Text: Dennis W. Eddings, “Poe’s ‘Dream-Land’: Nightmare or Sublime Vision?,” Poe Studies, June 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 8:5-8


[page 5, column 2, continued:]

Poe’s “Dream-Land”:
Nightmare or Sublime Vision?

Oregon College of Education

“Dream-Land” is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most consistently misread and misunderstood poems. Floyd Stovall calls it “a description of the topsy-turvy world of dreams” (1). Vincent Buranelli and Edward H. Davidson go even further, Buranelli seeing it as a depiction of “the dreams that are nightmares” and Davidson as an indication that for Poe “God is only the law of chaos and endless meaninglessness. . .” (2). While such readings may appear valid on the surface, given the lurid descriptions which comprise the poem and the murkiness of its logical progression, I believe that they actually reverse the statement Poe is making in “Dream-Land.” A topsy-turvy, nightmare world is indeed the subject of the poem; that world, however, is not the world of dreams but the physical world of everyday affairs. In arriving at an understanding of how this is so, we need to begin with a brief look at Poe’s concept of what he calls in Eureka the “Spiritual and Material Universe.”

The cosmological vision Poe sets forth in Eureka is dualistic. He sees the Spiritual universe as a divine Unity, all-encompassing and, in its original state, non-material. It is this divine Unity from which all things sprang and to which all things will return. The Material universe is the result of the volition of Spirit and is of necessity chaotic, contradictory. Poe argues that materiality can exist only through the antithetical forces of attraction and repulsion: “so thoroughly demonstrable is it that attraction and repulsion are the sole properties through which we perceive the Universe . . . that, for all merely argumentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that matter exists only as attraction and repulsion — that attraction and repulsion are matter. . .” (3). In other words, the physical universe is a world at war with itself. But the existence of the physical universe is not construed by Poe as being an exercise in futility. It is a necessary adjunct to Spirit, the means by which Spirit is given form and meaning: “What you call The Universe is but his [the Divine Being’s] present [page 6:] expansive existence. He now feels his life through an infinity of imperfect pleasures — the partial and pain-intertangled pleasures of those inconceivably numerous things which you designate as his creatures, but which are really but infinite individualizations of Himself” (XVI, 314). The Spiritual universe, then, is realized through materiality and finite man is part of Spirit through his participation in physical existence. So, while the material world is an uncomfortable place in which to exist, it paradoxically offers man the means of transcending its confusing nature.

Such transcendence is possible because the duality of the universe is duplicated in the psyche of man. Man’s counterpart to Spirit is the imagination, the perceptive doorway through which man becomes aware of the Ideal, the perfect Unity which lies both in and behind the physical world. The counterpart to the Material universe is man’s dull rational sense which insists upon acceptance of the contradictory physical world as the conveyor of truth. These two forces war within man just as the forces of attraction and repulsion war within the material universe. The tragedy of man’s physical existence is that the lower faculty, the dull rationality, usually wins, interfering with his sense of the Ideal, the only thing which can give his life meaning. Furthermore, in accepting the physical universe at the expense of the Spiritual, in stultifying his imagination, man makes himself prey to an inherent duplicity which must exist in a world whose composition is by definition dualistic. Physical existence, then, or at least man’s perception of physical existence, is unreliable, a misleading guide to the true reality of existence. Imaginative perception alone enables man to see through the deceptive appearances which surround him and to become aware of the Ideal which reveals the divine Unity of the Spiritual universe that contains the contradictions of materiality.

In light of this basic vision, truncated as the above explanation is, we arrive at an important fact about Poe’s poetic theory and practice. His poetry is intended not only to show the chaotic and contradictory nature of the physical world with all its accompanying woes, but also to effect an imaginative response which provides the means of transcending that chaos and sorrow. Such transcendence is made possible through the poem’s direct appeal to the senses and emotions, an appeal which gives rise to imaginative perception. A poem, according to Poe, “is not the Poetic faculty, but the means of exciting it in mankind” (VIII: 284). The Poetic faculty Poe refers to is an imaginative response to beauty which leads the mind upward to awareness of the Ideal and the supernal Unity which lies in the Ideal. Poe makes the point quite specifically in the following:

And thus when by Poetry — or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods — we find ourselves melted into tears — we weep then — not as the Abbate Gravina supposes — through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses. (XIV, 274)

In this statement we see at once the subject matter and the intent of much of Poe’s poetry. Its intent is to evoke an emotional response that liberates the imagination, making the poem a vehicle of perception. The subject matter [column 2:] of that poetry is the conflict between our sense of the Ideal and the disharmonic chaos of the material universe which destroys that sense and thereby our perception of Unity. For Poe, a poem is perfectly realized when meter, language, and subject come together in a perfect harmony of part to whole which is itself a metaphor of the ultimate harmony of the created universe. Poe achieved this ideal but rarely, perhaps only onceC in “To Helen.” But to understand Poe’s poetry, and to understand Poe, we must realize that many of the excrescencies which mar his poetry spring from a genuine attempt to use all the tools at a poet’s disposal in order to generate an affective response which will raise man above his feet of clay. If the poetry is often bad, the idea behind it is noble.

Which brings us to “Dream-Land.” I believe that in this poem Poe is setting forth his basic vision that physical life is a dream, a nightmare state of separation from the sublime Unity of the Spiritual Universe. We read the poem correctly only when we realize that the garish landscape it describes is not the nightmare of sleep and the tormented mind, but the inevitable nightmare of physical existence. Now it is not unusual for Poe to depict sleep with its accompanying dreams as a state which unlocks the unconscious mind, liberating the imagination and rekindling our sense of the Ideal. For instance, in “A Dream” we have the following stanza:

In visions of the dark night

I have dreamed of joy departed;

But a waking dream of life and light

Hath left me broken-hearted.

The “visions of the dark night” are, of course, dreams, while the “joy departed” is indicative of the sense of the Ideal which is lost sight of when we are awake. Thus it is the “waking dream of life and light,” our awakened state, which “Hash left me broken-hearted.” Later in the poem the dream of joy departed, the sense of the Ideal, becomes a “holy dream” which “Hash cheered me as a lovely beam / A lonely spirit guiding.” In other words, having attained a glimpse of the Ideal, the speaker of the poem, his imagination freed, is able to maintain his vision despite the vicissitudes of life, “While all the world were chiding.” In “Dream-Land” we have a poem which contains, albeit in far different terms, much the same idea.

The poem begins with the speaker awakening, losing contact with the sense of the Ideal which has come to him in sleep, continues with a lengthy description of Dream-Land which is the every-day world of physical reality, and concludes with a return to sleep, to the sense of the Ideal. To schematize the journey of the speaker of the poem, we move from the land of the Ideal (A) by means of “a route obscure and lonely” (B) to the world of everyday existence (C) and then return via (B) to (A). An analysis of the poem in these terms will, I believe, substantiate such a reading.

The poem begins as follows:

By a route obscure and lonely

Haunted by ill angels only

Where an Eidolon, named Night

On a black throne reigns upright

I have reached these lands but newly

From an ultimate dim Thule —

From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,

Out of Space — out of Time. [page 7:]

“These lands” which have been reached “but newly” are the lands described in the succeeding stanzas. There is undeniably some ambiguity here. “These lands” could refer to the last mentioned land of stanza one, the “ultimate dim Thule” which is “Out of Space — out of Time.” There is no question that the lands described in stanzas two, three, and four are wild and weird. Or, “these lands” could be some unidentified place separate from both “an ultimate dim Thule” and the lands described in the central stanzas. Poe, of course, is often careless with his grammar, and such confusion is not unusual in his poetry. Still, the repetition of “from” in lines 6 and 7 convinces me that the “ultimate dim Thule” and the “wild weird clime” are the same, and that the emphasis immediately preceding on “these lands” distinguishes between these lands and Thule, establishing a description which then elaborates on the lands just reached. The speaker of the poem, then, has come to these lands from a world of Ideality, an “ultimate dim Thule” meaning a very distant, mysterious or mythical region. In the world of the Ideal such material constructs as Space and Time do not exist, which is indicative of Poe’s vision that the Ideal unites and harmonizes the chaos of physical existence. The passage by which the speaker moves from the world of the Ideal to the world of physical reality is sleep, and in this case the speaker is waking up. This passage is “a route obscure and lonely,” as one would expect in dealing with the solitary unconscious mind. The ill angels which haunt the route are, I suggest, the exaggerated and fleeting memories of actual experience we all encounter in a half-wakened state, memories which, as the poem progresses, become all too real. The “Eidolon, named Night” whose throne reigns over the route from the Ideal to physical reality is not one of the “ill angels.” Night is an Eidolon, an ideal figure, for Night is logically associated with sleep which is the pathway to cognizance of the Ideal.

The speaker of the poem, then, is waking up in the first stanza. In so doing he leaves the realm of the Ideal and enters the realm of physical reality which is seen as a dream world of the living dead. The chaotic nature of the world of physical reality is described in the three central stanzas of “Dream-Land,” with a progression from the antithetical forces of physical nature to the consequences of that antithesis for man. The physical world described in stanza two is a hellish Miltonic Hades of gargantuan figures obscured in the dull, fire-red cast of its sulfuric atmosphere. It is a world of contradiction, where vales are bottomless, floods are boundless, seas are shoreless. The physical reality is grotesque and absurd, which I would suggest is precisely the point Poe is making. When man loses contact with his sense of the Ideal, when he awakens, all that remains to him is the contradictory world of materiality. Thus, that which is by definition finite becomes boundless. Dream-Land is that land where man accepts materiality at the expense of the Ideal and in so doing turns the material world into a topsy-turvy nightmare which becomes, not a gateway to the Ideal, but a chimera which turns the eternal Ideal into the temporal dead. We are then, at the end of stanza two, trapped in the world of physical reality; we have moved from the realm of the Ideal (A) to the realm of the material (C) .

In stanza three we encounter the inhabitants of the [column 2:] world of the living dead. Again, as we would expect given the ethos of the poem, these inhabitants are the stuff of nightmares. By the dead waters of the lakes, dead forms come forth to meet us. Water, usually a symbol of life and eternity, becomes dead in a world of pure materiality, killing instead of reviving. The dead forms are encountered in spots that “are most unholy,” for they are met where Ideality is non-existent. In this form, locked into the pure materiality of physical existence, these forms have no future, no means of transcending their physical being. Hence they become “Sheeted Memories of the Past,” “Shrouded forms,” because denial of the Ideal which is the consequence of reliance on materiality leaves no exit from the finitude of man. Without the Ideal, man is left solely with the material, with meaninglessness, which can only continue perpetuating itself over and over. In accepting the material world as real, the inhabitants of Dream-Land are confronted with their own mortality. Hence the “agony” with which they are given “to the Earth — and Heaven.” Heaven here is almost an afterthought, a deluded hope in a world controlled by materiality. Without the transcendence made possible by the sense of the Ideal, Heaven cannot exist. Materiality offers us no means of overcoming its, and our, inevitable destruction.

In stanza four, however, a rather perplexing shift rakes place which seems to deny the logic of the poem to this point. Dream-Land, the lurid land of contradiction. consternation, and confusion, suddenly and perhaps inexplicably becomes “a peaceful, soothing region.” Confusing as the shift may be, I feel it is not unreconcilable with my interpretation. Dream-Land is a peaceful, soothing region “For the heart whose woes are legion,” an Eldorado “For the spirit that walks in shadow.” What I would like to suggest is that it is those who shut out the Ideal, who accept fully and without question the ultimate reality of the physical world, who can find a deluded comfort in the insane world of materiality. These are the imaginatively dead who walk in shadow. These inhabitants of Dream-Land “May not — dare not openly view it,” for to do so is to recognize its futility, to become, as in stanza three, “aghast.” The mysteries of physical existence, understood only through the Ideal which can unify its contradictions, are never exposed to the imaginatively dead who rely on materiality for truth:

Never its mysteries are exposed

To the weak human eye unclosed;

So wills its King, who hath forbid

The uplifting of the fringed lid;

And thus the sad Soul that here passes

Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

The mysteries of Dream-Land, which can only be discovered and resolved through the Ideal, are not exposed to the open eye, the eye “unclosed.” Dream-Land’s King, materiality, has forbidden the opening of man’s sight, the uplifting of the fringed lid. Thus the “sad Soul” condemned to live in Dream-Land sees everything through “darkened glasses,” sees everything erroneously and obscurely.

There is, then, an interesting paradox presenr at the conclusion of stanza four. The imaginatively dead inhabitant of Dream-Land cannot penetrate the mystery of [page 8:] existence for he is shut out from the Ideal; he is asleep, and the King of Dream-Land wills that he remain so. If, however, that sad Soul would but open his eyes by closing them and sleeping and, in sleeping, release his unconscious imagination, he would be able to deny the dictates of the King and enter the realm of the Ideal. This is precisely what happens for the poem’s speaker.

The final stanza of “Dream-Land” appears to be a repetition of the first, but it contains an important alteration and deletion:

By a route obscure and lonely,

Haunted by ill angels only,

Where an Eidolon, named Night,

On a black throne reigns upright,

I have wandered home hut newly

From this ultimate dim Thule.

The speaker here is rejecting the chaotic world of Dream-Land, of physical existence, and is returning to the realm of the Ideal, is returning to sleep. Once more he travels the route obscure and lonely, but this time he is moving in the opposite direction. The ill angels are still present, ill angels which I would like to suggest are the memories of what has been experienced in Dream-Land and which, once the route has been traversed, once sleep has fully released the unconscious imagination and given rebirth to the sense of the Ideal, are put behind when the speaker reaches the realm of the Ideal where he began. Thus the reference of stanza one, “I have reached these lands but newly” becomes “I have wandered home but newly,” have moved from the land of physical reality (C) to the realm of the Ideal (A). Accordingly the reference to the world that “lieth, sublime / Out of Space — out of Time” has been deleted because it is no longer necessary, for the speaker is now back in the world of the Ideal where the material constructs of Space and Time do not exist. The speaker of the poem has succeeded in transcending the physical universe and has denied the dictates of its King. He has seen the universe with open eyes, and in so doing has gained insight into its ultimate harmony and unity.

There remains, however, one bit of confusion to be clarified. What of the “ultimate dim Thule” of the opening and concluding stanzas? If they are the same the poem suffers an inherent illogic. But they are not the same. If we read the “ultimate dim Thule” in stanza one as the realm of the Ideal, as a very distant mysterious or mythical region, and the “ultimate dim Thule” of the last stanza as the realm of physical existence, the northernmost part of the habitable world with its connotations of the outermost, frozen point of life, the confusion is resolved. We then see, as earlier suggested, the speaker moving from the mysterious realm of the Ideal (A) through the route of Night (B) to Dream-Land, the land of physical existence (C), and returning through Night, sleep, to home, the Ideal. In this case it is Dream-Land, the material world, which is furthest from realiry, which is “this ultimate dim Thule.” The use of “this” rather than “an” in conjunction with the preceding stanzas lead me to believe that Poe so intended the poem to be read. Since the emphasis and focus in the poem is on Dream-Land, its becoming “this ultimate dim Thule” is appropriate, fitting well within the philosophic logic of the poem. Such, I believe, is the case, enabling the poem to [column 2:] come full circle with a rejection of the nightmare world of physical existence.

“Dream-Land,” then, is not a perfervid nightmare growing out of Poe’s haunted, neurotic mind. It is a poetic statement of his vision of the chaotic, disharmonic world of physical reality and the ability of the imagination through the concept of the Ideal to transcend that disharmony. It is not a nightmare vision, but an insight into the sublime.



(1) Floyd Stovall, “The Conscious Art of Edgar Allan Poe,” College English, 24 (1963), 419.

(2) Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Allan Poe, Twayne’s United States Authors Series (New York: College & University Press, 1961) p. 98. Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 82-83.

(3) Eureka, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), XVI, 214. Subsequent references to Poe’s work are from the Harrison edition with volume number and pagination indicated parenthetically in the text.


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[S:0 - PS, 1975]