‘Dreams’ is a poem regarding how regretful memories of the past have a tendency to haunt us. Over a course of fourteen lines, Helen Hunt Jackson covers the negative effects that dreams have on our lives. She specifically targets how dreams often revive the sorrowful memories of our past and in a way, make us relive the event that we were trying desperately to forget. A driving point in her poem is that we will carry sadness with us until we die. The poem ‘Dreams’ is rich with imagery, and imagery is the strongest device Jackson uses to highlight the main point of her poem. Despite the fact that the poem is entitled Dreams, it does not focus on the general essence of dreams. Jackson explicitly only targets the negative effects that dreams often have when we are compelled to remember our past through them.
Dreams are generally seen as positive, motivating tools that most people look forward to. Dreams are a synonym for goals and aspirations. However, in her poem, Jackson describes dreams as experiences that highlight depression and gloom. The title Dreams can be perceived as an oxymoron, because Jackson means for it to contradict itself. The entire poem can be seen as satirical in nature, because the content contrasts strongly with the selected title, almost in a mocking tone.
Themes in the Poem
‘Dreams’ by Helen Hunt Jackson follow the themes of grieving old memories, sleep, and sorrow. The mood of the entire poem is depressing and hollow with grief. The last five lines switch to a more hopeful mood but are still heavy with contempt. This perpetually sorrowful mood fits the poem well as Jackson is attempting to remind us that we can never truly escape the events of our past, and therefore will always carry sadness with us until we die.
Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain
That we can forge and bind: the crime whose stain
Is slowly fading ‘neath the tears we weep;
Dead bliss which, dead, can make our pulses leap —
Oh, cruelty! To make these live again!
They say that death is sleep, and heaven’s rest
Ends earth’s short day, as, on the last faint gleam
Of sun, our nights shut down, and we are blest.
Let this, then, be of heaven’s joy the test,
The proof if heaven be, or only seem,
That we forever choose what we will dream!
Jackson commences the poem with a metaphor, ‘Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain.’
The object being described is not mentioned directly, however, incurring through the title, it is obvious that it is dreams that are being described. A dream is an intangible phenomenon but Jackson chooses to give it a physical form by stating that it is a mysterious shape possessing a wand that afflicts both joy and pain. The word shape is vague and when accompanied by the word mysterious it carries an even broader meaning. The fact that the shapes are holding wands that inflict emotion tells us the voice is stating that dreams are so powerful that almost like magic they are able to inflict a wide array of feelings onto us.
It becomes certain that it is in fact dreams that are being described in the next line when the voice states that these mysterious shapes are what seize us unaware in our helpless sleep. This negative choice of words shows us that the voice is focusing on the painful emotions that dreams bring. An important thing to note is how Jackson states that they seize us while we are helpless. The only time in the day when we truly let our guard down, and stop protecting our feelings and emotions is when we fall asleep.
The voice states that dreams bring us to that point in which the negative emotions we have kept in for the entire day are forced to break free, almost as if by a magical force. Jackson uses alliteration here to allow the sentences to combine with each other and give the poem a deeper meaning. The verses are heavy in destructive imagery as Jackson drives home how well hidden we keep some of our emotions, even from ourselves. However hard we try to lock away these painful thoughts, the scars are always uncovered when our conscience has been put off guard; when we fall asleep.
In the seventh line, the poem takes a slight change in topic and shifts from talking about the effects of dreams to the negative emotions themselves. The voice states how the only way we can find true bliss is when our memories are dead. Only when our negative emotions are not being addressed can we be at ease. In fact, even when these memories have been dead and buried they still cause our pulses to leap, or in other words cause us negative emotions. If these emotions are so dangerous even when we refuse to think about them, how cruel is it to see them again so vividly when we fall asleep? Surely this is a form of emotional torture. During the waking day, we try our best to bury these memories but even though we are not actively thinking of them they leave a bitter aftertaste in our mouths. We try to kill the memories during the day and despite our best efforts they still cause our pulses to leap. When we sleep and let our guard down it is almost as if the dreams attack us physically and bring us to emotional turmoil once again.
The last six lines shift to a new idea. The mood switches to one of contemptuous hope. The voice now brings to mention a famous saying that death is sleep. It is a peaceful saying that when people die, they go into eternal sleep. The voice states how if death truly is sleep, then heaven would be that we eternally choose what we dream. Jackson ends her poem with this to emphasize how being able to select our dreams would be absolute bliss. Constantly having our old memories plague us when we sleep is in stark comparison, a hellish experience, the exact opposite of heavenly bliss. She uses a contemptuous tone almost as if saying that at the very least the recurring nightmares should leave us alone when we die. The point of these last few lines is to bring to attention the persistent nature of these dreams which forever reminds us of our disheartening memories.
Jackson’s poem ‘Dreams’ is a sorrowful poem that attempts to put into words the feeling of revisiting our painful memories in our sleep. A voice-first describes the pain of revisiting unwanted memories, then elaborates by discussing the negative emotions themselves, and finally, concludes with a hopeful note that at least when we die we will no longer have to suffer these terrible thoughts. Jackson uses metaphors, imagery, and alliteration to allow the reader to fully experience the feeling of losing one’s mind to haunting memories of the past.
About Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen Hunt Jackson (Birth name; Helen Maria Fiske) holds a prestigious position in the Colorado women hall of fame and was a good friend of the famous poet Emily Dickinson. She was born in Massachusetts and was orphaned at a very young age. She began her writing profession after her husband and children passed away after only a few years of her marriage. Helen Hunt Jackson is best known for her collections of poetry, travel literature, and writing geared towards children. Interestingly, she often wrote under various pen names including; Rip Van Winkle, Saxe Holm, and H.H. Alongside being a poet she was also a strong Native American rights activist. Her work A Century of Dishonor, which focused on the injustice done to the Native Americans actually lead to the creation of the Indian rights association.