The Personal and Private in Medieval Dream Visions

“The dream-vision appears personal and private.” DiscussDespite their frequent internal contradictions and their transitive, pseudo-empirical character, dreams can make inexplicably authoritative claims to factuality. Accordingly, the dream-vision writers of the late medieval period recognised that the dream-world’s transcendental interiority presented them with a conceptually uninhibited and immediate setting for fantastic secular allegory and religious mysticism. Although every dream-vision appears personal on a basic level through the necessity of an I-persona to recount the events involved, the presence of the text itself as an object of dissemination must limit any notion of privacy. It may be contended, however, that the first-person narrative serves primarily to create verisimilitude through an analogy between the naturally occurring dreams of the reader and the poetically constructed account of the dream-vision. The extent to which dream-visions are individual and subjective experiences can best be explored through an analysis of specific texts from the period.Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c.1345-1400) “The Parliament of Fowls” is a classic dream-vision, with the dreamer becoming an involuntary witness to a series of strange, symbolic events for most of the poem’s duration. The helplessness of the dreamer is exemplified when he ponders two contradictory inscriptions above a wicker gate: “til Affrycan, my gide, me hente and shof in at the gates wide” (l.153). This seems to function as a metaphor for the very personal dream-sensation of being impelled uncontrollably forward in the narrative. The speaker is initially “[f]ulfyld of thought and busy hevynesse” and attempting “a certeyn thing to lerne” – a task to which he returns after the dream in “othere bokes.” A. C. Spearing holds that “the poem is truly dreamlike, in that it solves the Dreamer’s problems…in the very act of reflecting them…[t]he thing sought is surely found in the dream itself.” The lesson of the dream, for Spearing at least, is particularly relevant to the dreamer because the action essentially takes place in his head and relates to his peculiar problems. The dreamer may be suffering from some very private worries that are elucidated by a very private dream, but the allegory and revelation deal with overt matters of social interest like “[t]he lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” and the “assay so hard” (l.1). Just as Chaucer’s “foules of ravine” are a traditional representation of the aristocracy, so the apparently personal superstructure may operate symbolically, elucidating the relationship between broad social concerns and individual members of society.John Lydgate’s (c.1371-1449) “The Temple of Glass” features a uniquely impotent dreamer whose witness of a “cour d’amour” is a personal vision only by virtue of Lydgate’s employing the first person narrative voice. There is nothing before the dream that is peculiarly relevant to Venus solving the worries of a pair of fairy-tale lovers. That we are told “Lucyna with hir pale light [w]as joined last with Phebus in Aquare” (l.5) is not thought to have any metaphorical or psychological subtext, and according to Derek Pearsall “[s]tarting a poem…is Lydgate’s particular nightmare, when the infinite of possible things to be said presses upon him.” The separation between the waking section of the poem and the dream is such that the dreamer’s state of mind is totally obfuscated. The dreamer seems to drift passively through a quasi-Chaucerian landscape without interacting with anything specific or discovering anything about himself. The knight, Margaret and Venus all have very long speeches, but nothing in them is personally germane to the dreamer; they deal primarily with issues of general courtliness and little more. As A.C. Spearing puts it, “[i]n ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ we found Chaucer was employing in a poem the very manner of thinking that is found in dreams…through sequences of concrete images – but I do not believe that the picturesque details of The Temple of Glass have any such purpose” (173). The title of the poem serves to demonstrate Spearing’s point: the glass temple may recall the icy peak in Chaucer’s “The House of Fame,” but does not seem to possess any broader symbolic resonance.Without much connection between the dreamer and the action “it might well be asked why Lydgate put the events of his poem into a dream at all” – and indeed there is no emotional dynamism underpinning the events described. Lydgate’s poem lucidly demonstrates that although all dream-visions rely on a first person, a significant psychological or mystical linkage between the dreamer and the dream is needed to create any feeling of privacy or personality. Unlike in “The Temple of Glass,” the events prior to sleep in “The Parliament of Fowls” have some bearing on the content of the dream, which intensifies the psychological realism. Before going to bed and dreaming of “Scipio Afrrycan” at his bedside, Chaucer’s dreamer reads Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio,” clearly indicating that Chaucer considered dreams to be mental apparitions with some origination in the material world. Chaucer’s poem is possibly more personal than Lydgate’s because of the prominence of a stream of consciousness and of genuine absurdity.The privacy of a dream-vision may also be called into question when the subject matter is widely known to relate to a real-life event. Chaucer’s “The Book of the Duchess” is strongly suspected to be a memorial piece for the death of John O’Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche. Although the dream is written in the first person, the focus is on “a man in blak” who is mourning the death of his “lady bright.” If Chaucer’s audience were acquainted with Gaunt and his situation, they would have instantly recognised the allusion and the precise metaphorical engineering of the poem. The issue of Blanche’s death is intentionally brought to public consideration, and the poem may have fulfilled a socially cathartic function. The privacy of the dream narrative serves as a mere foil for a wider, more serious discussion, the heart of which is the personal grief of John O’Gaunt, who is thought to have been Chaucer’s patron. The very convention of named allegorical characters seems to connect the subject matter of the poem with the academic and recreational debates of the period and to lessen the idiosyncrasy of the dreamt occurrences.The classification of dreams has, as Professor E.H. Cooper has observed, changed from Macrobius’ system of two sets – one significant, the other insignificant – to the colloquial modern distinction between paradisal dreams and horrific nightmares. The dream-vision genre deals exclusively with “significant” dreams (i.e. those that have an encoded meaning), but also draws extensively on views of heaven and concepts of the absurd. In Chaucer’s “The Book of the Duchess,” the speaker arrives in his dream “in my bed al naked,” but in a moment “was right glad and…took my horse and forth I wente out of my chambre” without pausing to get dressed or make his horse ready at his bedside. Although this seems bizarre in recitation, it makes sense in the irrational context of the dream and is indicative of the relative epistemic standards of the suppressed personal subconscious that penetrate and pervade the resting imagination during sleep. The illogicality of the oneiric narrative may be familiar to the reader in a general sense, but the specific “non-sequiturs” serve to reinforce its fundamentally inaccessible and subjective nature.Numerous distinctions may, of course, be drawn between dreams and dream-visions. The word “dreams” may refer simply to imaginations during sleep, whereas “dream-visions” can imply a particular group of literary artifacts, as well as dreams which have an ostensible revelatory effect and which impart noetic information about the true state of reality. Some dream-visions, like those of Julian of Norwich are in essence absolutely personal because of their ineffability, the material text providing the physical starting point for metaphysical experience and meditation. The layered allegory of William Langland’s (c.1330-1386) “The Vision of Piers Plowman” contains many complex metaphors that combine to describe a broad theological, political, and mystical organon. The individually fantastic elements and the transcendent biblical experiences are indirect signifiers of something less tangible and less capable of expression. The reader can perceive the symbols and the imagery but cannot apprehend the central mystery upon which everything is dependent, a fact that Langland recognises when he has Piers describe the route to the shine of “St Truth” as culminating in the heart of the believer (entailing perhaps an implied beatific vision). Ineffability is of perpetual import in the religious dream-visions of the period, but the secular mode, although it possesses the same stylistic formalism and convention, may invite a more philosophical literary analysis.In practice, many religious dream-visions have a very private subject matter, but because the whole poem can function as a metaphor for something that necessarily transcends univocal expression, the text itself need not appear quite so private. Similarly, secular dream-visions may openly discuss an issue of wide social importance but also be wrestling with an idiosyncratic interiority that would be far less accessible to the analytical reader. The essential fact that may make dream-visions more personal than other forms of literature is that only one person can experience each dream at a given time and that, as a consequence, dream vision-literature must be written in the first person. The question is then, are first-person dream narratives necessarily conducive to an appearance of privacy and personality in this period?In “The Book of the Duchess,” the man in black’s final, dreadfully simple “she ys ded,” which brings the piece to its close, seems to reveal the purpose of the entire composition. Right after this, “they gan to strake forth; al was doon, [f]or that tyme, the hert hunting,” indicating that the attempts of the dreamer to denude the cause of the knight’s grief have mirrored a hunt, or perhaps, to a lesser extent, the earlier chess motif. The abrupt end of the poem signifies that the purpose of the dream-vision was to bring about the plain expression of a painful truth. The fact that the “goode faire White” is dead is initially private, like the dreamer’s insomnia, but is drawn out, just as the dreamer in drawn into the dream world and the hunt. Throughout the poem the private is subverted and made public, while the first-person narrative becomes less evident because of the knight’s extended speech. Likewise, “The Temple of Glass” maintains a first-person structure but describes characters and speeches that can be more easily related to the reader than to the dreamer. The true privacy of dream-visions is in that which is not explicitly promulgated, and this can only ever be implied by the text itself. In secular dreams the topic of courtly, allegorised love cannot help but be pervasive, whereas in religious visions the ineffability of the mystery separates the reader from the central topic. This is the case in “The Parliament of Fowls,” in which the contrast between the elongated courtship of the eagles and the alacrity with which “ech of hem [the other birds] gan in wynges take, [a]nd with here nekkes ech gan other wynde” has directly satirical implications. Non-specific social satire such as this is never a personal matter and helps demonstrate that first-person structure does not entail a wholly personal poem.Although dreams are irrational interior experiences, there is a common belief running from the Biblical texts of Joseph and Nebuchadnezzar, to the medieval writers and into modern psychoanalysis that dreams can be profoundly enlightening. However, this personal sensation of changed perspective or epiphany, looking either into the subconscious or the transcendental divine, is not easily communicated in a text. Also, dream writers systematically order their poems and utilise symbolism from biblical and classical sources, which contrasts with the pandemonium of most real dreams. The dream-vision as a poem becomes something independently significant that does not possess the unique personality of the real-life phenomenon. The dream structure is a framing narrative within which the speaker is often forgotten about in the complexity of the vision. The similarity between dreaming and the creative act means that the expression and verbalisation of ideas is an attempt to render the abstract communicative and make it fundamentally more public. The first-person voice must inevitably instill dream-vision literature with an inchoate privacy, but the description of the dream draws us into the fantasy, an arena of shared experience where the differences between individuals can be as easily elucidated as the similarities.BibliographyBenson, Larry D., Ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.Boffey, Julia. Fifteenth-Century English Dream Visions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1970.Spearing, A.C. Medieval Dream Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)Windeatt, B.A. Chaucer’s Dream Poetry: Sources and Analogues. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982.