Geoffrey Chaucer, Dream Visions (26th October 2016)

chaucer-visions

Next meeting: 26th October 2016 / Room 1.26 / 3-5pm

Alongside romance, dream visions formed one of the most popular genres of literary writing in the later Middle Ages. Chaucer wrote four dream visions before he wrote the Canterbury Tales, and his dream poetry draws on a range of classical and continental sources, especially French dream visions and love lyrics from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Chaucer’s choice to write dream poems was paralleled by the dream visions of his English contemporaries, including William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Gawain-poet’s Pearl, and was emulated by fifteenth-century Chaucerian followers such as John Lydgate (The Complaint of the Black Knight) and James I of Scotland (The Kingis Quair). As a genre or mode, the dream vision is capacious and flexible: it can accommodate narrative, dialogue and debate, lyric, both the real and the allegorical, and both secular and spiritual concerns.

The Book of the Duchess (c.1368-72), Chaucer’s earliest dream vision and first sustained narrative poem, was likely written for Duke John of Gaunt in the years following the death of his wife Blanche, and it addresses ideas of grief and consolation following the death of a loved one. The Parliament of Fowls was perhaps composed c.1380-82, when King Richard II was negotiating for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. Yet these are much more than occasional poems. These poems deploy and interrogate theories of the origins and nature of dreams, and Boethian ideas of consolation. They explore themes of love, loss, death, and desire, and consider the interrelations of nature and culture, experience and authority, and the nature of and inspiration for poetry itself.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What do you make of the narrators? How do they compare with Chaucer’s other narrators with which you may be familiar – for instance, in The Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde?
  2. What does Chaucer suggest about the sources and nature of dreams, and their interpretation?
  3. What is the role of books in Chaucer’s dream visions?
  4. How do sleep, insomnia, and emotions feature?
  5. What do the settings contribute to the poems’ themes and questions?
  6. How do Chaucer’s dream poems portray chivalric figures? (compared to, say, Chaucer’s romances?)
  7. How do Chaucer’s dream poems represent women?
  8. To what extent do Chaucer’s dream visions demand to be read on an allegorical level?
  9. To what extent are they independent of their immediate patronage contexts?
  10. Does the Book of the Duchess offer consolation, and if so, what sort? Does the Parliament of Fowls offer any resolution to debate, and if so, what sort?
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