The Dream Vision
The typical dream vision is a medieval work of literature which takes advantage of medieval dream psychology's acceptance of the notion that some types of dreams could communicate wisdom to the dreamer. The source of this dream might be God (a truly prognostic "visio"), the devil (sometimes a form of sexual temptation like an incubus or succubus), or natural causes. Typically, the dream vision occurs in a predictable series of stages:
1) the dreamer falls asleep in the midst of some life crisis or emotional impasse;
2) the dreamer, almost always a male, finds himself in a beautiful natural place (locus amoenus), often an enclosed garden filled with beautiful plants, animals, etc. (hortus conclusus);
3) the dreamer encounters a guide figure who instructs the dreamer and/or leads the dreamer to one or more allegorical visions;
4) the dreamer may interrogate the guide figure about the significance of the visions, but often this does not produce satisfactory results;
5) something within the dream causes the dreamer to awaken before the full significance of the dream can be explained, though the audience is left with a few highly likely choices which are likely to stimulate debate about important cultural values that are in contention or undergoing change.
Parliament of Foules, Book of the Duchess, and House of Fame, are Chaucer's surviving "dream visions." He may have written more because this genre was as popular in Chaucer's era as "reality TV shows" in our own, or "film noir detective movies" in the 1950s, or Shakespearian tragedies in the 1600s. The genre faded out in the Renaissance, but it was well-known enough for all the great poets of Chaucer's era to try their hands at it. The dream vision Pearl was one of five long poems known to us in a single surviving manuscript by the anonymous "Pearl-Poet" (AKA "Gawain-Poet" depending on which of the biggest of the five poems critics like most). William Langland, who also lived at the same time as Chaucer and "Pearl-Poet," confined his entire lifetime poetic output to a single, immense and immensely complex poem known as The Dream of Piers the Plowman. The oldest dream visions were Latin poems like Cicero's Somnium Scipionis ("The Dream of Scipio"), in which the younger Roman politician, Scipio, dreams he is visited and instructed by his ancestor, Scipio Africanis, who defeated Hannibal of Carthage. (Cicero's version was lost until its rediscovery late in the Renaissance, but a later version by Macrobius survived, and it was Macrobius' retelling of Cicero's tale that Chaucer knew.) That poem introduces a special feature of dream visions not shared by many medieval versions, "the soul flight," in which the guide figure takes the dreamer into the heavens from which they can contemplate the entirety of human and divine existence. It's a breath-taking strategy, and one which is used in Boccaccio's Il Teseide (source of Chaucer's "Knight's Tale") and given by Chancer to the hero of the Troilus.
Interpretive approaches to the dream vision have become considerably more complex since Constance Hieatt's early attempt to discover the authors' motivations in covert political messages or social commentary. The "vision" creates a wonderfully complex aesthetic event that suffers from "reductive" criticism that argues authors cast their poems as dreams only to avoid social or political persecution for commenting on highly charged topics. Certainly this can happen, but it hardly explains the enormous density and layering of the most complex poems, like Chaucer's "The Book of the Duchess," Langland's "Piers Plowman," or the Pearl-Poet's "Pearl." For instance, Chaucer embeds his visions within other visions, multiplies "guide figures," and develops both the "Dreamer" and the "guide" personae until they approach what E.M. Forster called "roundness," the illusion of realness. Langland's Dreamer undergoes dreams within dreams, witnesses mystery-play-like pageants within dreams, and angrily disputes the meaning of his dreams within the dream. The Pearl-Poet's Dreamer and guide figures may be the most subtly layered of all, transforming their paired identities from jeweler-and-lost-gem to parent-and-lost-child to body-and-lost-soul to . . . something else, as the stanza groups work out their intricate mathematical schemes and the poem's content plunges toward the central mysteries of human existence. Though these poems pre-date Freud and Jung by four centuries, they often suggest psychoanalytic insights about personality, psychic defenses, self-delusions and self-discoveries which Freudian and Jungian interpretation seek to explain.
Some Book-Length Print Resources
Hieatt, Constance B. The Realism of Dream Visions: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and His Contemporaries. The Hague: Mouton, 1967. 821.9 H633r
Kirk, Elizabeth D. The Dream Thought of Piers Plowman. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972. 820.6 Y17 v.178
Kruger, Steven F. Dreaming in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 809.9 K94d
Spearing, A.C.. Medieval Dream-Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. 821.9 S741m
St. John, Michael. Chaucer's Dream Visions: Courtliness and Individual Identity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000. 826.2 C49Ssa