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.

In ‘A Dream within a Dream,’ 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/ a mere abstraction. The poem consists of 24-verses, divided into 2-stanzas one of 11 lines and one consisting of 13. The poet is experiencing 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.

A Dream within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe

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We like ‘A Dream within a Dream’ so much, we made sure two of our team of poetry experts analyze it for your benefit with different interpretations.
Read the second analysis

 

Poetic Structure

On the whole, the poem’s structure 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 rhyme schemes in this poem are also different. The entire scheme can be encapsulated as A-A-A-B-B-C-C-D-D-E-E-F-F-G-G-H-H-H-H-I-I. 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.

 

Poetic Form

The poetic form of A Dream within a Dream is slightly erratic. Each verse in this poem consists of three feet. An iamb is the dominant foot as a result.  For instance, ‘How few! Yet how they creepis one such verse. 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.

In totality, the poem has 9-couplets and 2-triplets. The initial stanza commences with a triplet, followed by couplets.

 

Analysis of A Dream within a Dream

Stanza 1

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

In the first stanza, the narrator demands a farewell kiss on the brow. Although the kiss indicates the parting of ways, in the case of Poe, it’s usually a melancholic ending. As luck would have it, the narrator seems to be parting ways with his significant other permanently. As 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. The narrator is in through 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 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/ night, when hope is gone, all is gone with it. He deems that as long as a 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.

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/ quasi-reality. Stepping out from the tunnel vision of the poem, this also applies to each and 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:

  • All human sensory experiences are simply a hallucination experienced by humans, a figment of their imaginations and illusions.
  • If a human is to break from the secondary dream, he’s still trapped in a primary dream
  • What signifies reality and dreams? How is human to differ from both?

 

Stanza 2

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 his 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 here.

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. Edgar Allan Poe uses metaphor and personification in this stanza. He alludes the ‘sand’ as ‘time’ and ‘deep’ refers to ‘ocean’.

As the old 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.

In hindsight, the poet could mean that life is an ongoing process of people/ 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 the woman parting ways with him. He continues to wonder if all his sensory experiences were just imaginative at best.

 

Historical Perspective

In actuality, A Dream within a Dream is a revision of his earlier published poem ‘Imitation’ in 1827 found in ‘Tamerlane and other Poems’ collection.

Edgar Allan Poe 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’.

Two events could become the catalysts for this poem:

  • Her fiancée being sent away from Edgar Allan Poe when the secret of engagement was divulged
  • Poe 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.

 

Personal Commentary

A Dream within a Dream is purely a melancholic poem authored by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s about hope, hopelessness, and helplessness of man in general. As the poet agonizingly contends that human has to make compromises. The first half deals with Edgar Allan Poe’s loss of wife. 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.

We've analyzed this poem twice

We like ‘A Dream within a Dream’ so much, we made sure two of our team of poetry experts analyze it for your benefit with different interpretations.
Read the second analysis

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Omer Asad
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.
  • Avatar 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 Lee-James Bovey says:

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

  • Avatar 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.

    • Avatar Ben Dover says:

      that’s pretty rood of you

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        I see what you did there.

  • >

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