A Dream Within a Dream" by Edgar Allan Poe

An 1840s daguerreotype of macabre and gothic poet, writer, author, and critic Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was an American writer known for his depiction of macabre, supernatural scenes, which often featured death or a fear of death. He’s often referred to as one of the creators of the American short story, and numerous other writers cite Poe as a key influence on their work. 

Poe's Background and Early Life

Born in Boston in 1809, Poe suffered from depression and battled alcoholism later in life. Both of his parents died before he was 3 years old, and he was raised as a foster child by John Allan. Although Allan paid for Poe’s education, the tobacco importer eventually cut off financial support, and Poe struggled to make a living with his writing. After the death of his wife Virginia in 1847, Poe's alcoholism grew worse. He died in Baltimore in 1849.

Not well-regarded in life, his work has posthumously come to be seen as genius. His most famous stories include "The Tell-Tale Heart," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," and "The Fall of the House of Usher." In addition to being among his most-read works of fiction, these stories are widely read and taught in American literature courses as classic examples of the short story form.

Poe is also well-known for his epic poems, including "Annabel Lee" and "The Lake." But his 1845 poem “The Raven,” the somber story of a man mourning his lost love to an unsympathetic bird who only replies with the word "nevermore," is probably the work for which Poe is best known.

Analyzing "A Dream Within a Dream"

Poe published the poem “A Dream Within a Dream” in 1849 in a magazine called Flag of Our Union. Like many of his other poems, the narrator of "A Dream Within a Dream" is suffering an existential crisis.

"A Dream Within a Dream" was published near the end of Poe's life, at a time when his alcoholism was believed to be interfering with his day-to-day functioning. It's not a stretch to consider that perhaps Poe himself was struggling with determining fact from fiction and having difficulty comprehending reality, as the poem's narrator does.

Several interpretations of this poem bear out the idea that Poe was feeling his own mortality when he wrote it: The "sands" he references in the second stanza may refer to the sand in an hourglass, which runs down as time expires. 

Full 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?

Resources and Further Reading

  • Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: the Essential Reference to His Life and Work. Checkmark, 2001.
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Khurana, Simran. "A Dream Within a Dream" by Edgar Allan Poe." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/a-dream-within-a-dream-2831163. Khurana, Simran. (2020, August 29). A Dream Within a Dream" by Edgar Allan Poe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-dream-within-a-dream-2831163 Khurana, Simran. "A Dream Within a Dream" by Edgar Allan Poe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-dream-within-a-dream-2831163 (accessed June 2, 2023).