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Chaucer's Dream Visions

Updated on February 22, 2013

Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer’s extensive use of dream narratives in his various works points to an interest on his part in dream theories of his time and in the possibilities of alternate means of interpreting dreams for their own sake, in addition to their use as a literary device. This is further evidenced by his including lengthy discussions of the meanings behind dreams in such works as Book five of Troilus and Criseyde and the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” within The Canterbury Tales. In much the same way as Chaucer commented upon the changing nature of language in the proem to Book two of Troilus and Criseyde[i], it would seem that he also wished to explore and challenge the prevailing theories regarding dreams and their interpretation. Therefore, while his early works seem to subscribe to the prevailing theories of his time with regard to the origins and natures of dreams, there are nonetheless hints that suggest a foreshadowing of the changes in theory that were to come within the next several hundred years following his time.


[i] Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 52

Dream Interpretation in The Book of the Duchess

Among Chaucer’s early works, The Book of the Duchess is considered his first dream vision, and as such it seems to follow much of the structure expected in medieval dream narratives. Such narratives of that time followed structural and thematic elements that were often carried down from ancient dream narratives, both classical or mythological and Christian-based, in that they often present messages from God or the gods, describe otherworldly journeys, and provide knowledge not normally accessible to human understanding[i]. In addition, there is generally a messenger of some sort that leads the dreamer to a place of significance within the dream, usually the otherworldly place, and also facilitates the dreamer’s progress through the dream. Finally, the medieval view on dreams suggests that dreams are brought on mainly by external stimuli rather than internal human thought processes.

All of these elements are present within The Book of the Duchess, although there is some dispute with regard to interpretation and categorizing of the type of dream described. While it is generally accepted that the dream of the narrator in The Book of the Duchess is of the somnium variety, it can be argued that it could be classified as any one of three types of somnium dream: somnium naturale, somnium animale, or somnium coeleste, being dreams brought on by physical origins, mental origins, or origins completely external to the mind and body of the dreamer and usually of divine intervention, respectively[ii].

The argument of the dream as somnium naturale is analogous to the dream of Chauntecleer, as seen by his wife, in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales[iii], in that it can be seen to have been brought on by an excess of melancholy, described by the narrator within the first part of the poem:

“And I ne may, ne nyght ne morwe,

Slepe, and thys melancolye

And drede I have for to dye;”

The equally strong argument for the narrator’s dream being a somnium animale lies in the fact that it can be seen as being brought on by the dreamer’s predominant thoughts of love and by his reading of the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, possibly in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The description of the story of Ceyx and Alcyone provides a dream narrative within a dream narrative, a function used by Chaucer to add depth of meaning to the dream described by the narrator. While the narrator dreams that he is led to meet with a male figure mourning the loss of his lady, Ovid’s story provides a mirror image by describing a wife who learns of the death of her husband.[iv]

Finally, The Book of the Duchess can be seen to describe a somnium coeleste in that both the dream of Alcyone and the narrator’s dream are brought on by a plea to the goddess Juno and, in the narrator’s case, to both Juno and Morpheus, as described:

“Rather then that Y shulde dey

Thorghe defaulte of slepynge thus,

I wolde yive thilke Morpheus,

Or hys goddess dame Juno,

Or some wight ellis, I ne roght who,

To make me slepe and have some reste,”


[i] Helen Phillips and Nick Havely, ed., Chaucer’s Dream Poetry, (London and New York, Longman, 1997), 4-5

[ii] William A. Quinn, ed., Chaucer’s Dream Visions and Shorter Poems, (New York and London, Garland, 1999), 23

[iii] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue, ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson, (New York and London, Norton & Company, 1989), 272

[iv] Phillips and Havely, 59

Dream Interpretation in The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls

In comparison to The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer’s next two dream poems, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls, seem to remain firmly rooted in the medieval dream narrative tradition. However, once again slight variations can be found in both that would indicate Chaucer’s tendency to question the established theories of his time.

The House of Fame, for example, can be classified as a somnium coeleste, as the classical story from Virgil referred to within the poem is not the cause of the dream, but rather the reading of it is included as part of the dream, and the dream is described as being granted by Jupiter as a reward. However, the religious vision considered to be a crucial part of this type of dream is secularized rather than universal and turned to the purposes of human love, as shown in the eagle’s statement that the dreamer is being granted this vision as a reward for his services to Cupid and Venus, rather than to Jupiter or Jove, upon whose errand the eagle is currently performing.[i] Given that the dreamer is told that he is being rewarded for his services by being taken to a place where he will be able to see first hand “Mo wonder thynges, dar I leye,/Of Loves folke—moo tydynges,”[ii] the expectation is set up that the poem will become a vision regarding love. However, this transformation, like the poem itself, was never completed.

The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer’s third dream poem, represents something of a return to the structure used with The Book of the Duchess. Like the earlier poem, the narrator in The Parliament of Fowls falls asleep after reading a book about a dream, which then motivates his own dream. Similar to The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer’s third dream vision can be interpreted as any one of several types of dream species.

If taken literally, the dream can be classified as a somnium coeleste, inspired by Venus in celestial or planetary form. Metaphorically, it can be seen as a somnium animale, inspired by the dreamer’s waking thoughts of love. Finally, given that the dream guide is Scipio Africanus, just as it was in the book being read before falling asleep, the dream vision takes on the characteristics of an oraculum. Again, it would seem that Chaucer is playing with different ideas about dream structures and origins, to the extent that he includes within the poem something of a theory regarding the cause of dreams as being internal:

“The wery hunter, slepynge in hys bed,

To woode ayeine hys mynde gooth anoon;

The juge dremeth how hys plees ben sped;

The cartar dremeth how his carte is gon;

The ryche of golde; the knight fyght with his fone;

The seke met he drynketh of the tonne;

The lover meteth he hath hys lady wonne.”[iii]

By stating that people dream of what they know, reflecting their own personal state of mind or body, Chaucer seems to be partially challenging the accepted idea that dreams are prophetic and externally generated. Again, it is as if he is playing with the idea that, like language over time, religious influences on theories of consciousness and dreaming are susceptible to change. He further asserts the idea that dreams are influenced or created out of what we know at the end of The Parliament of Fowls when the narrator states the following:

“I woke, and other bookes toke me to,

To rede upon, and yet I rede always.

I hope, iwis, to rede so, somday,

That I shal mete something for to fare

The bet, and thus to rede I nyl not spare.”[iv]

Once again, this shows a foreshadowing of what Freud would later assert in stating that dreams result from our previous experiences rather than from external intervention, divine or otherwise. In this case, Chaucer is working within the framework prescribed for medieval dream narratives by writing a poem about a dream that justifies the poem’s existence, but he is also using this framework to present some of his own views regarding the current established beliefs of his time with regard to dreams and the process of dreaming.


[i] Quinn, 45

[ii] Phillips and Havely, 153, lines 674-675

[iii] Phillips and Havely, 237-238, lines 99-105

[iv] Phillips and Havely, 268, lines 690-694

Dream Visions in Troilus and Criseyde and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”

Having crossed this threshold with his early works, Chaucer then took the dream narrative debate a step further by placing it into the dialogue of his characters in such works as Troilus and Criseyde and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The initial description of a dream in Troilus and Criseyde involves the dream of a white eagle representing Troilus that is dreamt by Criseyde.[i] While it could be argued that this dream is prophetic in that it predicts that Criseyde will succumb to returning Troilus’ love of her, it can be equally strongly argued that this dream is conjured from the subconscious of Criseyde as she is already falling for Troilus, although perhaps not quite ready to admit it even to herself. The existence of two equally valid interpretations such as this adds further suggestion of ambiguity in Chaucer’s work in that it can never truly be known which one, if either of them, was intended by the author.

The other dream worth noting in Troilus and Criseyde is that which is dreamt by Troilus in Book five, following the defection of Criseyde’s affections to Diomede. In this case, the dream itself stays within the structure expected of medieval dream narratives in that it can be seen both as somnium due to its allegorical quality and as vision because of the truth behind it. As in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” however, it is not the dream itself that would indicate Chaucer’s ambivalence toward following the current beliefs of his time but rather the discussion that follows the dream. In this sense, Pandarus of Troilus and Criseyde can be seen in similar light, although somewhat milder, as Pertelote of the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.”

Both Troilus and Chaunteleer firmly believe in the power of dreams as being of external origins and forces, in some cases prophetic, but always relaying information that could not be obtained through conventional human understanding. In contrast, Pandarus and Pertolete discourage such beliefs and discount dreams as being anything other than resulting from physical ailment of some sort. In Troilus’ case, Pandarus uses a more circuitous route to tell Troilus that the dream was caused by his own fears as much as anything else, as shown in the line, “How darstow seyn that fals thy lady ys/For any drem, right for thyn owene drede?”[ii] Pandarus certainly seems to hedge his bets a bit on this, in that he doesn’t actually say that dreams are not external messages, but rather he discounts the importance placed on their interpretations by those who dream.

Appropriately enough, one of the last works of Chaucer to include discussion of dreams also seems to take the discussion the furthest in terms of the debate on whether the origins of dreams are external or internal. Where Pandarus stops short of telling Troilus outright that he is a fool for believing that something he dreamed while in his agitated state of mind could be either true or prophetic, Pertelote shows no such qualms in berating Chauntecleer in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” She not only calls him a fool, among other things, but she also takes the stance that dreams are nothing but illusions and foolishness, brought on by some physical ailment, based on the understanding of such ailments in Chaucer’s time.

While the dream itself does turn out to be prophetic, placing it firmly within medieval beliefs once again, the fact that Chaucer chooses to use this particular fable at this time in his writing career does not seem accidental or random. Once again, it would seem that Chaucer himself is questioning the established beliefs of his time and doing so in such a way that he can be seen to foreshadow future theories of human understanding and interpretations of dreams.


[i] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, 89

[ii] Chaucer, Troilus, 322, lines 1279-1280

Sources

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue.Ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson.New York and London:Norton & Company, 2005.270-273

---.Troilus and Criseyde.Ed. Barry Windeatt.London:Penguin Books, 2003

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1894. Questia. 8 Dec. 2006< http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5781514>.

Phillips, Helen, and Nick Havely, eds.Chaucer’s Dream Poetry.Londonand New York:Longman, 1997

Quinn, William, ed.Chaucer’s Dream Visions and Shorter Poems.New York and London:GarlandPublishing, 1999

Strachey, James, ed. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, 1955. Questia. 8 Dec. 2006< http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99555894>.

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