A Land of Dreams


One scholar of early English civilisation, J. R. R. Tolkien, came upon a line of Cynewulf’s poetry—“Eala earendel, engla beorhtost!,” “Hail Earendel, most bright angel”—and was consumed by it.

Tolkien himself was a Catholic born in South Africa but brought up in Birmingham and its environs, part of the old Mercian kingdom from which Cynewulf himself is supposed to have sprung. Was there some consonance which led directly to The Lord of the Rings? When Tolkien read the invocation to Earendel, the star of the morning known to us as Venus, “I felt an unconscious thrill, as if something had stirred me, half-wakened, from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond Ancient English.”It was his imagination which was awakening, stirred by ancient voices.

There was a star of the morning already risen in the seventh century; his name was Caedmon, the first Christian poet in the English language. The legend of his origin comes from the pages of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Caedmon was a herdsman at the monastery of Whitby, known then as Streones Healh or Streanaeshalch. He was of a modest nature, and had no pretensions to poetical skill; when the harp was handed from guest to guest at a feast, no doubt to recite episodes from a native poetry which is now entirely lost, Caedmon would leave the table and return to his hut. One evening he had retired to the stable, where he had been posted that night to care for the animals, and had slept; then in dream he saw a man standing beside him.

“Caedmon, sing me a song.”

“I have no skill in singing. That is the reason I left the feast and retired here.”

“But you will sing to me.”

“What shall I sing?”

“Sing the song of creation.”

Then at once, in his dream, Caedmon chanted a hymn of nine lines which opens, “Nu scylun hergan, haefaenricaes uard”—“Now shall we praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom.” It is significant that, at this point in his narrative, Bede chose to translate the poem into Latin rather than render it in its Old English original; he may have considered the pagan implications of Caedmon’s strong alliterative verse to be still too potent.

On awakening, Caedmon added more verses, and then visited the reeve of the monastery to tell his story of the night and the vision. The reeve then took him before the Abbess of Whitby, Hilda, a great religious leader of the era. She asked him to repeat his story, and his song, to a group of learned clerics who deemed his vision to be the work of God. Caedmon was admitted as a brother to the monastery and, on being educated in the scriptures, composed many verses on such sacred themes as the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, and the Last Judgement.

The miraculous event heralded a great change in the nature of the English imagination, since for the first time the old songs of the tribe were redeployed to state the truths of the Christian faith. From the testimony of Bede these poems were written down. Only the transcription of Caedmon’s hymn, however, survives in eighth-century manuscripts; its popularity is attested by the fact that there are no fewer than twenty-one extant versions, so that it can truly be said that Caedmon’s hymn originates the great sequence of religious poetry in the English language. It is in fact the earliest survival of all English poetry; as an epigraph to the poem is written: “Caedmon first sang this song.”

There are certain suggestive details. The name of Caedmon itself is deemed to be of Celtic origin, intimating in turn that he was of native British descent working originally as an agricultural labourer for the ruling Anglo-Saxon tribe. So it might be said that the poetry of England rises naturally from the common stock like a melody of the land. The seventh-century dream of Caedmon is also uncannily reminiscent of William Blake’s late eighteenth-century vision in the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence:

Piper pipe that song again— So I piped, he wept to hear

Pipe that song, and sing that song to me; it represents the same injunction to the rapt poet. Whether it be dream or vision, it represents an inspiration which has not yet died.

England is a land of dreams. A letter from a French cleric to Nicholas of St. Albans, written c. 1178, rehearsed what was already a familiar perception:

Your island is surrounded by water, and not unnaturally its inhabitants are affected by the nature of the element in which they live. Unsubstantial fantasies slide easily into their minds. They think their dreams to be visions, and their visions to be divine. We cannot blame them, for such is the nature of their land. I have often noticed that the English are greater dreamers than the French.2

For several centuries the English were characterised as “seers of visions,” and it cannot be said that the tradition has materially diminished in the work of Herbert, Traherne, Bunyan, Blake, Spenser and Keats. Whether it resembles a Celtic inheritance is open to enquiry; the Druidic priests were believed to harbour visionary powers. And how could it be otherwise on an island which, in the earliest histories, was itself established upon a vision? The goddess Diana appeared before Brutus with the news that: “Beyond the realm of Gaul, a land there lies, sea-girt it lies, where giants dwelt of old. Now void it fits thy people . . . And kings be born of thee, whose dreaded might shall awe the world and conquer nations bold.”

In his history of England, published in 1670, John Milton recounts the narrative of Brutus and Albion in a plain and sober manner as if no willing suspension of disbelief were required. The earliest historical records are filled with manifold visions. Bede’s History recounts the vision of King Edwin when “he saw a man approaching whose face and appearance were strange to him”;3 the unexpected visitor laid his right hand upon Edwin’s head, and disappeared. A monk named Fursey, who established a monastery among the East Angles, was taken up by angels to witness the life after death. One of the brothers in Bede’s own monastery had heard the story from Fursey’s own lips: “He added that it was a frosty and bitter winter’s day when Fursey told his story; and yet, though he wore only a thin garment, he was sweating profusely.”Visions, then, were taken as serious and earnest tokens of divine providence, even and perhaps especially by intelligent and learned men such as Bede. Chad, the Bishop of the Mercians, was greeted by angelic spirits who promised to return within a week and carry his soul with them to heaven; there are many accounts of lights descending from the sky upon the earth, usually taken to be the bright trail of angels. A nun in the community of Barking saw a vision of a departed abbess, Ethelburga, to whom she spoke in the following terms: “I am so glad that you have come; you are most welcome. . . . This is not happy news. . . . If it cannot be today, I beg that it may not be long delayed.” She was addressing the spirit of her own approaching death.

Bede spoke to those who had seen visions, or spirits, in order to verify their stories because it may be that they had suffered from “delusion.” One seemed to him wholly genuine, a vision like those that had occurred in the “old days” of Celtic Britain. A monk named Drylhelm, from the country of the Northumbrians, was escorted by an angel to a “very broad and deep valley of infinite length” where the condemned souls of the departed were tossed in fire “dreadful with burning flames.” 5 It is unlikely that John Bunyan read this account, but his own image of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” with “the flame and the smoke,” envisioned a thousand years later in The Pilgrim’sProgress , is part of a continuous tradition. Drylhelm was taken back to the living world, where he spoke only to a few devout contemporaries about his experience. When bathing in a freezing river, with the blocks of ice floating around him, he was engaged in conversation.

“It’s wonderful how you can manage to bear such bitter cold.”

“I have known it colder.”

When urged to alleviate his own watchful self-discipline, he similarly replied: “I have seen greater suffering.”It has often been suggested that understatement is a national characteristic.

In Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert the historian describes how the saint was visited by blessed spirits: “Angels would often appear and talk with him and when he was hungry he was refreshed with food by the special gift of God.”7 Eleven hundred years later William Blake was in a similar fashion visited by angels; perhaps they were the same ones. Blake had been reading Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, a volume of mid-eighteenth-century verse in the English melancholy tradition, when a voice spoke to him; he looked across his chamber but saw nothing “save a greater light than usual.” Blake “looked whence the voice came,” and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. “As I looked the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into Heaven; he stood in the sun and, beckoning to me, moved the universe.”

It was not the first, or only, vision vouchsafed to William Blake. He had seen angels in the mulberry trees of Peckham Rye; he saw God and Ezekiel. Throughout his life he was surrounded by visionary companions, many of whom he sketched or painted. He saw a vision of his departed brother, Robert, as the spirit left the body “clapping its hands for joy”; this closely resembles the visions reported by Bede, including that of the Abbess Hilda who upon her death was “borne up to Heaven in the midst of the light.” Blake also drew visionary heads—those, for example, of Herod, Socrates and Voltaire—which have the hypnagogic quality of faces hovering or dissolving in a dream and are not at all dissimilar to those depicted by English painters of the thirteenth century. In fact Blake, who called himself “English Blake,” is a significant example of an artist who instinctively aligns himself with an ancient English tradition which then, as it were, reassembles itself all around him. Thus he wrote in the first chapter of his epic poem Jerusalem,

. . . Amen! Huzza! Selah! “All things Begin & End in Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”

Is it, then, any wonder that like his predecessors in Mercia and Northumbria Blake saw visions of angels?

Out of this land of visions emerges a poetry of the dream-world. Beowulf is in part a dream-poem; the strange elegies of the Anglo-Saxon spirit are enacted in unreal landscapes compounded of dream and vision. Beowulf himself follows Grendel’s mother through “frecne fen-gelad,” a terrifying fen path, towards a tarn or mere where flickers “fyr on flode” hiding an ancient terror. Perhaps only the Anglo-Saxons were capable of such horror, although the persistent taste for Gothic in English literature suggests that their influence has lingered.

Dreams themselves were not necessarily to be distinguished from visions; there was a class of “dream-readers” who could distinguish between “visio” or “osculum” and mere “ insomnium.” The dreamers of the tribe were highly praised because in their state of charmed sleep they were able to unite heaven and earth. The knights of Arthur pursued a vision of the Holy Grail, while the king himself was subject to many and disturbing dreams which prophesied devastation and ruin; the more historically established King Alfred, according to his first biographer, dreamed of St. Neot of Cornwall, who guided him to victory over the Viking army at Edington.

Medieval literature is filled with dream-visions. The great poem of hope and penitence Pearl unfolds within a landscape of dream where the dreamer declares that his soul or “goste” is “ gon in Godez Grace.” In the prologue of Piers the Plowman , Langland confesses how he wandered upon Malvern Hills, went astray and fell asleep beside a stream where “thanne gan I to meten a merueilouse sweuene,” a marvellous dream. Within that same Malvern landscape, as exemplified in The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar awoke in 1900 and found Langland’s dream to be true. It is reminiscent of the opening line of the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, “Hwaet, ic swefna cyst secgan wylle,” “Listen, I will speak to you of a wonderful dream.” Langland sleeps and wakes, yet always finds himself enclosed within a further dream so that the reader or listener becomes involved in the wilderness of the dreamscape until the last line of the “B” text, “til I gan awake.” Wynnere and Wastour opens in dream and Chaucer perfected the art of the dream-vision in The Parliamentof Fowls, The House of Fame and The Book of the Duchess. In each of them he falls asleep over a book, which then lingers within his dream, as if there were some deep connection between individual silent reading and sleeping. The earliest English readers must have seemed withdrawn into themselves in quite an unusual way; like the dreamer, they were somewhere between sleep and death.

Yet the dream of England spread further. The site of the second Salisbury Cathedral, laid in 1221, was found in a dream; that great late fourteenth-century masterpiece known as the “Wilton Diptych” has been described by one scholar of the period as displaying “the mystical dreaminess of mood” which was characteristic of “the English version of the International Style.”8 The same spirit animated Edward Burne-Jones when, in the late nineteenth century, he remarked: “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be . . .” This is the dream of Edmund Spenser, who, in as high and artificial a poetic language as that of the Anglo-Saxon bards, creates the enchanted landscape of The Faerie Queene. His melody, with each stanza prolonged to melting point, lies beyond time and the waking reality of consciousness:

Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne; But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine

Keats described Spenser’s verse as “charmed sleep,” with which state the young poet was himself familiar, and William Hazlitt extolled his “lulling the senses into a deep oblivion of the jarring noise of the world, from which we have no wish to be ever recalled.” Those who study the nature of contemporary dreams, with their condensations and elisions, have found in the latent and manifest content of Spenser’s epic all the workings of oneiric drama. It is a form of sleep.

Dreams float freely through the English imagination. John Milton described even the history of his country as one of “smooth or idle Dreams.” In Paradise Lost Adam is despatched into a divine trance:

Mine eyes he clos’d, but op’n left the Cell Of Fancie my internal sight . . .

Whereupon his rib is turned into Eve. Sir Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici, confesses: “I am as happy in a dreame, and as content to enjoy happiness in a fancie, as others in a more apparent truth and reality.” The Pilgrim’s Progress is an encyclopedia of dreams, not least the dream-literature of the medieval poets. Its first sentence, concluding “and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream,” might have emerged from Piers the Plowman or The Dream of the Rood. John Bunyan’s dream is couched in the same vein as that of William Langland. The pilgrim meets Mistrust and Timorous, Hypocrisy and Civility, while Langland encounters Fraud and Flattery, Hunger and Imagination; the three hundred years between them pass in a moment, as if their dreams were truly outside time. Yet The Pilgrim’s Progress is associated, too, with a dream of another kind. The concluding verse of its first part—

But if thou shalt cast all away as vain, I know not but ’twill make me dream again

—bears a more than fleeting resemblance to the final poem of Through the Looking-Glass:

Ever drifting down the stream— Lingering in the golden gleam— Life, what is it but a dream?

The notion of embarrassment will emerge in the course of this narrative as a peculiar if elusive aspect of the English imagination. But in this potent mood may lie one of the uses of dream. The dream may conceal damaging or subversive themes without endangering the psychic health of the language; it may act as a diversion or cover by means of which potentially explosive material is smuggled into discourse. Langland can thus assault the established order, and Carroll advertise his sexual proclivities, without the least danger of being “found out.” It is a feature of English understatement that it is literally under the statement.

That is also why the great moral and social satires have employed a landscape at once intense and unreal, thus approaching the condition of dream: More’s Utopia, and Orwell’s Animal Farm, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, are among these oneiric tracts which must be interpreted as carefully as Langland’s first allegory.

John Keats dreamed Adam’s dream on 22 November 1817, as if he were “surprised with an old Melody.” The young poet’s The Fall of Hyperion is called “A Dream”—

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams—

and the murmur of the dream resounds throughout the unfinished cantos. In “The English Mail-Coach,” De Quincey evokes “something of the grandeur which belongs potentially to human dreams.” And at the close of this majestic essay he composes a “dream-fugue” like the pavane executed by John Dowland and entitled “Lachrimae Pavin,” or like some wild addicted vision enshrined in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. “In dreams,” De Quincey writes in the same essay, “perhaps under some secret conflict of the midnight sleeper, lighted up to the consciousness at the time, but darkened to the memory as soon as all is finished, each several child of our mysterious race completes for himself the treason of the aboriginal fall.” In the fifth book of Wordsworth’s The Prelude a friend of the poet is seized by sleep “and he pass’d into a dream” of a “drowning world” from which he “wak’d in terror.” How strongly the English poets have been drawn to that state of dreaming, suspended between two worlds, is manifested in a letter which Coleridge wrote in the same period—“I should much wish . . . to float about along an infinite ocean . . . & wake once in a million years for a few minutes—just to know I was going to sleep a million years more.”

So dreams are interwoven within the fabric of the English imagination. One of Keats’s first poems, “Sleep and Poetry,” takes its epigraph from Chaucer and expresses a desire to “die a death /Of luxury”; in the face of that death he must struggle to awake, to free himself from what Byron dismissed as Keats’s “Bedlam Vision.” The image of Frankenstein appeared to Mary Shelley in a dream where “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” towards the “hideous phantasm of a man.” Browning’s fearful “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” emerged within “a kind of dream” invoking the earlier dream-landscape of Beowulf:

This was the place! Those two hills on the right Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in horn in fight—

Sometimes it seems that these English dreamers are all within the same dream, the dream of origin, from which they are trying desperately to awake. We need not invoke the names of Freud and Jung in order to understand these ancient images. Charles Dickens believed that he always lived partly in a dream, and his Richard Carstone at the close of his fitful life in the dream-world of Bleak House asks whether “it was all a troubled dream.” At the end of his own life Charles Dickens was found “in dreamland with Edwin Drood.”

There is also a continuity of another kind, as the ghosts of dead poets appear to the living in dream or vision. Robert Herrick saw Anacreon in vision. Homer appeared to Chapman, while Milton manifested himself to William Blake. Francis Thompson saw Chatterton, and the dead poet saved the living from an attempt at suicide. Chaucer and Gower appeared to Robert Greene, consoling Shakespeare’s rival, while Thomas Hardy saw the ghost of Wordsworth “lingering and wandering on somewhere alone in the fan-traceried Vaulting” of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. In that same university Wordsworth was himself moved by the invisible presence of Milton and of Spenser: �I call�d him Brother, Englishman, and Friend.


Photograph of Charles Dickens dreaming, 1861, by John and Charles Watkins

At the end of his great epic of the night, The Four Zoas, Blake wrote in triumph: “End of the Dream.” But it has not ended yet.

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