It is not a hyperbole to say that the final year of Edgar Allan Poe’s life also produced some of the darkest and most sensitive work composed by the poet. Reading through “A Dream Within a Dream” one is almost inclined to believe that the man understood that his days were coming to an end. The prose is always reflective, laced with a somber dose of melancholy; yet, filled with unavoidable regret and frustration. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the prevailing anger of the hopeless writer at the various circumstances that have brought him to his lowly point.
The poem begins like a dying man’s final plea for understanding from a life that has granted him so much torment during his time within its clutches:
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;
The poet appears to be prepared to say his farewell through these opening lines, but also offer a last elucidation into his troubled mind. The last two lines may read as a concession to the frivolous pursuits of one’s past interests, but if read with the line that precedes it the message takes on a much more affirmative tone than a reader might expect from a shame induced defense. The man understands that it is too late to bother with vacuous humility about one’s misdeeds, and instead opts to simply give his closing testament of his dire state of mind–offer his own epitaph, if you will.
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?
The question asked is much more complex than its simple framing might suggest. When a man reaches a point in which his past desires, dreams, and ambitions are no longer feasible goals for him to pursue, should it matter by what means or length these hopes have left, since they are presently nothing more but mere memories anyway? Is it not true how this will eventually be the fate of all our current pursuits and hopes? And if so, is there any use in pursuing one’s hopes to begin with? Or as Poe puts it:
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
Every matter we dedicate ourselves to will some day decay to nothing more but a faint memory–a dream within a dream. Although it seems apparent when stated in such terms, the actual prose of this first stanza of the poem presents the blatant fatalism of its message in a much subtler tone. The sort a dying man might present to ease the misfortunes that have haunted his life.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand–
Now, the reader is given a clearer description of the poet’s current circumstance. The usage of “roar” and “surf-tormented” brings up images of anguish, but the poet’s allusion to an unruly sea as the source implies that the troubles of his life are ultimately pangs that life has thrust upon him (and not the result of self-inflicted foolishness). The last two lines here are important, for they reference the poet’s still vivid recollection of past valuables amidst his gloomy memories. But rather than give him solace, these few redeeming moments are the most painful of all to bear:
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep–while I weep!
Edgar Allan Poe is a man whose life is filled with more tragedies than his writings could ever express. Having lost his parents, his wife, seen much of his literary career dismissed to the margins by his colleagues, reduced to the state of an impoverished drunk, he now stands crying in isolation, trying to hold on to the tiniest of golden moments he can recall in life, but finding himself powerless in capturing them for any meaningful comfort:
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Whereas the poet began his prose in collective reflection, the endeavor appears to have been too much for his fragile mind, as he now tries to plea with the phantoms of his past. The desperation in these final gasps reveals much about the writer’s final mental state. Far from being ready to make peace with his life’s torments and losses, and despite his previous insistence how his hope has flown away, his self-pity still prevents him from giving into the apathy he seems at times to crave. This is evident by how he finishes his prose by repeating his once exclamatory statement, as a hopeful question for mercy from some undisclosed fate:
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
For someone like Edgar Allan Poe, who at this point in his life had nothing more to hold onto but his dreams–his fading memories–nothing would have been more desirable than the reassurance that this sole valuable of his was more than a mere intangible thought. But given how the poet’s life ended within the same year that this poem was published, I am skeptical as to whether he ever managed to truly convince himself of this dying wish.