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The dream vision constituted one of the most popular poetic forms in fourteenth-and fifteenth-century English literature, and its influence is to be found in almost all the poets of the fifteenth century. This specific medieval poetic tradition was primarily a vehicle for courtly love poetry. The elements characteristic of this school of poetry can be found in the thirteenth-century Roman de lei Rose by the Italians Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. It was the most influential model for several court poets, including Geoffrey Chaucer, who also translated it.
Born in London, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400), the greatest literary figure of medieval England, was the son of a prosperous wine merchant. He became a page at an early age at the court of Lionel, earl of Ulster, where the ideals of chivalry were considered very important. He took part in a military campaign in France during the Hundred Years’ War. During one of his trips to Italy, he went to Florence, where he first read the works of Boccaccio and Petrarch, whose influence on his poetry was significant. Throughout most of his adult life he occupied various positions as a government official, such as justice of the peace and clerk of the king’s works. He died in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are Chaucer’s major works. The Canterbury Tales (1387) is a collection of stories told by a group of thirty pilgrims traveling from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. The stories of the pilgrims, who are typical members of late medieval English society, reflect Chaucer’s interest in contemporary attitudes toward religion, love, and marriage. In Troilus and Criseyde, which is an adaptation of Boccaccio’s Filostrato, Chaucer explores the complexity of a love relationship, weaving a story of fate, fortune, and personal weakness that finally condemns the lovers’ search for happiness.
In addition to translating the Roman de la Rose, Chaucer wrote four dream poems: The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and the prologue to The Legend of Good Women. The narrative form of the first three of his dream-poems, which are written as dream visions, recounts a speaker’s dream. The choice of this narrative form, which connects visionary experience with ordinary reality, was typical of Chaucer’s contemporaries, although it was also used in classical and biblical models.
Chaucer was familiar with the Aeneid, the biblical and apocryphal visions, and the works of Dante, among many others. The most important influence, however, was Guillaume de Lorris, who wrote the first portion of the Roman de lei Rose, numerous familiar elements of which can be found in Chaucer’s dream-poems: the May morning, the garden, the god of love, the birds, the paintings on walls.
Chaucer’s earliest dream-poem, The Book of the Duchess, was inspired by the death of Blanche, first wife of John of Gaunt, in September 1369, and was written shortly after that date. It is apparently a vision of the otherworld, in which the visionary not only visits another place but also learns a truth from an authoritative person whom he meets there. Throughout the poem, the visionary is rescued from a sickness that isolates him from the vitality of nature through his exposure to an old work of art. Then he gains advice through a subsequent dream and is finally led to the creation of a new work of literary art. The idyllic landscape of the dream vision in The Book of the Duchess is treated in a very inventive way, characterized by the lively juxtaposition of vivid and contrasting images.
The date of The House of Fame, Chaucer’s second poem, is uncertain, but it was probably written in the middle or late 1370s, remaining unfinished. In this work, the narrator dreams that he is in a temple of Venus in which the walls are decorated with the story of Virgil’s Aeneid. When he leaves the temple, he finds himself in a desert from which he is rescued by a golden eagle. After a long discussion with the eagle, he reaches the temple of the goddess Fame, and the House of Tidings, where he sees the “man of great authority.” But the poem breaks off here, rendering its interpretation very difficult.
Chaucer’s third dream-poem, The Parliament of Fowls, probably dates from 1382. In this book also, the narrator is still awake and reads a book about a dream, which then provides the impetus for his own dream. He dreams that he enters a beautiful walled garden in which he sees a temple full of famous suffering lovers. The goddess Nature is also in the garden, surrounded by many birds looking for their mates. Among them, a female eagle declares that she needs another year to make up her mind about choosing her mate.
The prologue to The Legend of Good Women is the last, and perhaps most enigmatic of Chaucer’s dream-poems. In the prologue, which offers another example of Chaucer’s fascination with the relationship between books, dreams, and actual experiences, the god of love accuses Chaucer of having libeled women in works such as Troilus and Criseyde, and he orders him to write a series of legends about women who have suffered for their love.
In other works Chaucer included dreams and their interpretations, as well as several elaborate discussions of the significance of dreams. Besides the skeptical statement about the validity of dreams made by Pandarus and Cassandra’s serious interpretation of one of Troilus’s dreams in Troilus and Criseyde, a considerable discussion about the significance of dreams—Chauntecleer’s dream of the fox—can be found in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.