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Vision (Dream) Literature


Many writings of the ancients, the Bible, and early and late Christian and pagan records contain dreams and visions that purport to be revelations from the divinity: warnings, omens, instructions, prophecies. Fascinated by the phenomenon, man has speculated about the nature of dreams, their cause, classification, and meaning (see dream; visions.)

The term vision or dream literature is applied generally to narrations that use dreams or visions as an artistic device. All attempts to classify the many kinds of literary dreams or visions seem unsuccessful; those that are religious and those that are profane, those occurring in sleep and those in waking hours, those that are clearly didactic, and those that are playfully fanciful are all known as dreams, visions, or dream visions. In such a general way Cicero's Somnium Scipionis, The Dream of the Rood, the Divina commedia, Le Roman de la Rose, and Joyce's Finnegans Wake all fall in the category of dream or vision literature. The most typical poetic convention of 18thcentury Irish Gaelic literature was the Aisling (vision poem).

An author may use a dream as the frame for his entire work, or he may narrate a dream within a larger, different context. The dream may be introduced abruptly and succinctly or more circuitously and artfully. "I will declare the best of the dreams I dreamt" is sufficient transition from the world of reality to the dream world for one author, while another may approach the dream by elaborate descriptions of circumstances that led to it. The recounted dreams or visions serve various purposes. Many, especially in the early Christian tradition, were eschatological; the dream section in the Shepherd of hermas may perhaps be instanced. Some attempt to inculcate moral truths; piers plowman is an example. Others are apocalyptic; Cardinal Newman's The Dream of Gerontius (1866) falls in this category. In dreams recounted in secular literature, fashionable social conventions are depicted, utopias are proposed, man's shortcomings are satirized, allegories enacted, and fantasies enjoyed.

When dreams are only incidental to the main literary work, they may be alleged as the source of inspiration for the composition or they may be fitted into the action to advance the plot, to whet the interest of the reader, to point a moral, to heighten suspense by forecasting events, to achieve atmosphere, or to accommodate the writer who wishes to make use of the dream as a flashback.

Not a few literary visions spring from a form of mysticism, as in blake's fantasies, or are rooted in genuine supernatural experiences (see mysticism in literature; mystics, english).

Bibliography: w. s. messer, The Dream in Homer and Greek Tragedy (New York 1918). j. b. stearns, Studies of the Dream as a Technical Device in Latin Epic and Drama (Lancaster, PA 1927). m. dods, Forerunners of Dante (Edinburgh 1903). w. o. sypherd, Studies in Chaucer's House of Fame (London 1907). r. l. woods, ed., The World of Dreams: An Anthology (New York 1947).

[g. m. liegey]

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