Chaucers Dreamer In The Book Of The Duchess English Literature Essay

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Chaucer's conscious Dreamer at the poem's onset is a man on the threshold of self-destruction, not so much physically as much as mentally. His symptoms, largely due to the "defaute of slepe," (5) have rendered him as "a mased" (12) insomniac for the last "eight yere" (37). Moreover, the narrator is aware that his current mental state is "ageynes kynde," yet he is not forthcoming on its chief cause, only that a state of melancholy has practically deadened him both mentally and emotionally to everything (16).

This nameless physician has been the center of great conjecture among Chaucerians. Some critics hold the dreamer's doctor as being an earthly person or lover; others view this physician as being one of spiritual importance. All, I believe, view this ambiguous figure as a metaphor, perhaps an extended one, especially if readers view it in close relation to his protracted sickness. In addition, we have the right to agree to disagree on deciding on the matter in which Chaucer uses the extended metaphor throughout his poem. For instance, I dispute Michael Cherniss' claim that "[h]ad [Chaucer] desired that his audience be sure of his meaning (identity) he would certainly have made it clearer than in fact he has" (116). [5] 

Chaucer's narrator remains tight lipped about his physician because for the last forty lines or so he is unable to think clearly let alone put much loving thought on an earthly physician whose death has numbed his mental faculties and merged his emotions. His joys and sorrows are not independent of each other but are one; his thoughts are "ydel," yet trapped inside his "sorwful imaginacion" (4, 14). Therefore, I believe, Dreamer's physician was the earthly Blanche, whose death is linked to his insomnia, not for an eight-year period, of course, but as the poet's own "courtly compliment to the dead Blanche" and, as M.W. Stearns stresses, Chaucer's own "love-longing for that lady" (qtd in Lumiansky 118). [6] The problem here is how does Dreamer/Narrator express those feelings in an effective, suitable manner?

No doubt, the emotions the Dreamer/Narrator experiences here are not unlike those the poet Chaucer was experiencing also. Furthermore, the narrator does not know what to do because Chaucer, himself, perhaps, was struggling to find exactly what to voice or pen in an elegy as important as the Duchess'. Hence, like any great writer, the narrator needs the capacity to sleep to acquire the ability to write. Lisa Kiser asserts that Chaucer's insomnia not only symbolizes "his failure to dream," but also "his inability to write," which further fuels the narrator's "period of disturbingly unproductive idleness" and creates a "poetically barren" consciousness (4). [7] 

To alleviate his insomnia and restore his consciousness from its poetical barren state, the narrator decides "[t]o rede and dryve the night away" with a "romaunce" supplemented by Machaut's Fountain of Love, the story of Ovid's Ceyx and Alcyone (48-49). There is no question that Chaucer radically alters the Ovidian tale to further establish not only thematic relationships between his characters, such as the Narrator/Alcyone and Alcyone/Black Knight, but also thematic concerns like sleeplessness, life and death, and consolation.

Besides introducing the experience of death, both through Alcyone and her husband, Ceyx, and the subject of grief that prolongs Alcyone, until her death, and later the Black Knight, Chaucer's narrator discovers a process by which people can be revived. It is from this poetic process of resurrection on the page that the dreamer will resurrect the memory of Blanche. Yet readers do not have to look far to see that Chaucer's narrator obtains this poetic method from the failure of Morpheus's resurrection of Alcyone's dead husband, Ceyx.

The function of Morpheus is not unlike Chaucer's soon-to-be dreamer. Both characters have a significant role in creating a vision or image of a lost loved one. In Chaucer's version of the Ovidian tale, Morpheus's sole purpose is to resurrect the dead husband, Ceyx, as a way to help his widow, Alcyone, recover from her grief and distraught mental state. Chaucer's Dreamer, moreover, has an equitable task, within the framework of his dream and poem, to assist the Black Knight, or in a historical capacity - John of Gaunt, to recover from his bereavement by creating an image of his dead mate (Blanche) by means of a visionary experience.

In fact, Chaucer's depiction of Morpheus views him as a deity capable of providing Alcyone with an actual "animation" of her dead husband, yet, throughout the course of the tale, Morpheus act is "mechanical" and lacks the full force or "effect" to properly resurrect Ceyx to his sorrowful wife (Kiser 6). Morpheus's artificial act of bringing the dead back to life falls short of Juno's initial command that he show Ceyx to his grieving wife rather than mimicking advice:

Critics often point to Chaucer's omission of the traditional Ovidian metamorphosis, which display the husband and wife duo (Alcyone and Ceyx) turned into birds, as another critical point to debate. Chaucer does this, I believe, for several reasons. First, in Chaucer's mind, Morpheus is unsuccessful in discovering a suitable remedy for human grief. Second, the narrator creates the unsatisfied ending as a way to not only contrast what he learns from Morpheus's failed attempt to resurrect the dead, but also to allow his poetics to generate a vision of the Duchess that will live on long as the words he uses to resurrect her.

When Chaucer's narrator is finally asleep, he is able to dream of an environment that allows his poetics to transform the memories of the Knight's beloved into living verse. The dream begins with the Dreamer describing his new landscape as one resembling a poetic paradise. It is a beautiful Spring morning where nature's natural poets, the birds, sing heavenly tones of bliss for him to hear as his eyes are illuminated by the glazed images of Troy and captured with "text and glose" of the Romance of the Rose (333). From the Dreamer's depictions, of the birds and his chamber decorations, he is able to create his own poetic atmosphere that will eventually lead him down a path poetic journey in which his craft will allow him to transform his dreams and the memories of the dead into transcended works of verse.