Dreams and lovers: the sympathetic guide frame in Middle English courtly love poems
By Tessa Cernik
Master’s Thesis, University of British Columbia, 2015
Abstract: When is a dream not a dream? The Middle English convention of the ‘dream vision’ has been read by modern scholars as a genre that primarily reveals the medieval understanding of dreaming and dream theory, so that events and stories presented within a dream frame are necessarily read through that specific hermeneutic. But what might reading ‘dream visions’ without this theoretical framework do to our understanding of the text? Can removing this default mode of interpretation inspire cross-genre comparisons between narratives that present themes of courtly love? My thesis embraces this ‘genre-blind’ standpoint and traces the development of rhetorical frames through texts of the fourteenth century and into the fifteenth century.
Beginning with Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess as a ‘dream vision’, which takes inspiration from the highly popular Romance of the Rose, I move to Lydgate’s two ‘dream visions’ A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe and The Temple of Glas, and then finally into the realm of ‘romances’ with Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, The Tale of Sir Thopas, and the anonymous Squire of Low Degree. All six texts contain a lover’s complaint within their narrative bodies that is uniquely encased by what I have termed the sympathetic guide frame.
The progression of this frame from Chaucer’s writings and beyond shows the sympathetic guide frame as an increasingly conventional device in courtly love texts due to its ability to effectively present and intensify emotion. Without the constraints of genre expectations, the modern reader can focus on the literary and emotional importance of a text, guided by a character specifically created by the author to witness a lover’s complaint and then respond emotionally to it. The identification of this kind of development of a rhetorical device would not be possible if one is hesitant to compare any texts that do not share the same genre classification. I advocate for a renewed understanding of ‘dream visions’ as more than just a dream.
Introduction: An introduction to Middle English literature often begins with expectations of genre. Recognizing and grouping genre markers or tropes is an easy place for modern readers to enter the writings of the mid-fourteenth to fifteenth centuries. Working in the English academic field, the status of genre theory in scholarship is still strong: “genre as a term and concept is applied widely” to all periods of English history and will most likely remain as a useful tool. But rigid definitions of a genre can be restrictive and reductive, especially for medieval writings: even if a narrative demonstrates the characteristic of a ‘genre’, the use of such characteristics or tropes does not necessarily mean that the author intended for their work to be hemmed in by such generic expectations.
This restrictive quality of genre and genre theory dissuades reading texts as representative of more than one genre, and/or imposes generic expectations and ways of reading that may or may not be appropriate or useful for any given text. Theorist Hans Robert Jauss states that this “question of the reality of literary genre in the historical everyday world, or that of their social function, has been ignored in medieval scholarship” and argues overall for the fact that “the theory and history of the literary genres of the Middle Ages can no longer contribute to the understanding of the literature of our present”. But how can we get away from this idea of ‘genre’ if critical writings insist on categorizing the medieval English literary tradition into such manufactured boxes?