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Dream Vision

The term “dream vision” is a literary device. It suggests a story is taking place within the confines of a dream. 

The writer will suggest through their speaker’s handling of the dream that it has shed some light on some important truth that they now can’t ignore. That truth would never have come to them in a normal waking state. Sometimes, this literary device is known as “dream allegory.” It was particularly popular in early medieval Europe.

Dream visions can take the form of short stories, novels, and even poems. There are also examples performed as plays.

Dream Vision (Dream Allegory) Definition and Examples

Dream Vision Definition

A dream vision is a literary device that may present itself within a poem, short story, novel, or play. A narrator will fall asleep and explore a fantastical world (one that couldn’t take place within their waking reality) and learn something about the world and themselves.

These visions may include ghosts, otherworldly forces, images from the afterlife, and more. Often, this format was used in order to include unearthly imagery in a story during the early medieval period in Europe. 

Structure of a Dream Vision 

Dream visions usually follow a predictable series of events. The narrator will recount their experience of falling asleep, what happens in the dream, and then waking. The story is most likely going to contain features that present readers with a message. For example, “telling the truth is always important” or “family relationships shouldn’t be left untended.”

More than likely, the allegory the speaker reveals played out in their dream is a message that they needed for an issue going on in their everyday life. These visions conclude with the speaker waking up and recording what happened in their dream. This could be within a written form or, more likely, by speaking about it to another person. 

Examples of Dream Vision in Literature 

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri 

This well-known Italian epic poem is considered to be the most important dream vision ever written. It’s an incredibly detailed vision that takes the reader through the many levels of Hell, into purgatory, and finally into heaven. The three parts Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, are classic epic poems that are commonly read around the world. Here is a quote from the beginning of an English translation of the poem:

Midway upon the journey of our life

 I found myself within a forest dark, 

 For the straightforward pathway had been lost. 

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say 

What was this forest savage, rough, and stern, 

Which in the very thought renews the fear. 

So bitter is it, death is little more; 

But of the good to treat, which there I found, 

Speak will I of the other things I saw there

Dante presented this poem as a dream vision, noting that it came to him on Good Friday in 1300. 

Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer 

This 700-line poem takes the form of a dream vision, written in rhyme royal. It starts with the narrator reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. He falls asleep and while dreaming, Scipio Africanus the Elder appears and guides him through the celestial spheres. At the end of the poem, he wakes up and feels unsatisfied. He returns to his books feeling as though he has yet to learn what he wants. Here are a few lines: 

The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne, 

Th’assay so sharp, so hard the conqueringe,

The dredful joye alway that slit so yerne, 

Al this mene I by Love, that my feelinge 

Astonieth with his wonderful werkinge 

So sore, ywis, that whan I on him thinke, 

Nat woot I wel wher that I flete or sinke. 

For al be that I knowe nat Love in deede, 

Ne woot how that he quiteth folk hir hire, 

Yit happeth me ful ofte in bookes rede 

Of his miracles and his cruel ire; 

That rede I wel, he wol be lord and sire:

Explore more Geoffrey Chaucer poems

Piers Plowman by William Langland 

This Middle-English poem is considered to be one of the greatest works of English literature created in the Middle Ages. There are three different visions of the poem. The “B” version is most widely read. The poem is allegorical in nature and includes social satire. The narrator goes on a dream quest for the true Christian life. The story takes place through a series of dream visions. Here is a quote from the poem: 

In a summer season, when soft was the sun, 

I shaped me into shrouds as I a sheep were, 

In habit as an hermit, unholy of works, 

Went wide in this world wonders to hear. 

As on a May morning on Malvern Hills

Me befell a ferly, of Fairy me thought. 

I was weary of wandering and went me to rest

Under a broad bank by a bourne side


Why are dream visions important? 

Dream visions in medieval literature allowed writers to be as experimental as possible without delving into unknown genres. They tell stories while also presenting morals that are incredibly important for those reading them. 

What is an example of a dream vision?

Some examples of dream visions are Pearl, written by the Gawain poet, and the Book of the Duchesse by Chaucer. Both of these and others in the genre establish that a dream plays an important role towards the beginning of the story. 

Is the ‘Divine Comedy‘ a dream vision?

Yes. Dante presented this long poem as an example of a dream vision. He established that the poem and its plotline came to him while he was dreaming on Good Friday in 1300. Today, it is the best example of the genre.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
  • Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it is normally much longer.
  • Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
  • Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.

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