“A Dream Within a Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe

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?

Poem selected and commented on by Caroline Drennen

In just two stanzas, Edgar Allan Poe interrogates perceptions of reality and existence, tackling the age-old existential riddle: is life merely an illusion?

Focusing on parting lovers, the first stanza takes a much more carefree and lighthearted tone than the second. After kissing his lover on the forehead, the speaker accepts his “days have been a dream” (5), but confidently asserts that everything “is but a dream within a dream” (11). The overall tone of the first stanza and use of a period at the end of the last line conveys to the reader the speaker feels liberated by the notion that reality is an illusion.

The second stanza shifts our attention to the tangible, describing “grains of the golden sand” (15). Trying to “grasp them with a tighter clasp” (19-20), the speaker becomes increasingly exasperated by his inability to “save one from the pitiless wave” (21-22). Overall, the language is much more aggressive than in the first stanza, establishing a sense of anxiety and despair. Poe’s use of italics for the words “one” and “all” in lines 22 and 23 highlights a change in mindset, while the speaker in the first stanza is liberated, the speaker in the second stanza is suffocated by the notion that all of life is just an abstraction of our minds. Prone to intense emotion and exaggeration, this rapid shift from positivity to crippling anxiety reflects Poe’s tumultuous internal life; what is traumatic for one would be unbearable to Poe.

The rhyme scheme is also worth noting. While it is fairly regular – usually aa bb cc etc. – he does deviate from that structure at a few points, rhyming the first three lines of the first stanza and then also rhyming lines 5 – 7 in the second stanza. It is also worth noting that Poe repeats the seem/deem and dream rhyme three times. This dedication to a conventional and fairly simple structure contrasts his more overdone rhyme schemes, like in “The Raven.”

Architect of the modern short story, Edgar Allan Poe made numerous contributions to the American literary canon, creating an impact through his work as an editor, a poet, and a critic. One of the first American writers to become a major literary figure, Poe is an originator of horror and detective fiction as well as one of the first critics to analyze the effects of style and structure on literary works. He edited many literary journals including Southern Literary Messenger. “A Dream Within a Dream” can be found in Poe’s The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.