Academic journal article Style

Writing Dreams to Good: Reading as Writing and Writing as Reading in Chaucer's Dream Visions

Academic journal article Style

Writing Dreams to Good: Reading as Writing and Writing as Reading in Chaucer's Dream Visions

Article excerpt

John Gardner long ago made a connection between the "substance" of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and the poem's style, but his groundbreaking analysis bears widening to Chaucer's other dream visions, which, as Robert R. Edwards puts it, have often been read as "represent[ing] a sustained reflection on the nature and devices of art" (xvi). Like the Book of the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls literally begins and ends with books, while the House of Fame, in spite of its more obscure conclusion, also brims with texts and questions of textuality, textual production, authorship, and--of course--"auctorite." Accordingly, a conception of the dream as text remains central to Chaucer's poetic program: as dreamer, the poet's persona acts as both writer and reader, and for all definitions of both. To be sure, the trope of the interpretation or "reading" of dreams boasts a lengthy literary lineage extending from the Bible to Nick Bottom and beyond, a tradition to which the narrator of the Book of the Duchess alludes in his playful claim that no one can interpret his dream, not even Joseph or Macrobius: "Y trowe no man had the wyt / To konne wel my sweven rede" (278-9). Moreover, this use of the multivalent word "rede" hints at the word's importance in the dream visions, throughout which Chaucer draws on the multiple meanings of the verb: to advise, to interpret, and to recount, among others. (1) Repeatedly foregrounding acts of reading, Chaucer sends his dreamer-narrators to embark upon a double journey: to seek meaning in old texts and to produce meaning in new ones. At first, however, the narrator of the Parliament improperly reads the Somnium Scipionis, unable to find consolation for his "hevynesse" (89), and, without the help of his subsequent dream experience, neither can the Duchess narrator render a satisfactory reading of the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone. In order to locate the consolation and meaning in old texts, so the dream visions insist, the reader must participate in a more active process than reading alone; for Chaucer's narrators, this process takes the form of an engagement with the texts in a dream space, while, for Chaucer himself as poet, the engagement with the texts occurs in producing texts of one's own, texts that in turn implicitly advise--"rede"--his readers to do the same.

Needless to say, none of these issues will be new to a reader even slightly acquainted with Chaucer's oeuvre; one of the most famous passages from the shorter poetry makes explicit the poet's enduring fascination with just this relationship between "olde feldes" and "newe corn," or rather "olde bokes" and "newe science" (PF 22-5). (2) Yet, for a poet as eager to produce rereadings in his own writing, at other times Chaucer remains decidedly ambivalent about the whole business: the questions of how and why to read and write become more complex when the author recognizes that he, too, must surrender control over his own rereadings to someone else's rereading. Indeed, one might very well read the House of Fame as a 2200-line caveat to this lofty image of the fruitful clash between tradition and the individual talent. I would argue, then, that the three dream visions in question together dramatize a variety of failures of reading, even as they finally maintain that some transactional process of rereading remains the only way to derive meaning from texts. Of course, the danger in advancing this kind of argument lies in the natural impulse of the contemporary reader to apply modern conceptions of textual openness to Chaucer's medieval mentality; both Jill Mann and Rosemarie McGerr have written on this matter at length, acknowledging the risk and proposing methods of circumventing it. (3) Like them, I do not wish to suggest that Chaucer has "anticipated" the postmodern condition, reader-response theory, or the entire legacy of twentieth-century Continental philosophy; rather, I find persuasive and useful Mann's argument that we can see in Chaucer's poetry what we might describe roughly as a "recognition of the dialogic creation of meaning" ("Chaucer and Atheism" 19). …

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