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Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”: An Analysis

February 17, 2012

It is not a hyperbole to say that the final year of Edgar Allen Poe’s life also produced some of the darkest and most sensitive work composed by the poet.  Reading through “A Dream Within a Dream” one is almost inclined to believe that the man understood that his days were coming to an end.  The prose is always reflective, laced with a somber dose of melancholy; yet, filled with unavoidable regret and frustration.  Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the prevailing anger of the hopeless writer at the various circumstances that have brought the man to his lowly point.

The poem begins like a dying man’s final plea for understanding from a life that has granted him so much agonizing torment during his time within its clutches:

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow–

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

The poet appears to be prepared to say his farewell through these opening lines, but also offer a last elucidation into his troubled mind.  The last two lines may read as a concession to the frivolous pursuits of one’s past interests, but if read with the line that precedes it the message takes on a much more affirmative tone than a reader might expect from a shame induced defense.  The man understands that it is too late to bother with vacuous humility about one’s misdeeds, and instead opts to simply give his closing testament of his dire state of mind–offer his own epitaph, if you will.

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

The question asked is much more complex than its simple framing might suggest.  When a man reaches a point in which his past desires,  dreams, and ambitions are no longer feasible goals for him to pursue, should it matter by what means or length these hopes have left, since they are presently nothing more but mere memories anyway?  Is it not true how this will eventually be the fate of all our current pursuits and hopes?  And if so, is there any use in pursuing one hopes to begin with?  Or as Poe puts it:

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

Every matter we dedicate ourselves to will some day decay to nothing more but a faint memory–a dream within a dream.  Although it seems apparent when stated in such terms, the actual prose of this first stanza of the poem presents the blatant fatalism of its message in a much subtler tone.  The sort a dying man might present to ease the misfortunes that have haunted his life.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand–

Now, the reader is given a clearer description of the poet’s current circumstance.  The usage of “roar” and “surf-tormented” brings up images of anguish, but the poet’s allusion to an unruly sea as the source implies that the troubles of his life are ultimately pangs that life has thrust upon him (and not the result of self-inflicted foolishness).  The last two lines here are important, for they reference the poet’s still vivid recollection of past valuables amidst his gloomy memories.  But rather than give him solace, these few redeeming moments are the most painful of all to bear:

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep–while I weep!

Edgar Allen Poe is a man whose life is filled with more tragedies than his writings could ever express.  Having lost his parents, his wife, seen much of his literary career dismissed to the margins by his colleagues, reduced to the state of an impoverished drunk, he now stands crying in isolation, trying to hold on to the tiniest of golden moments he can recall in life, but finding himself powerless in capturing them for any meaningful comfort:

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Whereas the poet began his prose in collective reflection, the endeavor appears to have been too much for his fragile mind, as he now tries to plea with the phantoms of his past.  The desperation in these final gasps reveals much about the writer’s final mental state.  Far from being ready to make peace with his life’s torments and losses, and despite his previous insistence how his hope has flown away, his self-pity still prevents him from giving into the apathy he seems at times to crave.  This is evident by how he finishes his prose by repeating his once exclamatory statement, as a hopeful question for mercy from some undisclosed fate:

Is  all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

For someone like Edgar Allen Poe, who at this point in his life had nothing more to hold onto but his dreams–his fading memories–nothing would have been more desirable than the reassurance that this sole valuable of his was more than a mere intangible thought.  But given how the poet’s life ended within the same year that this poem was published, I am skeptical as to whether he ever managed to truly convince himself of this dying wish.

 

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7 Comments
  1. Interesting take on Poe and this particular poem. I’ve never been much of a poem person myself, specially rhyming poetry which to be honest turns my stomach. Yet, this poem seems just like you said a man’s last reach to capture something lost and the reassurance that not all was in vain, even though now it’s out of reach forever.

    You say; “When a man reaches a point in which his past desires, dreams, and ambitions are no longer feasible goals for him to pursue, should it matter by what means or length these hopes have left, since they are presently nothing more but mere memories anyway?
    – You asked is if does matter how hopes have left someone’s life once those hopes are not feasible any longer, I believe it does matter for in that very question lie all the reasons why a person is in the predicament he’s in (not including failing health and ultimate death). It’s very important to look back at your life in order to gain perspective of your current situation, in laymen terms one must see what he has done in life to find himself standing where he is right now. I am a firm believer that every choice I’ve made in my life, every step and chance that I decide to take or forgo has brought me to this point in time today, right here and now. And if your past wasn’t enough look at your actions and reaction today and you’ll see a pattern. Just because they’re memories, doesn’t undermine their importance nor meaning to the individual asking those questions. Memories are what we’re made of among other things, and thus, they play a role into our lives and most of all our consciousness.

    You say; “Is it not true how this will eventually be the fate of all our current pursuits and hopes? And if so, is there and use in pursuing one hopes to begin with?”
    – By stamping a question mark on all hopes and dreams, and endeavors, ambitions and so forth, you seem to point out that in the end it seems none of it matters really considering how it all ends (ailment and ultimate death included). The feeling I get from these question is that you seem to point out none of it matters since they all fade and wither away, weather by choice or circumstance, which brings a frightening conclusion; one must not even bother to try then, does he? So, is it not-pursuing any of the aforementioned attributes to human nature a feasible goal? Should we eliminate pondering on what could have been just because we’re no longer able to grasp within our reach those goals? I think not. Why not look at it one last time before all goes into the fade and last breath escapes us? Perhaps this way, we’ll be able to find some peace with what we have and have not done in our lives. Perhaps, looking at ourselves as we were all our lives, will finally free us from the restraints of the mortal coil we so heavily despise yet we can’t escape from.

    By analyzing one’s desires, dreams, goals, achievements, ambitions we can finally see the very fabric we’re made of, what makes us unique even at the face of utter disappointment, resent, failure and ultimate death.

    • “I’ve never been much of a poem person myself, specially rhyming poetry which to be honest turns my stomach. Yet, this poem seems just like you said a man’s last reach to capture something lost and the reassurance that not all was in vain, even though now it’s out of reach forever.”

      Give me time, and I’ll turn you to the dark side of literary sophistry and vacuousness. :D

      As far as what you say here:

      “Just because they’re memories, doesn’t undermine their importance nor meaning to the individual asking those questions. Memories are what we’re made of among other things, and thus, they play a role into our lives and most of all our consciousness.”

      I agree, and I believe so would Poe (otherwise why would he write a poem about it). In this poem, Poe understands the impact his past has played in bringing him to this point in life, but I think the weight of the despair he is feeling for all the people he’s lost (his wife died a few years prior to writing this) and the failure of his career (he was pretty impoverished throughout his life, with little financial success from his writings) is making his memories appear like haunting spirits to his evermore fragile mind (I personally think he was slipping into deep delirium towards the end of his life, when this would have been written; but that’s just a suspicion on my part). In other words, it seems that he is deriving an important meaning from his past, unfortunately the meaning he has reached is that his life is largely composed of regret and sorrow. In this context, resorting to pessimism and nihilism, deducing life and memories to mere intangibles, could be Poe’s final, desperate attempt to cope with the harsh loneliness of his existence.

      “By stamping a question mark on all hopes and dreams, and endeavors, ambitions and so forth, you seem to point out that in the end it seems none of it matters really considering how it all ends (ailment and ultimate death included). The feeling I get from these question is that you seem to point out none of it matters since they all fade and wither away, weather by choice or circumstance, which brings a frightening conclusion; one must not even bother to try then, does he?”

      I should probably mention that whenever I do any sort of literary analysis or critique, I try to place myself into the tone and mindset of the author/artist behind the prose. In this way my questions and commentaries are often rhetorical devices to further the conversation started by the thinker who originally penned the work. In this regard, I do think that Poe conclusion about human existence at the time of this poem’s writing reflects his dire mindset in the final years of his life. My personal opinion on the subject is quite different.

      I know that 100 years from now I will very likely be long dead, and by my own convictions, I am convinced that death is the final frontier after which there is nothing more to come for my conscious self. To me this makes my decisions, my hopes, desires, failures, and setbacks, not just important factors that have shaped/currently shape my existence, but factors on which my very existence is completely contingent on. The fact that they are finite, fragile, and (some) long forgotten, does not change for me the fact that without them I could not, in any intelligible way, say that I was “me”. The regrets and mistakes I have made, and I’m going to make, are necessary components that have “built” my consciousness to what it is today, and what it might be in the future. Not to mention, the chain-affect of the decisions I make today, which will impact the consciousness and existence of individuals long after I have gasped that final breath descending to oblivion, are undoubtedly as unknown to me as my identity and influence will be unknown to the affected individuals, but nevertheless, my presence in that chain is vital to that whichever may come long after I’m gone. This alone means that what I have done, what I will do, can never be altogether meaningless.

  2. I understand you last paragraph better than most. I may not agree with the “final frontier after which there is nothing more to come for my conscious self” and god knows I’m not a religious person trying to think of spending eternity singing praise to to “Him”. Just as you in your own set of beliefs find that every decision, hopes, desires, achievements and failures are absolutely important in order to make you who you are, and later who you were. The same way it is for me, though different set of beliefs, it doesn’t change the fact I judge/value myself on the sum of actions and decisions I’ve made in my life which have brought me to this right here and right now moment.
    Without going into details of personal beliefs about death and so on, there’s still one paradox though I find it hard to understand, if all I’m afraid of is not leaving something behind to be remembered by, something tangible which sums up my personality, character, and passion for which I strived for all my life, why does all this matter so much if in the end I won’t remember a thing? Is it an ego thing, or is there something more to it than just that? Funny thing is, I’m not afraid I won’t be remembered by those who knew me, but by those who didn’t even ever meet me. This is the paradox I have to deal with everyday of my life.

    • “Without going into details of personal beliefs about death and so on, there’s still one paradox though I find it hard to understand, if all I’m afraid of is not leaving something behind to be remembered by, something tangible which sums up my personality, character, and passion for which I strived for all my life, why does all this matter so much if in the end I won’t remember a thing? Is it an ego thing, or is there something more to it than just that? Funny thing is, I’m not afraid I won’t be remembered by those who knew me, but by those who didn’t even ever meet me. This is the paradox I have to deal with everyday of my life.”

      I think this is a very common feeling we all have (though to varying degrees from person to person). I imagine it stems from the same instinct that makes fantasizing about fame and recognition so appealing to most of us. Ego probably plays a huge part in it. It’s one thing to be remembered and praised by those who knew us personally, but to be held in high esteem by individuals, whose only access to our person is by virtue of our “legacy”, is a great vindication of the wide-reaching value of our intellectual contributions. This might be one reason why blogging is so popular :D

      • I couldn’t agree more, this is why I read blogs especially the ones which challenge me to think. When I read what you write I’m always going; damn, I couldn’t have said better myself, and what an interesting point of view – now lets elaborate on that.
        My interest is not what someone wrote, but why they wrote it and how they word what they convey, the engine behind the big steamboat. I guess the reason I write less and post pictures more is two fold. One it is because I want people to relate to what I believe to be the message in the bottle the very picture perpetrates, and second, because I want to leave something behind as a testament to my life, a “vindication” like you said.

  3. Wow, I really did comment on this didn’t I? :D You had a lot of patience in answering back too. Finally I had to stop cuz I felt the conversation could have gone on for a very long time and would have been taking away the attention from the essay itself.

    • As far as I’m concerned the blog post itself is my terrain there to bring up whatever ideas or opinions I wish to share, but the area under the post is there for whoever wants to comment, to bring up whatever topics they feel a need to talk about. The posts will almost always stay relevant to the main issues brought up for readers to look over and think about, but if in the comments a conversation develops that stirs into broader or even wholly new topics from what is discussed in the post, I don’t fret over it (people who want to strictly chat about the post itself can easily just skip over the back and forth and start a new line of comments). Always let the conversation go where it goes, is how I look at it. At least, as long as there is anything still left to be said. :)

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