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Edgar Allan Poe

A Dream Within a Dream

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1849

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“A Dream Within a Dream” is a short lyric poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Initially published in 1849 in the Boston paper Flag of Our Union, this poem was one of the last poems published by Poe before his early death at age 40 in October 1849. Poe’s life was one of tragedy and loss of those dearest to him, including his wife and mother. His poetry often reflects upon mortality, fate, and the nature of reality.

“A Dream Within a Dream” is an excellent example of Poe’s perception of the world through poetry. In his critical writing, such as “The Philosophy of Composition,” he asserted that poetry should not be didactic or moralizing. Instead, he argued that poetry should be created for beauty and pure art.

Romantic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and William Blake strongly influenced Poe’s poetry. His poetry rejects the optimism of the Transcendental movement of the mid-19th century in the US, and in doing so, carves a subgenre in American literature: dark romanticism. Dark romanticism is similar to Gothic literature, but poems and stories written in this subgenre are less about inspiring terror than getting the reader to think about the more tragic aspects of everyday life, like the untimely death of a loved one.

“A Dream Within a Dream” functions as a meditation on time lost and how the poet reacts to this loss. This short poem also tackles deep philosophical questions about the distinction between dreams and reality. It asks the reader to consider the thin boundary separating day-to-day life from the dream life that we each slip into each night. The fascinating thesis: “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?” (Lines 23-24) is one taken up by other artists, musicians, filmmakers, and philosophers inspired by Poe. As one example, this line features at the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film Inception, which considers the possibilities of lucid dreaming.

Poet Biography

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in January 1809. His parents were professional actors David and Eliza Poe. David Poe Jr. was the son of General David Poe Sr., a hero of the American Revolution and a prominent member of society in Baltimore, Maryland. Edgar’s father left his wife and three young children in 1810 and likely died shortly after.

Eliza (Arnold Hopkins) Poe was an English actress from London who spent much of her life touring the US with different acting troupes. In 1811, she contracted tuberculosis, commonly known then as consumption, and died at a boarding house in Richmond, Virginia, leaving her three children as orphans.

Edgar was fostered by a wealthy Richmond merchant and Poe family friend—John Allan—and his wife, Frances. He was given the full name Edgar Allan Poe by his foster family. The young Poe received a complete Classical education in Greek and Latin at the best schools in the UK and the US. In 1826, he enrolled at the University of Virginia to study ancient and modern languages and became engaged for the first time to Sarah Elmira Royster. During university, Poe struggled with financial debts, lost touch with his fiancée, and was forced to drop out and end his engagement within a year.

By 1827, Poe left his academic life behind and joined the army with the pseudonym, Edgar A. Perry. That same year he published his first volume of poems: Tamerlane, and Other Poems. He followed up in 1829 with a newer book: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. Poe’s foster mother died that same year, which may have convinced his foster father to help him get out of the army as a private and enroll in the US Military Academy at West Point. However, John Allan quickly remarried and disowned Edgar. Poe purposely decided to get court-martialed and removed from West Point in 1831.

After leaving West Point, Poe decided to pursue writing full-time—one of the first American writers to do so—and published his third book titled Poems. He focused on writing short stories for burgeoning periodicals and is today regarded as one of the masters of short story craft. Publishing short stories were only slightly more lucrative than poetry, so Poe started to work as a literary editor. At this time, Poe’s drinking and erratic behavior began to affect his relationships with other writers and formed the basis of slanderous accusations about alcohol and drug abuse that were widely spread by a literary rival (Rufus Wilmot Griswold) after his death.

Controversially, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm in Richmond in 1836. It was still unusual in the 19th century for a girl of this age to be married, so a witness to the wedding put her age at 21. Poe likely married his cousin to protect her and his widowed aunt financially.

The couple moved to Philadelphia, where Poe worked as an editor for the Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine. He continued to establish himself as a short story writer and poet. In 1838, he published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a story about a whaling vessel that served as an inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In 1840, Poe published his collected short stories in two volumes titled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. These stories are marked by supernatural occurrences with gothic elements (“The Fall of the House of Usher”) and psychological tensions for the main characters (“William Wilson”).

In 1844, the couple moved to New York, where Edgar worked for The New York Evening Mirror and later the Broadway Journal. Depending on their financial circumstances, they frequently moved to different boarding houses in the city. Around this time, Virginia started to show signs of illness with tuberculosis, the same disease that killed Poe’s mother and older brother.

Edgar Allan Poe reached the height of literary success during his lifetime with the publication of “The Raven” in The New York Evening Mirror in 1845. The popularity of this poem allowed Poe to publish a new volume of poetry titled The Raven and Other Poems (1845). He also dabbled in literary criticism and crafted early literary theory starting with “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) to accompany “The Raven.” His literary criticism made him as many enemies as friends, and Poe famously feuded with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

His later collection of stories—Tales (1845)—features three stories that—according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—started the detective fiction genre: “The Murders at Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” Other stories—such as “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”—are vital entries to the early science fiction genre, which later inspired H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

However, Poe’s literary success was not reflected in his personal life. He became the owner of the Broadway Journal, only to see it fold in 1846. Poe rented a quiet cottage in Fordham that year, but by early 1847, his wife died of consumption at 24. Devasted by Virginia’s death, Poe turned to alcohol and became extremely depressed. He tried to get his life back on track by courting another poet and leaving New York for Richmond. By 1849, he was again engaged to his former sweetheart (who was also widowed), Sarah Elmira Royster, and was set to start an editing job in Philadelphia.

Edgar Allan Poe died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. To this day, it is unclear what caused his death, and the possible causes are widely debated. His writings were posthumously translated into French by Charles Baudelaire. This caused a resurgence in international interest in Poe’s work. Poe is now considered one of the first American writers to gain international fame.

Poem Text

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?

Poe, Edgar Allan. “A Dream Within a Dream.” 1849. Flag of Our Union.

Summary

The poem opens with the parting of two people—possibly two lovers—who are in the middle of a conversation about the speaker’s perception of the world. The speaker sees the real world in a dreamlike, optimistic state and struggles to remedy this with an unrealistic hope that is more grounded in reality. This speaker asserts that reality is false and human existence is embedded inside the realm of dreams.

In the second stanza, the speaker takes the reader inside his dream, which has a harsh and tumultuous beach landscape during a storm. He tries to keep the sand on the shore in his grasp, but the grains slip through his hands as though through a sieve. The more the speaker attempts to preserve the sand in his hands, the more frustrated he becomes until he tips into melodrama at the futility of this action.

At this point, the speaker calls out to God as a higher power to intervene in his mental and physical struggle. The poem concludes with questions, phrased as pleas to this higher power to restore his former dreamlike peace. The final question of this poem asks the reader to consider the different layers of reality that exist inside the individual human mind and in humanity itself: How do you know which reality is objectively true?

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