The Book of the Duchess vs. Pearl: Hieatt’s Review

The chapter “Two Dream Elegies: Pearl and The Book of the Duchess” in Hieatt’s The Realism of Dream Visions: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and His Contemporaries provides the bases for comparing and contrasting the themes of The Book of the Duchess and Pearl. These works belong to the same category of literary works, namely medieval dream vision (Hieatt 67). In this genre, dreams were anchored on the reverence of ancient and classical authorities, such as Plato’s cave allegory, which influenced poetic narrators into recounting unusual dream experiences (Hieatt 69). Both Gawain and Chaucer’s works share these attributes, whereby the narrator’s dream is provoked by particular conditions, including life experience or settings (Hieatt 70). Both dreams seem to be triggered by different but convenient conditions. The narrators in both dreams depict authoritative figures that reveal or teach philosophical or spiritual truths. In some cases, the encounter ends without awakening the subjects. The Book of the Duchess ends with interpretations that are speculative while Pearl’s experience involves an authoritative figure and vivid narrative.

Dunai asserts that medieval dreams can be classified into either religious or secular (12). Sacred dream visions entail spiritual issues at the center while the earthly dream visions are concerned with courtly love. Based on this perspective, The Book of the Duchess belongs to the secular division while Pearl belongs to the religious class (Dunai 12). The narrators of these poems occasionally hint at their self-representation traits, which, at times, are distinguished from their character as poets. In essence, narrators could be fictional; however, they might have similarities with poets. For instance, the narrator in Pearl is more active than physical while expressing love for the Pearl-maiden. Hence, the variation in terms of activity and passivity is used to determine explicit activity during the mystical experiences. Dunai emphasizes the need to differentiate these two sub-genres due to the influences that may be associated with mystical experiences, such as heresy (13). Hence, it is critical to examine poetic attributes, including activity and the narrator’s self-representation since it assists in making appropriate inferences.

According to Andrews, both Pearl and The Book of the Duchess are often linked due to their allegory attributes (7). They are classified as late medieval dream visions, an aspect that has also led to scholarly debate regarding mystical elements. Both poems are engrained in consoling a melancholic figure troubled by the loss of a loved one (Andrews 7). The author of the Pearl has remained anonymous; hence, there is difficulty in placing the text in its historical context. Andrews argues that both poems had similar socio-political impacts on grief (7). While early criticism for Pearl focused on the generalization regarding medieval Christianity, today, both works are paired as relevant to material culture, allegory, and theological discourse.

The article “The Power of Water in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess” describes some of the similarities and differences between two elegies, namely The Book of the Duchess and Pearl. The primary figures in the Duchess are Ceys and Alcione who lead to the Black Knight – the central figure (Bryant 1008). While the Knight engages in a conversation with the narrator, he does not impart awakening. On the other hand, the maiden in Pearl’s narrative reveals extraordinary knowledge to the dreamer. The Black Knight mourns and accepts reality due to his limited experience. Therefore, the concepts of dreams and reality are explored in both elegies, yet each represents an entirely different perspective on the subject matter. The plastic, dreamlike nature of The Book of the Duchess poses a stark contrast to the interpretation of reality represented in the Pearl. As a result, the two poems, while leaving an equally strong emotional experience, introduce the reader to two entirely different worlds.

In contrast, the Pearl-maiden demonstrates an authoritative understanding regarding the universe, as well as its inner working (Bryant 1014). One of the similarities is that both narrators have difficulties perceiving higher matters or unintelligible universe. As a result, they rely on divine intervention from spiritual figures or authority. However, the Black Knight in The Book of Duchess believes that the woman who knows the cause of his troubles will not answer him. Therefore, Black Knight and Pearl’s dreamer, despite different outcomes in terms of awakening, are inherently limited in comprehending religious lessons (Bryant 1016). One of the significant dissimilarities between the two poems is their parallel focus, whereby The Book of the Duchess draws the reader to reality while Pearl demystifies the universe and afterlife.

Goethals outlines the events involved in composing The Book of the Duchess. Initially, the narrator cannot sleep because he is perturbed, thus feeling neither sorrowful nor joyful. While the narrator does not know the cause of the experience, he purports to know the only physician who has the answer but cannot provide it (Goedhals 211). Additionally, medieval literature depicts a lady with spiritual, emotional, or physical capabilities to heal (Goedhals 214). The narrator’s experience is also influenced by the book fiction he had read where the god of sleep communicated the death of a loved one. The narrator’s dream experiences were significantly influenced by the previous readings. Notably, this experience is influenced by the aforementioned fiction, after which the writer marvels and falls asleep.

Similarly, the article by Baden‐Daintree addresses the concept of sorrow, whereby the narrator mourns a daughter who had died two years ago. In the Book of Duchess, the artist is in a perturbed state following the death of his child who is referred to as the Pearl. However, as opposed to The Book of the Duchess where a goddess communicates bad news concerning the death of a loved one, the Pearl-maiden in the dream consoles and sheds light on the narrator (Baden‐Daintree 2). In the Pearl, the Pearl-maiden, who is the poet’s daughter in spirit form, informs him about the afterlife. She states that earthly elements die, but the spirit is preserved in heaven. The Pearl-maiden awakens the narrator, revealing herself as a queen in heaven. Compared with the Book of the Duchess, this poem presents a contrary position from which the bereaved feels consoled as he presumes his loved one is in a better place (Baden‐Daintree 3). In this regard, the perspectives of life between the two poets vary, comparing explanations concerning the afterlife with the unclear and unspeculative ending.

According to Olsen, Pearl is an allegorical exploration where the narrator in three distinct settings addresses the question of innocence, faith, and salvation (2). In philosophical terms, the poet exemplifies a particular point of view regarding spirituality, the afterlife, and divine love. In other words, the elegy is used to depict the afterlife outcomes and the author’s perceptions regarding purity or cleanliness. Consequently, the poem represents cleanliness or innocence in the context of the afterlife. This view of life is different from Chaucer’s poetry.

The stream in the Pearl insinuates the boundary between paradise and earth from where the narrator debates with the Pearl-maiden. In essence, the poet presents a Christian worldview concerning salvation. The primary perspective of the narrator is evident through the symbolic presentation of Pearl portraying purity and perceived truth (Olsen 4). On the contrary, the Book of Duchess presents a different view from which the author utilizes rhetorical invention. The experience in the Pearl shows the perceptual change as a result of the dream since the Pearl-maiden admonishes and corrects the doctrine interpretation of the dreamer. It is imperative to note the depicted eternal nature or state of humankind. This experience displays the poet’s view, as well as the discerned truth about loyalty, morality, and faith.

Wetherbee posits a rhetorical invention, as well as subjective experience, caused by the ability to transfer physical or emotional aspects to linguistic expression (360). One of the similarities between the Books of Duchess and Pearl is that both subjects try to relate their feelings to their experiences. However, Wetherbee argues that Chaucer transfers the inarticulate physical sense to linguistic art (360). The author, therefore, adopts the literary work point of view while trying to search for real-world solutions. The poet’s experience relates to straightforward and persuasive readings, hence transferring the consequent perceptions to the dreamland. As opposed to Pearl’s poet, Chaucer illustrates a different worldview depicted by a character who refuses consolation but embraces melancholia (Wetherbee 360). The Book of the Duchess insinuates that a particular lady knows his woes and solutions but she cannot provide them. In contrast, Pearl’s experience results in a vivid explanation and consolation concerning the deceased daughter.

Gillhammer argues that the dream in Pearl is used to portray a grieving father in search of means to overcome the death of his daughter (197). The experience is not a vision but a dream based on social constructs or imagined notions. The death of the narrator’s daughter causes him to seek affirmation regarding the afterlife. Thus, the poet tries to deal with bereavement while, at the same time, wrestling with faith (Gillhammer 198). Therefore, the dream is a result of the two distinct issues in the poet’s life. Religious beliefs influence the occurrences in the vision, which are meant to relieve the father from the bereavement. Hence, despite the similarity in the depiction of authoritative figures, different beliefs result in dissimilar experiences.

According to Martin, the Gawain poet demonstrates the belief in the materiality of God’s creation (1194). While critics of this position cite the Platonist view regarding body and soul, Hatt adopts Aristotle’s philosophy, which is concerned with connections instead of separations (Martin 1194). Thus, the poet follows Aquinas’s articulation regarding incarnation. Such inferences inform the perspective of the Gawain poet concerning the human life embodiment. Furthermore, the narrator of Pearl revere nature and the power of human creativity (Martin 1195). He views these attributes as a gift from the divine creator.

Like other works of the poet, Pearl incorporates a dialectic sense of the creator and creation, including humankind. Hatt asserts that Pearl Dialectic aspects involve the father’s grief and consequent resentment, which is corrected by faith and reason (Martin 1195). The dream creates an anagogical description, which alludes afterlife. Additionally, the Pearl-maiden represents the narrator’s reason, which triggers the appearance of a deceased child in form of a blessed soul. Hatts states that dream is not mystical; hence, there is no ravishment regarding the revelation of the third heaven. Instead, the experience is a result of the poet’s Christian persuasion (Martin 1195). The splitting of personality in the Pearl dream is an aspect that is familiar from other dream poems. While the experience may not be perceived as a vision, its fictional attributes are related to religious and biblical lessons.

Despite the seemingly similar themes and ideas, the two poems leave the reader with entirely different conclusions, The book of the Duchess invites the audience to speculative interpretations, whereas the Pearl establishes a much more vivid narrative. As a result, while equally impressive in their literary characteristics, the poems render quite different ideas concerning the intersection of dream and reality. Where Pearl establishes a more personal narrative, where it is used as a coping mechanism to handle grief, The book of the Duchess creates a vaguer setting for the interpretation of its reality. Thus, the two poems touch upon similar subjects, yet they choose completely different artistic methods of expressing them, thus weaving unique narratives and creating original experiences for emotional investment in ten characters.

Works Cited

Andrews, Tarren Lee. The Ethics of Mourning: The Role of Ethics of Mourning: The Role of Material Culture and Public Politics in the ‘Book of the Duchess’ and the ‘Pearl’ Poem. University of Montana, 2020, Web.

Baden‐Daintree, Anne. “Pearl.” The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, vol. 1, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-5.

Bryant, Brantley L. “The Power of Water in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 26, no. 4, 2019, pp. 1006-1037.

Dunai, Amber Rose. Dreams and Visions in Medieval Literature. Texas A&M University, 2015, Web.

Gillhammer, Cosima Clara. “Cecilia A. Hatt. God and the Gawain-Poet: Theology and Genre in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Anglia, vol 135, no. 1, 2017, pp. 197-200. Walter De Gruyter Gmbh.

Goedhals, Antony. “Auctour and Auctoritee in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 90, no. 2, 2018, pp. 206-224.

Hieatt, Constance B. “Two Dream Elegies: Pearl and The Book of the Duchess.” The Realism of Dream Visions: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and His Contemporaries, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2019, pp. 61-73.

Martin, Priscilla. “Cecilia A. Hatt, God and the Gawain-Poet: Theology and Genre in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Speculum, vol. 92, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1194-1195. PhilPapers.

Olsen, Kenna L. “Gawain-Poet.” The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, 2017, pp. 1-7. Wiley Online Library, 2020.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. “Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess: Contexts and Interpretations.” English Studies, vol. 100, no. 3, 2019, pp. 359-362. Tailor and Francis.

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