Ó Carragáin, Éamonn. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. London: British Library, 2005. Swanton, Michael, ed. The Dream of the Rood. Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1996.
DREAM VISION In dream vision poems, a troubled narrator falls asleep, often by running water, dreams, and wakes to write his dream down. The earliest English dream vision is The Dream of the Rood; however, the genre reached its zenith much later. From the late 14th century up until the early 16th century, large numbers of poems were written with this format, and examples are found among the most important works of the three greatest poets of the late 14th century. These include William Langland's Piers Plowman, Pearl, and Geoffrey Chaucer's four dream poems: The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Legend of Good Women, as well as his partial translation of the influential French dream poem Le Roman de la rose (The Romance of the Rose).
From the 14th century onward, the dream vision tended to consist of an ideal, often symbolic, landscape in which the dreamer encounters an authoritative figure, from whom he/she learns some religious or secular doctrine. The phase of the poem before the dreamer has fallen asleep often includes a very precise and detailed description of the dreamer's circumstances in the real world. For example, at the beginning of The House of Fame, Chaucer tells us that it is the "tenthe day now of Decembre," and in Pearl details of place and date are carefully delineated. These details offer a sense that the poet is describing something that really happened. They offer verisimilitude but also invest the dream with possible allegorical significance: These details may be personally resonant for the dreamer, or they may represent an important and perhaps divinely ordered conjunction. The setting is usually a natural one, such as a garden, and it is usually spring or summer. one of the versions of Piers Plowman, for instance, opens with a description of the soft summer sunshine, while in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, it is spring. In particular it is May, when flowers bloom and birds sing, glad that winter is over and that they have escaped the hunter; in defiance of the fowler, they croon love-songs to each other. Similarly, the narrator of Wynnere and Wastoure (14th century) wanders in bright sunlight along the bank of a stream near a wood by a meadow at the beginning of his adventure. Along with the time of year, the landscape is often a locus amoe-nus, a paradise of woods, streams, and flowers.
Although "paradise" is a typical dream-vision setting, there is an alternative setting in which the dreamer falls asleep—the bedroom. For instance, in Chaucer's early dream poem, The Book of the Duchess, the narrator, unable to sleep, calls for a book "To rede and drive the night away" and then falls asleep alone, separated from social activity. Sometimes the dreamer can seem to be on the brink of death. Langland's narrator has grown weary of the world; the dreamer in The Book of the Duchess fears his own death. The solitude and insomnia express the dreamer's mental and emotional condition. The beginning of the dream finds the dreamer preoccupied and anxious, though he or she is not always able to articulate the cause of the anxiety. The Pearl-poet (see Gawain-poet) is in grief for his infant daughter, but the causes of the sufferings of Chaucer's dreamers are not always clear. The narrators are thus in a highly receptive state at the moment of transition between the waking world and the dream state, and the dream allows for confrontation with the self and its preoccupations and for a process of self-realization to take place.
once asleep, the dreamer usually finds himself or herself in a changed landscape, populated by figures of authority, such as Holy Church in Piers Plowman. Before the onset of the dream, the narrator seems to be floundering in a world bereft of meaning; in the dream, his or her actions seem to be full of significance, sometimes even allegorical significance. The dreamer relinquishes personal control and submits to the influence of powers beyond him. It is then that the dreamer sees
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sights and visions that offer new levels of understanding. occasionally these include visions that give the impression of being dreams within dreams.
Dream visions end with the dreamer's awakening into reality. This reality, however, is marked by reflection on the content and meaning of the dream and the resolution to write it down—that is, to create the text that the reader has before them. At this point, the author can debate the dream's validity. Sometimes the dreamer awakes more unhappy and confused than before the dream, though this is not common.
Given the longevity of the dream visions format and its popularity among medieval poets, scholars have questioned whether dream vision poems constitute an independent literary genre. The particular conventions that are associated with it suggest to some critics that it may be seen as a separate genre. Other scholars have argued, however, that dream poems did not constitute a separate category of love narratives and that many of the characteristics that are associated with dream poems are also found in poems about love which did not adopt the dream form. Certainly, there are examples of poems that appear to make use of the conventions of dream poetry, but in which no one actually falls asleep and dreams. For example, the 15th-century poem The Flower and the Leaf is set in an idealized landscape and includes an authoritative guide who explains the allegorical significance of much of the action to the narrator. However, it includes no explicit mention of a dream.
The dream was a useful device for framing narratives. Describing a dream engages the audience through the use of a common experience and invites interpretation. Many scholars have noted the overlay of classical dream theory into medieval perceptions, with the result being hybrid dream logic. The dream mechanism also allows the author to disclaim responsibility for what follows. At the same time, the form allows the inclusion of memorable images and invokes the authoritative tradition of visionary literature. One of the hallmarks of dream poems is their fully realized sense of their own existence as poems. The poems have self-conscious narrators, and the action is made up of their experiences.
It has been suggested by some scholars that the dream framework functioned as a device for indicating an altered state of consciousness, providing an instrument of analysis and evaluation that enabled poets to explore the roots of the self and of society. It has been noted that dreams, by their nature, can express a sense of fragmentation, a loss of continuity between the self and the outside world since they operate by juxtaposition, distortion, displacement, condensation, and seeming incoherence. Recently, scholars have argued that the dream format was used by English poets in the second half of the 14th century to express alienation, a sense of lost authority or a search for connections. See also allegory, Middle English poetry.
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