Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream within a Dream” (1849) is a poem dramatizing the losses of a man, and his reflection if his life is real or unreal. The narrator is reflecting about the elusiveness of things and people he value, since they all seem to disappear. The poem questions if reality is fantasy, thus the title, “A Dream within a Dream”. Since this was published in the year of Poe’s death, some assume that the narrator is talking about the death of his loved ones, and the troubles in his life.
The poem begins with an image of parting and addresses a specific person. This person is only mentioned in the first stanza; the second stanza does not mention any person at all. Others interpret this person as abstract, meaning that the narrator talks to life or love personified, or any abstract idea, and not a real person. The narrator, talking to this person, ponders whether his “days have been a dream”, and speaks of losing hope. He sees his life as if he is trapped, as shown in the lines, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream”.
But first, to define the word “dream” is relevant in understanding this poem. A dream can either be images, ideas or sensations while sleeping, an aspiration or ambition, or an illusion or trance. Upon reading the poem, there is no question that the definition of the word “dream” in the poem is the last one given above, an illusion, but not necessarily a beautiful or happy illusion. There is no mention of sleeping or daydreaming, so then it is safe to assume that “dream” meant an illusion.
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known poems, the poem uses rhyme and meter, but it has inconsistent rhythm. Repetition is also used to emphasize the feeling of sadness and frustration, as in the fifth, eleventh, and twenty-fourth lines. These poetic elements and romantic characteristics such as the dramatization found in the lines, “O God! Can I not grasp/Them with a tighter clasp?” and the use of simple but powerful images, make this poem compelling when read aloud.
The images, especially in the second stanza, are striking and memorable. The lines, “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!” might be alluding to either time or material wealth. The “grains of the golden sand” is said to have been referencing to the gold found in California in 1848 (Silverman 402).
This image of grains slowly trickling down evokes a feeling of frustration over the elusiveness of things that the narrator values, and that might or might not include money and personal possessions. Time could also be an allusion due to the fact that Poe had lost his loved ones in the past. The narrator might be saying indirectly that he is already feeling his death nearing.
The last six lines of the poem express the desperation to “grasp” and “save” the things he value. There is also a feeling of helplessness as the narrator watches the grains creeping through his fingers, and he cries, as shown in the line, “While I weep— while I weep!”
However, in the end he seems to question, not to state that he is in “a dream within a dream”. Unlike the ending line of the first stanza in which the line is written as a statement as though the narrator really believes that his life is all a dream, the last line of the poem is written as though the narrator is in doubt, or perhaps there is a little bit of hope in him.
Some say that Poe wrote this poem after the death of his wife from tuberculosis, and that the person that the narrator is talking to in the poem is a woman. But that might not be, because this was published long after his wife’s death, unless he did write the poem from way back. Whether or not Poe wrote this because of his troubles or his depression is not certain.
What is certain is that the poem tells of a person’s thoughts about what is real and unreal. Losing all the things he values makes him think, out of sadness, and perhaps, denial, that his life is just “a dream within a dream”.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick F. Quinn. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.