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What’s Up With Poe? Love Loss, and Frustrating Pyrrhic Feet: An Analysis of “A Dream Within A Dream” (Natasha)

Edgar Allan Poe was a deeply disturbed man. Abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother at an early age, the young Poe was adopted by his godparents, John and Frances Allan. He struggled with a lifelong addiction to alcohol, and was discharged or left almost every school or institution he entered. The catalyst for Poe’s writing was when he was expelled from West Point; his adoptive father refused to give him any more money that would be spent on gambling or drink, and Poe turned to writing to support himself. At 26, he married his 13 year old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who passed two years before his own death. Throughout his life, Poe enjoyed brief periods of contentment and productivity truncated by addiction and familial loss. After he published his magnum opus, The Raven, he became internationally successful for nearly a decade before succumbing to alcohol and dying at the age of 40, found in a Baltimore gutter.

Edgar Allan Poe


His writing, particularly his poems, follow similar motifs, love, loss, the Gothic, and the darkly romantic. But one poem manages to transcend these norms while at the same time embracing them: A Dream Within A Dream.

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?

Though the two stanzas a first seem dissimilar, they join together to form a lasting portrait of the impossibility of immortality and the pain of holding onto something not yours to keep. The poem begins with a person standing, desolate and mourning, on a “surf-tormented shore”, (in the absence of any other clues, we assume it is Poe), bemoaning the loss of a lover. He writes, “You are not wrong, who deem/That my days have been a dream;”) That is, he’s accepting that what he had with the woman could never last, and that it is nothing but a dream to think it could. But, this doesn’t matter to him. “If [the love] has flown away….in a vision, or in none/is it therefore the less gone?” To Poe, it doesn’t matter if his love was real or not, doesn’t matter that it wasn’t pearmanent and could never be so. What matters is that he loved her and now he is in pain because what he loved is gone. He ends the stanza with a statement: “All that we see or seem/ is but a dream within a dream.”

Poe‘s “surf-tormented shore”.

The second stanza encompasses and expands the first, broadening the focus from one brooding, grieving man (or woman), to all of humanity as we know it. The man holds “Grains of the golden sand,” falling through his fingers. The sand represents time, slipping away even as he tries desperately to hold on to it. The man is reduced to helplessness, pathetic, weeping, pleading to God to save just one grain from the “pitiless wave”. But he is not answered, and the man knows that, despite all his hubris, he is unable to extend his life and, like everyone before him, must simply wait in the dark for his candle to gutter out.

The stanza ends with a question. “Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream?” The answer to this question is yes. The smaller dream is us, our loves and hates and desire, our happiness and misery and small moments of divinity that we clutch onto like precious stones for as long as we can remember them. The smaller dream is his lover, who he cannot have and never really had in the first place. Our dreams are everything that we experience.

And then the larger dream is life itself. What’s death but the “Big sleep?” the “long rest?” When someone is dead, they’re “sleeping with the fishes.” What is death but a very long nap, and life but the briefest inconsequential flicker of a dream in the middle of it? We strut and fret our hour upon the stage, and no matter the quality of our performance, we all eventually bow out. Poe realized this, and that is what A Dream Within A Dream is about; loving something so much that you cling to every moment of it, even as you know it will eventually be taken away from you.


One response to “What’s Up With Poe? Love Loss, and Frustrating Pyrrhic Feet: An Analysis of “A Dream Within A Dream” (Natasha)

  1. Hey, it’s Shojo here!
    You explained everything well in this post, and telling us a little bit about Poe at the beginning made it easier to see how it relates to his life. Starting out by telling us that Poe was disturbed was a good attention grabber, everyone likes the story about the crazy guy!
    The only thing that I think you could improve on would be the title. It’s a bit long, and you don’t want to scare off readers who might normally love this post as much as I did with words like “Pyrrhic.”

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