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Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl: A Critical Essay


The feeling of a personal loss is one of the emotional experiences that transcend all cultures and are easily understood by the members of any cultural environment. Moreover, the concepts of love and loss, as well as those of life and death, transcend not only cultures but time as well, bridging generations in their fear of dying and watching their loved ones die. The notions in question have been explored thoroughly in multiple works since the beginning of literature. The realm of the English poetry is not an exception to the observed phenomenon. Among the representatives of the Middle English literature, Chaucer and the Gawain poet introduced some of the most elaborate and nuanced opinions concerning love and loss, as well as life and death, as a whole, in their respective poems, Book of the Duchess and Pearl (Dunai). Despite the presence of a thematic similarity between Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl, these two works approach the themes of love and loss, as well as those of life and death, in an entirely different way, which makes them quite similar in their disconnection from reality, but completely different in their representation of loss.

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The History of Creation

When considering the differences between the two poems, particularly, the dissimilarities that can be spotted once analyzing the effects that each of the poems produces, one will need to examine the history of their creation first. As retrospect into their creation shows, the initial intent of Chaucer did not share much with that one of the Gawain Poet. Specifically, Goedhals mentions that Chaucer’s story was based on the experience of insomnia caused by emotional distress and the state of uncertainty (207). The described background, while being quite vague, sows clearly that the poem was not supposed to bear heavy emotional undertones and, instead, was supposed to lead to a drastic revelation as the catharsis of the narrative (Goedhals 209). In contrast, the poem created by the Gawain Poet was intended to depict the turmoil experienced by a parent who lost a child (Goedhals 210). Thus, the background of the Gawain Poet’s narrative leaves a much grimmer and darker impression than the one created by Chaucer, who attempts at reflecting upon the concept of a prophetic dream.

The Tone

The tone is another issue that makes the works of literature in question very different to each other, while also contributing to the similarities in the content of the poems. However, as far as the tone is concerned, there might be disagreements concerning the impression that it leaves in each poem. Namely, the setting that the Gawain Poet attempts at creating seems to steer toward a more religious interpretation of facing loss, with impressive layers of Biblical allegories sprinkled throughout his poem (Baden‐Daintree 2). In turn, Chaucer introduces more personal perspective, with the references to the Bible being less obvious, and the main focus being kept on the journey of the poet as the narrator and the main character.


The leading characters in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl are share a range of similarities, which adds to the impression of similarity between their content, yet sets their emotional weight even further apart. In The Book of the Duchess, the two characters as the main leads represent a rather simple concept of relationships, in which the Knight symbolizes John of Gaunt and his pain caused by the untimely demise of Blanche of Lancaster. Likewise, the Pearl features a very similar approach toward the choice of the leading characters and the role that hey play, which makes the content relatively close to that one of Pearl. Namely, the depiction of the so-called “Pearl Maiden,” which is expected to be the embodiment of purity and devoid of any sin as she plays the role of Virgin Mary in the poem.

Thus, the themes of love and loss are placed in different contexts in the poems under analysis, creating a rather striking difference in their overall emotional impression that they create. Though the weight of loss is excruciatingly heavy in both poems, and each narrator is obviously grieving, the pain is represented through platonic love in Pearl, whereas in the Book of the Duchess, the love between the husband and the wife is portrayed. The portrayed difference in the character and, therefore, the context of the poems leads to the creation of rather different impressions following the reading of the poems (Martin 1194). The disconnection from reality is present in both poems, taking a rather phantasmagorical shape in each, yet the emotional impact that each produces is slightly different. Namely, the death of the wife mourned by the knight and the loss of the infant daughter sung in Pearl create two contexts that are entirely different for the reader, with the latter one connecting the theme of loss with that one of innocence, and the former one having a clearly romantic tint.

The Themes of Life and Death

The themes of life and death are also explored in a slightly different fashion in each poem despite the presence of a similar concept of disconnection from reality and the focus on the transient and pliable nature of dreams. Specifically, in Pearl, the presence of a slight slimmer of hope that the grieving father sees once plunging into the surreal environment of his dream can be seen. Although there is no miraculous way of bringing the daughter back from the dead, the woman representing Virgin Mary in his dream provides him consolation and comfort, allowing him to reconcile with his loss. Namely, the following lines indicate that the father questions whether his grief has been stifled: “She spoke to me for my soul’s peace,/Courtesied with her quaint woman’s lore” (Gawain Poet). Although the loss of the child still weighs heavily upon him, he will be capable of grappling with his loss.

However, in the Book of Duchess, no such opportunity for consolation and, ultimately, the opportunity to reconcile with the loss, is provided. Instead, the presence of grief is amplified as the narrator emphasizes the poet’s blindness to the grief of the knight. As a result, instead of the sense of comfort, the climax of the poem leads to the discovery of grief and the resulting misery. As the poet puts it eloquently, “Alway in point to falle a-doun;.For sorwful imaginacioun/ Is alway hoolly in my minde” (Chaucer). Therefore, the issue of grief is represented as the experience that does not imply solace but, instead, is expected to remain a thing in itself and a continuous burden on the suffering person (Dunai). Thus, the excerpts above indicate that the two poems approach the issue of grief, as well as the problem of loss, from completely different angles. While one of them attempts at providing emotional comfort, the other seeks to wallow in misery and embrace its overwhelming power.

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The Theme of Love

Similarly, the theme of love as it is related to the concept of love is represented very differently in each poem. Whereas in Pearl, love is portrayed through the lens of innocence, which is understandable given the fact that parental love is described, the feelings portrayed in The Duchess are clearly romantic. The Knight grieving over the death of his Duchess evidently serves to portray romantic love (Hieatt 68). Moreover, the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, which the poet stumbles across first in his sleep, describes the relationships between a wife and a husband, even though the roles are reversed in this scenario, and the wife mourns the husband in the first part of the narrative. Therefore, the love depicted in Book of the Duchess is strikingly different from the feelings portrayed in the Pearl, which suggests that the portrayal of love and loss is painted in quite different ways in the Pearl and the Book of the Duchess.

Therefore, the representation of love in Pearl is quite different from that one of the Book of the Duchess, which leads to an entirely different impression that it leaves on the reader. Although the calm and mournful nature of both are emphasized in the poems, Pearl leans toward a much more platonic exploration of love, focusing on the pain of losing a child. Moreover, due to the introduction of an allegory for the Virgin Mary, which the Pearl features to a very noticeable extent, one could interpret the Gawain Poet’s work as the attempt at examining the theme of love for God. Moreover, God’s love for His children and the willingness to relieve them of their pain by offering them reconciliation with their grief can be read in Pearl’s image of Pearl herself.

The described imagery becomes less explicit when considering it in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Although the theme of God’s love and the reference to religious themes can be observed in the poem when scrutinizing it especially meticulously, the presence of a theological reference in Chaucer’s poem is quite weak (Bryant 1008). While the initial prayer to God to send the grieving woman relief and show her the fate of her husband could be seen as the allegory for the spiritual connection between God and an individual, it still pales in comparison to Pearl’s obvious and distinctively unique approach toward the study of spiritual

The Theme of Grief

Despite the theme of grief making the two poems very close to each other, their portrayal of life and death makes the relation between the two become less obvious, and the impressions that they produce les homogenous. Specifically, the depiction of death incorporates the ideas of personal fear and the resulting guilt in Pearl. Consequently, the description of the protagonist meeting the Pearl implies facing personal fears and, ultimately, experiencing a redemption that will allow the lead character to embrace his fear and reconcile with it (Olsen). The specified change can be observed in the following lines: “For I have found Him, day and night,/A God, a Lord, a Friend in fine” (Gawain Poet). Although the main character mourning over the loss of a child signifies the fear of loss overpowering that one of death, the two are evidently present. More importantly, they are closely intertwined, the fear of death suggesting that the protagonist cannot face its inevitability no matter whom it consumes, hence the failure to accept the loss of his daughter. The Gawain Poet emphasizes the specified sentiment in the poem: “Against my will was I exiled/From that bright region, fair and fain” (Gawain Poet).

Compared to the specified outlook on death and the inherent fear that follows it, the portrayal of death in the Book of the Duchess does not feature a noticeable amount of fear but, instead, focuses on the feeling of emptiness that it entails: “I have of sorwe so grete won,/That Joye gete I never non” (Chaucer). As a result, the dull, numbing pain that one experiences when losing a loved one is portrayed poignantly and accurately.

Common Features of Poems

While the difference between the two works is quite apparent, some questionable similarities could be located in the narrative, which might be seen as more than a thematic similarity. Namely, both Gawain Poet’s Pearl and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess appear to render the idea of exploring the afterlife and explaining it through the prism of the Christian faith, thus supposedly conveying the same argument. Indeed, both poems address the unfortunate event of a life having been taken away untimely, and the mournful narrator, who describes his loss.

In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the narrator attempts at injecting the images of afterlife into the poem, thus creating the illusion of the two worlds being blurred. In turn, in both Gawain Poet’s Pearl, the presence of the theological explanation of the main character’s dream is explicitly stated in the poem. Namely, the author states the following: “My ghost is gone in God’s good grace” (Gawain Poet). Specifically, the emphasis on the Christian doctrine and the endeavor at interpreting the events occurring in the poem from the specified position becomes evident at this point (Wetherbee 1025). Therefore, a case could be made that the poems in question align not only in their themes but also in the point that they are trying to make.

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Unfortunately, the fact that Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl both entertain the same idea of theological relevance of dreams does not allow them to share anything but several themes and minor overlaps in the content that the authors create. As for the ideas that Chaucer and Gawain Poet introduce, the coincidences, if any, are minimal. Specifically, Chaucer’s narration relishes in the idea of suffering and the pain experienced after losing a loved one. Representing a raw emotion of grief, Chaucer addresses the pain that comes with the realization of a loss: “I trowe, a-rede my dremes even./Lo, thus hit was, this was my sweven.” (Chaucer). In turn, the Gawain Poet suggests a way of facing grief and reconciling with it, thus finding solace and, eventually, healing. Indeed, the following lines: “She was nearer kin than aunt or niece,/And thus my joy was much the more” signify that the narrator is ready to accept the relief from his emotional distress and pain of the loss (Gawain Poet).

The described differences in the arguments established by the authors create a massive gap between the two poems, ultimately separating them. On closer inspection, the idea of coming to terms with grief and healing, which the Gawain Poet suggests, creates a stark contrast with the notion of embracing pain and finding out about the loss, which Chaucer describes. In a way, the two poems could demonstrate a progression from the identification of loss, which Chaucer represents, to the reconciliation with the emptiness that it leaves, as the Gawain Poet offers (Bryant 1011). Nonetheless, the specified correlation does not indicate any similarities in the arguments or ideas created by Chaucer and the Gawain Poet in their corresponding works. Therefore, the signs o supposed connection between the two works in question have turned out to be misleading.

Despite the fact that the poems in question, namely, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl, appeal to coincide only in their thematic relevance to the concept of dream, an argument could also be made that the works in question align in their narrative structure as well (Andrews). Indeed, given the fact that both Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl belong to the same genre of the dream, the thematic parallels are evident, yet they do not coincide fully when it comes to the relationships with the characters and the representation of them dealing with loss and grief.

Despite the presence of certain similarities in the structure and the narrative of the two poems, they appear to be mostly incidental. As a result, even if the described coincidences are acknowledged, the impression and the emotional impact that the two poems produce on the reader share very few similarities. Despite bearing the same sense of wistfulness and conveying the pain of loss, the two poems evoke different types of ideas about the very concept of loss, which allows drawing a distinctive and quite tangible line between the two. Namely, where the Pearl introduces a glimmer of hope, the Book of the Duchess relishes in the sense of emotional despair. The fact that the characters representing loss are believed to mourn it till the end of their days in the poem does not leave a lot of room for the experience of consolation: “His sorowful herte gan faste faynte,/And his spirites wexen dede” (Chaucer). The described characteristic of the poem does not signify that the poem is entirely devoid of the specified notion. For example, a hint at some semblance of emotional reconciliation is provided in the following lines: “She loved as man may do his brother” (Chaucer). However the specified testimony appears to be very weak, especially when compared to a much more powerful line from Pearl, which leaves a much greater emotional impact: “For pain of parting with the less,/Man often lets the greater go” (Gawain Poet). Therefore, the dreamlike pliability of both narratives serves different goals in each poem.

Similarities in the Depiction of Loss

It is also possible to assert that there are certain points of similarity in the representation of loss in both poems. Namely, the setting, specifically, the environment of a dream in which the key events take place, helps to connect the two works together and establish a continuity of ideas between them. However, the specified similarity does not affect how the themes of love and loss, as well as the ones of life and death, are interpreted by the reader (Andrews). In turn, the themes listed above are introduced from entirely different perspectives in the two poems, thus challenging the reader’s perception of the subject matter and the interpretation of the notions in question.

Moreover, even the environment of a dream is portrayed quite differently in the poems in question. Whereas the fact that the main characters entre the realm that is different from that one in which they live is apparent from the start, the settings themselves have very little in common with each other. For instance, on contrast to the Pearl, in which the environment of a dream is represented as a single fabric of alternative reality, the continuity of the dream setting portrayed in the Book of the Duchess is far more distorted and uneven. Specifically, the poem does not center the person experiencing the loss, namely, Alcyone, as the main agent in it. Instead, it chooses a poet as the main narrator and protagonist, telling the story from his perspective, which already adds a layer of distortion into the fabric of the poem’s reality (Gillhammer 197). Moreover, instead of using a dream as the tool for creating the direct metaphor for the story that the poet seeks to address, the Book of the Duchess portrays a dream in which the poet observes the hunt headed by Octavian and stumbles upon the grieving knight only by accident.

At first glance, the cadence of coincidences introduced in the poem disrupts the flow of the narrative, thus making it less palatable. However, delving deeper into the meaning of the setting and the context, one will realize that the specified approach amplifies the impression of dreamlike plasticity that the described genre already possesses. As a result, the readers can suspend their disbelief and follow the narrator freely without questioning the logic of the events.

Thus, the use of the dream vision as the genre does not make the poems similar enough in their disconnection from reality. Instead, it pushes them even further apart, with each using the specified genre to its advantage in order to amplify its uniqueness and, therefore, become even more detached from its counterpart. As a result, the difference in the representation of loss and love can also be attributed to the specified incongruences observed in the poems despite the use of the same genre of dream vision.

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While the representation of loss is evident in both poems, the similarities between the two can be boiled down to the bare minimum, such as the presence of grief in the people that morn it. However, the described response to loss is not enough to claim similarity in its artistic representation. The presence of the dreamlike environment in which the tragedy of losing a loved one is explored provides a certain semblance of similarity between the two poems, yet the ways in which loss is depicted are disconnected from each other for the most part (Andrews). For instance, Chaucer’s the Book of the Duchess emphasizes the challenge of moving on from grief and continuing to live one’s own life. In fact, the author questions the very possibility of ever recovering fully from this tragedy and becoming one’s complete self again. The described doubt is expressed quite distinctively in the following lines: “With sorweful herte, and woundes dede,/Softe and quaking for pure drede” (Chaucer). Therefore, the inescapable nature of grief is highlighted in the poem.

In turn, the interpretation of loss as an experience of an emotional trauma is viewed form an entirely different lens in the Pearl, where the very idea of moving on from the tragedy and accepting it is not only set as the main theme but also proven possible. Granting the leading character relief, the opportunity to face the pain of losing a loved one is depicted form the perspective of learning to heal. In Pearl, the natural progression of emotions shifts from the pain of losing a child to the relief of the dream in which she is depicted as alive to the sorrow of the realization and the final reconciliation (Gillhammer 198). The bitterness of recognizing that the reunion occurs only in a dream and, therefore, the woman in it is not real, is reflected flawlessly in the following lines: “It made my senses straying go,/It stung my heart aye more and more” (Gawain Poet). Nevertheless, the narrator shows the slow recognition of the need to move on from grieving. Remarkably, the specified change occurs in the poem in a very natural progression as the narrator doubts whether he even has the moral right to stop suffering:

Doom me not, sweet, to my old fears
And pain again wherein I pine.
My pearl that, long, long lost, appears,
Shall I again forego, in fine. (Gawain Poet)

The described ethical concern is worded beautifully and allows addressing one of the emotional challenges that represent a convoluted moral dilemma to this day. Compared to the idea of discovering a loss and learning to come to grips with it, the Pearl introduces a more mature stage of grieving, where one needs to accept the importance of mourning and transfer to a new stage of life where grief should not be pushed to an extreme. Specifically, the author states that “From my purpose I was turned aside;/It was not to my Prince’s will” (Gawain Poet). The specified line indicates that the author recognizes the fundamental imperfections of the human nature and the importance of maintaining emotional balance.

Indeed, with a stronger focus on God and the relationships between an individual and God, the Pearl introduces an unexpectedly humane perspective on the dilemma between grieving and accepting the loss. Specifically, the poem leads one to believe that the continuous state of suffering as the attempt at conforming to the perceived value system represented by the two opposites, namely, heavenly and earthly life is an impossible ordeal. Instead, the Pearl suggests a compromise that shows an understanding of the human limitations:

If very truth divide us twain;
If thou goest crowned, secure from ill,
Well for me in my prison-pain
That thou art to the Prince’s will. (Gawain Poet)

Thus, even though the poem acknowledges the inevitability and inescapable nature of sorrow that loss entails, it suggests a resolution. Specifically, the transition to self-mourning that the specified lien suggests leads to the opportunity to embrace the concept of loss and, eventually, come to grips with it (Gillhammer 199). The specified outcome stands in a rather stark contrast with the despair that the Book of the Duchess conveys, including both the somber environment of the dream and the shocking revelation that the leading character has at the end of it, coming to the conclusion that the Knight is mourning the loss of his love.


The thematic similarity of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and the Gawain Poet’s Pearl is apparent and undeniable, yet the differences in how each author tackles the themes of life and death, as well as love and loss, indicates that the two works are entirely different in their content and the impression that they leave. The ideas with which the reader needs to sit after finishing the Book of the Duchess tend to focus on the inevitability of suffering, whereas the Pearl with its references to the Christian faith suggests reconciliation as the means of coming to grips with the idea of losing a loved one.

At the same time, the similarities in the context and the structure of the poems allows the described differences to shine and encourage the reader to reflect upon the specified ideas more thoroughly. The use of the dream genre as the background in which the key events occur allows introducing the elements of magical realism into the narrative, making the idea of meeting the deceased loved one or having a prophetic vision plausible and even believable. As a result, the environment in which both the characters and the readers are placed allows the latter to suspend their disbelief to the required extent. The effect that the described change in the perception of the poems and the events that they describe is stupendous since it leads to the reader being able to relate to and engage emotionally with the leading characters. As a result, the experience of los described in the poems becomes very personal to the reader.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “Book of the Duchess.”, 1369, 2020. Web.

Gawain Poet. “The Pearl.”, 14th century, 2020. Web.

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.

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

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