‘Life is but a Dream’ by Lewis Carroll is a poem that utilizes juxtaposition and unique structure to represent the logic and illogic of the work that inspired the poem. That work is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which extends into Through the Looking Glass, and this poem stands as a tribute to the original work itself as well as the readers of that work. Both author and reader are united in this “Wonderland” “dream,” and while Carroll has unpleasant feelings regarding the “[l]ingering” nature of “Alice,” the readers’ perspectives are the surrounding elements of focus. This is the ultimate tip of the hat from Carroll to readers, and it is presented in a pure “Wonderland” fashion.
Life is but a Dream Analysis
First and Second Stanzas
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July–
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—
Carroll has a way of whimsy with his wording, and this pair of stanzas are evidence of this fact. For starters, he has utilized a unique rhyme scheme in that all lines of any single stanza rhyme together to create repetition. This trio of lines with an AAA rhyme scheme has a sound structure in that rhyme scheme, but in a way that is just out of the realm of the ordinary, which is very akin to “the tale” that ‘Life is but a Dream’ is concerning: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This novel is a dive into the logic of illogic with wordplays and odd concepts where things might make sense, but in an atypical manner. This idea is so strong in the novel that it is almost necessary to embrace this same uniqueness of ideas in the poem addressing it, and keeping a rigid—but unusual—rhyme scheme is a strong way to accomplish this.
As well, the primary readers for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are referenced with the line of the “[c]hildren three” who are “near” with an “[e]ager eye and willing ear” “to hear” this “simple tale.” These would be the people who adore the book and wish “to hear” more. This gathering of “[e]ager” readers are presented in an unlikely scenario of being in “[a] boat, beneath the sunny sky” “[i]n an evening of July.” Considering they are noted as “[l]ingering onward dreamily,” the unlikeliness of this setting can be explained away by assuming that this is a “dream.” These “[c]hildren” are being imaginative, which is incredibly fitting given the level of imagination that is present within Carroll’s “Wonderland.”
That their situation is addressed as “[l]ingering onward” is telling as well since those words seem contradictory. “Lingering” has a connotation of staying in one area, while “onward” means going forward. While these words could be seen as a juxtaposition, they are a representation of the illogical logic of Carroll’s work. These young readers, as it happens, wish to remain in the story of “Alice,” but they want to push “onward” to learn more and experience new details of the story. It is a contrasting way to present this very regular concept.
Third and Fourth Stanzas
Long has paled that sunny sky;
Echoes fade and memories die;
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
This pair of stanzas of ‘Life is but a Dream’ comments more on Carroll himself than the readers of his works, and in this perspective, “Alice” is treated like a struggle that “haunts” him like a “phantom.” This concept is strengthened in the bizarre word choices of Stanza Three, like the “sunny sky” having been “paled” for a “[l]ong” while as elements “fade” and “die” in the “Autumn frosts.” While the readers were “[e]ager” for “the tale” and wish to “[l]inger” there, Carroll seems incapable of moving past it and not overly thrilled with the stationary detail. Perhaps this is a commentary that Carroll could not escape the renown of “Wonderland,” and he wished to shake free of it in order to give other works further notoriety.
The “haunt[ing]” element of “Alice[‘s]” nature is further addressed as she “mov[es] under skies” and is “[n]ever seen by waking eyes.” This places Carroll in a “dream” state, like his readers who wish to “[l]inger” in “the tale,” though he has much less enthusiasm with the process. Whereas the readers are “[e]ager” “to hear” more, Carroll seems to want to move past “the tale” entirely. Despite this want, “Alice” exists in his “dream[s]” and will not let him be.
In this, the reader of ‘Life is but a Dream’ can see the division between author and reader, though they both are in the “dream” together. The reader cannot get enough of “the tale” since they only experience what is delivered to them by the author. The author, however, could have the character in his mind even after the story wraps up, so the plot does not have to end. In this, the character could feel like a “haunt[ing]” element that will not let the author go.
By pairing up these ideas in such a back-to-back notion, with the first two stanzas showing the pleasantness of the reader and the following two representing the author’s frustrations, the juxtaposition is clear. Not only does this show the two elements at their highest levels due to being paired with an opposite idea, but it also expresses the odd pairings that are connected to “Wonderland.” The placing of at-odd elements so close together is relatable to illogical “Wonderland” concepts like people as Chess pieces or roses being painted.
Carroll has accomplished both goals then—linking the ideas to a “Wonderland” frame of mind and showing the distinction between author and reader regarding perspectives.
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Stanzas
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die;
Ever drifting down the stream–
Lingering in the golden gleam–
Life, what is it but a dream?
“Children” are again the focus in Stanza Five, and this time they “[l]ovingly… nestle near.” This highlights a level of clear affection that they have for “the tale” as “in Wonderland they lie,” “[d]reaming as the days go by” and “as the summers die.” Essentially, after the author’s published ideas on the story end—or “summers die”—the reader still exists in a pleasant state of connection with the work. This is a contrast to Carroll’s opinions, but recall that Carroll’s thoughts were only the middle elements of this narrative. It is the readers’ reactions that bookend the poem and surround it as the beginning and finishing perspectives. There is little to nothing Carroll could have done to better show that the readers’ perspectives are what matter, far more than his own as the author, so it highlights the audience’s importance in the scenario.
For readers, they are “[e]ver drifting down the stream” and “[l]ingering in the golden gleam.” This shows that the story still brings brightness to their lives with “the golden gleam,” and they will always hold that story close to their hearts since they are “[e]ver drifting.” In this, Carroll has established a connection with his readers that makes ‘Life is but a Dream’ reasonable. If they will always hold the original novel close, reflecting on it in this poem is almost a favor of sorts to the reader. Given how much relevance he has allocated to the reader through returning to their perspective, Carroll has rationalized his writing of the poem. These readers are what matter, so he has written this take on their thoughts and opinions, and provided them a way to venture into “Wonderland” just a bit more.
The ending line is another reason for writing ‘Life is but a Dream’ and catering to the readers’ desires: that “[l]ife” is only “a dream.” Basically, Carroll is saying that he should cater to these young readers’ wants to “[l]inger” in the story because “[l]ife,” in the end, is just “a dream” anyway. “[D]reami[ng]” is, Carroll seems to believe, what gives “[l]ife” character and imagination, so logically, there is no reason to not afford readers another chance to dive into the “Wonderland” “dream.”
Once more, though, there is a combination of logic and illogic since “[l]ife” is certainly more than “a dream.” It is real and vivid, but in trivializing it so, Carroll has presented a frame of mind akin to his “[c]hildren” readers, creating unity and providing an illogical reason for his writings that would seem rational to young readers. Logic and illogic, then, are driving forces, as if “Wonderland” has things right, and only in looking between the two can “[l]ife” be a “dream” that is worth experiencing to its fullest.
Overall, ‘Life is but a Dream’ is a wonderful reflection of “Wonderland[‘s]” insensibilities, and a grand tribute to readers in spite of the author’s hesitancies. Essentially, the reader and author are in the same “dream,” but their opinions are a bit contradictory in true “Wonderland” form. The reader, though, is the key focus, which solidifies the reason for writing this poem. In the end, this is a fitting tribute to the relationship between reader and author—and to the logic and illogic of “Wonderland.”
About Lewis Carroll
Charles Dodgson was born in 1832 and would later take up the pen name of Lewis Carroll. His works have entertained children and adults in the years that have passed since he began writing. In addition to his writing, he was also known for his aptitude in mathematics. His stories surrounding the character of “Alice” are arguably his most noted works, and they continue to be relevant in today’s popular culture.