Anyone for Tennyson is a series of articles about poetry

Poets and Dreams

No question that poets are “dreamers of dreams,” and poets have directed some of their finest writing to the question of dreams. See some great examples here.

The British poet, Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881), famously wrote:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.

No question that poets are “dreamers of dreams” though perhaps less often “movers and shakers.” (And yes, this poem is the source of that phrase.)

Poets primarily embrace dreams in two ways. The first is as scenarios that they declare have come to them while sleeping or daydreaming. (See Coleridge below). The second is inspirational and important: setting forth events or philosophies that they hope will be a part of their future and indeed the future of the world. Of these, Langston Hughes (1901-1967) has written:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Langston Hughes

Almost every poet of note has written of dreams at one point or other. One of the most conspicuous was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), as witness the titles of these poems: “A Dream,” “Dream-Land,” and “A Dream within a Dream.” It all culminates in this passage from his best-known poem, “The Raven:”

Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal
ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken,
and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken
was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo
murmured back the word, “Lenore!” —
Merely this and nothing more.

Poets have directed some of their finest writing to the question of dreams versus reality and which is to be valued the most. Here are two poems that contrast the dream world with the living world, essentially preferring the former. First, a gentle sonnet by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) addressed to a lover, perhaps a summertime lover.

I dream of you, to wake: would that I might
Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;
Nor find with dreams the dear companion gone,
As, Summer ended, Summer birds take flight.
In happy dreams I hold you full in night.
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
Thus only in a dream we are at one,
Thus only in a dream we give and take
The faith that maketh rich who take or give;
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by her Pre-Raphaelite artist brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Emily Dickinson, born the same year as Rossetti, in a remarkable poem infused with special effects, also comes down on the side of dreams over reality, but her presentation is far from gentle!

We dream—it is good we are dreaming—
It would hurt us—were we awake—
But since it is playing—kill us,
And we are playing—shriek—
What harm? Men die—externally—
It is a truth—of Blood—
But we—are dying in Drama—
And Drama—is never dead—
Cautious—We jar each other—
And either—open the eyes—
Lest the Phantasm—prove the Mistake—
And the livid Surprise
Cool us to Shafts of Granite—
With just an Age—and Name—
And perhaps a phrase in Egyptian—
It’s prudenter—to dream—

* * *

Sometimes poets experience dreams that are so high fantastical that they require a “willing suspension of disbelief” as was once said by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). And Coleridge is the same poet who participated in the most remarkable dream event in English literature. The story is this:

In 1797, Coleridge was living in Somerset county, not yet in the Lake District. One afternoon he fell into a profound opium-fueled sleep and dreamt about the building of an exotic palace. Upon awakening he vividly remembered all of the images and descriptive lines and immediately and eagerly began to write:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Another forty-three lines tumbled effortlessly from his memory when, unexpectedly, a person from Porlock, a nearby town, arrived to discuss some business. After an hour’s visit, Coleridge was able to return to his manuscript but to his mortification had only a vague recollection of his vision which had passed away. Thereafter the never-finished poem was referred to as “A Fragment” and the phrase “A Person from Porlock” has forever come to mean an intruder or event which disrupts inspiration.

Coleridge draft manuscript of “Kubla Khan”

Finally, before we link to our video, I would like to share my own favorite dream poem, only eight lines but wonderfully touching and with a lyric so musical that it has been set by numerous composers. The poet , Ireland’s most beloved, is William Butler Yeats (1865-1939):

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

* * *

For our video, we invite you to performances of three dream poems. First, William Shatner offers the dream of a volunteer fireman by Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978). Then Henry Fonda gives us Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.” And finally, the First Poetry Quartet, costumed to represent four centuries, presents Prospero’s speech from “The Tempest.”