A dream within a dream: a return to an appreciation of poetry

I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of poetry.penguin book of american verse

So this is how it happened.

A couple of nights ago, I was in bed. My wife was perusing a book on child rearing and I was lying back with my head on my pillow.

There’s a stack of books on my side of the bed – from a shipment I had in storage in South Africa and only recently unpacked.

I picked up a handful of books from the floor and rummaged through them.

I came across: “The Penguin Book of American Verse” edited by Geoffrey Moore, a book from my days studying English literature at the University of the Witwatersrand (or ‘Wits’ as it more commonly known back home).

And I found myself skimming through, reading a few lines from poems here and there.

Some  I remembered from my uni poetry courses: the wonderfully cynical “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost and the inventive and disturbing poem about war “My sweet old etcetera” by E.E. Cummings.

And then I come across a poem by Edgar Allen Poe ( who is best known for his short stories of horror and the macabre) called “A Dream within a Dream” and I found myself reading it and re-reading it and later reading it to my wife aloud.

In my mind, the poem is about the loss of memory as we grow old so that we question what is real and what is not, what we actually experienced and what perhaps we only imagined or dreamed so that our past may feel very much like “a dream within a dream”.

It made me think about those things we forgot as time passes and our faculties decline – people, places, things that happened to us in childhood or adolescence.

It also made me think of those moments when a memory, buried deep in our subconsciousness awakens, triggered by some random present day event and we find ourselves saying things like:

“I complete forgot about him or her. What happened to them?”

Given that this poem was published in the year of Poe’s death (1849) when he may have been contemplating the days forgotten from his past, it has for me added poignancy.

Enjoy this haunting 24 line poem – it’s short, so give it a try.

(I have reproduced without the kind permission of the long-deceased Mr Poe. I hope he does not mind.)

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?

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 to 1849)
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