The speaker begins this piece by introducing a dark dream that he was subject to. This dream, and the emotions he experienced during it, are not unfamiliar to him. He is often consumed in the darkness that these thoughts bring. He is far from being a stranger to it. In contrast, he says that having a good dream would be much more shocking as it is so different from his normal life. If this was to happen, as it does in the form of daydreams, the speaker would be broken-hearted when he returned to the real world.
As he continues on he describes the kind of life he is living in which he is stuck in a pessimistic, backward-looking rut. Throughout his days he walks with his eyes on the past, unseeing of all that is currently before him. The only times he is roused from this state is by a waking dream in which a light guides him to some happier emotion.
Finally, the speaker concludes by saying that these daydreams are all the more poignant because they are so pure and true. They are much more impactful and meaningful than the light of morning after a night of bad dreams.
Analysis of A Dream
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.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the basics of a dream that he was subject to. This dream was filled with “visions of the dark night.” It held nothing but blackness for him, and left an impression that would last throughout the following day. Strong enough, if one is to make this assumption, to lead him to write this poem.
The next lines tell the reader that the most crucial part of the dream was the general feeling that “joy departed.” It is at this point in the poem, in the second set of lines in the first stanza, that a twist changes the reader’s perspective. One might have assumed at this point that the poem was going to detail the horrors that the speaker, perhaps the poet himself, witnessed while he was sleeping, this is not the case.
The speaker states that this dream he had was nothing to him, it did not change his outlook on life because his emotions were already dark and depressed. For him, what is truly horrifying is, while living in his dark world, to have a daydream of “life and light.” This is what scares him. When this does happen to him, it leaves him with a broken heart for all the things he does not, and cannot, have.
Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?
The second stanza expands the speaker’s reach out to those who might be experiencing a similar phenomenon. He speaks from experience when he says that to those whose “eyes are cast…with a ray” towards the past, everything is a dream.
The speaker is describing a state of living in which one is unable to interact with the real world, and is consumed by what happened in the past, in the same places in currently inhabits. When a man or woman lives this way, their life is like a waking dream.
That holy dream—that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.
Once more the speaker turns inward. While he has stated previously that happy, light daydreams, have injured him, he now touts their impact. He remembers the moments of hope and happiness he experienced for the future, as “holy.” They are moments that go beyond his everyday drear into the realm of the divine.
They are for him an escape from the world ask all of it’s “chiding,” or scolding. He can leave his life behind and be “cheered” by outrageous, or implausible, hopes for the future. These images act like a “guide,” a type of “lonely spirit” that helps him through his everyday. It is important to remember though that this moment of peace will lead to a “broken heart” when it departs.
What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?
In the finals stanza of this piece the poet contrasts the world he is living in and the hope he sometimes feels, to the coming of morning after a terrible dream.
He believes that the “purely bright” dreams of his waking life are much more true, than the light he experiences on waking from a dream. Although the daylight takes him out of what might have been a terrible vision, the daydreams are still more powerful.
About Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of his parents died before he reached the age of three and he was raised as a foster child in Virginia. As a young man Poe was sent to some of the best schools in the state and excelled in his studies. Unfortunately, his success was mired by his bad habits. He was forced out of university after his foster father refused to pay Poe’s gambling debts.
In 1827, Poe joins the United States Army and published his first collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems. His second collection was published two years later. Neither of these volumes received praise from the public. Poe would eventually make a home for himself alongside his aunt and cousin, Virginia, in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1835, Poe was to become the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and the next year he married his thirteen year old cousin. Throughout the next years of his life he edited a number of magazines and made a name for himself as a writer and editor. It was also during this time that he wrote some of his best known stories such as, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Poe’s wife and cousin would die in 1847 from tuberculosis, causing a deepening of his depression and worsening of his alcoholism. To this day there is mystery surrounding his death. He was found on October 3, 1849, semi-conscious in Baltimore. He died four days later of what was then called, “acute congestion of the brain.” It is now thought that he had perhaps contracted rabies.