The Just Dread-Full Poetry Corner: The Understated Horror of “Dream Within A Dream”

Dream Within a Dream One
Edgar Allan Poe

I admit, it’s been a long time since I’ve talked about Poe on this blog.  And while I’ve discussed two of his short stories (The Masque of the Red Death and The Black Cat), I’ve never dealt with his poetry on Just Dread-full before.  In fact, I haven’t read his poetry (or, you know, his Poe-etry), in quite some time, and I certainly haven’t read it all.  I was consulting my mental rolodex of Poe poems that I have read, with the aid of a little online research, but I wasn’t finding “the right one” to write about today.  Then it occurred to me – something I always try to remember with this blog – that horror is an expansive category that includes many works of art that don’t mirror our contemporary definition of horror (for example, I’ve been wanting to explore some of the earliest Gothic novels for a while, but haven’t done so yet.) As such, I decided to write about Poe’s poem, “Dream Within a Dream.”  This poem is fascinating because, if one really grapples with the implications and philosophical underpinnings of what Poe suggests, the prospect is, indeed, terrifying.  On the other hand, the poem has a rich, sonorous voice and is mesmerizingly beautiful.  To me, such a combination is both a phenomenal achievement and a hallmark of much of Poe’s poetry: The ability to leave us remarkably unsettled (and often sad) while producing a poem that is unusually aesthetically appealing.

To begin, here’s the poem for you to enjoy:

dream within a dream six
Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

A Dream Within A Dream

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

Okay, “so what is this poem doing on a horror blog?” you might be asking.  Or you might read it like me and grant that while it’s lovely and delightful, it’s also completely terrifying.  In either case, it’s by Edgar Allan Poe, and there’s not exactly (at least, not to my knowledge) a rich, diverse pantheon of horror poetry floating around in the world of literature, so therein lies one justification.  I think I was working as a high school teacher the first time I read this poem, and I was incredibly moved by it; there was such pensiveness, such a sense of longing, in Poe’s tone.  But then, I often find melancholy artwork to be oddly beautiful.  As a sidenote, I just forced Michael to stand still while I read it aloud to him.  His response, “coolio,” suggests he might not have been as moved as I was the first time I read it.  In any case, the amazing, ethereal nature of this poem (in my personal opinion) is another reason for including it on my blog.

dream within a dream three
Super cool art from deviant art about dreams.  Note that the artist’s site is listed at the top of the picture.

But I keep arguing that it’s scary, and I think it really is scary, if not in the traditional definition of the word.  There’s a line of inquiry in philosophy called Cartesian skepticism that really brings our entire ontology (understanding of our being) into question.  I’ll preface this point also by saying, as I’ve said before on this blog, that I’m no expert on philosophy; I just took a few classes in undergrad.  But during my first philosophy class, I was amazed by the possibility of philosophical skepticism: the possibility that everything we think we know is true, including the conditions of our lives and our very presence as living, active humans in this world, could be completely illusory – the deceptive byproduct of a grand and perhaps insidious scheme.

If this sounds ludicrous to you, I think it does to a lot of people, although when I learned this concept as a freshman in college I was hooked, and I ardently jumped on the “skepticism” bandwagon.  I’m not sure if the movement was started by Descartes, but he was at least one of the first thinkers to consider that everything might be an illusion when he asked, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, whether or not some “evil demon” could be tricking him.  He imagined this demon to be someone “who is as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me.”  To Descartes, this demon may not just deceive him with an external world, but lead him to believe in the presence of other minds that don’t really exist.  It’s not, of course, that Descartes truly believed in the existence of an evil demon manipulating his perspective, only that he was willing to consider the possibility.  Essentially, he suggested that his entire existence could be the byproduct of some (malevolent) entity of which he was completely unaware, and that the external world, as he understood it, could be an illusion.

Dream within a dream seven
Rene Descartes

Now, to be honest, I was always far more intrigued by this proposition than I was afraid of it, at least as a college freshman, but the possibility is truly frightening to consider, and also incredibly lonely.  I used to imagine, when I was very, very young, that I would wake up one day somewhere unfamiliar and find that my entire life had been one gigantic dream.  It’s a situation similar to the one Descartes describes, and not much less terrifying.  And when Edgar Allan Poe says that his days have been “a dream within a dream,” he suggests a similar situation, only twice detached from reality.  I’m not arguing that Poe’s poem should, necessarily, be read from the standpoint of a Cartesian skeptic, and I don’t know how enthused he was with Descartes.  What I am saying is that if you read the poem that way, it becomes really, really scary.  What if our entire reality – the meaning we make of our lives, our relationships, our accomplishments, our aspirations – were really just a prolonged dream from which we would eventually awake, or the creative deception of an evil demon? What if we woke up one rainy afternoon to find that those we loved the most were just creations of our subconscious in a prolonged R.E.M. state? The philosophical skeptic is not arguing that such is the case, of course, only that there’s much we don’t know, so we can’t discount such possibilities.

There is, also, a modern incarnation of Descartes’ evil demon argument that is more grounded in science and less dependent on the presence of a demon.  The argument is called a “brain in a vat” argument and asks to you imagine that you’re a brain in a vat, or a jar, connected to computers and simulators that recreate external reality perfectly.  The argument goes that since we have no way of knowing, for sure, that we’re not merely brains in vats, we can’t assume that our perception of the external world is correct.  Like Poe, proponents of the brains in a vat hypothesis believe that one’s external reality could be completely illusory, that “all we see or seem” could possibly be “but a dream within a dream.”  In short, we may presume we know a lot, but we can’t prove that reality really is the way we see it.

dream within a dream five
The Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awaking – Salvador Dali, 1944

If you’re not quickly latching onto Cartesian skepticism, rest assured you’re not alone.  My surly freshman year philosophy professor wasn’t a fan, and there are myriad arguments against this proposition.  I don’t remember all of them, but I do remember a succinct argument by philosopher G.E. Moore, in which he states, “Here is one hand.  Here is another.   Therefore, I exist.”  I didn’t find this assertion compelling when I was younger, but I do now.  I believe Descartes also answered his problem for himself with the famous quote, “I think therefore I am,” in which case, the presence of conscience was enough for him to validate his own existence.  And truly, if we believe we are living, thriving, human beings in the world, if we get to experience and feel everything that comes with that privilege, then what does it matter if we are really brains in vats, or victims of an evil demon’s caprice?  I think Poe suggests this when he talks about hope: “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?”  Poe has lost hope whether he exists in dream, a dream within a dream, or reality.  Being is what it is; any inciting details surrounding that being might just be incidental particulars.

And still, a popular horror trope is the presence of an illusion, a horror character’s inability to tell what’s real and what’s not.  Horror movies like to pluck us out of the ordinary, too, so we don’t always know what to believe.  I wrote about the importance of possible – but not certain – illusion in my piece on the circa 1960’s film classic The Innocents, in which we’re not sure if a frightened housekeeper is imagining things or actually seeing the ghosts of dead housekeepers (the film is based off Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw).  On a similar note, I recently read the summary of a Philip K. Dick novel I greatly want to read called Valis, in which the main character is uncertain whether he’s experiencing schizophrenic hallucinations or actual messages from God.  The bottom line: It can be scary to not know the true nature of what we’re perceiving.   Given that the inability to discern what is real is innately frightening, the supposition that one’s entire life is an illusion becomes the epitome of horror, and that idea might be the possibility Poe’s providing us in this poem—which, as I suggested earlier, is one justification for including it on this blog.

dream within a dream eight

Of course, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in this poem, so I’ll at least talk about a few other things I noticed.  Poe lost a lot of women – lovers, relatives, etc. – to tuberculosis in his life, one reason for the pervasive melancholy of his writing and his frequent poetic depictions of lost love.  So when he says, “Take this kiss upon the brow/and in parting from you now” the act of “parting,” might have more eternal implications – not the parting of friends for a day, but the parting of lovers for life.  It seems possible that Poe’s poem here begins with death– especially since so many of his poems deal with lost love.

There is, also, the perpetual fear of aging, the sense that time is slipping away and the speaker can’t do anything to stop it.  The image of the sand as it “creep(s)” through his fingers is profound.  On the one hand, it is easy to picture a distraught Poe (although he may not be the actual speaker of the poem) watching the sand seep through his fingers, unable to stop what is a natural process, just like he’s unable to stop the natural processes which are the passage of time and death.  But creeping sand also brings to mind images of the hourglass, which can be an ominous visual reminder of passing time and the frightening reality that all of the sand will eventually move from the top half of the hourglass to the bottom, in such a way becoming the emblem of ephemerality, mortality, and the ultimate end of our lives.

dream within a dream twoThe sea, also, is quite imposing in this poem.  The phrase “surf-tormented shore” is particularly profound; the surf becomes a cruel personification that intentionally torments the passive, helpless shore – a characterization that provides a stark contrast from the generally positive association we have with lapsing waves.  Later, Poe says, “O God!  Can I not save/one from the pitiless wave?”  To be without pity is to be the epitome of cruel.  The sea, then, becomes an accumulation of pitiless waves who eat up and devour every grain of sand on the shore.  In this way, the sea could symbolize the harsh inevitability of the passing of time, and maybe even the implied cruelty of a maker, who Poe calls on twice in the second stanza.  Interestingly, when Poe published the poem in 1849, some think Matthew Arnold began composing his famous poem, “Dover Beach,” which wasn’t officially published until 1867.  In “Dover Beach,” the sea is also a vehicle for conveying negative emotions, specifically, “the turbid ebb and flow/of human misery,” and the pervasive decline in immanent faith produced by scientific revelations in Victorian England.  In both cases, the sea, which is often perceived as life-giving and life-sustaining, turns into a threatening purveyor of misery, suggesting that both emotion or material context can invert that which is beneficial or “good” in the world and turn it into that which is troublesome and perhaps conniving. The ceaseless waves, in the case of these poems, threaten to destroy our faith, our hope, and our vitality.

If you hadn’t read Poe’s “Dream Within A Dream,” before, now you can think of it whenever you watch the movie Inception and they mention having a “dream within a dream.”  (I don’t know if they’re specifically alluding to Poe when they say this phrase in the film, but it would make sense.)  And more importantly, you can imagine what it would be like if you reached the end of your life someday and learned that an evil demon was tricking you into believing a false external reality.  Poe seems, based on this poem, to have understood the unsettling nature of questioning the validity of one’s perception, although his musing shows more detachment and melancholy than it does complete fear.  And whether or not you yield to the validity of Cartesian skepticism – the possibility that all of this could be a simple illusion – it’s at least fun to speculate that maybe, your entire existence, is but a dream within a dream. 

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The Just Dread-Full Poetry Corner: The Understated Horror of “Dream Within A Dream”

3 thoughts on “The Just Dread-Full Poetry Corner: The Understated Horror of “Dream Within A Dream”

  1. If life is all a dream within a dream then I’m treating it as a movie in which so far I’ve had my money’s worth. I didn’t know that particular poem but read lots of Poe as a nineteen year old when I felt I’d lost everything yet had really lost nothing at all (real loss would come later in life in the hard lessons some of us – probably most of us – endure). He definitely filled some romantic, mournful, hopeless, frightening yet thrilling void in my formative years.
    An enjoyable read, thanks. Also, the movie The Man With Two Brains sprang to mind when you mentioned the brain in the vat 🙂 Need to watch that again, along with catching up on some Poe!

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    1. That comment was very thought-provoking. I can see how Poe would be appealing at 19, even as I love him at age 32. “Romantic, mournful, hopeless, frightening” seem like great ways to describe him, at least according to the poetry I’ve read. I’ve never heard of The Man With Two Brains, but am now quite intrigued…

      Liked by 1 person

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