‘A Dream Lies Dead’ by Dorothy Parker is a fourteen-line sonnet which has been separated into one set of eight lines, or octave, and one set of six lines, or sestet. This is a common practice among modern sonnet writers as it makes the turn, or change, in the poem’s narrative more prominent. This turn could take the form of an answer to a previously asked question, the beginning of a different point of view, or even a change of speaker. In the case of ‘A Dream Lies Dead,’ it is the beginning of a metaphor concerning the death of dreams.
Additionally, Parker’s piece conforms to a rhyming pattern of abbaabba cdcdee, making it a variant of a traditional Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. This sonnet form was named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca who helped to inspire an entire line of Italian poets. It is typical with this form of poetry for the lines to follow the same pattern utilized by Parker in ‘A Dream Lies Dead,’ although the final sestet is more commonly rhymed, cdecde or cdcdcd.
Summary of A Dream Lies Dead
The poem begins with the speaker stating that here, there is a dead dream. She describes the location as somewhere physical around which others will pass. Its location plays the same role as a cemetery, evoking similar emotions and societal customs. The speaker makes sure to inform the reader that they must show respect when moving around this spot. While one should not weep or become too mournful, there must be silence. In this silence, one is able to consider their own dreams and hold them closer.
She continues on in the second stanza to craft a metaphor clearly outlining the process of death for a dream. It begins like the falling of a white petal from a tree. At first, the petal resembles those it left behind. Soon though, once it has touched the ground, it withers. The process is fast and before too long it has lost the pride of life and fertility it once had.
The final lines speak of “Beauty” as an embodied force. “She” is described as bowing her head in defeat as death comes for one of her “little” creations.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of A Dream Lies Dead
A dream lies dead here. May you softly go
Before this place, and turn away your eyes,
With words of hope and Spring and tenderer skies.
A dream lies dead; and this all mourners know:
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by making a very poignant statement about dreaming. She begins by referring to one specific dream and its death. Wherever she is, she informs her speaker that a “dream lies dead here. This statement reaches beyond the physical. One should assume the speaker is referring to a general influential location or even somewhere more ephemeral such as a state of being or time period.
Rather than emphasize the emotional or mental nature of this imagined space though, the speaker continues to refer to as it as somewhere that really exists. The impact of this dead dream is so great she asks anyone passing by to “softly go.” One must walk as though they are passing through a cemetery and seek to show respect, and perhaps not disturb, the dead.
In addition to moving softly, one must also “turn away” their eyes. This is done as a sign of respect but also as if to avoid learning more about the situation than necessary. The speaker describes this feeling as trying not to,
Know the look of that which dies,
Importuning Life for life.
These lines speak of the influence a dead dream would have on someone whose dreams are alive. In this case, the sight would become persistent harassment on the onlooker. It would haunt one throughout their life. This would be unnecessary trouble to an already difficult life.
In the next lines, the speaker asks her listener that they ‘Walk not in woe.” One should only slow down just enough to take a brief note of the loss of another’s dream. It should not impact one’s overall mood for more than a moment. She goes on to ask the listener not to spew false hopes after seeing this sight. One should be quiet and somewhat withdrawn, paying proper respect. For the one whose dream is lost, the hope of “Spring and tenderer skies” is pointless. Anyone who has experienced the same loss of a dream will understand this feeling. They “mourn” as if a loved one has died.
Whenever one drifted petal leaves the tree-
Because a dream has joined the wistful dead!
The second stanza is a sestet, meaning that it only contains six lines. Here, Parker chose to utilize language which is more poetic and verging on philosophical. She begins by having her speaker describe an instance in which a “petal leaves the tree.” This in itself is a very beautiful thing to observe. It “drift[s]” down from the tree’s height to the ground.
At first, as the petal falls and lands on the ground, it is still as “white of bloom” as it had been before falling. It holds onto the growth of other flowers and its conception as part of the fertile cycle of nature. Soon though, that changes.
The “One little loveliness” that is the petal is unable to live for long after falling from the tree. It “can be no more.” This death is described as a defeat for “Beauty” as the embodied force of all loveliness on earth is made to,
Bow her imperfect head
Because a dream has joined the wistful dead!
The last line brings the sestet clearly back to the initial theme of this piece. It also draws greater empathy from the reader. In the first section, the dream was something completely separate from the reader. After taking in the second half of the poem the emotions become more prominent and impactful. One should be easily able to cast their life and its ambitions onto the imagined death of a dream.