Medieval English Dream Poetry

The dream vision was a favorite genre of medieval narrative poetry, in which a narrator falls asleep and dreams what becomes the main body of the story. This genre typically follows a structure whereby a narrator recounts his experience of falling asleep, dreaming, and waking; and the story is often an allegory.

Chaucer cast as dream visions four of his most self-conscious and self-referential works: The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women. William Langland’s Piers Plowman is an apocalyptic allegorical narrative. Other major dream allegories are Parlement of the Three Ages, Winner and Waster, Pearl –all by anonymous authors – and The Vision of Tundale, a translation from Latin.

Dream visions are written in the first person. Sometimes the dreamer is the protagonist of the dream fiction, but sometimes he is merely an observer, as is the dreamer of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. In The Parliament of Fowls, the narrator begins by reading a book in order to learn a “certain thing,” but falls asleep, and the following dream seems intended as an answer to his problem. In his dream he enters the Temple of Venus and the garden of the goddess Natura. He is guided by Scipio Africanus. Similarly, the narrator in The House of Fame is carried away by a talkative eagle. Upon falling asleep he finds himself in a glass temple adorned with images of the famous and their deeds. With the eagle as a guide, he meditates on the nature of fame and the trustworthiness of recorded renown. In the prologue to The Legend of Good Women the poet in his dream is reprimanded by the god of love and his queen for depicting women in a poor light in his works. As penance, Chaucer is instructed to write about good women.

Piers Plowman - the most important medieval dream vision - is partly theological allegory, partly social satire. It concerns the narrator's intense quest for the true Christian life, from the perspective of medieval Catholicism. This quest entails a series of dream-visions and an examination into the lives of three allegorical characters, Dowel ("Do-Well"), Dobet ("Do-Better"), and Dobest ("Do-Best").

In Pearl, a bereaved father encounters the 'Pearl-maiden' in his dream. She answers his questions with Christian doctrine. Eventually she shows him an image of the Heavenly City, and herself as part of the retinue of Christ the Lamb. He awakens suddenly from his dream and reflects on its significance. The Parliament of the Three Ages presents a dream vision in which the narrator witnesses a dispute among Youth, Middle Age, and Old Age. In Wynnere and Wastoure the narrator relates a dream-vision in which he sees two armies lead by the allegorical figures of Winner and Waster. Also regarded as a debate poem, it touches on a wide range of topics concerning economy, religion, philosophy the concepts of thrift and prodigality, and politics. The Vision of Tundale is a 12th-century religious text reporting the otherworldly vision of the Irish knight Tnugdalus. It was "the most popular and elaborate text in the medieval genre of visionary infernal literature." Other dream visions of note are two poems by so-called Scottish Chaucerians Gavin Douglas (The Palace of Honor) and William Dunbar (The Thrissil and the Rois).

In dream vision the dreamer crosses a border into a supernatural or mystical realm that reflects in some way on the world he has left and must return to. The dream is often felt to be of divine origin. It generally contains an important lesson. Many times the dreamer is accompanied by a guide or mentor. The dream serves many significant functions for the poet also. It provides a frame for the narrative, and thereby allows the writer to explore different levels of narration.


Last modified: Thursday, 2 November 2017, 12:25 AM