Skip to main content

Analysis of Poem 'A Dream Within A Dream' by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe and a Summary of 'A Dream Within A Dream'

Edgar Allan Poe's short poem 'A Dream Within A Dream' questions the nature of reality and human existence. Fundamental perceptions might not be what they seem to be. Is life nothing but a series of unreal events that the mind invents within the unreal environment created by God?

Time passes, and there is little we can do to arrest it, keep hold of it. Human emotions, thoughts and consciousness cannot affect this notion of life as a series of subconsciously driven experiences.

A human dream within a divine dream?

Poe is saying that some of us could be accused of living life as in a dream, that is, with hardly a grip on reality, but nevertheless, some of those dreamers may be visionaries. Hope springs eternal; hope goes, no matter how we live.

This simple two-stanza poem has plenty of rhyme and a loose iambic rhythm. It neatly encapsulates in two scenes the idea that we as humans face an existential riddle: do we control all that we see and do in the world? Or do we succumb to the abstract, as in a dream not of our making?

'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?

Analysis of the Poem

The poem has just 24 lines, split into two stanzas of 11 and 13 lines, respectively.

The rhyme scheme is aaabbccddbb/eeffggghhiibb.

Full rhyme tends to keep a tight control on each line, most end words being stressed due to the anapaestic rhythm (3 feet, the first two being unstressed, the last stressed) lightened only when enjambment occurs.

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

The couplet and triplet combinations are not closed - no internal end stops for example - so the tendency is for a quicker if hesitant flow as the narrator progresses.

First Stanza

In the first stanza there is a parting, perhaps of lovers (reflecting Poe's own tragic love affair with his young wife, who died in 1847, leaving him distraught); or could it be the voice of someone about to say goodbye, on their death-bed perhaps?

The theme is loss and, to an extent, confession, a letting go of love and hope and the past. Is the speaker saying that life has been unfulfilled but that it doesn't really matter, for isn't life just a dream, an illusion? A symbolic kiss will suffice.

Everything we see externally, everything that seems to be internally, could be construed as dream-like. How we experience the outside world depends on how we're feeling inside.

Second Stanza

The second stanza sees the protagonist on the beach, where it could be said time and tide wait for no man. Time is running out. Note the use of alliterative surf-tormented shore, a reflection of the inner state of the speaker?

Grains of sand suggest those found in an hourglass. There are links to Willliam Blake's Auguries of Innocence too (1789-1794):

To see a World in a Grain of Sand.....

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

The sea becomes a metaphor for the emotional turmoil of the speaker (or the world), and as the grains fall from his grasp, he questions the futility of it all.

By evoking God, he seeks the reason for being, questions what is permanent and what is fleeting. But even a tiny grain of sand seems beyond his control.

Towards the end of the poem the speaker is asking for his sensory-based experiences to continue; he appeals to God for more time, or for time to stop?

Whereas in the first stanza the speaker states quite clearly that all his life is a dream, at the end of the second, he questions God about this idea, changing All for Is, leaving the reader to ponder and puzzle.

'A Dream Within A Dream' Meaning

Edgar Allan Poe based this poem on an earlier work, 'Imitation', published in 1827 in his first book Tamarlane and Other Poems. In it, he explores the idea of the essential mystery of life:

A dark unfathomed tide

Of interminable pride -

A mystery, and a dream,

Should my early life seem;

Again the speaker is looking back in time, using the ocean (water) as a symbol of life. These simple lines reflect the idea that there is no real grip on reality and time, posing a philosophical question that is still being debated today.

As one modern philosopher - A. Revonsuo - writes:

the qualities of dream experience are identical with the qualities of waking experience.

(2006, Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon)

Edgar Allan Poe might well have agreed.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005


© 2016 Andrew Spacey