When thinking of dreams, we often consider their perplexities. Often, they are filled with metaphors and unrealistic images. As in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “dream visions,” they often seem discontinuous, ending as if by the result of some external force like the unexpected sound of an alarm clock. In Chaucer’s “dream visions,” we recognize elements of our own dreams: the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images and events, and fantastic journeys, and as in our own dreams, Chaucer’s narrator is merely an extension of himself pondering his own identity and the mysteries of life.
One may find that his “dream visions” are difficult to interpret, but aren’t our own dreams hard to interpret as well? Are they not also naught more than “dream visions? ” In the fantastic poetic landscape of Chaucer’s “dream visions,” non-human entities such as animals frequently speak, allegorically assuming personas. This occurs in The Parliament of Fouls, when the narrator witnesses various species of birds congregating in a stratified fashion on Valentine’s Day to choose their mates.
This also occurs in The House of Fame, when the narrator finds himself in conversation with a giant eagle, which seems to have a strikingly familiar voice, perhaps the voice of his own conscience. At times, the fantastic images illustrated are but the physical manifestations of earthly notions such as rumors, fate or patience, as seen in The House of Fame. At other times, Chaucer’s images take the shape of mythological gods, as in The Book of the Duchess, when the narrator explains the story of Alcyone and Seys and discusses the intervention of Juno and Morpheus.
In this poetic landscape, Chaucer unrealistically enables his narrator to meet predecessors whom existed long before his own time. In The Parliament of Fouls, the narrator explains that he fell asleep while reading Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, and upon waking up; he met and was guided by Scipio himself. Scipio ferries the narrator towards the gated entrance to the garden of love, oddly bearing a similarity to Virgil guiding Dante through hell, ferrying him across a river Styx of sorts.
It seems appropriate that Chaucer would have subconsciously, or in a “dream vision,” considered the passage to the garden of love like a journey full of potential hazard, since he repeatedly depicts love as being wrought with disappointment throughout his “dream visions. ” Thus, the images themselves seem confusing and even conflicting but are merely symbolic of his desire to seek out the wisdom of his predecessors in solving his earthly dilemmas.
Often, in Chaucer’s “dream vision” landscape, the narrator’s dreams are inspired by literature he has read and often describes therein, hence giving the audience the key to solve the riddles he proposes in his supposed “dream” within the dream-narrative frame. In The Book of the Duchess, the narrator explains that he fell asleep while reading the tale of Alcyone and Seys, in which Seys, the loved one, dies. Similarly, in his dream thereafter, he meets a knight who mourns the death of his wife. Herein, Chaucer implies a direct causal relation between the book he had read and the subsequent dream.
Furthermore, the dream of having met the knight gives the narrator absolution in that he realizes the need to stop obsessing about love. In The House of Fame, the narrator recollects having fallen asleep in a shrine while on a pilgrimage and having dreamed that he woke up in a glass palace where he read a variation on Virgil’s tale of Aenius. Uniquely, the narrator describes The Aeneid from the perspective of Dido as having been the victim of Aenius. Later in the narrator’s dream, he is transported to the House of Fame where all rumors manifest themselves in human form.
Perhaps Chaucer implies that his narrator subconsciously wonders how the tale of Aeniad might have been told, had it been told from a woman’s perspective. Perhaps the narrator is realizing that neither the men nor women are at fault for the woes of love. The eagle reveals that Jupiter has sent him to help enlighten the narrator, whom is oblivious to the wisdom of love. Perhaps Chaucer implies that Jupiter felt the narrator was prepared to observe the ultimate wisdom of the man of great authority. Perhaps Chaucer did not feel that this ultimate wisdom could be merely conveyed.
It has to actually be experienced through one’s own “dream vision. Chaucer tends to end the “dream” with the dream-narrative in a very realistic fashion, but oddly, the cause of the awakening is depicted as being within the dream itself. Hence, we are forced to infer that even the tale itself is not to be taken literally. It would seem that Chaucer wants to empower “dreams” and imply their power to transform. In The Book of the Duchess, the narrator awakens upon hearing, in his dream, a castle bell which strikes at twelve. In The Parliament of Fouls, the narrator awakens upon hearing, in his dream, a choir of birds who are cheering loudly after having sung beautiful music.
Chaucer emphasizes the power of the images within the dream to effect change. Thus, not only does Chaucer see dreams as being a reflection of life, but also he sees dreams as being a fantastic opportunity to work out the dilemmas of life. If only we could remember all of our dreams, we might find this to be true. But then again, if we can’t recall them, how are we to perceive the words of the man of great authority? In summary, Chaucer depicts his “dream visions” as being full of perplexities: metaphoric personas, mythological figures and talking birds.
As in our own dreams, Chaucer’s “dream visions” tend to end abruptly, but oddly, the cause is typically some force within the dream itself, thus he implies the power of dreams to awaken us and transform us. Moreover, Chaucer intentionally juxtaposes seemingly unrelated images and events as a means of making the “dream vision” more similar to an actual dream. As in our own dreams, Chaucer’s narrator is merely an extension of himself pondering his own identity and the mysteries of life with all of its own prevalent discontinuities.