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Drowning in Dreams

A Review of 'A Dream Within A Dream' Poem

By Christian LeePublished 2 years ago 3 min read

The movie Inception never made much sense to me, where exploring a dream within a dream called in various professional geniuses, adventure, and mind excavation. I think I learned about the idea better from Edgar Allan Poe, specifically, from his poem ‘A Dream Within A Dream’. So many times I’ve read it that I could recite it at whim; any poem remembered verbatim yields tighter kinship with its cadence. I interspersed with its rhythms immediately, realizing it’s full of open-ended meanings despite a close-ended question concluding the poem: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” First instinct, my mind says no, except I adore the room for theory which opens at the sound of yes.

Indeed, who doesn’t hope for clarity when seeking truth in the big or small? This poem aims to understand the nature of hope, is about failure, the limits of individual vitality, and the despair of helplessness. From onset, the speaker seems at jest, expressing delight to someone he greatly values. My interpretation? I imagine the speaker made a confession on something he’s sensitive about, and that who he’s speaking to is a therapist. Outside of my imaginative direction of the plot, considering this therapist’s, or friend’s observation (the speaker’s day’s as a dream,) a different close-ended question hints the reader to the second stanza: “Yet if hope has flown away/Is it therefore the less gone?”...a gently haunting question. We all understand by instinct there is emptiness, a loss for life, without hope. As we age, we understand this intimately, in an ineffable light, that being void of expectation about any experience is likely symptomatic of depression.

Wounds hurt, but one of the worst among them is regret. This feels like an underlying theme in ‘A Dream Within A Dream’ based on the speaker’s inability to “rescue” sand from a “pitiless wave.” Metaphor and personification, key figurative devices in poetry, are used concisely by Poe. The speaker’s dramatic nature and sentimental expressions can’t help but trigger empathy (and sympathy depending on the individual) in the reader’s mind for his supposed helplessness. I believe this image isn’t literally about being at the beach and confronting the monstrosity of the sea. It appears as an internal battle in the mind the speaker is contending with. Hence the close-ended question again.

But how are we to make philosophical sense of the concept of a dream within a dream? Keeping with the context of the poem, I thought Poe would steer us through a fictive tale designed as a dream within a dream. Instead, we get a character bemused by metaphysics, the wisdom of a therapist or friend, and wielding a torrid imagination. Brief as the poem is, its rhythmic dance, style in diction, rhyme scheme, and vivid imagery, make for a telling message: without hope there is nothing to strive for. The concept–whether true or not a dream within a dream is possible–boils down to the utility of desire. And at the sound of yes, to the first question about hope the speaker retorts to the friend or therapist, many thoughts arise about the possibilities surrounding the vast nature of dreams in the scope of the mind.

The distinct beauty of asking questions in poetry is difficult to achieve; modern poets like W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound come to mind. But Poe, for me, exceeds and subverts expectations with a voice backed by confidence–yet sentimental, crestfallen, and endearing.

Now here’s my brief tale. As a very young child, no longer a toddler, but old enough to distinguish distinct experiences, my parents brought me to Virginia. I recall a few things about the trip: the long train ride, the kind of spacious hotel room, and an ephemeral moment at Virginia Beach. The last memory most interests me. For I too, like Poe’s speaker, “stood among the roar of a surf-tormented shore.” I dabbled in the sand for a bit, not knowing what to do with it. Before I knew it, a large wave motioned towards me, its shadow of fangs about me–I saw the roar of a jaguar, likely due to my love for Felidae. But I was shocked, stunned, a little scared. All I could do was stand and take the blow. It went over and through me. That’s one of my earliest time's confronting fear, an emotion I think inextricably tied to hope. I wonder if Poe had this in mind while writing ‘A Dream Within A Dream’, that not confronting fear takes one away from accomplishing a dream.

fact or fiction

About the Creator

Christian Lee

My nom de plume is Lee Arachnid; think: spider-poet. Here you will find non-fiction and poetry. I interweave elements of nature and my personal experience into uniquely crafted stories. I love idleness, Felidae, literature, and soundscapes.

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    Christian LeeWritten by Christian Lee

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