“A Dream Within a Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 19 January 1809, Edgar Allan Poe is widely recognised as one of the seminal voices of the American literature. Best known as the master of the macabre, his writings are very diverse, including numerous short stories, essays, and poems. Almost two centuries after his death, his Dark Romanticist writings continue to play a major influence on contemporary culture.

In this post we’ll read his poem “A Dream Within a Dream”. First published in 1849, shortly before he died, it’s often described as dreary and melancholic, and while we can certainly feel the despair in it, we should also recognise its philosophical nature. The poet wonders whether the world and life as we know it might actually be merely a dream—an illusion. Nightmarishly, even if we would wake up from this dream, we’d still find ourselves in another dream: there’s no waking up to actual, ‘real’ reality.

If you’re curious about this unsettling idea, you can further explore the rich legacy of philosophers who entertained the same or similar notions, from Plato and Descartes to Buddhist masters. Please see the links at the bottom of the post for suggested reading. You’ll also find the links to additional resources on Poe and this poem in particular.

And if you’re less philosophically inclined and just want to practise some vocabulary, there’s an exercise for you below the poem, as well.


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?

VOCABULARY EXERCISE

Match the following verbs from the poem (listed in alphabetical order) with their definitions or synonyms:

avow | creep | deem | grasp | part | weep

  • to take and hold something firmly
  • to leave from someone
  • to cry 
  • to consider, regard, judge
  • to admit, confess openly 
  • to move slowly and quietly, so as not to be noticed

RECOMMENDED READING

“A Dream Within a Dream” (a detailed poem analysis)

Does Quantum Mechanics Reveal That Life Is But a Dream?

Edgar Allan Poe board on the Grammaticus Pinterest profile

Enlightenment Rests on the Dream

Is Life a Dream?

The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

The Poe Museum

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