Medieval English Poetry

The Middle English Poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer

14th century, Middle English. Numerous printed copies.

The wood is filled with animals of every description. Pythagoras is mentioned. The Phoenix is invoked.

'One of the first narrative poems that Geoffrey Chaucer composed was The Book of the Duchesse,' said Quintin. 'It was written for Edward III’s son John of Gaunt, who was grieving over the recent death of his wife Blanche. She had been twenty-nine years old. Chaucer begins by putting himself in the place of a man who cannot sleep. This was presumably one of the symptoms of John of Gaunt's extended grief. One sleepless night – Quintin turned to the book – the poet takes up a book to read. It is not a Christian religious work, perhaps surprisingly for the times, but Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

'The Roman poet Ovid, first century BC – he set down a lot of myths and stories about people changing into animals,' he said, looking up.

'I know,' replied Miranda.

'Chaucer told part of the story of Alcyone,' continued Quintin, turning to the book again. 'Alcyone, in Ovid's tale, was sent a nightmare about her husband who was at sea, went down to the shore and saw his body floating towards the beach. In grief, she flung herself from a breakwater and as she did so, she became a bird and the gods, having pity on her, turned her dead husband into a bird as well and they flew off together.'

'The poet was surprised to read of a god of sleep called Morpheus – surprised and intrigued given his state of insomnia – a god of sleep whom a goddess, Juno, could instruct to send a dream to Alcyone. When I had read the story of Ceyx and Alcyone thoroughly – says Chaucer – every bit of it: whan I had red this tale well, and overloked hit everydel – including the ending, therefore, which he doesn't tell, in fact – I thought it a wonder if it was true, for I had never heard of any gods who could make men sleep and wake. I knew only one God.'

'So why introduce them?' asked Miranda. 'And why mention Alcyone, who was turned into a bird, and not mention that she was turned into a bird?'

'Why indeed? Unless John of Gaunt already knew the story.' said Quintin. 'But the poet prays to the god Morpheus and to the goddess Juno and imediately falls asleep – in the poem – and dreams that he awakens into a space filled with birdsong. There is stained glass in the windows which, curiously, depict not Bible stories but ancient pagan myths. Hearing the sounds of a hunt leaving for the forest, the poet jumps out of bed, onto a horse, and overtakes a man with a hound on a leash. 'Who is hunting here?' the poet asks. 'The Roman Emperor Augustus,' comes the reply. Chaucer has transported us back to pre-Christian times.

'The poet follows the hunt, but the chase is abandoned. The deer has escaped. A dog leads Chaucer into a strange part of the forest and passing through a meadow filled with flowers, the domain of the goddess Flora and her consort Zephyrus, he enters a dark wood where all the animals are hiding. Here, propped against a tree, he finds a man lamenting the loss of his wife, Blanche, the name of John of Gaunt's deceased wife. Long soliloquies follow. The man at first is unaware of the poet, 'for he had well nigh lost his mind, although Pan, whom men call the god of nature, was angry that he grieved so much.' Hints are dropped. He wants to die for grief: 'I would have it, but it will not take me. This is my pain without remedy; always dying, and never to be dead.' Sisyphus is mentioned – Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was fated by the gods to roll a stone from the bottom of a hill to the top, only for it to come crashing eternally back down again and for the labour to have to begin anew. What better analogy for reincarnation could there be? Pythagoras is invoked, Pythagoras the ancient Greek philosopher who believed in the reincarnation of humans into animals. The Phoenix is summoned, to describe not rebirth but Blanche's perfection: 'Truly, she was to my eye the solitary Phoenix of Arabia, for there only ever lived one, and Blanche too was unique.'

'The Phoenix, as everybody knows, is the legendary bird that rises from its own ashes. Ovid describes it in his Metamorphoses, in words attributed to Pythagoras, who noticed that everything in this world changes and grows from one thing into another. The only exception, he said, is a bird the Assyrians call the Phoenix; a living thing that reproduces itself without any outside help. It feeds on sap and, when five hundred years have passed, builds a nest of exotic bark at the top of a palm tree and there dies. Out of its body a new Phoenix is born, and when it is strong enough, the little one carries the nest up to the city of the sun before returning to the Earth. Thus its tomb is its cradle.

'Geoffrey Chaucer ends the Book of the Duchesse by requiring the bereaved knight simply to face up to the truth. In a forest of animals, in which the hunted deer has escaped and where 'many a hart and many a hind were all around me,' where there are fawns, deer, 'and many squirrels that sit high up in the trees... it was so full of animals...'; in this forest, with Ovid's Metamorphoses to the fore, the poet makes the Roman knight face up to the fact that his lady Blanche is dead, and that, like the deer, he must let her go.'

Chaucer's poem The Book of the Duchesse recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press, with reference to The Riverside Chaucer, 2008 Edition, Oxford University Press. The Book of the Duchesse, written c. 1369.

Dead and yet alive

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