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The Book of the Duchess Summary

by Litinbox

The Book of the Duchess“, also known as ‘The Dream of Chaucer’ / ‘The Death of Blanche‘, is a long poetic piece in Middle English written by Geoffrey Chaucer in memory of Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster, who succumbed to the Black Death in 1368.

“The Book of the Duchess” is believed to have been written in 1369 – one year after the death of Blanche. The poem alternative titles (The Dream of Chaucer/ The Death of Blanche) point to the message and the content of the poem.

The Book of the Duchess

A Poetic Elegy

“The Book of the Duchess”, a poetic elegy on the death of Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster who died in the middle of 1368 due to Black Death that penetrated the Europe during that period.

It is notable that Blanche was not only a prominent figure in English history but also a patron of Chaucer himself.


“The Book of the Duchess” is a poem which is in the genre of dream-vision, a popular genre in medieval literature. It has altogether 1334 lines written in French Octosyllabic Couplets, a rhymed verse of eight syllables per line.

This choice of form shows Chaucer’s mastery of the poetic styles as well as versatility to adapt various poetic forms that better suit his creative vision.

The Book of the Duchess Summary

“The Book of the Duchess” is divided into two different sections, offering a nuanced exploration of its themes:

  • The Proem
  • The Dream (The Poem)

The Proem serves as an introductory section, providing a brief glimpse into the narrative that unfolds in the Dream. It spans from lines 1 to 290, while the Dream encompasses a larger portion of the poem from lines 291 to 1334.

The Proem

The Proem starts with the introduction of the poet (the speaker) who, plagued by insomnia, has been unable to sleep for eight years.

The speaker has a book in his hand called “romaunce” and the story that he reads is the story of King Seys and Queen Alcyone. Chaucer’s usage of the term “romaunce” refers to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In the tale, King Seys and his three companions go on a sea expedition but they meet their watery graves during a storm. While waiting for his return, Queen Alcyone refuses to take food until she sees his face again.

When despair is sinking in, she pleads to Juno to grant her a dream that will reveal the fate of her lost king. Juno sends her messenger to Morpheus, the god of sleep, and orders him to go to the Mediterranean and revive the king through his own spirit.

Morpheus and Eclympasteyr receive the orders from Juno and follow them accordingly. Morpheus takes King Seys to Queen Alcyone in her dream to explain to her what happened.

King Seys tells her that only her duties towards his last rites are left and that she should not weep for him for a long time. King Seys leaves when the Queen wakes up.

Suffering from 8 years of insomnia, the narrator reflects on the delight of being in the sleep’s realm and freed from the long-forgotten sleep (insomnia) finally, if Morpheus would give him this gift.

Leaving no stone unturned to please Morpheus, he would offer for him anything even an elaborate bed of dove’s down in return for the much-needed sleep.

Then, the narrator happens to fall asleep and he gets a marvelous dream. Upon awakening, he claims that even in the whole wide world there wouldn’t be anyone who can describe his dream in detail using appropriate words.

The Dream

The narrator starts recounting what he has just seen in his dream. He is a happy man who listens to the melodious songs of the birds in the month of May outside his window.

The window of his chamber has the stained glass portraying the Trojan War whereas the walls are decorated with words and pictorials from the Romaunce of the Rose.

Through the window, the narrator observes a group of huntsmen gathering on horseback. Intrigued by curiosity the narrator decides to follow the huntsmen, who tell him this is King Octavian’s hunting party.

A strange dog runs straight to the narrator and encourages to follow it through a lush, flower-filled path until the narrator finally meets a sorrowful knight dressed in black.

The knight writes a sorrowful poem, aptly called “A Complaint,” in which he laments the loss of his beloved. This could be a passionate moment where the knight has a swell of emotion and turns pale.

When the knight comes to his senses, the narrator asks him the reason of his sorrow and anguish. Here the knight attacks Fortune, claiming that she has cheated by deceitfully winning a game of chess against him.

The knight responds to the story by the narrator inviting him to recollect the words of Socrates and and abandon the foolish thoughts of suicide like a sane man.

However, the knight requests the narrator to listen to his full story before underestimating the depth of his agony, to which the dreamer complies.

The knight, then, begins to go further into the details of the story. In his young age he left himself to the service of Love and meeting a beautiful lady with fair and golden hair. At some point, they got married and were happy as any other couple.

But one day, the Lady White suddenly passed away and this affected the knight greatly leaving him in deep sorrow. The narrator finally acknowledges the tremendous loss and understands the depth of the knight’s sorrow.

The hunting horn signals the conclusion of the hunt, as the bell tolls twelve hours. The narrator opens his eyes from the dream, still clutching the book ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses’.

The narrator recognises the importance of his dream and decides that he must preserve his dream in the form of a poem.

The Book of the Duchess Characters

The characters of Chaucer’s “The Book of the Duchess” include the unnamed narrator, the Black Knight, and the Duchess. Apart from these characters there are other characters too. Let’s see about them in brief:

The Unnamed Narrator

The main character of the poem is the unnamed narrator. He meets the Black Knight in the forest who is mourning for his dead beloved. While the Black Knight is contemplating about suicide, the narrator tries to persuade him otherwise.

Initially, the narrator fails to comprehend as to why the knight is grieving too much. However, the knight shares with the narrator information about the sudden death of his beloved wife, Lady White.

The Black Knight

The Black Knight is another primary character in “The Book of the Duchess”. The mood and theme of the poem are set by his grieving over the sudden death of his beloved.

This loss makes the knight cry and the narrator wants to know why he is sad. The Black Knight is a clear reference to the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), the husband of the Duchess in the title.

The Duchess

The Duchess refers to (an allusion to) the Duchess of Lancaster – Blanche of Lancaster or the Lady White in this poem – whose death is mourned by the Black knight.

The Duchess is the key character in the tale of “The Book of the Duchess”, although she is already dead by the time the events in the poem take place.

Other Characters

Aside from the characters above mentioned, there are other characters in the Proem section. They are King Seys, Queen Alcyone, Morpheus, and Juno.

FAQs: People Also Ask

Q: What is the theme of The Book of the Duchess?

The central theme of “The Book of the Duchess” is the exploration of love and loss. The depth of grief experienced by the Black Knight over the loss of his beloved shows the profound impact of love and the pain of its absence.

In short, “The Book of the Duchess” is an exploration of human emotions and experiences.

Q: How does The Book of the Duchess end?

“The Book of the Duchess” ends with the awakening of the narrator from his dream, having listened to the sorrowful tale of the black knight.

He awakens with ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ still in his hand. The narrator considers his dream deserves to be preserved in the poem.

Q: Who was the book of the Duchess written for?

(Or) To whom was the book of the Duchess written for?

“The Book of the Duchess” by Geoffrey Chaucer was written for John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, commemorating the death of Duchess of Lancaster.

The Duchess of Lancaster is the titular Duchess who died owing to plague in 1368. The Duke and Duchess were the patrons of Geoffrey Chaucer, and Chaucer wrote this poem to commemorate her death. “The Book of the Duchess” is believed to have been completed in 1369 – one year after her death.

Q: How many lines is The Book of the Duchess?

“The Book of the Duchess” consists of 1334 lines divided into two major parts: The Proem and the Dream.

The Proem serves as an introductory section, providing a precise glimpse into the narrative that unfolds in the Dream.

The Proem spans from lines 1 to 290, while the Dream encompasses lines 291 to 1334.

Next Page: Chaucer and His Works