E Edgar Allan Poe

A Dream within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe

Published in 1849, ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe examines the subtleties of time. His speaker delves into our perception of it and its effects.

A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe Visual Representation

‘A Dream Within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe describes how a speaker experiences depths of dispiritedness and despair. As the poem is dissected for evaluating the mood, motivation, and inherent upheavals his life underwent. Traumatized by those events, the poet embarks on this dreary poetic masterpiece. He may not be the initiator of this conception, as many philosophers have puzzled over this notion for centuries. According to philosophers, it is referred to as “dream argument” and “dream hypothesis”.

According to the poet, this world and all existing life is an illusion of sorts as reality doesn’t exist. This notion was first asserted by Greek philosopher Plato in his treatise, ‘Theaetetus’ as well as Aristotle in his ‘Metaphysics’. More so, Rene Descartes also revitalized this theory in his publication “Meditations on First Philosophy”.

A Dream within a Dream 
Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone? 
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
A Dream within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe


Summary

In ‘A Dream within a Dream,’ Edgar Allan Poe implies that time is slipping away from the grasp of human beings a la sand on the beach, indicating that our existence is at the end inconsequent or a mere abstraction.

In the first stanza, the narrator demands a farewell kiss on the brow. Although the kiss indicates the parting of ways, it’s usually a melancholic ending in the case of Poe. As luck would have it, the narrator seems to be parting ways with his significant other permanently.

While they part their respective ways, the narrator affirms that her notion was correct all along; his days with her were just a dream. The narrator realizes the fact afterward as they part their ways. He is in awe as to how time flew which they spent together. It was a la trance state, a dreamy affair that ended abruptly for the narrator.

As a result, he wonders if this time was measurable quality or just a figment of his imagination. It seems that the narrator has come to terms with the hard reality of life and beginning to learn the ropes.

As the poem ends, the poet asks only one question to the reader – what if the reader wakes up and realizes that all that he has gone through, the good and the bad, was nothing but a dream within another? If readers have heard of the saying – what if we wake up and realize that we were just dreaming, all this while – then they surely understand this poem in a much better way. What if we open our eyes and realize that we had just been dreaming, all this while, and the reality begins after we wake up?


Meaning

‘A Dream within a Dream’ is purely a melancholic poem. It’s about the hope, hopelessness, and helplessness of man in general. As the poet agonizingly contends that humans have to make compromises.

The first half deals with Edgar Allan Poe’s loss of his beloved. Crestfallen with pain and bleeding profusely, he deems the time spent with his fiancée a la fairytale. The gloomy mood reflects the poet’s real-life affairs as his fiancée is taken away from her, leaving him to pick up the pieces.

Struggling with time, loss, and helplessness, the poet comes to terms with reality knocking on his door. For him, he feels he has been betrayed by time, watching indifferently as he recovers from one loss to another.

As the poet embarks on his emotional tirade, he expresses his undying love for his wife. Her loss has torn him apart, as he attempts to cope with the pain. He still wonders if all of his experiences were in actuality real or a figment of his subconscious.

In the second stanza, the poet stands on sea-shore, grasping sand. The “roaring waves” are analogous to his continuous pain and “golden sand” refers to his wife which regardless of how tightly he clasps, seems to weasel out from his grip. He lets out a sigh of desperation, seeking God’s help in his hour of misery. He speculates whether all of his life was just a dream after all.


Structure

The poem consists of 24-verses, divided into 2-stanzas one of 11 lines and one consisting of 13. In totality, it has 9 couplets and 2 triplets. The initial stanza commences with a triplet, followed by couplets.


Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme in this poem is also different. The entire scheme can be encapsulated as AAABBCCDDEE FFGGHHHIIJJKK. The entirety of the poem acts as couplets. More so, twice, in two stanzas, three verses seem to rhyme, giving the entire poem some balance.

The poet has used a hypothetical fantasy in this poem to create a deep impact on the mind of the readers. To depict the confusion between the dream and reality, the poet has used a changing rhyme pattern in the poem. Due to this changing rhyme pattern, the readers get an illusionary or dreamy effect while reading this poem. Besides, it confuses them to such an extent that they imagine whether they are really in a dream or reality.


Meter

On the whole, the poem’s meter alters considerably. It is a juxtaposition of iambic tetrameter and anapests strewn into one poem. As a result, it gives the poem a dreamy/ hazy effect. Things take a drastic turn as is the case with dreams.

The poetic form is slightly erratic. Each verse in this poem consists of three feet. An iamb is a dominant foot as a result.  One such verse where it is used is as follows:

How few!/ Yet how/ they creep

On a similar footing, other verses are constructed in this mannerism. Edgar Allan Poe was in a rather anapestic mood, as numerous instances are found in this poem.


Poetic Devices

Edgar Allan Poe uses several literary devices that make the speaker’s thoughts more appealing and heart-touching. To begin with, there is a rhetorical exclamation at the very first line. In the following lines, readers can find the use of enjambment. This device helps the writer to internally connect the lines. For example, the lines, “You are not wrong, who deem/ That my days have been a dream.”

The following line contains a metaphor. Here, the poet compares dreams to the bygone days. Just after this line, readers can find the use of personification. The poet invests “hope” with the idea of flying, comparing it to a bird or any other winged creature.

The seventh and eighth lines of this stanza begin in the same pattern. This device is called anaphora. There is another device, a rhetorical question, in the next line. The last line of this section contains a palilogy.

Poe uses metaphor and personification in the second stanza too. He metaphorically compares the “sand” to “time” and “deep” to “ocean”. Besides, there are repetitions of sounds in the first few lines. For example, the line, “Of a surf-tormented shore” contains a repetition of the “s” sound. It is called alliteration.

Likewise, some more literary devices make this section more impassioned than the previous one. The rhetorically charged lines depict how the speaker feels after being aware of the fact that all that he sees is nothing but “a dream within a dream.”


Themes

This poem is far different from all the poems of its time; Poe explores the themes of life and dream in a very different way. He takes the readers to the land of dreams, to the land of fantasies, and the land of hopes. No matter how sad people are in their lives, they know that there is only one place where they can keep their hopes high – dreamland.

Let’s have a look at the important themes used in this piece.

  • Dream. This poem revolves around the strong theme of dreaming within a dream, which is quite a hypothetical concept. It makes the reader distinguish between reality as well as fantasy. Reality is what one lives in; a dream is something that he dwells in.
    When one dreams, there is no stress in his or her mind. Even if it is a bad dream or a nightmare, we know that the period is going to end, and it surely does. If someone is depressed in his life, he must know that even that specific period is going to come to an end, someday. There is absolutely nothing that stays forever in life. All we have to do is just “wait” for the right time of happiness to come to us.
  • Death. In ‘A Dream Within A Dream’, one of the important themes is death. It is metaphorically described as the waves crashing against the sands of the shore. Just like a wave has ups and downs, so does the life of an individual; the wave is nothing but time, which is ‘pitiless’ or harsh; time keeps running at its pace, without waiting for anyone. No matter which phase of our lives we want to hold on to it, whether it is good or bad, we just can’t do so, since it is not even in the hands of God to stop or pause time.
  • Astral Traveling. Deep down inside, the poem may also present the theme of astral projection or astral traveling, wherein the dreamer has out-of-body experiences. The dreamer floats near the shore and tries to gather all the wisdom he wishes to, in the face of sands.


Symbolism

Poe’s poem, ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ contains some important symbols. Firstly, the word, “kiss” is a symbol of love and affection. It’s a kind of parting gift that the speaker is giving to his beloved. The most important symbol of this piece is “dream”. The poet uses the word in its literal sense as well as in a symbolic manner. According to the speaker, his life seems to be a dream that is a part of another dream. So, what he thinks of life or how he wishes to lead life is nothing but a vision, his mind’s creation.

This word also seems a symbol of love or the lady whom he loved. So, the “dream” is a symbolic reference to his life. It is also giving a hint to the nature of his relationship. Like a dream, their relationship was momentary and ended abruptly. As it was a vision worth living in again, he feels lonely after waking up in reality.

The second stanza contains some important symbols too. For instance, the “shore” is a symbol for the speaker himself. While the waves are compared to the love of the lady. No matter how refreshing it seemed at first hand, at the end of the day, the waves were responsible for the shore’s distress. The “sand” is another symbol used here. It represents the time that can not be held or stored.


Tone

Throughout this piece, the tone of the speaker who is a victim of unrequited love is depressing, low, emphatic, monotonic, and pessimistic. It paints a gloomy picture depicting a speaker standing alone on a shore and watching how the sun of his life is setting down gradually.

In the first stanza, the tone is direct, elusive, and pensive. The first few lines begin in a manner that seems the speaker is imagining how the relationship ended. The last two lines are emotive enough to raise the question, “Is life a dream within a dream?” The poet modulates the tone in this manner for making each line more thought-provoking to the readers.

The tone of the second stanza does not differ from the first one. There is only one difference and it can be seen in the line, “While I weep — while I weep!” From this line, it becomes clear to readers that the poetic person is completely heartbroken now. That’s why he alludes to the last resort, God for his inabilities. The ending of this section has a difference too. Previously, his voice was sad and his tone was cold. But, here he is asking a question helplessly. This helplessness can be felt in his tone.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow —

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

The speaker opens the poem, ‘A Dream Within a Dream,’ by kissing the forehead of the dreamer, who had been dreaming for so long. It is time for the poet to bid farewell to the dreamer, for now, it is time for the dreamer to wake up from the dream within the dream.

Let’s closely analyze all the lines from the first stanza.

Lines 1–5

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow —

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

As indicative, the narrator seems unready to part ways, it just feels too disorienting. He wonders about hope and its premises. What part does hope play in this romantic entanglement?

In case, hope goes out of the window, then it’s curtains for a relationship. Whether it’s day or night, when hope is gone, all is gone with it. He deems that as long as hope remains, even a dream may seem akin to reality. As the significant other walks away, the romantic entanglement seems like a fairytale of sorts to him. In essence, the woman could be a dream for him. A dream long lost and fading as time passes.

Lines 6–9

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

“Yet, if the hope has flown away” depicts the depression of the dreamer. He has, probably, gone through a hard time in his life and all that the poet wishes to do gives some more hope to the dreamer. The poet says that he is always there to protect the dreamer and inspire him by stating that this dream, the hard time, would also go and he will wake up to see a better dream in his life.

Through these lines, the poet depicts how “hope” like a winged creature flown away from the speaker’s life. It seems as if he has failed to tame the wild “hope”. He does not know whether it faded away within a night or day. It can also be possible he was having a vision of hope. In reality, it does not exist at all in his life. For this speaker, he is extremely depressed about his condition.

He says, “Is it therefore the less gone?” The answer is no. According to the speaker what has gone from his life is not a loss that happens often. Such loss occurs in grave times. And the speaker is going through this phase when the light of hope extinguishes itself by being afraid of the depressing clasps of misfortune.

Lines 10–11

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

In the concluding lines, the poet has finally come to terms with reality. He feels that the woman hit the nail on the head when he asserted that his life was just a dream or quasi-reality. Stepping out from the tunnel vision of the poem, this also applies to every individual.

The poet then brings the central theme of the poem in the concluding lines. He contends that all human existence is just a part of an elaborate dream encapsulated into a compartmentalized dream.

The interpretation is open-ended as the following assertions can be derived.

Firstly, all human sensory experiences are simply a hallucination experienced by humans, a figment of their imaginations and illusions.

Secondly, if a human is to break from the secondary dream, he’s still trapped in a primary dream.

Finally, what signifies reality and dreams? How can he differ from both? These are the questions that readers have to answer while going through the poem.

Stanza Two

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand —

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep — while I weep!

O God! Can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

The speaker has changed the setting slightly in the next stanza. He imagines himself standing on a sun-lit shore, bathing in the warm sunlight. As he stands on the beach, he scoops up some sand in his palm. He creates some splendid imagery by artificially constructing sea waves striking the shore loudly. The air is loud with surfs bashing the coastline; the poet has bigger fish to fry. Whether the poet is actually on a sea-shore or creating imagery is of inconsequence here, due to the larger picture in view.

Lines 1–7

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand —

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep — while I weep!

The speaker says that he is standing on a shore, which is probably another dream. As he stands on the shore, he picks up the shimmering golden particles from the sands. The more he tries to hold the particles in his hand, the more they slip. By this statement, the poet means the more he tries to control time, the more it slips away from his hands. Just like people don’t realize the time when they are dreaming, they don’t realize what things they miss when they are living.

The poet seems to be weeping about time and its nonchalant behavior towards men on the whole. As he holds a grain of sand in his hand, it weasels its way out eventually, leaving the poet high and dry.

As the adage goes, time and tide wait for none, the poet seems helpless, at the mercy of time. He weeps in anguish and sorrow. Now he seems to be appealing to God to stop time for a moment to savor the moment in all its glory. He could be alluding to the woman he once had in his life, about to abandon him. The “sands” could be an allusion to the woman.

The roaring surfs can be a representation of reality which whips hard on the poet’s dreamy landscape. As a result, no matter how hard he tries, he eventually relinquishes the sand from his clasp. Regardless of his attempts, reality wins in the end, dragging him out of his self-created utopia.

Lines 8–13

O God! Can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

In the following lines, the speaker states that he tries to hold on to the particles of sand, to save at least a few of them from the waves, but he is just not able to, no matter how much he prays to his God. It is when he realizes that it is nothing, but a dream within a dream that he is living.

In hindsight, the poet could mean that life is an ongoing process of people or things incoming and outgoing. Nothing is permanent be it happiness or sorrow.

The speaker is full of hope, despite his shortcomings. In the initial stanza, he asserted the theory as humans encapsulated into a dream-like state. Now he poses it as a question to readers. He wonders about the time lost and why the woman part ways with him. He continues to wonder if all his sensory experiences were just imaginative at best.

Historical Context

In actuality, ‘A Dream within a Dream’ is a revision of his earlier published poem ‘Imitation’ in 1827 found in Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry collection “Tamerlane and Other Poems”. This poem was published in the year 1849.

Two events could become the catalysts for this poem. His fiancée was sent away from Poe when the secret of engagement was divulged. He accumulated a debt of $2,500 in gambling, as a result, his father withdrew him from school. This chain of occurrences could have triggered the melancholia and resentment obvious in the poem itself. On the other hand, the poem could be a product of pure musing, too.

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most popular 19th-century American poets. He was a writer and editor as well as a literary critic. He was quite famous for the kinds of short stories he wrote. The plots that he had invented were quite different from the writers of his time. Poe’s poems and stories often surrounded mysterious concepts of the dark culture. He was one of the first writers, who practiced writing short stories under the roofs of Romanticism.

FAQs

What is the message of ‘A Dream Within a Dream’?

Through this poem, Edgar Allan Poe gives a depressing message regarding the mental state of a heartbroken speaker. He loved a girl with whom he had a brief relationship. The abrupt ending of the love story has a deeper impact on his mind. That’s why he feels all that he got in life is nothing but “a dream within a dream.”

What type of poem is ‘A Dream Within a Dream‘?

This poem is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker. It is a lyric poem about the speaker’s depressed condition. However, the tone of the poem resembles that of an elegy. It also has some elements of confessional poetry too.

What was “a dream” all about in the poem, ‘A Dream Within a Dream’?

In his poem, the word, “dream” can be decoded in several ways. First of all, it refers to the imaginary world which does not last long. The speaker compares his beloved to a dream metaphorically. The phrase, “a dream” is a part of another dream that does not have a fixed meaning in the text, but the underlying idea remains the same.

What is the mood in ‘A Dream Within a Dream’?

The mood of the poem, ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ is thoroughly sad, depressing, and monotonous. Being marooned from the joys of life, the speaker’s life has turned out to be an enclosed space without any sign of light. His mood reflects this hopelessness and loneliness.

Who has said, “All that we see or seem/ Is but a dream within a dream”?

In ‘A Dream Within a Dream,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s poetic persona or the poem’s speaker says, “All that we see or seem/ Is but a dream within a dream.” These lines appear at the end of each stanza and they form a refrain.

What is the meaning of “all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream”?

These lines, “all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream” have a deeper meaning that is associated with the idea of existentialism. To understand the meaning of these lines, readers have to feel how a person going through a series of misfortunes feels. Such a speaker is present in this poem. He feels as if what is there, in reality, is nothing but a dream. Not only a dream, but it is also a part of another vision. As the pleasant phases of his life quickly flee away, he thinks all that he loves is like a dream, pacing farther from him. That’s why he thinks what he sees is a dream. And those dreams occur within another “dream” that is compared to his life.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of some important poems that tap on similar kinds of themes present in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘A Dream Within a Dream’.

You can also read about these incredible poems on dreams and the best-loved poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

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A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe Visual Representation
About
Omer joined the Poem Analysis team back in November 2015. He has a keen eye for poetry and enjoys analysing them, providing his intereptation of poems from the past and present.
  • rafaelleonardo says:

    Your analysis is erroneous, vague, and lacking in universality. Contains inconsistencies. Check it out.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      I don’t agree that it is vague. What errors did you find? We are always happy to improve. So let’s start there.

  • Forgivemelord says:

    You even know how to count ? 24 verses with each stanzas having 12 my ass . 11 verses in the first and 13 in the second, dumbass .

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice! Thank you, Amended.

  • Shawn Rood says:

    I am shocked at the accuracy of the description. Yet when compared to the everyday tragedies in people’s lives today, how do men deal with disappointment ? Has it always been this way? Either go through life thoughtfully contemplating trying to tie everything together, or go on an ego trip and block out the details that bother you? The dream is you didn’t have a choice in the first place no matter what you do.

    • Ben Dover says:

      that’s pretty rood of you

      • Lee-James Bovey says:

        I see what you did there.

  • >

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