Medieval Dream-Poetry

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On Dreams and Literature

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“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” — William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611)

“A candy-colored clown they call the sandman/tiptoes to my room every night/just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper/’Go to sleep, everything is alright.’” — Roy Orbison, “In Dreams” (1963)

Amongst the green-dappled Malvern Hills, where sunlight spools onto spring leaves like puddles of water in autumn, a peasant named Will is imagined to have fallen asleep on a May day when both the warmth and the light induce dreams. Sometime in the late fourteenth-century (as near as we can tell between 1370 and 1390), the poet William Langland wrote of a character in Piers Plowman who shared his name and happened to fall asleep. “In a summer season,” Langland begins, “when soft was the sun, /I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were… And went wide in the world wonders to hear.” Presentism is a critical vice, a fallacy of misreading yourself into a work, supposedly especially perilous if it’s one that’s nearly seven centuries old. Hard not to commit that sin sometimes. “But on a May morning,” Langland writes, and I note his words those seven centuries later on a May afternoon, when the sun is similarly soft, and the inevitable drowsiness of warm contentment takes over my own nodding head and drowsy eyes so that I can’t help but see myself in the opening stanza of Piers Plowman.

“A marvel befell me of fairy, methought./I was weary with wandering and went me to rest/Under a broad bank by a brook’s side,/And as I lay and leaned over and looked into the water/I fell into a sleep for it sounded so merry.” Good close readers that we are all supposed to be, it’s imperative that we don’t read into the poem things that aren’t actually in it, and yet I can’t help but imagine what that daytime nocturn was like. The soft gurgle of a creek through English fields, the feeling of damp grass underneath dirtied hands, and of scratchy cloak against unwashed skin; the sunlight tanning the backs of his eyelids; that dull, corpuscular red of daytime sleep, the warmth of day’s glow flushing his cheeks, and the almost preternatural quiet save for some bird chirping. The sort of sleep you fall into when you’re on a train that rocks you to sleep in the sunlight of late afternoon. It sounds nice.

Piers Plowman is of a medieval poetic genre known as a dream allegory, or even more enticingly as a dream vision. Most famous of these is Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, where its central character (who as in Piers Plowman shares the poet’s name) discovers himself in a less pleasant wood than does Will, for that “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,/I found myself within a shadowed forest,/for I had lost the path that does not stray.” The Middle Ages didn’t originate the dream vision, but it was the golden age of the form, where poets could express mystical truths in journeys that only happened within heads resting upon rough, straw-stuffed pillows. Langland’s century alone saw Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, John Lydgate’s The Temple of Glass, and the anonymously written Pearl (by the same lady or gent who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Those are only English examples (or I should say examples by the English; Gower was writing in Latin), for the form was popular in France and Italy as well. A.C. Spearing explains in Medieval Dream-Poetry that while sleeping “we undergo experiences in which we are freed from the constraints of everyday possibility, and which we feel to have some hidden significance,” a sentiment which motivated the poetry of Langland and Dante.

Dante famously claimed that his visions — of perdition, purgatory, and paradise — were not dreams, and yet everything in The Divine Comedy holds to the genre’s conventions. Both Langland and Dante engage the strange logic of the nocturne, the way in which the subconscious seems to rearrange and illuminate reality in a manner that the prosaicness of overrated wakefulness simply cannot. Dante writes that the “night hides things from us,” but his epic is itself proof that the night can just as often reveal things. Within The Divine Comedy Dante is guided through the nine circles of hell by the Roman poet Virgil, from the antechamber of the inferno wherein dwell the righteous pagans and classical philosophers, down through the frozen environs of the lowest domain whereby Lucifer forever torments and is tormented by that trinity of traitors composed of Cassius, Brutus, and Judas. Along the way Dante is privy to any number of nightmares, from self-disemboweling prophets to lovers forever buffeted around on violent winds (bearing no similarity to a gentle Malvern breeze). In the Purgatorio and Paradiso he is spectator to far more pleasant scenes (though telling that more people have read Inferno, as our nightmares are always easiest to remember), whereby he sees a heaven that’s the “color that paints the morning and evening clouds that face the sun,” almost a description of the peacefulness of accidentally nodding off on an early summer day.

Both The Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman express verities accessed by the mind in repose; Langland’s poem, for not beginning in a dark wood but rather in a sunny field, embodies mystical apprehensions as surely as does Dante. A key difference is that Langland’s allegory is so obvious (as anyone who has seen the medieval play Everyman can attest is true of the period). Characters named after the Seven Deadly Sins, or called Patience, Clergy, and Scripture (and Old Age, Death, and Pestilence) all interact with Will — whose name has its own obvious implications. By contrast, Dante’s characters bear a resemblance to actual people (or they are actual people, from Aristotle in Limbo to Thomas Aquinas in Heaven), even while the events depicted are seemingly more fantastic (though in Piers Plowman Will witness both the fall of man and the harrowing of hell). Both are, however, written in the substance of dreams. Forget the didactic obviousness of allegory, the literal cipher that defines that form, and believe that in a field between Worcestershire and Hertfordshire Will did plumb the mysteries of eternity while sleeping. What makes the dream vision a chimerical form is that maybe he did. That’s the thing with dreams and their visions; there is no need to suspend disbelief. We’re not in the realm of fantasy or myth, for in dreams order has been abolished, anything is possible, and nothing is prohibited, not even flouting the arid rules of logic.

A danger to this, for to dream is to court the absolute when we’re at our most vulnerable, to find eternity in a sleep. Piers Plowman had the taint of heresy about it, as it inspired the revolutionaries of 1381’s Peasant Rebellion, as well as the adherents of a schismatic group of proto-Protestants known as Lollards. Arguably the crushing of the rebellion led to an attendant attack by authorities on vernacular literature like Piers Plowman, in part explaining the general dismalness of English literature in the fifteenth-century (which excluding Mallory and Skelton is the worst century of writing). Scholars have long debated the relationship between Langland and Lollardy, but we’ll let others more informed tease out those connections[. T]he larger point is that dreaming can get you in trouble. That’s because dreaming is the only realm in which we’re simultaneously complete sovereign and lowly subject; the cinema we watch when our eyes are closed. Sleep is a domain that can’t be reached by monarch, tyrant, state, or corporation — it is our realm.

Dreams had a radical import in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. You’ll recall that in that novel the main character of Winston Smith is a minor bureaucrat in totalitarian Oceania. Every aspect of Smith’s life is carefully controlled; his life is under total surveillance, all speech is regulated (or made redundant by New Speak), and even the truth is censored, altered, and transformed (which the character himself has a role in). Yet his dreams are one aspect of his life which the government can’t quite control, for Smith “had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.’” Sleep is an anarchic space where the dreamer is at the whims of something much larger and more powerful than themselves, and by contrast where sometimes the dreamer finds themselves transformed into a god. A warning here though — when total independence erupts from our skulls into the wider world (for after all, it is common to mutter in one’s sleep) there is the potential that your unconsciousness can betray you. Smith, after all, is always monitored by his telescreen.

Whether it’s the thirteenth or the twenty-first centuries, dreaming remains bizarre. Whether we reduce dreams to messages from the gods and the dead, or repressed memories and neurosis playing in the nursery of our unconscious, or simply random electric flickering of neurons, the fact that we spend long stretches of our life submerging ourselves in bizarre parallel dimensions is so odd that I can’t help but wonder why we don’t talk about it more (beyond painful conversations recounting dreams). So strange is it that we spend a third of our lives journeying to fantastic realms where every law of spatiality and temporality and every axiom of identity and principle of logic is flouted, that you’d think we’d conduct ourselves with a bit more humility when dismissing that which seems fantastic in the experience of those from generations past who’ve long since gone to eternal sleep. Which is just to wonder that when William Langland dreamt, is it possible that he dreamt of me?

Even with our advancements in the modern scientific study of the phenomenon, their mysteriousness hasn’t entirely dissipated. If our ancestors saw in dreams portents and prophecies, then this oracular aspect was only extended by Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. He who inaugurated the nascent field of psychoanalysis explained dreams as a complex tapestry of wish fulfillment and sublimation, an encoded narrative that mapped onto the patient’s waking life and that could be deciphered by the trained therapist. Freud writes that there “exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state.” Not so different from Will sleeping in his field. The origin may be different — Langland sees in dreams visions imparted from God and Freud finds their origin in the holy unconsciousness, but the idea isn’t dissimilar. Dreaming imparts an ordered and ultimately comprehensible message, even though the imagery may be cryptic.

Freud has been left to us literary critics (who’ve even grown tired of him over the past generation), and science has abandoned terms like id, ego, and superego in favor of neurons and biochemistry, synapses and serotonin. For neurologists, dreaming is a function of the prefrontal cortex powering down during REM sleep, and of the hippocampus severing its waking relationship with the neocortex, allowing for a bit of a free-for-all in the brain. Scientists have discovered much about how and why dreaming happens — what parts of the brain are involved, what cycles of wakefulness and restfulness a person will experience, when dreaming evolved, and what functions (if any) it could possibly serve. Gone are the simple reductionisms of dream interpretation manuals with their categorized entries about your teeth falling out or of showing up naked to your high school biology final. Neuroscientists favor a more sober view of dreaming, whereby random bits of imagery and thought thrown out by your groggy chemical induced brain rearrange themselves into a narrative which isn’t really a narrative. Still, as Andrea Rock notes in The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why we Dream, “it’s impossible for scientists to agree on something as seemingly simple as the definition of dreaming.” If we’re such stuff as dreams are made of, the forensics remain inconclusive.

Not that dreaming is exclusively a human activity. Scientists have been able to demonstrate that all mammals have some form of nocturnal hallucination, from gorillas to duck-billed platypuses, dolphins to hamsters. Anyone with a dog has seen their friend fall into a deep reverie; their legs pump as if they’re running, occasionally they’ll even startle-bark themselves awake. One summer day my wife and I entertained our French bulldog by having her chase a sprinkler’s spray. She flapped her jowly face at the cool gush of water with a happiness that no human is capable of. That evening, while she was asleep, she began to flap her mouth again, finally settling into a deeper reverie where she just smiled. Dreaming may not necessarily be a mammalian affair — there are indications that both birds and reptiles dream — albeit it’s harder to study creatures more distant from us. Regardless, evidence is that animals have been sleeping perchance to dream for a very long time, as it turns out. Rock writes that “Because the more common forms of mammals we see today branched off from the monotreme line about 140 million years ago… REM sleep as it exists in most animals also emerged at about the time that split occurred.” We don’t know if dinosaurs dreamt, but something skittering around and out of the way of their feet certainly did.

If animal brains are capable of generating pyrotechnic missives, and if dreaming goes back to the Cretaceous, what then of the future of dreaming? If dogs and donkeys, cats and camels are capable of dreaming, will artificial intelligences dream? This is the question asked by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was itself the source material for Ridley Scott’s science fiction film classic Blade Runner. Dick was an author as obsessed with illusion and reality, the unattainability of truth, and doubt as much as any writer since Plato. In his novel’s account of the bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s decommissioning of sentient androids, there is his usual examination of what defines consciousness, and the ways in which its illusions can present realities. “Everything is true… Everything anybody has ever thought,” one character says, a pithy encapsulation of the radical potential of dreams. Dick imagined robots capable of dreaming with such verisimilitude that they misapprehended themselves to be human, but as it turns out our digital tools are able to slumber in silicon.

Computer scientists at Google have investigated what random images are produced by a complex artificial neural network as it “dreams,” allowing the devices to filter various images they’ve encountered and to recombine, recontextualize, and regenerate new pictures. In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance writes that the “computer-made images feature scrolls of color, swirling lines, stretched faces, floating eyeballs, and uneasy waves of shadow and light. The machines seemed to be hallucinating, and in a way that appeared uncannily human.” Artificial Intelligence has improved to an unsettling degree in just the past decade, even though a constructed mind capable of easily passing the Turing Test has yet to be created, though that seems more an issue of time than possibility. If all of the flotsam and jetsam of the internet could coalesce into a collective consciousness emerging from the digital primordial like some archaic demigod birthing Herself from chaos, what dreams could be generated therein? Or if it’s possible to program a computer, a robot, an android, an automaton to dream, then what oracles of Artificial Intelligence could be birthed? I can’t help but thrill to the idea that we’ll be able to program a desktop version of the Delphic Oracle analyzing its own microchipped dreams. “The electric things have their life too,” Dick wrote.

We’ve already developed AI capable of generating completely realistic-looking but totally fictional women and men. Software engineer Philip Wang invented a program at ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com which does exactly what its title advertises itself as doing: it gives you a picture of a person who doesn’t exist. Using an algorithm that combs through actual images, Wang’s site uses something called a generative adversarial network to create pictures of people who never lived. If you refresh the site, you’ll see that the humans dreamt of by the neural network aren’t cartoons or caricatures, but photorealistic images so accurate that they look like they could be used for a passport. So far I’ve been presented with an attractive butch woman with sparkling brown eyes, a broad smile, and short curly auburn hair; a strong jawed man in his 30s with an unfortunate bowl cut and a day’s worth of stubble who looks a bit like swimmer Michael Phelps; and a nerdy-looking Asian man with a pleasant smile and horn-rimmed glasses. Every single person the AI presented looked completely average and real, so that if I encountered them in the grocery store or at Starbucks I wouldn’t think twice, and yet not a single one of them was real. I’d read once (though I can’t remember where) that every invented person we encounter in our dreams has a corollary to somebody that we once met briefly in real life, a waitress or a store clerk whose paths we crossed for a few minutes drudged up from the unconscious and commissioned into our narrative. I now think that all of those people come from ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com.

One fictional person who reoccurs in many of our dreams is “This Man,” a pudgy, unattractive balding man with thick eyebrows, and an approachable smile who was the subject of Italian marketer Andrea Natella’s now defunct website “Ever Dream This Man?” According to Natella, scores of people had dreams about the man (occasionally nightmares) across all continents and in dozens of countries. Blake Butler, writing in Vice Magazine, explains that “His presence seems both menacing and foreboding at the same time, unclear in purpose, but haunting to those in whom he does appear.” This Man doesn’t particularly look like any famous figure, nor is he so generic that his presence can be dismissed as mere coincidence. A spooky resonance concerns this guy who looks like he manages a diner on First Avenue and 65th emerging simultaneously in thousands of peoples’ dreams (his cameo is far less creepy after you’re aware of the website). Multiple hypotheses were proffered, ranging from This Man being the product of the collective unconscious as described by Carl Jung to Him being a manifestation of God appearing to people from Seattle to Shanghai (my preferred theory). As it turns out, he was simply the result of a viral marketing campaign.

Meme campaigns aside, the sheer weirdness of dreams can’t quite exorcize them of a supernatural import — we’re all looking for portents, predictions, and prophecies. Being submerged into what’s effectively another universe can’t help but alter our sense of reality, or at least make us question what exactly that word means. For years now I’ve had dreams that take place in the same recurring location — a detailed, complex, baroque alternate version of my hometown of Pittsburgh. This parallel universe Pittsburgh roughly maps onto the actual place, though it appears much larger and there are notable differences. Downtown, for example, is a network of towering, interconnected skyscrapers all accessible from within one another (there’s a good bookstore there); a portion of Squirrel Hill is given over to a Wild West experience set. It’s not that I have the same dreams about this place, it’s that the place is the same, regardless of what happens to me in those dreams when I’m there. So much so that I experience the uncanny feeling of not dreaming, but rather of sliding into some other dimension. An eerie feeling comes to me from a life closer then my own breath, existing somewhere in the space between atoms, and yet totally invisible to my conscious eye.

Such is the realm of seers and shamans, poets and prophets, as well as no doubt yourself — the dream realm is accessible to everyone. As internal messages from a universe hidden within, whereby the muse and oracle are within your own skull. Long have serendipitous missives arisen from our slumber, even while we debate their ultimate origin. Social activist Julia Ward Howe wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic” when staying at Washington D.C.’s Ward Hotel in 1861, the “dirtiest, dustiest filthiest place I ever saw.” While “in a half dreaming state” she heard a group of Union soldiers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue singing “John Brown’s Body,” and based on that song Howe composed her own hymn while in a reverie. Howe’s dreaming was in keeping with a melancholic era enraptured to spiritualism and occultism, for she commonly was imparted with “attacks of versification [that] had visited me in the night.” The apocalyptic Civil War altered peoples’ dreams, it would seem. Jonathan White explores the sleep-world of nineteenth-century Americans in his unusual and exhaustive study Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams During the Civil War, arguing that peoples’ “dream reports were often remarkably raw and unfiltered… vividly bringing to life the horrors of the conflict; for others, nighttime was an escape from the hard realities of life and death in wartime.”

Every era imparts its own images, symbols, and themes into dreams, so that collective analysis can tell us about the concerns of any given era. White writes that during the Civil War people used dreams to relive “distant memories or horrific experiences in battle, longing for a return to peace and life as they had known it before the war, kissing loved ones that had not seen for years, communing with the dead, traveling to faraway places they wished they could see in real life,” which even if the particulars may be different, is not so altered from our current reposes. One of the most famous of Civil War dreamers was Abraham Lincoln, whose own morbid visions were in keeping with slumber’s prophetic purposes. Only days before his assassination, Lincoln recounted to his bodyguard that he’d had an eerily realistic dream in which he wandered from room to room in the White House. “I heard subdued sobs,” Lincoln said, as “if a number of people were weeping.” The president was disturbed by the sound of mourning, “so mysterious and so shocking,” until he arrived in the East Room. “Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments,” the body inside being that of Lincoln. Such dreams are significant — as the disquieting quarantine visions people have had over the past two months can attest to. We should listen — they have something to tell us.

Within literature dreams seem to always have something to say, a realm of the fantastic visited in novels as diverse as L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. The dream kingdom is a place where the laws of physics are muted, where logic and reason no longer hold domain, and the wild kings of absurdity are allowed to reign triumphant. Those aforementioned novels are ones in which characters like Dorothy, Ebenezer Scrooge, Morpheus, and Alice are subsumed into a fantastical dream realm, but there are plenty of books with more prosaic dream sequences, from Mr. Lockwood’s harrowing nightmare in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Raskolnikov’s violent childhood dreams in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas,” writes Brontë, “they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.” Then there is the literature that emerges from dreams, the half-remembered snippets and surreal plot lines, the riffs of dialogue and the turns of phrase that are birthed from the baked brain of night. Think of the poppy reveries of Thomas DeQuincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or the delicious purpose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” written in a similar drug haze until the poet was interrupted by that damned person from Porlock.

Spearing writes that “from the time of the Homeric poems down to the modern novel, it is surely true that the scene of the great bulk of Western literature has not been the internal world of the mind, in which dreams transact themselves, but the outer, public world of objective reality,” but this misses an important point. All novels actually occur in the internal world of the mind, no matter how vigorous their subjects may be. I’ll never be able to see the exact same cool colors of Jay Gatsby’s shirts that you envision, nor will I hear the exact timber of Mr. Darcy’s voice that you imagine, in the same way that no photographs or drawings or paintings can be brought back from the place you go to when you sleep. Dreaming and reading are unified in being activities of fully created, totally self-contained realities. Furthermore, there is a utopian freedom in this, for that closed off dimension, that pinched off universe which you travel to in reveries nocturnal or readerly is free of the contagion of the corrupted outside world. There are no pop-up ads in dreams, there are no telemarketers calling you. Even our nightmares are at least our own. Here, as in the novel, the person may be truly free.

Dreaming is the substance of literature. It’s what comes before, during, and after writing and reading, and there can be no fiction or poetry without it. There is no activity in waking life more similar to dreaming than reading (and by proxy writing, which is just self-directed reading). All necessitate the complete creation of a totally constructed universe constrained within your own head and accessible only to the individual. The only difference between reading and dreaming is who directs the story. As in a book as in our slumber, the world which is entered is one that is singular to the dreamer/reader. What you see when you close your eyes is forever foreign to me, as I may never enter the exact same story-world that you do when you crack open a novel. “Life, what is it but a dream?” Carol astutely asks.

We spend a third of our day in dream realms, which is why philosophers and poets have always rightly been preoccupied with them. Dreams necessarily make us question that border between waking and sleeping, truth and falsity, reality and illusion. That is the substance of storytelling as well, and that shared aspect between literature and dreaming is just as important as the oddity of existing for a spell in entirely closed off, totally self-invented, and completely free worlds. What unites the illusions of dreams and our complete ownership of them is subjectivity, and that is the charged medium through which literature must forever be conducted. Alfred North Whitehead once claimed that all of philosophy was mere footnotes to Plato — accurate to say that all of philosophy since then has been variations on the theme of kicking the tires of reality and questioning whether this exact moment is lived or dreamt.

The pre-Socratic metaphysician Gorgias was a radical solipsist who thought that all the world was the dream of God and the dreamer was himself. Plato envisioned our waking life as but a pale shadow of a greater world of Forms. Rene Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy forged a methodology of radical doubt, whereby he imagined that a malicious demon could potentially deceive him into thinking that the “sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.” So, from the assumption that everything is a dream, Descartes tried to latch onto anything that could be certain. Other than his own mind, he wasn’t able to find much. In dreams there is the beginning of metaphysics, for nothing else compels us to consider that the world which we see is not the world which there is, and yet such philosophical speculation need not philosophers, since children engage in it from the moment they can first think.

When I was a little kid, I misunderstood that old nursery rhyme “Row Your Boat.” When it queried if “life is but a dream,” I took that literally to mean that all which we experience is illusion, specter, artifice. In my own abstract way I assumed that according to the song, all of this which we see: the sun and moon, the trees and flowers, our friends and family, are but a dream. And I wondered what it would be like when I woke up, who I would recount that marvelous dream too? “I had the strangest dream last night,” I imagined telling faces unknown with names unconveyed. I assumed the song meant that all of this, for all of us, was a dream — and who is to know what that world might look like when you wake up? Such a theme is explored in pop culture from the cyberpunk dystopia The Matrix to the sitcom finale Newhart, because this sense of unreality, of dreams impinging on our not-quite-real world is hard to shake. Writing about a classic metaphysical thought-experiment known as the Omphalos Argument (from the Greek for “navel,” as relating to a question of Eden), philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in The Analysis of Mind that “There is no logical impossibility… that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past.” Perhaps we’ve just dozed off for a few minutes then? Here’s the thing though — even if all of this is a dream — it doesn’t matter. Because in dreams you’re innocent. In dreams you’re free.

Image credit: Pexels/Erik Mclean.

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