Feb 9: Ecochaucer

Stanbury states that Chaucer’s usage of metaphors “links human qualities to objects from the nonhuman living world” and “naturalizes social arrangements and hierarchies” (7). Is this apparent in Book of the Duchess and why is it important?

Also Stanbury states that Chaucer rarely depicts nature as a “wilderness” but rather as a “landscape” (7). Does Chaucer reflect nature as a “landscape” or a “wilderness” in Book of the Duchess and does it frame a “social hierarchy?”

5 thoughts on “Feb 9: Ecochaucer

  1. The ‘nature’ presented in the Book of the Duchess is indeed more a ‘landscape’ than a ‘wilderness’. First, the very fact that this place of nature exists in a dream means it is situated within human categories since it is created by a human mind. The nature described therein leaves no doubt that it is a ‘landscape’, as it is described as being so perfect and pleasing that there is no trace of the “nature red in tooth and claw.” This nature exists to allow the Knight his mourning and for the Dreamer and he to converse in solitude, so it retains no chance of separation from the human. Despite the ‘place’ of nature, the ‘person’ of nature has some agency. This personification of nature is the only aspect of it that has this agency, which we see exercised in the creation of the Knight’s Lady, as well as her death.

  2. When the dreamer first sees the man in black, he feels that “Pan, that men clepeth god of kinde, / Were for his sorwes never so wrooth” (512-13). This struck me as kind of surprising on my first read-through. If you had told me the Greek god of Nature would have an opinion on a man lost in grief and having no will to live, my guess would be that he’d be pretty permissive. I tend to think of nature as the realm where there are no social rules as to what is or is not decorous, or shameful, or seemly. Nature seems like the perfect place to wander into if you’ve lost the will to live. But Chaucer’s dreamer clearly feels the opposite. To him, nature is a place that desires what people ought to do, even if that’s nothing more than wanting to live. Pan is shown as a figure who takes offense at the sight of someone who’s not living up to the expectations of society.

    Another point where Chaucer links human ideas to nature is when he likens lady Fortune “to the scorpioun, / That is a fals, flateringe beste” (636-37)) that will appear nice (!?) but stab you in the back. By doing so, Chaucer lends the fearsome and visceral qualities denoted by venom, which literally poses a physical danger to human life, to socially frowned-upon behaviors like flattery, hypocrisy, etc.

    On a side note…one thing that kind of struck me as I read this essay was that, as she explores how Chaucer approaches nature through the metaphors he uses, she herself reveals how she sees nature in the categories she uses. The one that struck me the most is her discussion of the description of Alisoun in the Miller’s Tale. She observes that Alison is evoked by metaphors relating to farm and rural life, and calls this setting “nature working for human use”, thus showing that, in her view, she sees domestication as a non-natural, or at least not simply natural, phenomenon. I wonder if she would say the same thing of a bird’s nest, or a rabbit’s warren? Neither are “simply” or “purely” natural, since both are the results of animals altering nature, one might say, to make it “work for animal use”. So where’s the distinction? Simply between human and animal? Are humans not animal, or not natural? Or not merely animal and/or natural?

    Sorry, this is way outside the scope of the post question, but I think it’s interesting to think about.

  3. Answering the second question first, I think Chaucer very much uses nature as a landscape in this particular work. I think it is meant to be more of a mood setter, a symbol of the dream world. It is, as Stanbury suggests, a sort of beautiful tapestry backdrop. However, it does seem to create a sort of hierarchy. If we think of the of the characters who die in this text, we see that both Alcyone and Lady Whyte are unable to continue physical existence in the world. We have Lady Whyte, who died leaving the Black Knight alone, just as Blanche leaves John of Gaunt after dying of the plague. For Alcyone, it is interesting that, in stead of becoming a part of nature as in the actual mythology, she simply dies at the sight of her dead husband. Of course, her husband is dead too, but he has died in a storm at sea, and I believe this is to say that neither man nor woman can truly command or understand the forces of nature. This would make sense because it is a dog that leads the narrator to find the Black Knight.

  4. Yes, I believe Chaucer’s use of nature in the Book of the Duchess seems to set it up as more of a landscape than a wilderness. As other people have pointed out, the nature present in the Book of the Duchess appears in a dream sequence and seems to be a vehicle to introduce the knight to the dreamer and explore rather human concepts (such as love and loss). This is exemplified by the fact that it is a rather idealized portrait of nature – puppies literally guide our protagonist through this world. This serves to romanticize the pain of the knight, his intense and mournful love could only be surrounded by such an ideal setting. The darkness of the knight contrasts with the verdant scene around him and frames his suffering.

  5. Chaucer definitely intends nature to be a landscape rather than a wilderness. The setting the man in black is located in can be viewed as an Edenic garden. The hunt and the little dog represent stereotypical tropes of nature conceptualized with from the human standpoint.

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