The fourteenth century was an age of healthy literary productivity dominated by four major poets—Chaucer, Langland, Gower and the anonymous ‘Gawayne-poet’. There were also significant religious writers and the unknown makers of Miracle plays.
Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400) had an important career in public service. He was fighting in France by 1359-60, was taken prisoner and ransomed. No doubt his career benefited from his marriage, for his wife, Philippa, was lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa. He was early attached to the royal household and went abroad on diplomatic work. His sister-in-law, Catherine, became John of Gaunt’s mistress, then his third wife. These influential connections, together with his important civil and diplomatic appointments (including missions to Italy), gave Chaucer a wide knowledge of the world, strangely unrestricted, it would seem, by the limitations of outlook which in later ages social class might well have imposed.
The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer’s earliest work, is an elegy in memory of John of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche, who died in 1369. Its purpose is to praise the deceased and console the bereaved. Chaucer uses the convention of the dream-allegory. The poet falls asleep while reading the very relevant story of ‘Ceyx and Alcione’, in which Alcione sees her husband in a dream and learns from his own lips of his death at sea. The poet’s dream takes him to the countryside on a May morning. There is a hunt in progress; but the poet meets a disconsolate young knight sitting apart, clad all in black and abstracted with grief. The succeeding dialogue between poet and mourner, though its structure owes much to the rhetorical rule-book, is marked by striking touches as the tentativeness, simplicity, and