Dreams are strange things to talk about. When a person dreams, they are either asleep, or longing for something that means a lot to them. Everyone dreams, in some form or the other, so this is a very strong topic for a poem that’s designed to be relatable. In Anne Brontë’s Dreams, she discusses the nature of dreaming, and the differences between entering and leaving that wonderful world.
While on my lonely couch I lie,
I seldom feel myself alone,
For fancy fills my dreaming eye
With scenes and pleasures of its own.
Then I may cherish at my breast
An infant’s form beloved and fair,
May smile and soothe it into rest
With all a Mother’s fondest care.
The poem begins by setting the scene of the narrator, alone in their house, presumably empty besides their own presence (as their couch is “lonely”). It flows gently through an ABAB rhyming pattern in quatrains, save for the first verse, which is written as eight, likely because of the closely connected nature of the first eight lines for setting the atmosphere of the piece. The speaker states that although they are alone on their couch, and presumably in their house, they rarely feel that way, because they are able to dream about the company they most desire — an infant, one that recognizes her as its mother and is comforted and made happy by her presence. Despite the loneliness of the house, the speaker wishes for a child to hold and care for.
How sweet to feel its helpless form
Depending thus on me alone!
And while I hold it safe and warm
What bliss to think it is my own!
And glances then may meet my eyes
That daylight never showed to me;
What raptures in my bosom rise,
Those earnest looks of love to see,
Still within their daydream, the speaker envisions the perfect moment of holding her child, and admires the way that child is utterly defenceless, because she likes the feeling of being not just wanted, but needed. The thought that she is the sole difference between life and death for the child, and the thought that the child belongs to her in every way is one of utter bliss, and the language used — from “sweet” and “bliss” and safe and warm,” right down to the use of exclamation points — creates a calm, loving, atmosphere that is really communicated well to the reader. In the third verse, the speaker focuses solely on a moment where she meets eyes with her child, and are overwhelmed with love. It is brighter and warmer than daylight, and clearer than anything she’s ever known before — this moment, this love, is clearer than anything, even through the lens of a dream.
To feel my hand so kindly prest,
To know myself beloved at last,
To think my heart has found a rest,
My life of solitude is past!
The line “To know myself beloved at last” indicates that reality is still present in the narrator’s mind. When she thinks about her imagined child, she considers it the gateway to being finally wanted and loved, reminding the reader of the earlier description of the “lonely” couch. Contrary to their earlier statement, the speaker does wish for a life that could be fulfilled by the love of another being, and feels ultimately lonely and unfulfilled. The thought of being wanted, needed, and loved is overwhelming for their being.
But then to wake and find it flown,
The dream of happiness destroyed,
To find myself unloved, alone,
What tongue can speak the dreary void?
A heart whence warm affections flow,
Creator, thou hast given to me,
And am I only thus to know
How sweet the joys of love would be?
As with all dreams, however, the beautiful scene ends with the narrator alone on her couch, reminded that there is no infant, nor is there so much as a father or potential father for the infant. She is, by her own admission, unloved and alone. Waking is so bitter she considers the dream to have been “destroyed” by reality, and, entirely alone, she turns to prayer in her solitude, reaching out to her “Creator,” and wondering if this is as close as she will ever get to the feeling of loving and being loved. It’s a sudden shift towards sorrow and loneliness that is made all the more powerful by the realization that the reader too has been thrust away from their happy dream, and that the atmosphere established for us has also been destroyed. Whether she ever does find love or fulfillment is left unclear — and so the reader is left with the same empty feeling as the speaker, undoubtedly an intention of the author for the purpose of catharsis.
As with many of Anne Brontë’s poems, it is difficult to assign the meaning of this poem to any particular element of its author’s life. Still, it is worth pointing out that Brontë never married throughout her life, although a number of her poems imply that she may have been in love at least once. If so, it is very likely that the man of her affections, William Weightman, returned none of her affections, although this has not been proven one way or the other. The rest of Brontë’s life, however, was filled with a great deal of tragedy, loss, and suffering that left Brontë without male partnership for most of her life, and, having passed away before her thirtieth birthday, without a husband or children. It is possible, then, that Dreams, published four years before her death, and three years after Weightman’s death, saw Brontë contemplating her own life, and yearning for a fulfillment that she was possibly doubting she was going to find.
It is also possible that Brontë was simply creating a character to express pains and wishes that a great many people experience at some point in their life. As mentioned earlier, it is ultimately difficult to say for sure how she was feeling or thinking in 1845 when this poem was written, except that she has expressed that feeling with the utmost care and literary power. Dreams expresses specific emotions that Brontë was able to convey with seeming ease, making this a uniquely powerful poem — as unique, anyway, as any dream can be.