Chaucer, the medieval English poet who lived from 1345 to 1400, lived through five major outbreaks of the plague, the Black Death -- from which, the swish of Death's scythe was heard for generations. The first of these outbreaks occurred when Chaucer was young, and between the years 1348 and 1350. The first plague was the hardest hitting, killed about one-third to one-half of those living in London (Ibeji). The third of these outbreaks, in 1369, struck royal blood: King Edward's wife, Philippa of Hainault, and John of Gaunt's wife, Blanche -- who was 28 at the time. During the time of Blanche's death, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was not with his wife, but out at sea. And a few years after Blanche's death, perhaps for a memorial service, John of Gaunt commissioned Geoffrey Chaucer to write a poem (Benson 329).
From that commission, most likely before 1372 (which is when John of Gaunt remarried), Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess (Hussey 29). This poem, one of Chaucer's first, was strongly influenced from the French poetry, and is in the format of the dream motif.
The Book of the Duchess is likely in the format of the dream motif for various reasons. One reason is the disconnection from reality that the dream gives: if this poem and the actions therein were not in a dream, Chaucer might have easily offended his patron if he somehow misrepresented Blanche. Another reason is the freedom that the dream gives the author to use his poetic talent to create a balanced and highly organized work. The balance in this work -- the balance of ideas, images, and the overarching balance of the whole poem -- is thought to be Chaucer's first step to the high level of poetic beauty that Chaucer writes later in his life.
This is the same type of beauty found in Shakespeare's King Lear or Bach's Motets. Not only is The Book of the Duchess interesting, the process of reading it gives pleasure to those tuned to appreciate such beauty.
This poem begins with the dreamer -- who is often misrepresented as Chaucer, but is not likely Chaucer the poet -- lamenting over the fact that he cannot get any sleep. So, he then picks up a book he hopes will direct him to sleep. The book he picks up is a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The source material Chaucer used is linked to Machaut's Dit de la fonteinne amoureuse as well as a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses about Ceyx and Halcyone.
A king, Seys, is out at sea while his wife, Alcyone, is at their palace. Alcyone, after waiting for a "longe terme" (BD. 79) [long time] for her husband to come home, loses patience and sends out a party of men to search for Seys. Not finding her husband, the queen prays to Juno so that she will know whether Seys is alive or dead, and falls into a god induced deep sleep. Here, like in many of Chaucer's tales, Juno and the gods intervene into human affairs. When doing this, Juno sends Isis to tell Morpheus, who is the god of sleep, to send Seys to Alcyone in a...