Our book today is the sad, sweet, utterly remarkable performance that is Geoffrey Chaucer’s debut poem, “The Book of the Duchess,” and I confess, it came back to my thoughts mainly because of all that recent chatter about Katherine Swynford, Chaucer’s sister-in-law. She was the long-time mistress of John of Gaunt while he was married to Blanche of Lancaster, and she stayed his mistress while he was married to Constance of Castile, and then she finally became his wife in 1396. John of Gaunt was an extremely handsome young man with lithe muscles and an absolutely ruttish sex-drive. Women found him irresistible – even if he’d been a village blacksmith instead of the most powerful son of one of England’s greatest kings, he’d still have fired the dreams of every woman (and, presumably, some men) in the village. From his teens on, he exercised this particular droit du seigneur whenever he fancied – but in his cousin Blanche he found mettle of an entirely refreshing kind. He married her when she was just a snippet of a young girl, and within weeks the combination of his deflowering prowess and his legendary generosity caused her to blossom into an absolutely gorgeous little termagant, a goblet-hurler of the first rank. She was wilful, headstrong, impossible – and irresistible. And John of Gaunt loved her.
They were married for almost ten years, and she was still in her beautiful early 20s when she contracted the plague, lingered for a heart-rippingly horrifying week, and finally died on 12 September 1368.
This was a young person’s world – John of Gaunt himself was well shy of 30 when all this happened to him, and when he fell into a grief as stark and powerful as all the other emotions he felt, it was another twenty-something who became involved: the courtier Geoffrey Chaucer, hitherto untried poet. We’ll never really know what was going on in his mind when he wrote the surreal dreamscape that is “The Book of the Duchess,” but like all the most vivid dreams friends have told me about, it feels both obscure and incredibly pointed. In it, the bookish narrator is in despair over a lack of sleep, to the point where he’s almost finding a very un-Christian polytheism attractive, because then there’d be a god specifically for his problem:
Whan I had red this tale wel
And overlooked it everydel,
Me thoughte wonder if it were so,
For I had never herde speke er tho
Of no goddes that coude make
Men to slepe ne for to wake,
For I ne knewe never God but oon.
Flowing straight from his sleeplessness comes a dream in which a pretty little dog (in real life, the dog had a name – bestowed by her) leads our narrator to a grand hunt and a sorrowing young lord who talks about his lady love with an almost involuntary fervor:
Allas, myn herte is wonder wo
That I ne can decryven it!
Me lakketh bothe Englissh and wit
For to undo it at the fulle,
And eek my spirits be so dulle
So greet a thinge for to devyse.
I have no witte that can suffyse
To comprehende hir beautee;
But this moche dar I seyn, that she
Was whyte, rody, fressh, and lyvely hewed,
And every day hir beautee newed.
My lady, that is so fair and bright
The narrator is a bit dim-witted and eventually has to come right out and ask why his young companion seems so distraught. The answer he gets – and the rock-hard exchange that follows – is worthy of Shakespeare (or rather, Shakespeare is worthy of it):
“She is deed.” “Nay!” “Yis, by my trouthe.”
“Is that your los? By God, it is routhe.”
The narrator quickly rouses from his dream, and maybe he wasn’t so dim-witted after all: a powerful young man has been made to remember lovingly every great and trial-making detail of his lover, and then to admit baldly that she is dead. Who knows what kind-hearted purpose this might have served, in England 800 years ago?
The great poet and unjustly overlooked critic Bernard O’Donoghue has written that we do Chaucer a disservice when he arranged his Complete Works they way we always do, with a gigantic and problematic masterpiece like “The Canterbury Tales” placed first instead of last. It encourages readers to see glittering shorter works like “The Book of the Duchess” as addenda, almost not worth looking at. O’Donoghue is right as always, and I can further attest: you should read “The Book of the Duchess” on its own, in its own right, as a remarkably subtle psychological exercise that no other 25-year-old in the entire world of the 14th century could have written, an amazing performance that deserves a calm hour of your time.