260. The Book of the Duchess by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1369)

A poet suffering from insomnia finally falls asleep after reading a tragic love story, and dreams of meeting a Knight dressed in black who is in mourning for his late wife, the most beautiful and genteel Blanche. After describing all her virtues, the widower describes his wooing, rejection and final winning over of the maiden and their happy life together, only to lament how Fortune falsely stole her away. The poet wakens with the determination to put the dream into verse.

My copy was included in Love Visions, a collection of early poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer, published by Penguin Classics, 1983.

Thoughts: It was my goal to reach Chaucer by the end of the year, so very happy to pick up this poem, written as a memorial to the love of John of Gaunt (third son of King Edward III and Chaucer’s friend and benefactor), for his late first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.

The poem itself is perhaps not very memorable in the annals of literature, although I enjoyed the metaphor as the Man in Black describes his cruel treatment by Fortune as a chess game:

“She came to play with me at chess

with various moves unfair and mean

She stole on me and took my queen

And when I saw my queen had gone

Alas! No more could I play on.

But cried “Farewell, my sweet! and sure

Farewell to all for evermore.”

(As you can see, I didn’t try to read Chaucer in Middle English. I’d still be on the first page scratching my head!)

Perhaps more interesting are the lives of the real people alluded to in the story. Blanche had seven children with John, and is presumed to have died of the plague aged 22, while John was overseas. Despite marrying twice more, John was buried in an expensive joint tomb with Blanche; the effigies showing them holding hands.

Their only son to survive childhood became King Henry IV.

Digressions/diversions:   Chaucer was the first famous writer to be interred in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. It would be a quirky reading challenge to select and review the works of writers based on their inclusion in this place, but I guess I will cover most of them in due course.

Personal rating:  5/10

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