Abstract for Week 6
The Nothing That Is: Annihilation, Transformation and The Book of the Duchess
Chaucer’s elegy on the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, is a poem obsessed with nothingness. From its opening lines, which offer a memorable account of the narrator’s intellectual torpor and emotional numbness, to the Man in Black’s pained account of a life without ‘good, fair Whyte’, the poem returns again and again to the vocabulary of nothingness and the grammar of negation. This paper will argue that the poem’s focus on annihilation functions in a number of ways: first, it frames the emotional response to the death of Blanche in a startling context that is devoid of reference to the medieval certainties of heaven and the afterlife, focusing instead on the painful absence left by the death of the loved one. Second, it allows Chaucer to explore philosophical questions about the nature of death itself, and in particular how the world is (or is not) diminished by the death of individual beings. Finally, I will argue that the poem’s treatment of nothingness allows the poet to reflect on the essential role of annihilation in the process of transformation. At its most suggestive, the process of annihilation and transformation is explored through colour-symbolism, specifically in the relationship between black and white that lies at the heart of Chaucer’s elusive dream-vision.
Dr. Brendan O’Connell