Geoffrey Chaucer’s first known remarkable work is The Boke of Blanche, the Duchesse, or simply in modern English, The Book of the Duchess. Written at the end of 1369, this is a courtly and aristocratic elegy.
The occasion of the poem was the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the first wife of John Gaunt, Chaucer’s literary patron. The purpose of Chaucer’s work was to celebrate the dead lady’s quality and to console the bereaved Duke.
The poem has the typical dream convention of medieval literature. The poet sees in a dream a man in black in a wood, who tells him of his courtship with a fair and graceful lady and ends by revealing that his present mourning is for her death. This dream allegory is found adapted ingeniously by Chaucer to serve the two-fold purpose of eulogy and elegy. The poem is an unconditional admiration of the dead lady as the ideal of womanly beauty, grace, and virtue. At the same time, this is an intense lamentation for her death.
The Book of the Duchess bears out distinctly Chaucer’s literary adroitness to combine dream and reality, lyricism and symbolism, the elegy, and the allegory. Against the traditional convention of the poet’s dream, there is set the reality of the duchess death, and the grief for her death. Moreover, her character is real, just as her virtues are. Chaucer is found to deal here with real-life against the background of a dream. Again, lyricism is well echoed in the elegiac notes over the duchess’ death, while symbolism strikes in her representation as the specimen of what is lovely, graceful, and virtuous in womanhood. The life of the duchess is an allegory of ideal womanhood, whereas her death constitutes the matter of an elegy.
Finally, the charm of Chaucer’s versification is evident equally here as elsewhere. This long poem is written in the octosyllabic couplets that are striking and impressive enough all through.