Dream Visions: Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess vs. de Machaut’s Fountain of Love

dream visions

In his poem, the Book of the Duchess, Geoffrey Chaucer reworks some of the themes and events from Guillaume de Machaut’s Fountain of Love. The resemblances between the two texts are quite prominent from the outset of both works, in which sleep (or lack thereof) is an essential part of the narrative. While the similarities in the texts regarding the narrators’ relationship with sleep are clear, Chaucer augments its importance and thus emphasizes the shift from the real world into the fantastical dimension of dreams.

The narrator in the Fountain of Love describes himself at the beginning of the narrative “in bed … but not sleeping, like somebody who is asleep yet still awake” and thereafter “just dozing on and off” [page 285]. This depiction creates an ambiguous sort of gateway between reality and dream. In the Book of the Duchess, Chaucer borrows this occurrence and expands its significance. As opposed to the implied tiredness of the narrator in the Fountain of Love, the narrator in the Book of the Duchess proclaims that he “nat slepe wel nigh noght” [line 3] since he suffers from a mysterious sickness for the past “eight yere” [line 37]. This attestation intensifies the initial level of weariness of the narrator markedly compared to the one in the Fountain of Love. Thus, when encountering highly fictitious characters and events through the narrative, the readers can allow themselves to suspend their disbelief to a greater extent than they will likely allow in a story where the narrator is not as remarkably tired.

Another notable difference between the two texts is that Chaucer stresses that the narrator is, in fact, dreaming, whereas de Machaut is more obscure about it. In the Fountain of Love, the narrator states that he “heard somebody lamenting” at the same time that “nature was just about to take its rest in [him]” [page 285]; meaning, it remains unclear whether or not he actually falls asleep. In the Book of the Duchess, the narrator leaves no room for doubt when he asserts that he “fil aslepe, and therwith even / Me mette so inly swete a sweven” [lines 275-276]. Therefore, the readers enter smoothly into Chaucer’s dreamy realm, while de Machaut keeps the reader in a state of at least somewhat uncertainty.

  The influence of de Machaut’s Fountain of Love on Chaucer is evident in the Book of the Duchess. Chaucer adopts the theme of sleep and deepens its magnitude in his work: by distinctly raising the level of exhaustion of the narrator and by clearly indicating the turn between a state of wakefulness and a state of sleep. These additions and adjustments assist the readers in accepting the ensuing unreal events of the story and establish a solid fertile meadow for the imagination to roam free.