ABSTRACT

This article begins with the Eddic poem known as Dvergatal, proposing that it is an instance of poetry as almost pure list. With alliteration, rhyme, and assonance featuring prominently, this list certainly constitutes a poem. At the same time, there is little narrative and as we lack much external reference for the poem, it remains largely mysterious. It is a list, and not much more than that. As Stephen Barney has written, dream visions seem to encourage the list and the point extends, as Dvergatal suggests, to the prophetic mode of poetry. The links between dream and prophecy are strong, as the Old Testament demonstrates: both dream and prophecy engage in a suspensive mode of writing—they are about things that have not quite happened. In both forms, the list arguably acts as a kind of conceptual anchor.

Barney's comment was made with particular reference to Chaucer; in this essay, while beginning with Chaucerian moments such as the “mixed forest” lists of The Knight's Tale and Parliament of Foules, I am chiefly interested in the fate of the list in the later medieval, post-Chaucerian dream vision. John Skelton shows himself to be an inheritor of the list tradition and (in this as in so much else he inherits from Chaucer) an amplifier of it. His early poem Bowge of Court is structured around a straightforward list of characters, while the late Garland or Chaplet of Laurell is a riot of different kinds of list. Both poems can in addition be said to be about the status of being enlisted, or the desire to be on a certain kind of list (indicating status or fame)—a concern which is never far away in Skelton's writing. In Stephen Hawes's Comfort of Lovers (c.1515) there is the same concern with status that is witnessed in Skelton's writing. But in contrast with Skelton's verse, in Hawes the trope of the list seems to have been forgotten or avoided, suggesting the conclusion that the end of the list in the dream vision is also the end of the dream vision as a genre.

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