Chaucer, Book of the Duchess

My interest in “Book of the Duchess” is chiefly on this passage, the narrator’s description of his feeling, which comes in the first few lines of the poem:

Al is ylyche good to me —
Joye or sorowe, wherso hyt be —
For I have felynge in nothyng,
But as yt were a mased thyng,
Alway in poynt to falle a-doun;
For sorwful ymagynacioun
Ys alway hooly in my mynde.
And wel ye woot, agaynes kynde
Hyt were to lyven in thys wyse,
For nature wolde nat suffyse
To noon erthly creature
Nat longe tyme to endure
Withoute slep and be in sorwe.
And I ne may, ne nyght ne morwe,
Slepe; and [thus] melancolye
And drede I have for to dye.
Defaute of slep and hevynesse
Hath sleyn my spirit of quyknesse
That I have lost al lustyhede.
Suche fantasies ben in myn hede
So I not what is best to doo.
But men myght axe me why soo
I may not slepe and what me is.
But natheles, who aske this
Leseth his asking trewely.
 Myselven can not telle why

This article argues that the narrator’s “eight year sickness” is caused by head melancholy, not lovesickness, interpreting the “one” physician the narrator says can cure him not as a love object but a literal physician. I’m not sure that I agree, but the interesting implication here is that Chaucer is using the vocabulary of lovesickness to talk about a different kind of melancholy experience– after all, we don’t hear anything else about his mistress in this poem.

I think the resonances in this section for me are in the ambiguity of the narrator’s illness. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why it exists, and most importantly we know it has lasted eight years but not how long it will continue. “For I have felyng in nothnyg”– I don’t have feeling for anything, or maybe my feeling is *in* nothing (I’m apathetic, anhedonic, or hopeless). [I want to interrogate this particular phrase further because in a modern context this would seem to have the potential to connote space (his feeling is happening within an atmosphere of nothing, or surrounded by nothing) but this might be a stretch.] Regardless, I think this holds true for his diagnosis of himself, too– since his feeling is a negative (non-feeling), his problem also becomes a negative (the absence of sleep/joy/etc.). There is no cause beyond the controversial interpretations I’ve outlined above.

The narrator then takes on the sorrow of Alcyone as he reads about her, commenting that he feels worse the next morning because he is thinking about her. He then promises Morpheus that he will give him a gift if he puts him to sleep, and falls unconscious immediately, on the book. (He says while this is happening that he would have died had he not read this book, and therefore had the idea of praying to sleep.) His last “reading” comment in this section is that no one– not even Joseph– will be able to interpret his dream, a challenge that seems in direct tension with the imagery Chaucer uses in the dream-sequence, which is very vivid and seems to lend itself to interpretation (i.e. the black knight, the forest, the bell awakening him at the end, etc.).

Like with so many of these texts, we have the distinct emotions of sorwe and “sorrowful imagination”, the first of which is communal (in sympathy) and the second of which is individual. I wonder how distinct these emotions are, because even though they have essentially the same name the first one does something (makes the narrator feel and indirectly causes the rest of the story to happen) while the second blocks the narrator from experiencing things. While not sleeping is an important quality of the narrator’s sickness, in that it causes it, they are not interchangeable, and he doesn’t speak of being cured when he wakes up– his illness is always in the present tense. All *is* ilyche good to me. Put another way, even if his sleeplessness is gone, his melancholy seems to remain.

After the narrator enters the dream and describes the forest, we meet the black knight standing under an oak tree. The first thing asked after “who is this?” is “what ails him?”. (Interestingly the knight’s lament to himself is called a “compleynte”.) While lamenting, the blood drains from the knight’s face and we are treated to a description of his heart pumping blood through his body. When the narrator tries to introduce himself, “so through his sorrow and empty thought/ made it so that he had heard me not/ for he had well nigh lost his mind” (l.509-11). When he does notice the narrator eventually, he is so courteous and aware that the narrator remarks it’s as though he were another person.

When the narrator offers to solve his problem, the knight replies that neither Orpheus, nor Galen and Hippocrates, nor Ovid’s remedies can help him, and then offers himself up as a kind of test of other peoples’ empathy: “who so wil assaye himselve/ Whether his herte can have pite / Of any sorwe, lat him see me” (l.574-6). His situation is a parallel to the narrator’s ambiguous sickness: “This is my peyne withouten reed/ Always deinge and be not deed… for I am sorwe and sorwe is I”. While both issues are chronic, the knight’s is clearly the result of lovesickness. However, one difference I do notice is that the knight is suffused with sorrow, literally to the point of *being* it, where the narrator is outside of feeling entirely– joy and sorrow are the same. I think this is one potential argument for his sorrow being different than the knight’s and perhaps being the “head melancholy” the article talks about (in addition to his following assertion that no man would feel this amount of joy for a “queen”). In that case, the defining factor of melancholy as opposed to lovesickess(or love loss, as similar to Orfeo) is not just its indeterminate length, but its lack of a cause and also its estrangement from feeling.

I could see myself writing a lot about this poem (I remember how much I liked it when I read it in undergrad) and I want to find more things people have written about this introduction.

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