Chaucer’s Dream Poetry in Context

April 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Chaucer’s three dream poems, “The Book of the Duchess“, “The Parliament of Fowles” and the unfinished “House of Fame”, universal issues such as love are explored by a narrator recounting a dream. Writing that incorporated dreams was popular in Medieval England as it allowed poets to discuss issues without taking a firm moral stance. Several of Chaucer’s contemporaries, such as Langland in “Piers Plowman,” used this approach; Chaucer would also have been familiar with the form through the thirteenth century French poem “The Romaunt of the Rose,” which he translated into English. This paper explores Chaucer’s dream poetry in their medieval context. One of the reasons that dream poetry was such a popular medium in the Middle Ages was that it allowed ambiguity. The dream form allows poets to explore a range of outlooks without committing to one in particular. Indeed, in the closing lines of the “Parliament of Fowles” Chaucer reinforces the fact that what he had been saying was not a concrete statement of belief but merely a dream in response to a book he had read: “I wook, and other bokes took me to/To rede upon, and yet I rede always”. In emphasising his enjoyment of books and stating that he plans to continue to read more, the last few lines act almost as a disclaimer, underlining that his dream stemmed not from his own original musings but were prompted by another’s. One of the reasons Medieval poets might have been hesitant to extol their own particular political or religious views is that their success depended on the goodwill of their patrons. Before the advent of the printing press in 1476, books had to be hand written, which was costly and time consuming work. This meant that it was essential for poets to please their wealthy patrons, who could fund this and would often commission works. Men like John of Gaunt, Chaucer’s patron, might have been unwilling to be associated with poets holding radical ideas or views they simply disagreed with. Chaucer distances himself further from the issues discussed by placing them in a surreal setting. In the “Parliament of Fowles“, for example, he explores the highly topical issue of marriage. Many marriages were arranged and women often seen as property. Divorce was extremely unusual and only possible for a small number of reasons, e.g. that the husband or wife was not a Christian. These conventions were not accepted by all, however, and there was debate about in which cases divorce should be allowed, and about the sanctity of marriage. If Chaucer had explored this subject in a familiar setting, such as writing about relationships between people in the court where he worked, this would have been a sensitive issue, especially as his patron, John of Gaunt, married three times and fathered four children out of wedlock. The dream setting makes it possible to engage this issue in a way that seems simply whimsical on first reading. In each of his dream poems Chaucer takes as a starting point a particular book. Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio” prompts the narrator’s dream in the “Parliament of Fowles” and he took inspiration from The Aeneid in “The House of Fame”. Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” was a focus for “The Book of the Duchess”. His audience would be familiar with these books and might appreciate the poem the more for it, as their use makes the poem more accessible. This connects his poetry to great poets far back in history, showing the importance of a wide knowledge of literature to Chaucer. Indeed, this desire to reference great literature in poets’ own work did not end with Chaucer. Henryson’s “Testament of Cresseid” is written in response to Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde”, showing that acknowledgement of literary heritage within poets’ work was a continuing convention. Another book influencing Chaucer’s dream vision poetry was Boethius’s “Consolation of Philosophy”, a vastly influential book, so much so that its list of past translators includes Alfred the Great and Elizabeth I. Chaucer uses Boethius’s idea of “fortune’s wheel” in “The Book of the Duchess”, when the grieving Black Knight says “So turneth she hir false whele”. In response the dreamer suggests that the Knight remember the teachings of Socrates, who advised trying to rise above the ups and downs of fortune. In medieval times life was much less stable than today, with disease rampant and life expectancy short. The knight’s fatalistic acceptance of death would be familiar to readers in Chaucer’s time. The theme of unrequited love for a woman is also frequently given voice in medieval poetry. This can be seen in the “Knight’s Tale” of the Canterbury Tales when Arcite and Palamon vie for Emily’s love even though she has determined to remain chaste, and appears again in “The Parliament of Fowles“ when the turtle dove exclaims `Nay, god forbede a lover shulde chaunge!/Thogh that his lady ever-more be straunge/Yet let him serve hir ever, til he be deed”. It cannot, however, be said that this was Chaucer’s own view, as is apparent from “The Canterbury Tales” in which many other, bawdier forms of love are described. In “The House of Fame” Chaucer also reminds us that even though men may make many professions of love, they cannot always be believed. He lists men throughout history who have betrayed their lovers, such as Theseus who swore to Ariadne “On al that ever he mighte swere/That, so she saved him his lyf/He wolde have take hir to his wyf”. Chaucer’s dream poems are clearly connected to other works of the period, using the dream narrative as a way to circumvent patrons’ preference or prejudice and to revisit classic texts. In Chaucer’s later poems he moved away from the dream poetry and toward more distinct, narrative verse, perhaps because he became more established as a poet and was no longer so reliant on a patron and perhaps because he simply became more confident in his unique abilities.

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