An explication de texte of “A Dream with a Dream”
Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Dream within a Dream” is an exercise in portraying the loss of time and space. The poem, which is largely monological in its discourse from a first-person narrative, attempts to convey the narrator’s woe at this loss, while also conveying how the loss of the narrator’s hope reveals such impermanence. Through interrelated symbolism and layered meaning, the narrator explains why his life and all that he sees in it is “a dream within a dream.”
The first stanza is largely a parting admission to another person, one who is “not wrong” in deeming the narrator’s days “a dream”. It is largely the speaker’s own regretful agreement with the other character’s description, although it also conveys the loss of hope in various aspects. The speaker worries about whether that loss, in whatever arena it may take place, takes a measurable real-world toll, making it the “less gone”. This portrays hope as a fleeting agent in the speaker’s life, the loss of which is attributed to it having “flown away” through a variety of means from one’s grasp.
The second stanza sets the speaker on a sandy beach, showing him contemplating the loss of the sand flowing uncontrollably through his fingers into the turbulent water. This sand, which is few and countable in his hand, is valued by the narrator by each miniscule grain as he seeks to save “one from the pitiless wave”. This places the narrator in the position of one who feels obligated and dutied toward the maintenance of these grains in his capacity, yet is, to his utter despair, repeatedly failing at the task. These precious grains of sand are those whose days have been, like his dream, easily lost through his grasp.
This passage – “All that we see or seem….but a dream within a dream” – which unites both stanzas re-emphasizes the fleeting nature of the sand. The dream which is external to his own “dream” is that of the world, that space which persists beyond the loss of his days, beyond the loss of the days of others (the “we” in the poem), the space which contains the waves which swallow the few grains of sand. Yet, a dream like his own easily changes and shifts, just as the waves which are constant in their shifting and roiling. He resigns himself, tearfully, to the impermanence and constant shift of not only his life, but the “dream” which surrounds him.
The relationship between the hope which flies away and the sand which falls away is crucial in its symbolism. Both properties, in their absence, are of value to the narrator, despite only one being an actual object. The sand is of interest as falls into the wave which removes it permanently from his potential grasp, while hope flies away without the seeming permanence of removal (there is nothing that irreversibly consumes hope) which moves the narrator to weep.
The narrator, in his consternation, builds a vivid depiction of how hope does not settle forever in an easily-shifting environment, just as sand does not stay forever in one’s hand. The layers of meaning in the poem, as well as the relationship between the symbols and their actions, emphasizes the lack of permanence and ease of removal of properties within the “dream within a dream” that is his, and others’, lives in a shared space.