English 383 — Fall 2004
Washington State University
I Dream of Canterbury:
The General Prologue‘s Development of the Dream Vision
Throughout the works of Chaucer, a steady perversion of courtly/romantic tradition shows itself. Chaucer layers in commentary satire and or even puns, ranging from Rosemounde‘s delightful image of love being as sweet and pervasive as a cold, jelly-fat steeped dead fishy, to the Legend of Good Women, where the moral being repeatedly reinforced is that courtly standards of virtue have nothing to do with actually being a worthwhile woman. In his longer works, the dream vision has served as a literary device to set up an objective, less hindered framework to present these layered commentaries. In The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Legend of Good Women, a main part of the story is carried out in a dream vision. However, at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales, this is no longer the pattern. There is no lost, frustrated Chaucer trying to probe his unconscious, no dream inspiring the narrator to wend his way to Canterbury. But on closer inspection many of the same elements and earmarks of the dream vision pattern are still present. Their presence may indicate that Chaucer’s practice of toying with romantic tradition has reached the point where he no longer needs a dream vision sequence to be the spoonful of sugar around the medicine of his wry barbs. Instead he is duplicating the effect by tweaking the waking world of the story directly.
The idea of a dream vision had definite pseudoscientific significance in those times. It was a place to find answers and meaning, if the right conditions were met. Dreams also presented answers in a setting that had no obligation to be realistic. In a sense, it was a non-subjective setting through which Chaucer could subtly inject satire into his works. Instead of using it in the traditional way — as a hackneyed literary device to toss out clear-cut morals or simple conclusions — it seems Chaucer employs it more to drop a hint to the audience that there are extra layers of meaning being offered. Chaucer also includes other quirks to make it clear that these layers of meaning are more complicated than the usual simple dream vision formula, such as the narrator never waking up like he should have before composing the Good Women legends, or the narrator being improperly vague about how long after falling asleep he dreamt. Doing so is markedly unformulaic because that information was necessary for dream science to interpret the dream “correctly”. Chaucer does not want people to make simple formulaic matters out of his works, but by putting an audience in the frame of mind to look for the usual dream meanings, he is prompting them to be aware of the nonstandard extra layer he has worked into his writing. This layered structure also potentially explains why some of his work seems abrupt; the surface story is just a setup for what he really wants to cover.
But once again, why does this not occur in the Canterbury Tales? If it is assumed the dream pattern is a set-up to hint to the open-minded to look out for the true extra layer(s), the question now turns to: how does Chaucer replicate the dream sequence effect without the actual dream sequence? In the opening lines of the prologue come the words:
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So pricketh Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sundry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blissful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Befil that in that season on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay (9-20)
These lines raise two issues: one is the contrast between the initial lines, which revel in the harmony of nature and the holy longings of people to go a’pilgriming, and the last two lines, which mark the beginning of a latter section characterized with happenstance phrases and slapdash language. Randomizing phrases begin appearing such as “Befil that” and “by aventure yfalle” (25). This could potentially be a reflection of the fact that Chaucer-narrator is fully indoctrinated on how to “properly” recognize the beautiful harmony of nature and spring, but is utterly useless at reading people with the same easy polish. However, the second point raised by those lines is that elements common to the dream vision setup are also present; the idea of spring (always present), twittering birds, (the birds were holding a Valentine’s Parliament in one dream, and singing intricate harmonies in another) and furthermore on line 10 he even describes these birds being insomniacs, assumedly kept awake with love. The more obvious romantic comparison would be to describe birds composing endless love ballads to sing, but instead he summons up a picture of sleepless, love-sick birds. This image brings to mind Chaucer-poet’s state which led to his dream vision in The Book of the Duchess. To further the image when the pilgrim-Chaucer finally mentions himself, the first thing he has to say is, “Befil that in that season on a day, / In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay” (19-20). Right in the same sentence where the “Befil” phrases begin to lend a sense of unpredictability, you also get your first view of Chaucer-pilgrim lying in bed, which is also strongly reminiscent of the dream sequences in previous works. Except instead of never waking up as in Legend of Good Women, in this work he never actually falls asleep. However the effect seems to be the same.
With that in mind the contrast between the tidy and properly-harmonious lines in the opening and the random language following could instead be interpreted as a literary effect to achieve the same dreamlike state he invoked more literally in those other works. After he starts them, these little disruptions in the neatness of the story help to reinforce the feeling of unreality. Much like the find-the-meaning reflex inspired in listeners by the dream vision sequences, these disruptions keep an audience on their toes. The possibility of finding traditional meaning in numerology is dangled as a possibility when the narrator notes the number of pilgrims, but much like the vaguely worded “I fel on slepe within an houre or twoo/ Me mette how I lay in the medewe thoo” (209-210) in the Legend of Good Women, Chaucer seems to intentionally frustrate people looking for easy meanings in the Canterbury Tales. He is using the same sort of tactic previously used to make the dream visions his staging ground, only now he is expanding it to the story proper, skipping the middle step. Similarly, much in the way the Chaucer-dreamers expected their dreams to hold significance relating to their problems, Chaucer-pilgrim seems to think the mere experience of going on a pilgrimage with devout and worthy people will be a meaningful resolving experience in itself. These lines are a prime example: “But naethelees whil I have tyme and space/ Er that further in this tale I pace/ Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun/ To telle yow al the condicioun/ Of ech of hem” (35-39). Even though he has not even started on the pilgrimage he treats his experience so far like it is a meaningful story in progress. One might consider Chaucer-pilgrim could be writing about all of this after the fact, but the way he says “While I have time” makes it seem like he is writing that very evening, while he has time between talking to everyone and going to bed. Also if it was after the whole pilgrimage he was writing this, there would be no reason limited time on a given day should stop him from writing down descriptions. If he remembered how his fellow pilgrims first struck him after that long, he would be unlikely to have forgotten by the next day. But if he is writing events down as they happen, his references to “this tale” and “accordant to reason” make it sound like the narrator expects what is happening to him to end up being some grand story governed by reason and meaning by itself. This is the same sort of assumption of significance that the dreamer in Book of the Duchess makes when he ends the poem: “This was my sweven; now hit ys doon” (1334). The dream ends and he thinks to himself, “Well that was Some Dream, I’ll write it down” without even a pause to try and verify there is some worthwhile meaning in it. To Chaucer-dreamer/pilgrim, the meaning and worth are assumed.
Yet the respective Chaucer-dreamers never noticed anything worthwhile from any of their dream visions. No answers to their heartache or frustrated attempts to understand courtly love, no inspirations even. The best they got was an unfair writing assignment. The worth in the dreams was not in their expected results for the narrator, but for the freedom of expression they gave Chaucer the author. In Canterbury Tales with that device absent, the opportunity to find layered meaning through the abstraction of a dream is no longer wasted on the inept narrators. Instead the responsibility lies solely with the audience. Indeed the audience’s situation of following a fictional story is an abstraction of life similar to a dream vision. Chaucer has not abandoned the objective dream pattern, he has just evolved it. The dream sequence elements are still there, just without the literal dream sequence. In the Canterbury Tales, it is now the audience’s responsibility to do the dreaming, and also to do a better job than the Chaucer-dreamers did of finding the meaning in the dream they receive.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Book of the Duchess. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 330-346.
—. The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 23-36.
—. The Legend of Good Women. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 587-630.
—. The Parliament of Fowls. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 383-394.