Written by probationideadlyi on January 22nd, 2015. Posted in


Dreams are a ubiquitous feature of ancient, medieval, and modern literature beginning with Enkidu’s dream in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Agamemnon and Achilles have dreams in the Iliad, Penelope and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, Aeneas and Dido in the Aeneid; Jacob dreams of the ladder to heaven and the promise of the Lord; the stories of Joseph and Daniel turn on dreams and the art of dream interpretation; three of Aeschylus’ surviving plays have significant dreams; we could add examples endlessly. In older literature dreams are very often prophetic, and their message may be straightforwardly literal or couched in a dark symbolism that demands a decipherer.

Very often they are sent by the gods. It is thus often impossible to distinguish between a dream and a vision, which in turn might be either a waking dream (or trance) or a real heaven-sent revelation.
The symbols in a dream or vision may draw from any of the traditional meanings that this dictionary presents, or they may refer to particular situations unique to the dreamer and interprétable only in context. Dreams are the occasions for interpolated tales within larger narratives; the tales may be told in a different mode, usually more symbolic or allegorical, and they may bear oblique and subtle connections to their frameworks. As dreams are seldom symbols in themselves, but rather gates into the realm of symbols, this entry will be much briefer than the subject might seem to deserve.

In the Middle Ages many whole works were dreams, notably the dream allegories, of which the French Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is the leading example; it begins with a
defense of the truth of dreams, and the rest of the long poem is, in Chaucer’s translation, “such a swevenyng [dream] / That lyked me wonders wel” (26-27).

Dream allegories in English include Pearl; Langland’s Piers Plowman; Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowls; and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The most influential ancient source of dream narratives is Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, “The Dream of Scipio,” along with a commentary on it by Macrobius.
The formulaic phrase for introducing a dream in English literature was “methinks” or “methought,” which does not quite mean “I think” or “I thought** but rather “it seems/seemed to me,** hence “I see/saw as in a dream or vision** (sometimes “me seems/seemed** was used). Chaucer, for example, introduces the dream within TheBook of the Duchcss: “thys was my sweven. / Me thoghte thus: that hyt was May** (290-91). Eve uses “methought” four times in recounting her dream to Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost{5.35-9i).
There are ancient conventions about dreams and where they come from. They are often sent by gods, as when Zeus sends a destructive dream to Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad (2.1-34); the Dream is personified and obeys Zeus’s command like any servant, and then takes the form of Nestor in the dream. Athena sends a dream-figure to Penelope in the guise of her sister {Odyssey 4.795-841).

In Homer also we find the two mysterious gates of dreams, the gate of ivory {elephas), though which deceptive dreams pass, and the gate of horn {keras), through which true ones pass {Odyssey 19.560-67); the gates are “explained** through puns on elephairomai, “deceive,** and kraino, “fulfill.** Virgil adds to the mystery by having Aeneas and the Sibyl depart the underworld (Hades) through the gate of ivory. Since the underworld is the realm of Death, brother of Sleep, it may be appropriate that it has those gates, but it raises questions about the truth of the prophecies Aeneas hears in the underworld that he should leave by the dubious exit. Perhaps, since he and the Sibyl are not dreams, or shades, but still alive, they may be considered false dreams themselves, that is, not really dreams.

Ovid has an elaborate description of the Cave of Sleep, where empty dreams lie about in great number; at Iris* behest Sleep summons Morpheus (“Shaper,** from Greek morphe) to impersonate Ceyx in his
wife Alcyone’s dream {Met. 11.592-675). This account is the main source of Spenser’s similar story, where Archimago sends a sprite down through the bowels of the earth to Morpheus* house to wake him and
order a false dream; Morpheus summons one from his “prison dark** and the sprite returns with it through the ivory gate {FQ 1.1.38-44).
It is tempting to speculate that there is a deep similarity between the experience of dreaming and the rapt state of attend veness that ancient oral poetry and song elicited, the “charm** or “spell** {kelethmos) that
Odysseus casts over his audience {Odyssey 11.334); if that is so then the fact that dreams play so large a part in literature should not surprise us.
The notion that a play enacted on a stage is a kind of dream, an “insubstantial pageant,** is evoked by Shakespeare and other playwrights {Tempest 4.1.155). Robin Goodfellow concludes A MidsummerNighfs
Dream, for instance, by calling himself and his fellow actors “shadows** (“shadow** and “shade** were often synonyms for “dream**) and inviting the audience to take the whole play as a dream (5.1.414-19). Since a play or any other work of literature was an imitation of life, life itself could be taken as a dream. “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on,** Prospero says, “and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” {Tempest 4.1.156-58).
It does not need the analogy with story and drama, of course, to set one thinking that life is a dream; looked at from one’s old age, life’s brevity and the evaporation of life’s illusions readily suggest the equation.
Pindar wrote, “man is a shadow’s dream” (Pyth. 8.95-96); “shadow” (skia) might mean “shade” here, a shade being a ghost, in which case there is a suggestion that our lives are dreamt by the dead. Walther von
der Vogelweide wondered if he had dreamt his own life: “ist mir mîn leben getroumet?” (“Owe war sint verswunden” 2). Petrarch wrote in a letter to Colonna that his life seemed “a light dream, a most fleeting
phantasm.” Calderôn gave his view in his most famous play, La Vida es Sueno (“Life is a Dream”): its leading character, Segimundo, concludes that “all of life is a dream, / and dreams are dreams” (2.2186-87).

Poe went this one better by concluding (and echoing his title) that “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream.”
Poe in part expressed the Romantic view, inherited by psychoanalysis, that dreamers enter a deeper or truer reality than the world of consciousness or reason, that “gleams of a remoter world / Visit the soul in
sleep,” as Shelley put it in “Mont Blanc” (49-50). Shelley wonders if death, that resembles sleep, might be the portal to truth. After his entranced hearkening to the nightingale, Keats asks, “Was it a vision or
a waking dream? / Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?” The first of Yeats’s collected poems laments the loss of the ancient world of dreams, “old earth’s dreamy youth” (“Song of the Happy Shepherd” 54), and one of the last poems reviews his works and concludes “when all is said / It was the dream itself enchanted me” (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” 27-28). In conferring great, if equivocal, value on the dream in the face of rationalist disparagement, the Romantics were restoring it to its ancient prestige, though without the divine agency that guaranteed it. In the wake of Freud, many twentieth-century writers (notably the surrealists) have exploited the dream in many ways; Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,
for instance, is (perhaps) one long dream.

A dictionary of Literary Symbols-M.Ferber

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