Geoffrey Chaucer, Dream Visions (26th October 2016)


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?

Pearl – 29th April 2015

The next meeting of the MEMORI reading group will be held on Wednesday the 29th of April in Rm. 2.50, John Percival Building.  Our reading this month is Pearl and Martha has kindly prepared the notes and topics for discussion below:


The fourteenth-century Dream-Vision poem Pearl survives in a single copy as one of four poems contained within MS Cotton Nero A. x. The other texts in the manuscript are two religious poems, Patience and Cleanness, and the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


Pearl begins with the figure of the Dreamer mourning his lost pearl (and deceased daughter) in a garden. The Dreamer falls asleep and enters a dream landscape in which he encounters his daughter, now transformed into the shape of the Pearl Maiden. The Dreamer questions her about her current state and she replies with Christian doctrine. The Pearl Maiden eventually shows the Dreamer the city of New Jerusalem, but, lost in his desire to reach her, the Dreamer attempts to cross the river that divides him from his daughter and wakes up.


In Pearl, the Gawain-poet uses language to combine mathematical perfection with aesthetic and poetic visual beauty. For this reason, most of the questions that I have suggested for consideration pay particular attention to the relationship between structure and imagery within the poem.

  • What is the significance of the vineyard parable to Pearl and how is it incorporated into the text?
  • The regular stanza lengths, rhyming patterns, concatenation and repetition seen in Pearl have caused to critics to suggest the pearl, pearl necklace (Ian Bishop) and rosary (Kevin Marti) as metaphors for the structure of the poem. How successful do you think any of these metaphors are to conceptualising the structure of Pearl?
  • What does the dream-vision frame add to the meaning of the poem?
  • What do you think about the presentation of the different landscapes through which the Dreamer travels?
  • How is the reader supposed to interpret the figure of the lost pearl?
  • Is the Dreamer’s sadness a fitting response to the death of a daughter or an emotional response out of measure?
  • What is the significance of the river that separates the Dreamer from his Daughter?

The Dreamer, BL Cotton Nero A.x., f.37r

The Book of the Duchess – 12th March 2014

Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday, the 12th of March, from 3:10 pm – 5 pm in Rm. 2.50, John Percival Building.

Members of the group expressed a desire to read some of Chaucer’s earlier work, so we will be reading one of his dream visions, The Book of the Duchess, written between 1369 and 1372.

Topics of discussion might include:

·        The relationship between the frame and the dream

·        The depiction in the dream of the bed chamber

·        The extent of the narrator’s naïveté

·        The nature of mourning and its relationship to the Black Knight’s narrative of


·        The puppy as dream guide

·        The significance of the hunt

·        Discourse

·        Chess

·        Birds


As always, all welcome.