659). For example, the hunting scene in the poem symbolizes the hunt of Richard II for Henry, who gets away. The Trojan War scenes depicted on the windows of the room probably indicate Henry's own successful campaigns, besides allusions to the campaigns of Octavian. The chirping happy birds recall the figures of Ceys and Alcyone as well as the happy spirits of the late Blanche and her husband. Freud writes:

    Dreams take into account the connection which undeniably exists between all the portions of the dream-thoughts by combining the whole material into a single situation. They reproduce logical connection by approximation in time and space, just as a painter will represent all the poets in a single group in a picture of Parnassus. It is true that they were never in fact assembled on a single mountain-top; but they certainly form a conceptual group (660-1).

  11. In addition to condensation, displacement, and pictorial arrangement, there is a fourth activity in every dream. It is dream-composition or ekphrasis, which arranges the constituents of a dream into a connected whole. Such dreams are well-constructed dreams, but often they run the risk of falsification and fall prey to strange misunderstandings. All of Chaucer's dreams are well-constructed ones. Freud comments: "In this way the dream is given a kind of façade...and thus receives a first, preliminary interpretation, which is supported by interpolations and slight modifications" (666). If Freud is right in the case of The Dream of Chaucer, we have the preliminary interpretation of it as an attempted consolation of John of Gaunt who is grieving at the death of his wife Blanche. But, as I have tried to point out, the dream, in spite of its obvious Boethian façade of consolation, is also a celebration of the homecoming of Henry IV.

  12. Freud, as well as Chaucer, thinks that the dream situation represents wishfulfilment. Freud writes:

    Dreams fall into three classes according to their attitude to wish- fulfillment. The first class consists of those which represent an unrepressed wish undisguisedly; these are the dreams of infantile type which become ever rarer in adults. Secondly there are the dreams which express repressed wishes disguisedly; these no doubt form the overwhelming majority of all our dreams, and require analysis before they can be understood. In the third place there are the dreams which represent a repressed wish, but do so with insufficient or no disguise. These last dreams are invariably accompanied by anxiety, which interrupts them (674).

  13. In the interpretation of The Dreame, Chaucer reasserts the popular belief that dreams foretell future. According to Freud, "Actually the future which the dream shows us is one which we should like to occur. The popular mind is behaving here as it usually does: what it wishes it believes" (674). Even though Chaucer composed the text of the poem as we have it now after the triumphant return of Henry IV to England, he would want to give the impression that he had already prophetically foreseen Henry's triumph immediately after the death of Duchess Blanche, whom he had eulogized with the same poem years ago!

    In medieval terminology, The Dreame of Chaucer belongs to Macrobius' categories of visio (prophetic vision), somnium (enigmatic dream), and oraculum (one in which a superior being appears and gives advice), which are all of prophetic value and not mutually exclusive; Macrobius explains that Scipio's dream belonged to all three categories.[42] Similarly, The Dream of Chaucer could also be said to be a combination of visio, somnium and oraculum. What is remarkable here is that Freud as well as Chaucer embraces the popular view of dreams.

My rereading of the poem of Chaucer probably raises more issues than solves them. To reiterate: First, this essay is a classic example of what happens when Freud meets Chaucer. Second, I have argued that the poem is also a Te Deum, an offering of thanks to God, for the safe and triumphant return of Henry IV to England, while offering consolation to the new king on the death of his father who is apotheosized along with Beatrice-or-Mary-like Blanche, the mother of Henry. Third, I assigned the final revision of the poem known as the Book of the Duchess to 1399 or to a later date. Fourth, the traditional death-date of Chaucer as well as the dates for the final versions of the Canterbury Tales should be in the early 1400s--there seem to be too many allusions to Henry IV in the General Prologue and in the Knight's Tale. Fifth, I raised the theory that Chaucer started out his literary career as a Benedictine monk on the Continent and ended his life in another Benedictine abbey most likely as a monk. Last, the Book of the Duchess may more suitably be retitled asThe Dreame of Chaucer, as Francis Thynne titles it.[43]


1. The Riverside Chaucer, third edition; ed. Larry Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 329.

2. The Book of the Duchess," in Beryl Smalley, ed., A Companion to Chaucer Studies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 330.

3. G. L. Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1915).

4. H. S. Bennet, Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press (1949), II, i, 36.

5. J. S. P. Tatlock, The Mind and Art of Chaucer (Syracuse: Syracuse U Press, 1950), 30.

6. Kemp Malone, Chapters on Chaucer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1951), 40.

7. Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1957), 107.

8. H. R. Patch, On Rereading Chaucer (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1939), 29.

9. A. Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry (Cambridge: U Press, 1972), I: 45. 

10. James Kreuzer, "The Dreamer in the Book of the Duchess," PMLA 66 (1951): 544-5.

11. B. H. Bronson, "The Book of the Duchess Reopened," PMLA 67 (1952): 863-881. 

12. John Lawlor, "The Pattern of Consolation in The Book of the Duchess," Speculum 31 (1956): 626-48.

13. "The historical Setting of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," in Easten Keller and John Mahoney, eds., Mediaeval Studies in Honor of U. T. Holmes, Jr. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1976, rpt), 188-9.

14. D.W. Robertson, Jr., "The Book of the Duchess" in Beryl Rowland, Companion to Chaucer Studies (New York: Oxford U Press, 1968), 337.

15. B. F. Huppe and D. W. Robertson, Jr., Fruyt and Chaf (Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1963), 32-100.

16. Michael Cherniss, Boethian Apocalypse: Studies in Middle English Vision Poetry (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1987), 170. 

17. John B. Friedman, "The Dream, the Whelp, and Consolation in the Book of the Duchess," Chaucer Review, 3 (1969): 145-62; Charles Tisdale, "Boethian 'Hert-Huntyng': The Elegiac Pattern in The Book of the Duchess," American Benedictine Review 24 (1973): 365-80. 

18. A number of other studies explain specific details in the poem; see D. W. Robertson, 336. A survey of relevant literature on the poem in MLA on-line bibliography shows over a hundred articles on The Book of the Duchess. Needless to say that reading and incorporating all this scholarship is nearly impossible, a point already made in the Middle Ages; inscribed above the cupboard that contains the works of St. Augustine at the Library of Seville is the following inscription: "Mentitur qui totum te legisse fatetur/Aut quis cuncta tua lector habere potest?" PL 83,1109).

19. According to this reading, the fers is Henry IV; if the mourning knight were identified, on the other hand, as Henry IV, then the fers in the sense of queen/wife could be England, which he thought he had lost.

20. See Phillipa Hardman, "The Book of the Duchess as a Memorial Monument," The Chaucer Review, 28 (1994): 205-15.

21. Hardman, 206. 

22. David Lawton, Chaucer's Narrators (Cambridge: University Press, 1988), 56. for his full discussion,. see 48-57.

23. Hardman, 206. John M. Hill, "The Book of the Duchess, Melancholy, and That Eight-Year Sickness," Chaucer Review 9 (1994): 35-50.

24. Edward Condren, "the Historical Context of the Book of the Duchess," Chaucer Review 5 (1971): 195-212. 

25. James Wimsatt, "The Apotheosis of Blanche in The Book of the Duchess," JEGP 66 (1967): 26-44.

26. Margaret Connolly, Chaucer and Chess," Chaucer Review 29 (1994): 40-44. 

27. Continuatio eulogii, in Eulogium historiarum sive temporis, ed. F. S. Haydon, Rolls Series 9 (London, 1858-63)iii: 391-2.

28. Charles Dahlberg, trans. The Romance of the Rose (Princeton: U Press, 1995), 129. On account of the martial language of the game of chess in RR and Chaucer and for lack of evidence that the new game of chess with the queen as the most powerful piece, which became popular in the late fifteenth century, there is reason to believe that Chaucer is referring to the old game of chess with fers as couselorrather than as queen in the BD; see W. W. Skeat, The Complete Works of Chaucer I (Oxford: Clarendon, 1899), 478-81; H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess (Northhampton: Benjamin, 1985), passim.

29. The friar magister's dispute with Henry IV, June 1402, cited earlier in footnote no, 27, in part is worth citing in full since it calls attention to the rumor that Richard was alive in 1402 and that one could be executed for refusing to support the Lancastrian cause:

  • Et dixit Rex magistro: "Isti sunt fatui et idiotae, nec letere sciunt nec intelligunt. Tu deberes sapiens esse, dicis tu quod Rex Ricardus vivit?"
  • Magister respondit: "Nec dico quod vivit, ded dico si vivit ipse est verus rex Angliae,"
    Et Rex opposuit, dicens: "Ipse resignavit."
  • Et dixit magister: "Resignavit sed invitus et coactus in carcere, quae resignatio nulla est de jure."
  • Cui Rex: "Ipse resignavit cum bona voluntate."
  • Et magister: "Non resignasset si fuisset liber. Et resignatio facta in carcere non est libera."
  • "Adhuc," dixit Rex, "ipse fuit depositus."
  • Et magister, per modum conquestus, dixit: "Dum esset rex vi armorum captus fuit, incarceratus, et regno spoliatus, et vos invasistis coronam."
  • Cui Rex: ""Non invasi coronam, sed fui rite electus."
  • Magister dixit: "electio nulla est, vivente possessore legitimo. Et si mortuus est, per vos mortuus est. Et si per vos mortuus est, perdidistis titulum, et omne jus quod habere potestis ad regnum."
  • Cui Rex dixit: "Per caput istud, tu perdes caput tuum."
  • Magister dixit: "Numquam dilexistis ecclesiam, sed multum illi detraxeris antequam fuistis Rex, et nunc illam destruetis."
  • "Mentiris," dixit Rex; "recede."

30. Maud de Vere, the countess of Oxford and one of the many Ricardians, spread the rumor that Richard was alive and lived after 1401 in Scotland, and she manufactured and distributed the Ricardian badges of the white hart (Fecitque fabricari cervos argenteos et auratos plurimos, signa videlicet quae Rex Ricardus conferre solebat suis militibus, scutiferis, et amicis" (Walsingham, Historia anglicana, 2 262-63; see Paul Strohm, "The Trouble with Richard: The Reburial of Richard II and Lancastrian Symbolic Strategy," Speculum 71 (1996): 87-111.

31. Bryan Bevan Henry IV (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), 56.

32. See Steve Ellis, "The Death of the Book of the Duchess," Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 249-58, for a detailed discussion of the various titles of the poem. Ellis prefers the title "the Death of Blanche the Duchess." In the Speght edition of 1602, the poem is called "Chaucers Dreame."

33. Martin M. Crow and Claire C. Olson, Chaucer Life-Records (Austin: U of Texas Press, 1968), 547-9. Thomas Gascoigne, who was Chancellor of Oxford university, reported between 1434 and 1457 in his Dictionarium Theologicum or Liber de Veritatibus that Geoffrey Chaucer, father of Thomas Chaucer, was repentant and despondent on his death bed but did not give any exact death date; see Douglas Wurtele, "The Penitence of Geoffrey Chaucer," Viator 11 (1980): 335-59.

34. Scholars tend to think that Chaucer studied law during these six years. I would rather say that Chaucer, disillusioned by the Hundred Years War and mortified and converted by captivity in France, decided to join the Bendedictine Order in France, where he continued his studies and wrote his poem "ABC.". I hope to develop this bold, unorthodox hypothesis some time later in a paper.

35. I am inclined to suggest on the basis of the internal evidence suggested by "The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse" that Chaucer probably joined the abbey as a monk by taking the vow of poverty and on the basis of the facts that Henry ceased to pay him his pension, that Chaucer himself did not pay the stipulated rent in 1400, and that he was not evicted for non-payment of rent. The Complaint's envoy recognizes Henry as the lawful king of England and assumes that the king is forgiving. It is more than likely that Henry did absolve Chaucer on condition that he jumped into the Lancastrian bandwagon and promote Henry's cause in his literary works by eliminating Ricardian references from his works. Isn't it strange that there are hardly any references to Richard--except perhaps in the Nun's Priest's Tale which refers to the Peasants'Revolt and the controversial occasion of the Parlement of Foules--and more references to Henry, especially in "Chaucer's Complaint to His Purse," which is an outright contribution to the Lancastrian propaganda. I like to think that voluntary or involuntary censorship by the Lancastrians seems to account for the many missing works of Chaucer. I wonder sometimes how Chaucer in good conscience could have supported the claims of the Lancastrian usurper Henry to the throne of England. It looks like that Chaucer did support henry's claim to the English throne by succumbing to Lancastrian pressure by making a virtue out of necessity as Chaucer puts it in The Knight's Tale. Maybe Chaucer more than atoned for this sin by spending the rest of his life in penance at the abbey!

36. Anglia sacra, ed. H. Wharton, 2 vols., (London, 1691),, II: 363; cited by K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 49.

37. McFarlane, 71. Ralph Nevill, who was married to Joan of Beaufort, Duke of Lancaster's youngest daughter, was also made Marshal of England for life in September 30, 1399.

38. A. C. Spearing, Medieval Dream Poetry (Cambridge: U Press, 1976), 49.

39. "Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo" (Aeneid, VII, 312) ("If I cannot bend the heavenly powers, I will move the infernal regions"). After I had written this paper, Ed Vasta called my attention to Constance B. Hieatt's The Realism of Dream Visions (the Hague: Mouton, 1967), which also discusses Freud vis-à-vis the BD. I am happy to point out that Connie Hieatt and I agree on several points in this dream interpretation. Such a shared insight may show that we are not far from the right track in the interpretation of this dream of Chaucer.

40. C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, 1933), 16.

41. Sigmund Freud, On Dreams in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth, 1958), V: 648.

42. Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. W. H. Stahl (New York: Columbia U Press, 1952), 87 ff.; see Spearing, 10. According to W. C. Curry and A. C. Spearing (56-7), The Dreame of Chaucer could also be called a combination of somnium naturale (of purely physical origin) and somnium animale (caused by preoccupations of the waking).

43. Finally, I want to thank Mary-Joe Arn, John McLaughlin, Robert Miller, Josephine Koster Tarvers , and other esteemed colleagues who contributed to the discussion of some of the ideas found in this paper. Let us keep the discussion going in the tradition of the medieval scholastic disputatio. Maybe the best is yet to come. I hope to see more e contra and respondeo dicendum on the Chaucernet from those reading this paper on the web.

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