02 September 2013

Truth and fiction in the Dream Vision

My next few posts will likely be a sort of smorgasbord of partly-formed ideas I have about The Book of the Duchess. There are many things about this poem that captivate me, and I am fairly certain that my larger project later in the semester will involve this poem, but I'm not yet certain which aspect will be my main focus.

While dreams and visions are by no means rare in earlier writing, the "dream vision" is a real preoccupation of both Middle English poets and contemporary scholars. Several times in The Book of the Duchess, the narrator makes mention of the Somnium Scipionis and Macrobius's treatise on dream interpretation based on the Somnium. In addition to Macrobius, Gregory the Great's Homilies on Ezekiel and the Somniale Danielis are all common medieval sources of dream theory. However, these medieval theorists don't seem to spend much time analyzing the paradox of the dream vision, nor do they focus on the liminal space between waking and dreaming. As we discussed in class, is Alcyone awake when Morpheus comes in, in the guise of her dead husband, and tells her to wake up? Is the narrator awake or asleep when he is "waked / With smale foules a grete hepe / That had affrayed me out of my slepe / Thurgh noyse and swetness of hir songe;" (294–97). Contemporary writing rarely focuses on how dreams begin and end—and our focus on any dream, whether our own or a literary dream, is usually the plot and development rather than the entrée and exit—yet the dream visions of The Book of the Duchess and many (most? all?) other Middle English poetry revolve around the act of waking into the dream.

As I've recently been writing about affect and realism in Anglo-Saxon dreams and visions, I find this preoccuptation curious. It seems almost that in order to enter this new world of the dream, the dreamer has to pass through a liminal space between the waking world and the dreaming world through the physical acts of falling asleep and waking up. There is an authenticity created by the act of waking which allows the dreamer (or in a more practical sense, the reader) to accept the truth of the dream or vision.

What, then, might this tell us about Chaucer's role as narrator in The Book of the Duchess? Chaucer has to walk a narrow path here. In writing a poem about the death of a (exceedingly powerful) patron's beloved wife, the dual truth and fiction of the dream vision offers him a venue in which he can write a tribute to her and still engage with greater issues of grief, love, narrativity, and authenticity.

1 comment :

  1. I love this set of reflections, and can't wait to see where you take it. As a starting point you'll want to look at Peter Brown's collection Reading Dreams (OUP, 1999), the full set of sources for the BD in Windeatt, Chaucer's Dream Poetry, Sources and Analogues, Minnis on this poem, Steven Kruger's Dreaming in the Middle Ages (CUP 1992), and Kathryn Lynch's The High Medieval Dream Vision (Stanford U P 1988). Also, Barbara Newman has a wonderful essay in Speculum called 'What did it mean to say "I saw"' that thinks at length about the liminal state between sleeping and waking: “What Did It Mean to Say ‘I Saw’? The Clash between Theory and Practice in Medieval Visionary Culture.” Speculum 80 (2005): 1-43. There is a much less good follow-up book by someone else that came out I think from Ohio State University Press, but this will give you food for thought....