Feb 7: The Book of the Duchess

The description of nature in medieval literature is usually focused on nature as being a “beautiful place.” Chaucer uses this description of nature inside the dreamer’s dream. The dreamer is led by a puppy to a green path that leads him to a beautiful place filled with flowers and green groves with thick trees and is filled with animals (387-442). However the black knight is an “alien” in this beautiful scene of nature. The black knight is unaware of the scenery and is focused on his internal sorrow (445).

In this scene does Chaucer continue the usual description of nature as a “beautiful place” or does he change it or challenge it by introducing an “alien” figure into the scene? Are there other examples of this in the poem? Also does Chaucer view the depiction of nature as a “beautiful place” as being an actual depiction of nature or a fake depiction?

5 thoughts on “Feb 7: The Book of the Duchess

  1. I think Chaucer’s use of nature in this poem is mainly to contrast against the sorrow and melancholy of the man in black. Especially in the grove where the knight is mourning, nearly all of the descriptors of nature are positive and luxuriant. The dreamer tells us that he believes the place is divinely inhabited (402-404), and “gayer than the heven” (407), and that the place is so beautiful that “It had forgete the povertee / That winter thurgh his colde morwes / Had made it suffre” (410-412). The latter line especially, which hints not only of the presence of spring but at the absence of sorrow, could not be further from the man in black’s state of mind. We see deer of multiple species, squirrels having feasts, and tree branches stretching high and wide. Nature is in its full flowering here; and the man in black stands out so much that Pan, the god of nature, is “never so wrooth” (512).

    This is probably me reading too much into the poem, since I’m fairly certain this is absolutely not what Chaucer was going for at all, but to me the natural scenes checked off certain boxes one usually sees filled in more supernatural stories. The dreamer wanders off into the woods, runs across a hunt, is led away by an animal to a grove of exceptional beauty. To me, especially in the context of a medieval story, all of this feels like a journey into Faerie. Again, I don’t think Chaucer had anything like this in mind when he wrote the poem, but thinking about it in this way does add another shade to the way nature is depicted. In this sense, the dreamer, much more than the man in black, is the alien.

  2. Chaucer includes a description of nature as a beautiful place of wonder through the eyes of the poet, who regards his surroundings with the appropriate interest. However, Chaucer skews the typical understanding of nature with the Black Knight’s inability to connect with the world in which he sits. Traditionally, nature is viewed as being accessible to all, and in some stories like those of Marie de France nature even seeks out certain people. We see an opposite occurrence in The Book of The Duchess; the Black Knight is unable to commune with the nature around him and is left on the outside of it all. This knights inability to connect is also seen in the miscommunications between him and the poet, as the poet frequently does not catch what the knight is saying through his metaphors. Chaucer’s depiction of nature is beautiful, however it is ultimately inaccessible to the grieving, alien Black Knight.

  3. Nature, in this story, seems to be secondary. I think it is important to note the difference between the beautiful green depiction of nature that the narrator experiences when he is in his dream with that of nature as represented elsewhere. For example, in the beginning of this tale, the narrator talks about Alcyone and how her king drowned at sea during a storm. This is obviously a more harsh depiction of nature. However, the nature we see in the narrator’s dream is much more beautiful. The knight in black is unable to enjoy it. With that being said, I think this depiction of nature within the confines of the narrator’s dream is supposed to be different from nature as it really is. Not only does this nature, abundant and pristine, contrast to other mentioned descriptions, it also contrasts with the black knight’s hopelessness. In short, I think the beautiful description of nature within the narrator’s dream is a device used to create a more dreamlike setting and contrast with the knight’s sorrow.

  4. I believe that Chaucer is trying to make a point about the passiveness of nature. Nature does not exist for the comfort or benefit of anyone, though it provides man with food and material goods. Nature simply is, and the human suffering that it occasionally generates is personified by the black knight. Perhaps Chaucer is also saying that suffering is part of the human experience, “For whoso seeth me first on morwe / May seyn he hath met with sorwe; / For I am sorwe and sorwe is I.” (595-97). The depiction of nature as serene and pleasant contrasts with the knight’s melancholy, perhaps indicating that it is only man who suffers because of the realities of nature (such as death) and that nature itself remains equally supportive and unforgiving.

  5. The presence of the black knight is likely only possible because Nature is indeed, only a “beautiful place”. He is introduced as “sitting upon a huge oak tree”, and his very existence is melancholy, so much so that the narrator questions why he is not dead. But here, Nature does not have a primary presence – in fact, Nature is more an allegorical device used to propel the prose. In this, I concur with Brooke’s analysis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.