In ‘Dreams,’ the speaker tries to illustrate the ways in which paradox and absurdity are natural parts of our sleeping minds and, therefore, our dreams. Dryden juxtaposes contradictory images and ideas to illustrate the ways in which our unconscious runs rampant when we are asleep.
Yet unlike future writers and thinkers, he doesn’t guess much at their meanings. Instead, the speaker provides general examples of the things people dream about and offers really only one explanation for their source (i.e., our conscious lives). Dryden’s affecting diction and memorable metaphors make the poem a persistently beautiful view into the dreamworld we all occupy at one point or another.
Dreams John Henry DrydenDreams are but interludes which Fancy makes;When monarch Reason sleeps, this mimic wakes:Compounds a medley of disjointed things,A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings:Light fumes are merry, grosser fumes are sad;Both are the reasonable soul run mad;And many monstrous forms in sleep we see,That neither were, nor are, nor e'er can be.Sometimes forgotten things long cast behindRush forward in the brain, and come to mind.The nurse's legends are for truths received,And the man dreams but what the boy believed.Sometimes we but rehearse a former play,The night restores our actions done by day;As hounds in sleep will open for their prey.In short, the farce of dreams is of a piece,Chimeras all; and more absurd, or less.
‘Dreams’ by John Henry Dryden is a poem in which the speaker mulls over the strangeness of dreams.
The speaker of ‘Dreams’ opens with what could easily be understood as the overarching theme of the poem: dreams are the result of imagination, not reason. As a result, they are often a place that is either nightmarish, blissful, or farcical (often moving between each at breakneck speeds). The bizarre contradictions encountered when our mind is unconscious are presented throughout the poem as either “monstrous forms” (7) or as reenactments of our daily lives: “The night restores our actions done by day” (14). But in the end, the one thing all our dreams have in common is their potential for going off the rails in mind-boggling ways.
Structure and Form
‘Dreams’ is composed of 17 lines with no definite meter. The poem’s rhyme scheme is ‘AABBCCDDEEFFGGGHH’ and is organized almost solely into rhyming couplets, with the exception of lines 13-15. Dryden uses only end-stopped lines throughout.
‘Dreams’ features a number of examples of paradox throughout in order to describe the nature of dreams. The speaker calls them a “medley of disjointed things” (3) and even uses a variety of metaphors to convey the paradoxical meanings: from the juxtaposition of a “mob of cobblers, and a court of kings” (4) to allusions to Greek mythology with “Chimeras all” (17). Dryden also employs personification in describing the origin of dreams themselves, describing them as something “Fancy makes” (1) when “Reason sleeps”(2), making “the reasonable soul run mad” (6).
He also uses imagery to illustrate the power dreams have over us, referring to nightmares when the speaker mentions the “monstrous forms in sleep we see” (7).
Dreams are but interludes which Fancy makes;
When monarch Reason sleeps, this mimic wakes:
The first two lines of ‘Dreams’ reveal the poem’s title as being quite literal in terms of its subject matter: the speaker is going to be ruminating on the nature of dreams. The very first line asserts that dreams are simply “interludes” created by the imagination when people are asleep. While the second line props up “Fancy” and “Reason” as two opposing forces in our minds — one operating only while the other is incapacitated.
But the method of making these statements are dreamlike, as the speaker uses personification to give “Dreams,” “Fancy,” and “Reason” their own personas. In this way, Dryden constructs a far more concrete image of the realms of the unconscious. When we go to sleep, so does “monarch Reason,” personified as the kingly leader of our conscious empire, which leaves “Fancy” in charge of running amok. Revealing one of the core themes of the poem and a timeless one at that: our dreams are bizarre generators of thoughts and images.
Compounds a medley of disjointed things,
A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings:
Light fumes are merry, grosser fumes are sad;
Both are the reasonable soul run mad;
In the next sequence of lines, the speaker provides examples of the chaotic nature of dreams. Continuing the personification of “Fancy” in the previous lines, the speaker says they create a “medley of disjointed things” — perhaps the most cogent, if not the most vivid, description of dreams in the poem. In keeping with this motif of paradoxical combinations, the speaker then juxtaposes two metaphors containing contrasting images.
The first describes dreams in terms of aristocracy and laborers — “A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings” (4) — which alludes back to the labeling of “Reason” as a monarch. The second uses the imagery of “fumes” to describe the moods created by dreams, with some being “merry” and others being “sad.”
However, the final line finds the speaker reassuring the reader via personification that all these eccentric and concerningly strange contradictions are the result of a “reasonable soul run mad” (6). In other words, as the first two lines affirmed, it’s perfectly reasonable for our imagination to run wild when our “Reason” itself sleeps.
And many monstrous forms in sleep we see,
That neither were, nor are, nor e’er can be.
Sometimes forgotten things long cast behind
Rush forward in the brain, and come to mind
The nurse’s legends are for truths received,
And the man dreams but what the boy believed.
The speaker then begins to list all the strange things we see or encounter when we dream. The first two lines describe the “monstrous forms” one might see in a nightmare despite the fact that such things do not exist. The second couplet calls to mind the way dreams can reilluminate long-forgotten memories, and the final one reiterates that what was believed as a child (and perhaps lost or made unbelievable in adulthood) is stirred up again when we dream.
Sometimes we but rehearse a former play,
The night restores our actions done by day;
As hounds in sleep will open for their prey.
Here the speaker refers to the way our dreams can be sometimes inspired by our daily lives. Referring to a “play” that has been rehearsed while awake, they describe how the “night restores” those actions when dreaming. The example the speaker gives is a familiar one for anyone who owns a dog — especially a hound — as they will often appear to act out their hunt while asleep.
In short, the farce of dreams is of a piece,
Chimeras all; and more absurd, or less.
The final couplet of ‘Dreams’ surmises that dreams themselves are both “of a piece” (i.e., consistent) and “Chimeras all” (an allusion to the Greek mythological creature that was part lion, goat, and serpent). This also echoes the previous description of dreams as “a medley of disjointed things” (4). In the end, the speaker resigns that dreams themselves are more or less “absurd” and that it’s in their nature to be just that: ineffable visions of our unconscious mind.
The theme might be difficult to pinpoint if only because it’s a plain and less-than-profound statement: dreams are a curious part of existence. One that’s not just unique to humans either, as the speaker themselves point out. The theme of Dryden’s poem is centered on (and frames the poem via its first and last lines) the idea that dreams are borne out of our sleeping reason — unconsciousness runs rampant. They might come from a variety of sources and have numerous ineffable meanings, but the one thing that unites them all is that they’re consistently bizarre.
Dryden’s poem unfolds as deep thoughted musing about dreams. One point of emphasis is a paradox, which the speaker holds up both as a tenet of dreams and as a way of visualizing them. Much of the poem is an attempt to drive home this view of them as organically strange.
Although the poem attempts to explain dreams, all it really ends up ascertaining or even emphasizing is their farce-like nature. This is really the point of the whole poem — a brainstorming about dreams that is so focused it can seem slightly devotional. The speaker is essentially composing an ode to their weirdness, and that very well might be why Dryden wrote it in the first place. Even the constant repetition that dreams are innately odd starts to feel like a reassuring reminder to the reader.
- ‘Dreams’ by Anne Brontë – is another poem that wonders about the nature of dreams and the passage from consciousness to unconsciousness.
- ‘Dreams’ by Helen Hunt Jackson – a poem that recounts some of the detrimental ways dreams can affect our waking lives.
- ‘The Land of Dreams’ by William Blake – is a poem that explores via the dialogue between a father and son the dreamworld we all walk.