The Feminization of the Black Knight and the Narrator
Provoking the spectator or reader to hover between denial and acknowledgement, these narrative representations of death (whether visual or textual) serve to enact that any "voyeur" is always also implicated in the field of vision and that the act of fragmenting and objectifying the body of another ricochets back by destabilizing the spectator's position as well.[5
] Elisabeth Bronfen, "Violence of Representation—Representation of Violence"
The mutability and indeterminacy of gender is prominently figured in the blurring of normative assumptions about gender difference in the two male protagonists of the Book of the Duchess , the narrator and the man about whom he dreams, the Black Knight. Each, in his own way, is feminized—shown or said to be like actual women, with womanly characteristics, or put in positions defined by the poem and by other discourses of the period as feminine positions, ones that women are said to occupy or told to occupy. The Black Knight's feminization is apparent from the moment when the dreamer finds him sitting under an oak tree, with his head hanging down. Although "Of the age of foure and twenty yer" (455), he appears to be just on the threshold of manhood, barely displaying secondary sex characteristics: "Upon hys berd," for instance, there is "but lytel her" (456). Moreover, the man in black shows no knightly aggression toward the intrusive dreamer. Instead of challenging the man who intrudes on his private sorrow, he apologizes to the dreamer for his own aloofness and attempts to assuage the anger he seems to expect another man would exhibit: "I prey the, be not wroth" (519).
It is worth pausing over the initial materialization of the Black Knight in the dream to consider how the mysterious, liminally male stranger encountered by the questing dreamer may be said to occupy a position filled elsewhere in romance by fairy ladies. In the story of Sir Launfal, for example, an alienated young knight, cast out from Arthur's court, journeys into a forest, just as Chaucer's dreamer does. There he meets women from an otherworld who eventually help him solve (or avoid) his problems, just as the dreamer meets the Knight. The fuller ambiguity and complexity of gender alignments in the Chaucerian version, however, is suggested by the fact that the Black Knight actually plays a part similar to that of both the dejected, unloved, isolated knight and the lady who magically appears to him. For the dreamer, the Knight in many ways takes the place of the female apparition; at the same time, it may not be coincidental that the Knight's literal position is similar to that of Sir Launfal himself, in the Middle English version of the story, at the moment when the fairy damsels first appear to him. On the day he rides
out from court, the weather is hot, so Sir Launfal sits down on his cloak, "In þe schadwe, vnþer a tre . . . yn sorow and sore" (lines 226–29).
It is instructive to note, moreover, that both the Black Knight and Sir Launfal suffer from feminization but that the cause and effect of their suffering implicate sexual identity and gender relations in very different ways. Sir Launfal mourns the loss of his male companion's love and comradeship, but he eventually replaces these bonds with the love of the fairy mistress whose passion for him proves his manly ability to attract a lady more beautiful than Queen Gwenevere. Thus the romance hero escapes from the realities of his feminization (his poverty, marginalization, and abandonment) into a dream-world where historical relations of money and power among men are simply irrelevant, and the fantasy of heterosexual union with an enchanting woman offers a timeless and perfect escape from the problems of playing the part of an adult male. In the Book of the Duchess , the inverse occurs. The Black Knight mourns the absolute loss of his actual lady, whom he turns into a fantasy. To the extent that he may be restored by his companionship with the male dreamer, he may return, healed, to court and to an historical identity. Another version of the Sir Launfal story, Marie de France's Lanval , underlines the problematic of masculine identity embedded in this plot. In this telling, when the poor knight refuses the lustful queen's advances, she accuses him directly of homosexuality. He is so angry that he boasts of his affair with the fairy mistress; thus breaking his promise, he almost loses the lady, but at the last minute she forgives and transports him. Again in Marie's version the Sir Launfal story solves problems of uncertain masculinity with an escape into fantasy, whereas the Book of the Duchess seems to leave the lady alone in the dream-world while men recuperate reality and reaffirm male friendship.
As the narrator's dream unfolds, the Black Knight's feminization is extended, and various developments suggest that he resembles not only Sir Launfal but also countless other courtly lovers who undergo role reversal. When he speaks of his past, for example, this gentle Knight predictably represents himself as rendered passive and imprisoned by love and the lady, "ykaught" (838) by his very first sight of the captor, White: "She had the herte, / And who hath that, may not asterte" (1153–54). He describes his fearfulness (1251), his infantilization (1095), and his
retreat to his bed (1253–55). He is like other aristocratic male lovers in the literary culture he belongs to in that he is, ironically, womanlike: receptive, irrational, and secluded in the private world of dream and lyric.
Textual allusions comparing the Black Knight to well-known women who died for love confirm this highly conventional feminization at yet another level. In his early efforts to alleviate the mourner's excessive and self-destructive grief, the dreamer compares him not to male heroes but to a series of well-known ladies betrayed by men, who subsequently (and foolishly, the dreamer implies) killed themselves: Medea, Phyllis, Dido, and Echo (725ff.). Interestingly, the list ends with one male example of such "foly," Samson, whose story also confirms what the Knight reveals: a man is made weak and womanly by too much love for a woman. When the Knight himself images traitors to love, he reminds us that in Western mythology it is usually men who betray and abandon, for he chooses the male exemplars of Achitofel, Antenor, and Ganelon (1116–23); near the end, he realigns himself with women by proclaiming his sorrow at the lady's refusal to be greater than Cassandra's (1246). Earlier, he also seems to suggest a similarity between himself and the beloved lady, or at least to imply that he shares qualities associated with her highly symbolic name and the feminine virtues of innocence, purity, and receptivity it signifies. In lines 779–81, he describes himself as naturally "thralle" to the idea of love long before he met any specific object of desire, and he speculates on the causes of his apparently innate aptitude for the role of lover: "Paraunter I was thereto most able, / As a whit wal or a table. . ."
From the beginning, moreover, the most important figure in the poem to whom the Knight is obviously analogous is Alcyone, the bereaved female partner in the narrator's pre-dream reading. Later I shall identify decisive differences, too, between Alcyone and the Black Knight, but my object at this point is to emphasize an obvious connection between the narrator's reading and his dream: the story of the faithful wife's loss of her spouse serves as a structural analogue for the Black Knight's affliction, and a central sign of the identification of men with women in this poem that both reveals and exaggerates the feminization of the courtly male inherent in the conventions and texts of love.
Turning now from the Black Knight to the narrator of the poem, we find evidence that confirms and extends such a claim. While the mournful Knight, taken by topical readings as a figure of the poet's actual, powerful aristocratic patron, is feminized only within the licensed and highlighted fictionality of the dream, the narrator of the poem claims to be already feminized in the waking world. The causes and effects of his predicament both resemble and differ somewhat from those of the Knight's. At the very beginning, the narrator intimates his own loss or failure in love when he speaks at some length of his sleeplessness (a stereotypical lover's malady) and when he refers to the one physician who could heal him. But in this poem, this hint is notably couched as a hint, whereas in the text's sources it is made explicit. The narrator's own (milder) case of lovesickness may serve partly to signal his bond with the Knight; it is perhaps nothing more or less than a badge he must initially display in order to enter into the aristocratic male game of talking about love. It also suggests the symbolic inseparability of the roles of poet and lover in courtly literature, the link between the act of writing and the act of desiring the unattainable woman that is also underscored in the Knight's own highly literary discourse and in the poem as a whole. But insofar as the roles, like the ranks, of lover and poet may be distinguished, too, the narrator's feminization specifically implicates the particular circumstances of the medieval court poet and explicitly draws into the problem of gender instability the problems of meaning and interpretation. For the narrator, even more than the Black Knight, is identified with Alcyone, and above all with the one aspect of Alcyone's situation that he himself has added and underlined in telling her story: her self-conscious epistemological uncertainty, centered on her inability to know for sure whether the absence of her beloved spouse is to be interpreted as a sign of his death.
These salient elements of the Chaucerian Alcyone are foregrounded if we compare the Book of the Duchess to its two main sources, as modern scholars have identified them, Ovid's Metamorphoses and Machaut's La Fonteinne Amoreuse . In both, Alcyone is a figure of fear, devotion, jeal-
ousy, and grief. She has just one long speech in Ovid's tale, in which she begs her husband not to leave her, or at least not to go by boat. After a long description of the storm at sea in which readers learn that Ceyx is drowned (omitted in Chaucer's version), Ovid notes that Alcyone, still waiting for her husband's return, prays at Juno's shrine "that her husband may be kept safe from harm, that he may return once more, loving no other woman more than her." It is Juno who, unable to endure the woman's ignorance of Ceyx's drowning and eager to "free her altar from the touch of the hands of mourning," arranges to send Alcyone a vision that will tell her the truth. In Machaut's version, where the emphasis is on the male friends who share this story, we find the love of Ceyx and Alcyone all but deleted from the opening of the tale and an Alcyone who speaks only two lines in the entire episode, when she vaguely asks relief from suffering: "Je te pri, / Riche deese, oy mon dolent depri."
The Book of the Duchess follows Machaut in emphasizing a relationship between two male interlocutors in the dream itself but contrasts sharply with both Machaut and Ovid in its treatment of Alcyone. In Chaucer, this woman is the central character of the story the narrator says he read, and as such she is a vocal being less grief-stricken than dying to know one thing: "And wher my lord, my love, be deed?" (91). In Ovid, despite her initial forebodings, Alcyone seems naively sure that her husband will return to her; she weaves the robes that the two of them will wear at his homecoming. In Chaucer, she takes the practical initiative and conducts a search for her husband, "bothe eest and west" (88). When it fails, she invents another plan to alleviate her ignorance. Instead of asking Juno to keep Ceyx faithful or to take pity on her grief, Chaucer's Alcyone herself proposes that the goddess send her a dream which will tell her the truth and thereby refix the crucial boundary, the line between living and dead, that the absence of Ceyx has obscured:
"Send me grace to slepe, and mete
In my slep som certeyn sweven
Wherthourgh that I may knowen even
Whether my lord be quyk or ded."
By a stratagem that I want to say more about later, Alcyone is granted the certain knowledge of Ceyx's death that she so urgently seeks, and in Chaucer's version she promptly dies. In Ovid, by contrast (and, with less emphasis, in Machaut), Alcyone's death is dramatically transmuted at the last minute: just as she is about to fling herself into the sea, where her husband's body floats, the gods take pity and transform wife and husband alike into birds.
The Chaucerian omission of this metamorphosis raises questions that I intend to elucidate, but first let me underscore the similarities between the narrator of the Book of the Duchess and the Alcyone he constructs. Before he retells her story, he explicitly signals the crossing of gender lines (as well as the lines between story and history, literary character and the merged figure of author/reader) when he identifies himself with Alcyone on account of her sorrow:
Such sorowe this lady to her tok
That trewly I, which made this book,
Had such pittee and such rowthe
To rede hir sorwe, that, by my trowthe,
I ferde the worse al the morwe
Aftir, to thenken on hir sorwe.
Even before this, however, we may retrospectively identify the narrator's position and Alcyone's on critical grounds. In the opening lines of the poem, he tells us that he has lost the capacity to know the difference between crucial binary oppositions upon which the power to make morally informed choices depends:
. . . I take no kep
Of nothing, how hyt cometh or gooth,
Ne me nys nothyng leef nor looth.
Al is ylyche good to me—
Joye or sorwe, wherso hyt be.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Suche fantasies ben in myn hede,
So I not what is best to doo.
Anticipating his Alcyone, who swoons after her prayer to Juno, the speaker describes himself before his dream as "a mased thyng, / Alway in poynt to falle a-doun" (12–13). He stresses that his condition is un-
natural, "agaynes kynde" (16), and, like Alcyone, he bargains with a divine power for a dream that will restore his natural, necessary reason, his ability to differentiate—and then act—properly. The narrator light-heartedly bargains with a lesser deity (Morpheus, not Juno) and, in return for a good night's sleep, offers a richly ornamented feather bed rather than his own eternal devotion. Through this joke, he may trivialize the woman's more impassioned bargaining—and I shall suggest some reasons why it might serve his interests to do so—but he also imitates it.
Within the dream, the dreamer finds or puts himself in a state even more exactly like Alcyone's: he fails to understand, or acts as if he has not yet heard, the news sounded in the Knight's dear formulation, in the first lyric we hear the mourner speak: "My lady bryght . . . Is fro me ded and ys agoon" (477–79). Many modern readers have debated whether the dreamer has actually failed to understand the literal meaning of the Knight's lament or merely pretends not to for therapeutic purposes, but it is not possible or necessary to decide this question. What matters is that in either case he thereby takes up a position, like Alcyone's, of unknowingness. More specifically, even, he appears not to know precisely what Alcyone does not know, and what the audiences of both stories already know: a beloved spouse is dead. His subsequent move to certainty and the knowledge of death sustains the analogy, for at the end of a charade as elaborate as that in which Ceyx's dead body speaks to Alcyone, the dreamer, like the fictive woman, understands the truth, regains his ability to make distinctions, to interpret the absence of the loved one as the final and irreversible difference of death.
The climactic message from the dream world is the same, in other words, for the narrator and the bereaved woman: the certain truth is death, the final absence of the beloved. Compare Ceyx's "For, certes , swete, I nam but ded " (204, my emphasis, with the last exchange between dreamer and Knight: "'She ys ded! ' 'Nay!' 'Yis, be my trouthe! '" (1309, my emphasis). As in the case of Alcyone, the dreamer's vision suddenly dissolves when this message has been received. Alcyone dies; the narrator is released, moved by his certain knowledge to ad, in his case to perform the poem we have just heard. He awakens in bed, with the book of "Alcione and Seys the kyng" in his hand (1327–29), and abruptly closes the poem with these lines:
Thoghte I, "Thys so queynt a sweven
That I wol, be processe of tyme,
Fonde to put this sweven in ryme
As I kan best, and that anoon.
This was my sweven; now hit ys doon.
Together, the parallels between Alcyone and both the dreamer and the man (or the part of his own manhood) he dreams about indicate, then, the crossing and blurring of gender lines and the feminization of the court poet as well as the courtly lover; they concomitantly foreground and thematize an issue I shall take up in the last section of this chapter, the problem of uncertainty and misunderstanding, of communicative as well as gender disorder. At the same time, as the dream closes, crucial differences between Alcyone and these male characters become apparent, and I want to turn now to a more extended reflection on these differences. First, I will suggest how the distinctions between the bereaved woman's response to the death of her husband and the men's response to the death of Blanche/White may enable the male characters to limit and resist the debilitating effects of feminization by restoring a sense of normative, stable gender division. If we wish to speak of this dream-vision as a poem of consolation, it may be more accurate to say that it works to console men not for the loss of the perfect woman but for the loss of their own solid sense of masculinity, the gender identity that is put at risk by both the pursuit and the attainment of heterosexual love. Second, turning my argument in another direction, I argue that such consolation and restoration are at best partial and temporary in this text, for the femininization that men seem to suffer as lovers of real women is in fact symptomatic of a problem both between and within men, one that cannot be resolved by the erasure of women or the retreat from romantic love, but inherent and inescapable in the kind of discourse that narrator and Black Knight undertake together in their efforts to face and displace the truth of death.
"She ded!" "Nay!" "Yis, be my trouthe!"
To clarify the substantial difference between Alcyone's experience and that of both the narrator and the Black Knight, I want first to return to the pre-dream matter and particularly to the putative origins and consequences of Alcyone's own dream. The elaborate mechanics that are entailed in the production of Alcyone's vision, based on details found in
Ovid and Machaut, literalize the way in which dreams effect the transgression of certain fundamental boundaries. Rather than merely appearing to Alcyone herself or sending a direct message, Juno sets a complicated performance in motion. First, she despatches a messenger to the god of sleep. In all versions of the story, this messenger then quite. literally begins the process of staging Alcyone's dream by crossing the boundary between above and below; he descends from the world of the gods to the Cave of Sleep, a sphere of darkness and night that is elaborately described (especially in Ovid) in terms of its difference from the ordinary world of day, domesticity, and activity. The Book of the Duchess compresses a lengthy catalogue of negative comparisons in Ovid into three lines (157–59), but the violation of physical boundaries is emphasized in another, original way: Juno's instructions to Morpheus entail an apparently unique detail, as he is told to "crepe into the body" (144) of the dead Ceyx in order to appear before the sleeping Alcyone. Morpheus as shape-shifter thus crosses the lines between inside and outside, living and dead, speaking spirit and inanimate corpse. In a way particularly pertinent to my reading, with its emphasis on the underlying problem of how gender can be stabilized and grounded in any fundamental way, Morpheus violates the integrity of the body as a container of the living spirit and the intactness of the identity it putatively dictates and ensures. The news he thereby brings, however, as formulated in Chaucer's version, clearly restores meaning, identity, and a binary order of opposition, as it also echoes the closing lines of Alcyone's prior prayer: "For, certes, swete, I nam but ded ; / Ye shul me never on lyve yse" (204–5, my emphasis; compare "Whether my lord be quyk or ded ").
This paradoxical show—the dead body momentarily inspirited in order to speak of its own silence and absence, the apparition come to say that what it seems to be is no longer to be seen—establishes the dream world that Chaucer repeatedly visits in his poetic career as one in which borders and oppositions are unfixed and refixed, and the hard truth is told through the performance of elaborate fictions. At the same time, and somewhat ironically, Alcyone's immediate death, once she has heard the news, suggests both that such uncanny play with boundaries and limits within dreams seeps dangerously over into the waking world, and that there are fatal, self-destructive consequences of the certainty she sought. Assured of the difference between life and death for Ceyx; Alcyone looks no further: "With that hir eyen up she casteth / And saw noght" (212–13). The Chaucerian Alcyone, at the beginning of the story
so vocal and active in seeking knowledge and pressing Juno to send her "som certeyn sweven" (119), now takes her seemingly proper and inevitable place as a bereaved wife (a woman without a man): "'Allas!' quod she for sorwe, / And deyede within the thridde morwe" (213–14).
Two differences are obvious between Alcyone and the male characters with whom she is deeply identified. First, Alcyone dies, in Chaucer, without a murmur of regret or protest, and it is especially interesting that she is never allowed any expression of the love that she has known and lost. From the beginning, her passion for Ceyx, so central in the Ovidian tale, is hardly mentioned. Alcyone's longing for her husband is merely referred to as a pitous thing / To telle," "For him she loved alderbest" (84–87). Morpheus, speaking from the corpse of Ceyx, could be referring to their married love when he didactically offers the Boethian lesson, "'To lytel while oure blysse lasteth!'"(211), but, unlike the Black Knight, the bereaved woman herself never elegizes that specifically connubial "bliss" she has supposedly enjoyed. Characteristically, the narrator even points to his omission of the part of the story in which Alcyone just might have voiced the consoling memory of former love. After swiftly recording her demise in the lines quoted above (213–14), the narrative pauses for a moment to mark this crucial silence with occupatio:
But what she sayede more in that swow
I may not telle yow as now;
Hyt were to longe for to dwelle.
My first matere I wil yow telle.
By contrast, in the poem's "first matere," the Black Knight, the bereaved husband, is forced by the dreamer to express his deep love for his dead spouse in incrementally precise utterances. In lines 1285–97, he is finally able to verbalize what one critic calls "the ecstatic mutuality" of their relationship; this expressive, verbalizing, and memorializing capacity, here reserved for men, is what many readers see as the central value that the dreamer helps the lover to realize.
More important, perhaps, is the second difference between the bereaved woman and the bereaved men: the narrator's vision, as told, works to neutralize the dangerous effects of the unfixing of boundaries within the dream state for both the narrator and the Black Knight, in a
way that sharply differentiates their experience from Alcyone's. In the narrator's dream, as in Alcyone's, certain fundamental distinctions are initially blurred or problematized: gender differences are destabilized; the border between life and death is reopened as the dreamer fails or pretends not to understand White's actual demise; the ambiguous nature of his misunderstanding itself, like the Black Knight's circumlocutions, throws into relief the difficulty of deciding what is real and what is fantasy. The thrust of his dream is, however, toward a restatement of the same fatal certainty that Alcyone attained: the loved one is dead, and ideal love is lost. But to this experience and to this uniquely certain knowledge the male characters respond very differently. When he first appears, the Black Knight seems to be on the verge of death, and all too eager for it, but in fact he is not dead; both he and the dreamer are still alive when the dream begins, some time after White's death. Even before the dreamer undertakes his talking cure, the narrative pauses to describe the internal forces, figured as the blood rushing to warm his heart, that keep the Knight from expiring despite his "harm" (486–99). And by the end of the dream and the poem, both the narrator and the Knight seem even more alive, able to see and do more. The Knight has been roused from his stupor, has recognized and conversed with another man, and may be able to rejoin the hunt; even more emphatically, the narrator wakes from a good night's sleep (after eight years of insomnia) into reality, and we are left to assume that Chaucer in effect enters into a poetic career.
Since the Knight and the narrator are like Alcyone in so many ways, why don't they too just expire when they know that the beloved, the ideal woman, is irrevocably lost? One prominent implication of the asymmetry thus constructed between the fates of male and female mourners is that proper gender difference has been restored by the poem. In the extreme and liminal case of lost love, the death of a spouse, the
difference so threatened by heterosexual relations is reestablished: the bereaved woman simply dies, alone and in silence; the bereaved man lives on to enter into conversation with another man, and on the basis of their interaction in the dream world, he moves at least tentatively back into the world outside the poem. On the constantly slipping, now newly refixed oppositions between life and death, presence and absence, metaphor and reality, and male and female, the poet and the Knight have together reconstructed meaning and discourse. The Knight returns to history (or so the historical puns in 1318–19 suggest), the poet to his audience and his craft.
It is thus reasonable to conclude that in the Book of the Duchess , to the extent that the Knight and the poet are consoled, they are consoled not for the death of the lady but by it. Both Knight and poet were in danger of being permanently trapped in the negative, feminized state—apathetic, mournful, solitary, irrational, and unnatural—to which both love and its irrefutable loss reduced them. But the deaths of two loving and good women, insistently represented and confirmed within the discursive experience of the poem, appear to restore them, in some way that modern readings have never fully faced, to reason and action.
Whether we speak of the reality of women or the idea of Woman that both Alcyone and White may signify, we can now see contextual reasons why life might well go on for the Knight and the speaker precisely because "she ys ded." Alive, the Duchess of Lancaster, or any historical woman, is more than the object of male exchange or the topic of discourse she appears to be in so many male-authored texts, literary and otherwise. From any number of perspectives, the historical woman is threatening to what we know about masculinity and male entitlement in the fourteenth century: her sexual presence, for instance, is a danger to male self-containment, or, theologically speaking, to the chaste soul, or, both politically and psychodynamically speaking, to the absolute power of paternity and purity of lineage. The economic self of a noble-woman (even if she is empowered chiefly by her representative status) imperils the interests and male prerogatives of aristocratic men, as of court poets. And while the Duchess's class and socioeconomic power distinguish her from most women of her era, recent feminist historians assure us that there were other powerful women and other sociopolitical powers exercised by women in all classes.
The more immediate historical context of the poem also supports this reading by reminding us that after Blanche's death, John of Gaunt was freed to marry again, according to D. W. Robertson, "for the sole purposes of fulfilling his political ambitions." Palmer opens his discussion of the date of the poem by considering the evidence of a letter in which negotiations for another wife for Gaunt were carried on within a few weeks of Blanche's death, according to his dating of events. He points out that this document "does highlight in the starkest manner the contrast between the conventions of aristocratic amour courtois on the one hand, and the political realities which shaped the marriages of the aristocracy on the other." And, as I have said, the elegy for Blanche inaugurates Chaucer's career as we know it today.
If we think, too, of the idea of Woman represented by the two fictive ideals, Alcyone and White, we may draw similar conclusions. The story that ends in the death of Alcyone, the fabled woman to whom both men are so symptomatically analogous, at first clearly offers the narrator a way out of his paralyzing disorder; he both identifies with her grief and is imaginatively moved by it. By the end of the poem, however, at another interpretive level, her response to bereavement retrospectively enunciates a clear difference, as I have noted, between legendary female experience and that of both the male narrator and the male character. For the bereaved woman, the proper act is suicide; for the bereaved man, life must go on. The poem closes quite firmly when and only when this preeminent cultural distinction between male and female, a distinction threatened both by love and its absence, has been performed. Within the dream, Alcyone's status as the ideal woman—a dead one—is mirrored in White, the Blanche who is immortalized, fixed, pinned down, and frozen in a state of proper difference that confirms the manhood of those men who celebrate her. One side of the conflicted double image of the female that pervades medieval culture, White is a paradigmatic figure of the completely perfect and totally absent woman upon whom the moral
and social order depends, as this order is collectively conceived by the otherwise often competing institutions of courtly love, Christian theology, and poetic convention. She, Alcyone or White, is a crucial fiction, in other words, for the male lover, the male moralist, and the male poet; she is the figure of both difference and stable gender identity essential to the healing of the polymorphous, disordered condition of historically gendered subjectivity and discourse.
"Thou wost ful lytel what thou menest."
BD 743, 1137, 1305
As I have suggested, however, it is equally possible and necessary to observe that the healing process enacted in the Book of the Duchess is far from complete. The problems on which the poem turns remain only partially and imperfectly resolved, and in my view the claims made for aristocratic masculine identity, like those made for poetry and poets, are not made with the "easy confidence and exuberant enthusiasm" that some other readers have noted in the poem. The unevenness and fragility of conclusions in the poem, so characteristic of Chaucerian poetics, are apparent in the considerations that I turn to now.
As so much of the critical commentary suggests, the resolution of the narrator's dream and the ending of the poem in particular are troublesome; if, as I have argued, a certain fundamental gender difference is clearly illustrated, little else is. Many readers have complained that the poem ends too abruptly. In less than twenty lines, the Black Knight disappears, reality subliminally intrudes (with the historical puns and the ringing bells), and the dreamer awakens. There seems to be no obvious, final message of consolation, as many readers have pointed out, no summarizing statement in the text of what the dreamer or the Black Knight has learned, and no definitive promise of specific future change in the state of either figure. Within the dream, moreover, what climax or sense of ending there is stems from two closural gestures that on closer inspection are especially problematic and interesting: first, the Knight's cathartic ode to mutuality, and second, and more formally, the near or exact repetition of two earlier utterances that bring the dream full circle.
Both closural devices may be read as symptomatic of the predicament of masculine identity explored in this dream-vision.
Let us look more carefully, first, at the Knight's "ecstatic" evocation of his perfect union with the dead woman, a few lines before the end of the dream and the poem:
"In al my yowthe, in al chaunce,
She took me in hir governaunce.
Therwyth she was alway so trewe,
Our joye was ever ylyche newe;
Oure hertes wern so evene a payre,
That never nas that oon contrayre
To that other, for no woo.
For sothe, ylyche they suffred thoo
Oo blysse, and eke oo sorwe bothe;
Ylyche they were bothe glad and wrothe;
Al was us oon, withoute were.
And thus we lyved ful many a yere
So wel, I kan nat telle how."
In this passage, as a consequence of his conversation with the dreamer, the Knight celebrates the myth of mutuality and merged identity in romantic love. He voices precisely what Jacques Lacan, a modern analyst of questions about sexuality and language similar to those that Chaucer insistently poses, has identified as the starting point of the idea of romantic love: "We are as one"; "Al was us oon." But, as Lacan also observes, this ideal of mutuality and unity is to be seen as a myth that persists in the face of its unreality. Lacan writes: "We are as one . Of course everyone knows that it has never happened for two to make one, but still we are as one ." And in the Knight's speech it is the real im possibility of mutuality, of ideal oneness in love—"everyone knows that it has never happened"—that is brought to the fore by the implausibility of the kind of perfect happiness and mutual accord that he alleges. For within his highly conventional utterance, there is above all a radical and unresolved disjunction between the Knight's opening affirmation of the lady's superiority and his own feminine-like inferiority—"she took me in hir governaunce"—and his subsequent declaration of their equality and
similarity—"Oure hertes wern so evene a payre. . . . Ylyche they were . . . Al was us oon." The lady's supervisory skills must indeed be remarkable; in the space of a few lines she raises the childlike, erring, subservient and feminized lover to her own ideal state, a state of perfection either quite masculine in its own right, or perhaps beyond the difference and limits of embodied gender and untroubled by the problems of heterosexuality.
Other commentators have observed, but glossed over, this difficulty. Michael Cherniss, for example, refers to the Knight's first service to love in the abstract as "no more than the first sexual stirrings of the average male adolescent," and even the Knight's initial adoration of White herself suggests to Cherniss "the obsessive, puppy-like devotion of a teen-aged boy." But, Cherniss adds with no discussion of the problem, "'Another yere,' however, he was apparently able to convince her of his maturity." The poem does not (and cannot) show us, however, how the transition between such puppy love and "mature" love is possible. The transformation from feminine to masculine, from the inferior to the equal, the passive to the active, the irrational to the rational that is required of the feminized male lover who actually marries his lady is one of those consequential matters that can only be situated in what the story does not tell. This metamorphosis is clearly too incredible to be believed or to be located in time and hence in narrative: "I kan nat telle how." The role of the courtly lover in which we see the Knight throughout the dream, indeed that of the male adolescent (with a scanty beard), is the opposite of the proper role of the husband in medieval society.
Recent social history might suggest that this apparent contradiction in masculine ideals reflects and contains the real differences of entitlement among men of a single class, the aristocracy. In his study of aristocratic marriage in twelfth-century France, Georges Duby sees two shifts in ideology, responding to "the major fault-line" dividing younger sons (juvenes) who were forced to remain bachelors and elders (seniores) who were able to marry and thereby acquire, according to Duby, wisdom and power. The ideals of chivalric adventure and courtly love served to com-
pensate the former for their exclusion; at the same time, an alternative ideal, available only to the married man, was expressed in the celebration of "the fruitful couple." In the passage from the fourteenth-century English poem that I have just discussed, precisely the same fault-line is represented as an internal division in the Knight's individual (and archetypal) experience, as we see in his retrospective description of his movement—or rather his implausible leap—from adolescence into wedded bliss.
Duby views the two conflicting ideals as actually compatible and complementary; they are both "safeguarding . . . the keystone of the dominant society—the married state." Courtly love expressed "profound hostility" to marriage but was in fact a strategy controlled by the senior: "By exhibiting his largesse to the point of letting his lady pretend that she was gradually giving herself, he was able to gain an ever stronger hold over the young men of his household, to domesticate them in the proper sense of the term." But throughout Chaucerian fiction, the compatibility of the opposing ideals of courtly love and fruitful marriage is repeatedly put to the test, and the conflict between lovers and husbands, youths and elders, appears as a crucial site of both external hostility between men and psychological division within men. In the Book of the Duchess , the strategic complementarity of the courtly lover and the married husband is presupposed and celebrated in the poet's dream of the Black Knight in ways that seem to flesh out Duby's thesis. Feminist analysis, however, foregrounds the fact that whatever stability and wholeness this divided masculine ideal attains is based on the absence of Woman and women. Moreover, I am arguing, it is possible to read in and through the poem division within the ideal and to feel the effect of its strains. The actual impossibility of the "fruitful couple"—the impossibility that two can make one, that the problems of gender difference between the male and female, and more importantly within the male, can be resolved by notions of ideal love—is not explored extensively in the Book of the Duchess ; further investigation of this problem comes later, and repeatedly, in Chaucer's writing. For now the impossibility of love, as we see in the deployment of the Knight's ode to mutuality and unity,
at once figures and conceals the difficulty of a unified, integral masculine selfhood; it stands as the topic of male conversation, the bracketing ground of discourse. It is both the instigation to speech and writing and its terminal point, both the consolation that the Knight is allowed and an impasse beyond which his story cannot go. Taken any further, after all, the myth of union in love—"Al was us oon"—threatens the myth of proper gender difference; better that it has never happened.
Turning from the Knight's speech to the closural effect generated by key verbal repetitions framing the dream, we further see that conversation between men is occasioned here not by the loss of love alone, but by the two issues that the dream brings together: the lady's death and the dreamer's misunderstanding. The first repetition I want to consider is the one that encloses the dialogue between the two male characters with the simultaneously obvious and obscured fact of White's death, at once the given and the object of quest. In his opening words, spoken, he thinks, to himself and set off in a lyric format, the Knight unequivocally says that "my lady bryght . . . Is fro me ded" (477–79); several hundred lines later, at the climax and close of the dream vision, he merely reiterates what the readers of the poem have known all along: "She ys ded" (1309). This anticlimactic epiphany tells the audience what it has understood for at least a thousand lines, if not longer, but it apparently hits the dreamer with the force of sudden revelation. Adding no information, the rehearsal of old news serves not only to foreground what is most important about White, her deadness, but also to remind us that the dream is an event of both elegiac celebration and mistaken interpretation, of (intentionally or otherwise) mishearing and misreading, a dramatized instance of the infamous instability and indeterminacy of language and the gap between utterance and uptake, intention and effect, that the poet dreams of healing. Poetry in this fundamental case quite literally depends on, embodies, and contains a communicative misfire, and hence exposes the risk of lost meaning said by many medieval and modern thinkers alike to be inherent in all efforts at human speech; and here again this risk is linked to, even caused by, the risk of lost love, the inherently unattainable ideal of heterosexual union.
This metapoetic point is underscored and extended by analysis of a second closing repetition, this one an exact quotation of a punctuating couplet spoken twice before by the Knight in response to instances of the dreamer's misunderstanding: "'Thou wost ful lytel what thou me-
nest; / I have lost more than thow wenest'" (743–44, 1137–38, 1305–06). In the third and final repetition of this couplet, only thirty lines before the end of the poem, the Knight explicitly quotes himself and calls the dreamer's attention to the repetition, prefacing his observation with an imperative: "Bethenke how I seyde here-beforn" (1304). The self-citation underscores the refrain-like quality of the lines, their status as cryptic moral or message of the poem itself, an epigrammatic, rhyming summary of its meaning that the audience is exhorted, like the dreamer, to ponder. It again links the problem of (male) meaning, "what thou menest," with the problem of (male) loss, "I have lost. . . ."
The first line of the couplet, "Thow wost ful lytel what thou menest," actually goes much further: it calls into serious question the dreamer's understanding as well as the possibility of meaningful utterance and interpretation in general. For what the Knight says here, after all, is not, "You don't understand what I mean," but, "You don't understand what you mean." This is an apparently illogical or impossible statement—how can it be that, how can we talk if, the speaker doesn't know what he intends to say? How would communication proceed if I knew more about what you meant than you did? The Middle English Dictionary glosses this sentence under menen , verb (1), sense 1.d, "to refer to (sb. or sth.), speak of, mention" as an instance of a modern idiom of which it is the only example listed: "you do not know what you are talking about." For the purposes of the dictionary, and of making idiomatic sense of the lines, this is a pragmatic solution that cannot explain away the fundamental problem. Glosses for all senses of the verb menen include, explicitly or implicitly, the notion of intention and fidelity to the speaker's will—hence "to intend to convey (sth.) . . . to intend . . . plan . . . aim"; "to desire (sth.), want, strive for . . . "; "to say (sth.), assert; speak (the truth), express (one's thought) . . ."; "to remember. . ."; "to believe." The Knight is charging the dreamer, then, with lacking access
to or control over his own meaning, his own will and intention. The dream thus seems to express as deep an anxiety about the possibility of certain knowledge and true interpretation as any twentieth-century deconstructive reading could wish to impute to it. In this poem, speaking is quite obviously risky business; misunderstanding is the norm, even speakers cannot fully know or control the meaning of their own utterances, and the author is not the arbiter of meaning.
In the second line of the couplet, the indirection of the Knight's statement of loss, "I have lost more than thow wenest," might be read as a mark of his emotion; so severe is the mourner's grief, it is often assumed, that he cannot speak of it openly. Such an assumption about the character's psychology might fit with and account for the Knight's elaborately distanced discourse throughout the poem, beginning with the obscuring metaphor of the chess game with Fortune, in which the lady is his "fers," and only gradually, in response to the literal-minded dreamer's (insistence on) misunderstanding, telling the real story. But the formulation also gestures in two other directions. First, it exemplifies the mystification of the woman's death that has been such a crucial goal of the entire dream-conversation; it emphasizes and insures once again the erasure of Blanche that is the inevitable underside of all this elegiac, figurative celebration of White. The lady even disappears from the surface structure of this line; she is referenced by the cryptic "more than thow wenest"—and as I have argued, what the Knight has lost is indeed more than anyone will understand who reads the poem only as an elegy for Blanche. Second, the statement reiterates what is dear in the first line: the Knight's contempt for the dreamer and the distance between the two men. What the lover has lost is "more than thow wenest": something more valuable, more perfect, than the unloved dreamer can hope to understand; something unnamed, ineffable, or identifiable only as that which exceeds the dreamer's limited interpretive grasp. Blanche refigured as White functions, then, as a sign of the male lover's superior comprehension, his higher experience, his finer appreciation; the idea of the perfect woman is a site not only of conversation but also of competition between the two men, where the lover articulates his authority over the writer.
In retrospect, this distance between the dreamer and the man he dreams about is implied in various ways throughout the dream. In discussing their analogous feminization and their resistance to it in the first two parts of this chapter, I spoke as if the dreamer and the Knight were
separate individuals who share a common, even essential maleness, and I might be taken to mean that these men, suffering from a common disease, cooperate in their mutually beneficial cure, however partial it is. This assumption is, it seems to me, an effect that the poem seeks. The dreamer goes to some lengths to develop a (com)passionate relationship with the man in black, for reasons that are not made explicit. Perhaps they are obvious: John of Gaunt is a powerful patron; male friendship is a theoretical and practical virtue throughout the Middle Ages; the homosocial, as recent scholarship is making us see, is a long-lived, celebrated, and empowering tradition. But at the same time, as the Knight's refrain stresses, there is a distinct and constant undercurrent of friction between the two men. A note of exasperation is heard in the Knight's corrections of the dreamer's condescending assumptions and in his insistent calls to better attention (e.g., 750–58). On one occasion, the narrator observes that the Knight's looks bespeak a less polite response than his words: "With that he loked on me asyde,/As who sayth, 'Nay, that wol not be'" (558–59; readers of Chaucer may be reminded that the Knight here acts just like another literary woman, Chaucer's Criseyde, in the opening scene in the temple: she too looks "a lite aside," and her sideways glance is then verbalized, by the narrator, as a reproof; see Troilus and Criseyde , I.290–92). Most overtly, the Knight's refrain, as I have analyzed it, seizes interpretive authority from the dreamer by insisting that in the paradigmatic instance at hand, if not in all cases, the hearer knows better, is a more successful interpreter and reader of intentions, than the speaker: you don't know what you mean (but I do).
As a complex and summative comment, the Knight's refrain thus implies what I see as the poem's pervasive concern with the difficulties
either of a unified, unique male selfhood or of harmonious and enabling bonds between men conceived of as intact individuals in discrete but mutually respected social positions. The man in black's accusation that the dreamer doesn't know what he, the dreamer, means suggests that the instability and indeterminacy of language is an intrasubjective as well as an intersubjective problem, reflecting not merely a gap between knower and known but, even more disturbingly, a division or confusion within the allegedly singular (male) speaker. This problem is congruent and coterminous with what we actually see about the instability of gender: as I suggested in the first part of this chapter, for both dreamer and lover, the problem is not only the woman outside but also what we might call the woman inside. Other commentators have seen the Black Knight and the dreamer as two aspects of a single consciousness; what I am adding to such arguments is that this internally divided, double self is specifically perceived and described in the poem as a masculine consciousness, at once defined and recuperated by its difference and separation from the feminine and imperiled by both the woman outside and the woman inside. Previous critical conclusions about the human consolation of the poem, I would insist, must therefore be viewed with serious reservations.
At the same time, the poem is interested in the fragility of bonds between men. The division within the male is not accidentally figured in the dream as a dialogue between two distinct and distant male characters, and the Knight's refrain repeatedly confirms that the internally fragmented male may also come into conflict with other males whose positions, experiences, and psychological strains are different from his own. And in conclusion I want to raise just one more possibility: the competition between this particular dreamer and the man he dreams of may speak not only to the conflict within and between men over the idea and the reality of women and normative gender identity but also to historical changes in (often gendered) assumptions about the authority of texts versus readers, authors versus audiences.
Jesse Gellrich has recently suggested that in Chaucer's poetry (as in Dante's, only even more radically) we see the beginning of such a change
that poetic (or "fictive") discourse initiates, a change from the idea of the Book, with "grounding in fixed meanings validated in a definite origin," to "discourse that recognizes its own impossibilities and proceeds by locating the authority for making sense no longer in the pages of the past, but in the hands of the reader." Without disagreeing with Gellrich's general argument, I would suggest that the Book of the Duchess , a text Gellrich does not examine, actually says at least as much about the problems of such a change, the difficulties, for the writer (who is male, in fact and theory) of transferring authority from the Book to the reader (who is also male). It does so by thoroughly unfixing, in the dream world, another boundary, one that was, if historical reconstructions of the period are accurate, also being broken down in the real world: the boundary between speaker and hearer, poet and audience.
Just as the Knight has both masculine and feminine attributes and roles, so too he functions as both parties in the communicative exchange. While in the couplet I have just dwelt on he plays the part of the corrective reader of the dreamer's words and intentions, in the dream he figures chiefly as a speaker himself—and notably as a poet himself, one who begins by singing a lay and who uses highly metaphoric, conventional, literary language throughout. The narrator shifts even more dramatically back and forth between the theoretically distinct roles of speaker and listener, author and audience. He is constituted as the speaker/author of the whole poem but then characterized as a reader in the pre-dream sequence and as a listener and interpreter in the dream itself.
Both inside and outside the dream, as a reader or listener, it is the narrator who most dramatically embodies both the power and the limits of reader's claims to authority and validity in interpretation. The best we can say of him as a reader of Ovid, Machaut, and other possible sources is that he is selective and self-interested. Within the dream, he generates conversation and possibly therapy by deliberately or unwittingly misreading the Black Knight's words, and the ambiguity of his intention, as I noted before, is neither incidental nor resolvable; it is crucial. As reader of both books and people, he does display a creative, even controlling role. But as the Knight insinuates, it is never clear whether he knows what he's talking about. His misreadings are far from authoritative in
the dream; one can never be sure that he knows when he's misreading, for the written text of the dream strategically offers no explicit interpretive gloss whatsoever, no final message of consolation, or despair, that we might agree or disagree with, or even simply locate as this reader's reading. The Knight's charge, "Thou wost ful lytel what thow menest," may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but it nevertheless accurately describes this figure of the poet as a speaker who doesn't know what he means, who is not in control of his own intention, and as a listener who doesn't quite know what anyone else means either.
If the author is threatened as well as empowered by the authority of readers, and aware that the binary oppositions of speaker and listener, writer and reader, like the difference between masculine and feminine, are less stable in fact than in theory, then perhaps this is the cleverest strategy of all: to resist the notion that the reader (in the historical context, most often a socially superior figure) has interpretive authority, but to do so by taking on himself the role of the reader, so that overt competition is neatly displaced. And the strategy mirrors his politic negotiation of the problem of gender. The (medieval) poet is inevitably a figure divided against himself, unsure of his gender and how to avail himself of the putative privileges of masculinity, uncertain of the grounds of his authority, engaged in an activity that promises no certainty and no actual escape from time and loss, from history and death, from ideology and theology. Writing fiction, indeed, cultivates the risk of being misread, subjected to the reader's power, exploited: again, of being feminized. By taking on some aspects of the role of the woman in culture, the male author at once disguises the competition between men across class and professional ranks and erases the real woman.
Previous generations of readers have not been concerned with this erasure or with the smudges it has left on the pages of so many canonical masterworks and the interpretations that have canonized them. In reading Chaucer in particular, they have marveled instead at the poet's alleged ability to bring Woman, in all her various and wondrous forms, to full literary life. But late twentieth-century feminist scholars may pore over the limited evidence of those smudges in order to marvel at something quite different. We find that Woman, in the form of the female character, is brought to represented life precisely in order to be killed off, silenced, displaced, ignored, again and again. The murder, however, is always only attempted. White is, the Black Knight says at one point, "to
myn yë, / The soleyn fenix of Arabye" (981–82). Many modern commentators have taken this to mean that she is an allegorical figure for both Christ and Mary. It suggests at the same time another possibility: it is White as a figure of the feminine, and above all the problematic idea of Woman's difference and similarity, who cannot finally die. The culminating realization of the central male characters in this poem seems to be the anticlimactic truth that readers have known all along: "she"—White/Blanche, Alcyone—"ys ded." But as an elegy, however imperfect an example of the genre, the poem still brings the dead woman to a kind of imaginative life—"to myn yë." And other "she's"—Criseyde, the Wife of Bath, Griselda, May, and so on—are in fact reborn in all of the most interesting Chaucerian poems, as in the ongoing literary tradition of which they are part.
In some sense, then, I am also suggesting that the figure of the poet remains, throughout Chaucerian fiction, as cannily opaque or as unbelieving as the dreamer of the Book of the Duchess , up to the very end of his dream. In one sense he never quite understands or accepts the fact that he sets out to confirm, that "she ys ded." He knows, that is, that without the subject of Woman, there would be nothing for him to talk about with men like the Black Knight. it is not accidental, and it is only superficially paradoxical, that the statement of loss that initiates their conversation, because the dreamer plays at misunderstanding, is precisely what brings his interchange with the Knight to an end. Descriptions of women metaphorized (as the Knight's "fers," for instance, in lines 618ff.) or idealized as the perfect and unattainable object of love keep the interchange, and the poem, going. Once the Knight is brought to admit that White relinquished her static, perfect, inaccessible state to become his flesh-and-blood wife, he too has almost nothing left to say; and once the dreamer responds as if to the fact of an actual death, his discursive partner, the bereaved lover, disappears.
The poet also knows that "she"—the idea of Woman—is a fiction, the figure of a constructed difference and the function of a notion of stable gender identity that is precarious and that fails to correspond to the behavior of historical males and females. As a fiction, that which does not exist, she is neither quick nor dead; as an undeniable part of both the dreamer and the Knight, she can be neither silenced nor brought to full life. The problems and possibilities that the idea of Woman and the
fact of women represent to poetry, as it is known, and to masculine identity and therefore to the social and moral order, as they are known, must be insistently confronted. Like the Book of the Duchess, Chaucer's subsequent fiction feeds on and cannot escape the specter of Woman's and women's presence, just as it inscribes but cannot guarantee her, and their, absence.