A Dream Within A Dream

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A Dream WIthin A Dream

by Edgar Allen Poe

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;
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
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

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A Dream Within a Dream is a twenty-four line poem, divided into an eleven line stanza and then a thirteen line stanza. The first stanza’s rhyme scheme is AAA-BB-CC-DD-EE. The second stanza’s rhyme scheme is AA-BB-CCC-DD-EE-FF. The poem does not have a consistent meter – which along with the rhyme scheme gives is a dreamy quality.

In substance, the poem is a melancholy consideration of life, dreams, death, the passage of time, and reality itself more generally.

The poem begins with the Speaker kissing someone on the brow. The kiss is a goodbye kiss. The recipient of the kiss is likely the Speaker’s lover, though it might be also be a dreamer, or both.

Lines 1-5:

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 Speaker is saying goodbye to someone, but the Speaker is also acknowledging that 1) he has been in a dream, and thus 2) he may be waking up from said dream (thus the parting.) As a result, we might then assume that the Speaker is addressing someone who will remain behind in that dream after he goes.

It is not entirely clear whether “my days have been a dream” was said by the Speaker’s lover in a positive or in a negative way. The Reader can interpret the line either way. The vagueness is likely intentional as love can have one’s “head in the clouds” in either a positive or a negative way.

Also, the result of these lines creates some confusion as to whether the Speaker, the Speaker’s love, or perhaps both of them are living outside of reality.

Lines 6-9:

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?

Line six gives us the impetus or the parting. “Hope has flown away.” He asks though what the loss of that hope means. He decides that even though he is unclear on that point, it is gone nevertheless.

No matter what, the love between the two is something the Speaker seems to view as not real and it is something from which he is waking up.

Lines 10 and 11:

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

These two lines add an additional layer to the poet’s questions about reality. We do not merely live in a dream sometimes. The Speaker states that we live in a dream within a dream. Even if we wake up from a dream, as the Speaker seems to be doing in the first stanza, we do not emerge in “reality.” We abide still inside a dream.

This calls into question reality itself.

Is this poem The Matrix or Inception?

In the second stanza, the setting moves away from a conversation between the Speaker to his lover. The new setting is on a beach.

Lines 12-18:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!

The seashore setting here serves as a metaphor for the limited nature of life and of one’s power and influence within that life. Sand passes through his fingertips like the passing of sand through an hourglass – and there is nothing he can do about it. In addition to the symbolism of the hourglass, which causes us to think about the never slowing passage of time, we also note – on the setting of the beach – that the Speaker has very little control over his own life. On an entire beach of sand, he only grasps a handful of said sand – and even that small grasp is temporary.

The sense of autonomy or control that one might feel in life is thus characterized as illusory. The realization of this causes the Speaker to weep.

Lines 19-24:

O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

The Speaker addresses God starting in Line 19. The Speaker links control and autonomy with reality and thus concludes that the lack of those things indicates a lack of reality. By addressing God, though, the Speaker implies that a higher being does have those things which make up reality. The Speaker thus seems to be moving toward a conclusion – though he does not reach it – that mankind might be living within God’s dream.

The reader is left with a philosophical question to consider. The final two lines of the poem ask – rather than state as a certainty – whether we all live in a dream within a dream.

In the grand sweep of things, is a life where man ultimately has no lasting impact on the world different than a dream that also creates no lasting change? How are they different? What makes reality… real.