Poe describes his older poems as “crude compositions of my earliest boyhood” (Poe 1845, page 55), and apologises � in tradition with other works of gothic fiction � for his own works by saying that The Raven and Other Poems is hardly worth reading: “I think nothing in this volume of much value to the public, or very creditable to myself.” (Poe 1845, preface). A literary review / criticism of A Dream
(written by Edgar Allan Poe, 1827)
In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted
Ah! What is not a dream by day
To hum whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?
That holy dream�that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.
What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?
Introduction to the poem
A Dream is a poem written by Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849). It was first published in Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (Poe 1829), but was probably written in June 1827, when Poe was only 18 years old. (EAPSB 1998).
A Dream was reprinted in The Raven and Other Poems. He describes his older poems as “crude compositions of my earliest boyhood” (Poe 1845, page 55), and apologises � in tradition with other works of gothic fiction � for his own works by saying that The Raven and Other Poems is hardly worth reading: “I think nothing in this volume of much value to the public, or very creditable to myself.” (Poe 1845, preface)
A Dream is written in the form of a Shakespearean quatrain with perfect rhymes. It uses enjambment, tying the first and second and third and fourth line of the poem together. The poem is largely written in iambic parameter, but deviates from this rhythm on several key points, such as the trochaic endings in the first and third verse. It also uses internal rhyme (first line, last verse), alliteration (dream by day, world were) and rhetorical questions (verse 2 and 4).
The spondaic ending on the last line of the poem might also be worth noting, as it ends the poem in a double stressed syllable. This leaves the reader with a sense of unease, as if the poem lacks closure. Poe probably did this to invite re-reading of the poem, as if to say ‘look, if you did not understand the last line, it fills you with a sense of trepidation and agitation, read the poem again, and see if you can make sense of it this time’.
The poem utilises a non-intrusive first person narrative. The tone and content of the narrative seems introverted, as if it is a spoken � perhaps even muttered � in a monologue. It is not difficult to imagine the narrator sitting curled up in a dark corner of a room, a graveyard or a pub, reciting the poem. The narrator’s gender is not definitive, but the poem uses ‘him’ to describe a human entity in the second verse (“To him whose eyes are cast”).
Apart from the poem’s narrative, it becomes clear early in the poem that happiness is not one of the key issues. The picture drawn in the first line elegantly hands us the imagery of a dark night, and is followed up with a mention of “joy departed”, implying there is no joy remaining. After the first two lines, the poem becomes more abstract. This could be seen as allowing the reader a great deal of room for interpretation, or as a literary device of mysticism.
The poem repeats a great day of words that are related � dreams, spirits, day, night, darkness and light.
Symbolism and exploration of the inner world
It is difficult to establish something that could be described as a universal interpretatio of the poem. What follows must therefore be my personal interpretation of the symbolism in and meaning of A Dream.
The narrator is a troubled soul who wishes for something other than reality. The tone in the poem suggests that death, possibly through suidice, might be an option to obtain this state of ‘other than reality’. In the second verse, however, the narrator seems to revel in his memories too strongly to allow death to be an option, perhaps in fear of death causing loss of his memories of the past.
In the poem, Poe explores the mystery and magic of dreams. To be more exact: The power of the divide between dreams and real life: the possibility of hiding in a dreamworld � or a fantasy world, more likely � to escape the troubles of real life. Rather than death, the narrator wishes to escape from reality through dreams and fantasies. In verse one and three, the narrator describes the same basic scenario twice: The safety of the dream-world, and the dangers of the real world. It is tricky to ascertain what these dangers are, but � considering the atmosphere and narrative voice � inner conflicts such as loneliness, grief, depression, shame or remorse seem viable options.
If the poem can indeed be said to be a description of the narrator’s attempt at escaping reality, the contrasts become clear: The darkness is safety from other people, and possibly from the narrator himself. The line “But a waking dream of life and light hath left me broken-hearted” describes the narrator’s fears of what happens when the spell of his fantasy world is broken: Upon ‘waking up’ from his fantasy world he feels heartbroken, and wishes only to return to his own, safe, fantasy world.
Because of daylight breaking dreams, the lightness � although typically connected with Goodness � is considered negative by the narrator. The last verse describes how daylight (if ‘day-star’ is indeed synonymous with the sun) sheds light on the storm and night, as if it reveals the weaknesses the narrator is trying to hide from: The pain and fear outside his personal dreamsphere.
The narrator expresses the value he puts on his fantasies by elevating the dreams to a state of apotheosis: “That holy dream — that holy dream”. The repetition, which primarily functions to emphasise the importance, also gives us a glimpse of the desperate undercurrent of the poem. The repetition gives the impression that the narrator is desperately trying to cling on to that elusive dreamworld. And, with the last two lines of the poem, admitting that he is doomed to failure, and that the “real world” has caught up with him.
Use of suspense
Being a short poem of a mere 90-odd words, there is only so much superficial suspense that can be contained in the poem � the reader is not invited to become thrilled about what happens next, because before the suspense builds up properly, the poem is over. Instead, the suspense comes in form of a strong insinuation of mysticism. Rather than keeping the suspension by offering twist and turns in plot and / or theme, the narrator suggests suspense through obscurity. By making the poem difficult to understand, it involves the reader in the reading process, because the reader has to add something to the poem himself in order to get something out of it. In this process, while the poem might still be obscure, the poem becomes more universally accessible, because the fears and unease fielded in the poem becomes a matter of interpretation. And the reader himself is provoked into reading his own personal problems into the poem. Because of this, the reader might experience a confrontation with the uncanny, when he realises that the only possible explanation he can come up with for the poem is something that is relevant to himself.
A search on the internet for ‘gothic poetry’ and/or ‘goth poetry’ finds you thousands of web sites with poetry. Most of it is written by 16 � 20 year olds, and most of it is abysmal to the point of acute nausea. Edgar Allan Poe lands in the middle of this age group, and his poetry draws surprisingly many parallels with the amateur poetry that can be found (much of which is, no doubt, based on or inspired by his work).
The use of quasi-intelligent rhetorical questions (verse 2 and 4) and repetition of largely the same content (1 and 3) seem to me like the work of an amateur. This might, of course, be because of the 200 year gap between our lives. However, even by today’s standards, 18-year-old Poe’s writing shows quite a few similarities with an uncut gemstone.
His strict adherence to form, both when it comes to rhyme and rhythm, is what lifts Poe clear of the type of poetry described earlier in this section. Instead, with its flirtation with the psyche of the reader, and the fact that the poem has what could very well be a universal message, it becomes clear that even the man’s crude compositions of earliest boyhood are strong works of fiction in their own right � on many different levels.
Sources (using the harvard referencing system)
EAPSB – E.A. Poe Soc. of Baltimore (1998) Selections from Poe’s Poems: Chronological Index. http://www.eapoe.org/works/poems/chronidx.htm
Poe, E.A (1829) Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. Baltimore: Hatch & Dunning
Poe, E.A (1845) The Raven and Other Poems. New York: Wiley and Putnam
Kennedy, M (2000) Basics of Poetic Form in English Verse. Dublin: Trinity College
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