The Dream

John Donne


John Donne

Nationality: English

John Donne is one of the most important English poets of his time.

He was the best of the metaphysical poets and is remembered for his skill with conceits.

The poem, ‘The Dream’, is an admirable lyric that illustrates several qualities of Donne’s poetry. It has been praised highly by a number of critics. This is a very abstract and intellectual poem; and yet the effect of it is anything but abstract. It is an absolutely consecutive and continuous piece of argument from the very first line to the last of ‘The Dream’, and it’s every simile, whether phenomenal, such as lighting, taper, torches, or intellectual, such as angels, simple and compound substances, is almost inseparable from the thought it illustrates and expresses.

The pictorial element, if present at all, is at a minimum: what is described is not a sight but such thoughts and feelings as the sight might be supposed to have suggested. The diction is precise and almost scientific and the words are completely uncharged with associations, not strictly relevant. There is as much drama, imagination, feeling, sensation, experience as of intellect and logic, and this sensational or experimental element is conveyed, not by a choice of words rich in association, but by speech-rhythm, inflexion, cadence. Every line, in fact, is intensely alive. On the whole, this is one of the best love poems by Donne.

The Dream
John Donne

Dear love, for nothing less than theeWould I have broke this happy dream; It was a themeFor reason, much too strong for fantasy,Therefore thou wak'd'st me wisely; yetMy dream thou brok'st not, but continued'st it.Thou art so true that thoughts of thee sufficeTo make dreams truths, and fables histories;Enter these arms, for since thou thought'st it best,Not to dream all my dream, let's act the rest.

As lightning, or a taper's light,Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak'd me; Yet I thought thee(For thou lovest truth) an angel, at first sight;But when I saw thou sawest my heart,And knew'st my thoughts, beyond an angel's art,When thou knew'st what I dreamt, when thou knew'st whenExcess of joy would wake me, and cam'st then,I must confess, it could not choose but beProfane, to think thee any thing but thee.

Coming and staying show'd thee, thee,But rising makes me doubt, that now Thou art not thou.That love is weak where fear's as strong as he;'Tis not all spirit, pure and brave,If mixture it of fear, shame, honour have;Perchance as torches, which must ready be,Men light and put out, so thou deal'st with me;Thou cam'st to kindle, goest to come; then IWill dream that hope again, but else would die.
The Dream by John Donne

The Dream Analysis

Stanza One

Dear love, for nothing less than thee

Would I have broke this happy dream;

It was a theme

For reason, much too strong for fantasy,

Therefore thou wak’d’st me wisely; yet

My dream thou brok’st not, but continued’st it.

Thou art so true that thoughts of thee suffice

To make dreams truths, and fables histories;

Enter these arms, for since thou thought’st it best,

Not to dream all my dream, let’s act the rest.

The poem, ‘The Dream’, by John Donne, begins in an easy, conversational style. Addressing his beloved, the poet says that he had been dreaming a dream which moved him so strongly that it could not have been merely imaginary and fanciful. As a matter of fact, it had its basis in truth and reality, for he was dreaming of her and of the pleasure of making love to her, when she arrived and interrupted his dream. It was wise for her to do so, for by her arrival his ‘phantasy’ has been corrected and made more reasonable. No doubt her arrival has interrupted his dream, but in a way, it will continue, for now, the pleasures he dreamed of have been converted into reality.

Her arrival is giving him the same pleasure as he was enjoying in his dream. One reads of such beauty only in fables, that is; imaginary stories, but she, a real, living breathing woman, has made such fabulous accounts of female beauty look real and truthful like facts of history. She is the very embodiment of all that the poets have imagined feminine charms and perfections. The poet exhorts her to come to him and let him embrace her, so that he may enjoy in reality the pleasure which he was about to enjoy in his dream when it was interrupted by her arrival. Donne’s use of hyperbole is to be noted here.

Stanza Two

As lightning, or a taper’s light,

Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak’d me;

Yet I thought thee

(For thou lovest truth) an angel, at first sight;

But when I saw thou sawest my heart,

And knew’st my thoughts, beyond an angel’s art,

When thou knew’st what I dreamt, when thou knew’st when

Excess of joy would wake me, and cam’st then,

I must confess, it could not choose but be

Profane, to think thee anything but thee.

Continuing in the same hyperbolic vein in ‘The Dream’, the poet compares the brightness of her eyes to the light of a candle or to lighting. It was not the sound made by her arrival, but the bright and dazzling light of her eyes, that woke him up. At first, he thought that it was an angel that had entered his room, for she, too, is truthful like an angel. But then the angels cannot look into the heart of a person and know his thoughts.

Only Gods can do so. As she knows his thoughts and feelings, as she can look into his heart and read his thoughts, she is not only angelic but also divine. She is a goddess much superior to angels. That she knows his thoughts and feelings is proved by the fact that she knew that he was dreaming of her, and came just at the point when the very excess of his joy would have broken his dream.

Therefore, it would be an impious act to think her to be less than a goddess. She is divine and must be worshiped and adored accordingly. Thus like a clever lawyer, Donne has given arguments after arguments to establish the point that his beloved is a goddess in human form.

Stanza Three

Coming and staying show’d thee, thee,

But rising makes me doubt, that now

Thou art not thou.

That love is weak where fear’s as strong as he;

‘Tis not all spirit, pure and brave,

If mixture it of fear, shame, honour have;

Perchance as torches, which must ready be,

Men light and put out, so thou deal’st with me;

Thou cam’st to kindle, goest to come; then I

Will dream that hope again, but else would die.

In this last and third stanza of ‘The Dream’, the poet is rather critical of his divine beloved. Her coming to his bedroom and staying there for some time showed that she was really a divine being, not at all concerned with the opinion of the world. But her rising and getting ready to go away shows that she is false to her own divine nature. It shows that her love is not so strong as he had supposed it to be. It is mixed up with such worldly considerations as shame and fear of disgrace and loss of reputation. Such feelings are unworthy of a goddess like her.

But it is possible that she is leaving him not from a fear of loss of reputation, but from other considerations. In order to explain his point, Donne makes use of a conceit. He compares himself to a torch, and his beloved to a person who lights a torch tests it, and then extinguishes it and keeps it ready for use. Her arrival in his bedroom was intended to arouse his passions – to light the torch of his desires – and to satisfy herself that he was fully capable of satisfying her own sexual desires. Now she is going away but would soon return to make use of the torch she has lighted. He would continue to dream of her early return. It is this hope along which could make him live; without this hope, he is sure to die.

John Donne as a Love Poet

John Donne’s love poetry covers many different emotions than that of an earlier poet. It is not bookish but is rooted in his personal experiences. His experiences for love were varied and wide, and so is the emotional range of his love-poetry. As is known to the poem lovers, he had love affairs with several women, some of them permanent and lasting, others only of short duration.

Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

We're glad you like visiting Poem Analysis...

We've got everything you need to master poetry

But, are you ready to take your learning

to the next level?

Share to...