Text: George E . Hatvary, “Poe’s Possible Authorship of ‘An Opinion on Dreams’,” Poe Studies, December 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 13:p-p


[page 21:]

Poe’s Possible Authorship of
“An Opinion on Dreams”

St. John’s University

In the August 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine there appeared a brief essay, “An Opinion on Dreams” (V, 105), affirming the tripartite organization of man as body, mind, and soul and applying this psychological concept — rather more popular than implied by the opening sentence of the piece — to the phenomenon of dreaming. The essay, published under Poe’s and Burton’s co-editorship, was unsigned.(1) The text is reproduced below. But first I would like to reopen the question of Poe’s authorship of the essay, particularly because current attribution of it to Horace Binney Wallace is questionable.

Edward H. Davidson has most fully, if indirectly, linked the concerns of “An Opinion on Dreams” with Poe, noting that an interest in man as a conglomerate of body, mind, and soul extends throughout his writings and that “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which appeared in Burton’s only a month after the essay itself, may be read as “a study of total disintegration of a complex human being, not in any one of the three aspects of body, mind, and soul, but in all three together.”(2) Poe’s view of dreams as an avenue to, a partaking of, immortality is well known. Logically, “there are no dreams in Aidenn,” asserts Agathos in “The Power of Words,” as does Charmion in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”: “Dreams are with us no more” (Works, III, 1212; 11, 455). In the opening passages of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the protagonist-narrator makes a clear distinction between the soul, associated with dream, swoon, and immortality, and the intellect, associated with memory. Even more succinctly, in a “Marginalia” item, Poe speaks of “fancies” or “visions” or “psychical impressions” which “arise in the soul” and “seem to me rather psychal than intellectual,” but are subsequently remembered, or forgotten, by the intellect.(3)

Nevertheless, in a note appended to his discussion of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Davidson attributes “An Opinion on Dreams” to Horace Binney Wallace.(4) Davidson’s authority is T. O. Mabbott. who, however, made the [column 2:] identification in 1953 in more cautious terms, acknowledging that the essay is “sometimes ascribed to Poe himself, but, in my opinion, the work of Horace Binney Wallace.”(5) James Harrison did not include the essay in his Virginia Edition, but J. H. Whitty refers to it in his edition of Poe’s poems as embodying some of the ideas that appear in Eureka.(6) Mary E. Phillips accepts Whitty’s authority in her biography.(7) Perhaps more significant is Killis Campbell’s silent acceptance. In his most extensive article on the Poe canon, Campbell refers to Whitty’s having “drawn attention to some neglected prose items in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.”(8) Because Campbell refutes at length the authenticity of a good many works ascribed to Poe but does not mention “An Opinion on Dreams,” it is safe to say that he admitted it into the Poe canon.

Why did Mabbott attribute this essay to Wallace? Sometime in the 1940’s he had learned the real identity of rhis secretive, rather mysterious writer, whom Poe seems to have known only as “William Landor.” In February 1942, Mabbott requested information in the umerican Notes and Queries about “Poe’s obscure contemporary,” William Landor (1, 166-167). No one seems to have responded. During my first meeting with Professor Mabbott in 1954, he revealed little direct knowledge of Wallace but a keen interest in Poe’s borrowings from him. Wallace and Poe had borh published in Burton’s from 1838 to 1840; in fact, rhe issue which printed “An Opinion on Dreams,” also ran an unsigned installment of Wallace’s series of aphorisms, “Sweepings from a Drawer.” Given Poe’s extensive borrowings from Wallace, it is understandable that Mabbott, seeing no more than an ideational connection between “An Opinion on Dreams” and Poe’s works, and being suspicious of Whitty’s scholarship (though certainly not of Campbell’s)(9), should have embraced the somewhat hasty opinion that the essay was by Wallace.

But if Wallace had written it, there is every reason to believe that it would have found its way into his Literary Criticisms (1856), the second posthumous collection assembled by his brother John. It is a piece of writing whose religious dimension alone would have made John William Wallace proud to acknowledge it as his deceased brother’s work.

Furthermore, “An Opinion on Dreams” sounds far more like Poe than Wallace. The following is a characteristic passage by Wallace written about this time:

Human life is like a dream in the after-dinner sleep of a demon, in which an image of heaven is interrupted by a vision of hell; a thought of bliss breaks off to give place to a fancy of horror, [page 22:] and the fragments of happiness and discomfort lie mingled together in a confusion which would be ridiculous if it were not awful.(10)

Wallace, a lawyer, was capable of writing in a more rationalistic vein; a good example is the passage Poe quotes by him in a note to “The Mystery of Marie Roget”:

A theory based on the qualities of an object, will prevent its being unfolded according to its objects; and he who arranges topics in reference to their causes, will cease to value them according to their results. Thus the jurisprudence of every nation will show that, when law becomes a science and a system, it ceases to be justice. . . . (Works, III, 379).

In both of these passages there is a certain heaviness, indirection, even wordiness. Elsewhere in his early writings, Wallace easily loses himself in Ciceronian balances and literary embellishments. Poe himself, although he saw “great talent” in Wallace, summed up his style as “elaborately careful, stiff, and pedantic” (Complete Works, XV, 198). None of these attributes characterizes “An Opinion on Dreams.” On the other hand, the terseness; the strategy of opening the essay by isolating a central fallacy of previous opinion on a topic; the tendency to deal wirh the supernatural in rational terminology and to stress epistemological issues when dealing with prophecy (as Poe did in his 1838 review of Stephens’ Arabia PetraeaComplete Works, X, 1-25); the blunt rhetorical devices such as “if we can believe the bible at all”; the breathless pace yet unerring syntax governing even passages of mounting emotional force, as for example, the middle sentence in the fourth paragraph, do have parallels in Poe’s prose writings. At a minimum, the question of his authorship of the following essay deserves further attention.


VARIOUS opinions have been hazarded concerning dreams — whether they have any connection with the invisible and eternal world or not; and, it appears to me, the reason why nothing like a definite conclusion has yet been arrived at, is from the circumstance of the arguers never making any distinction between Mind and Soul, always speaking of them as one and the same I believe man to be in himself a Trinity, viz. Mind, Body, and Soul; and thus with dreams, some induced by the mind, and some by the soul. Those connected with the mind, I think proceed partly from supernatural, and partly from natural causes, those of the soul I believe are of the immaterial world alone.

In order to support this position, it becomes necessary to show how the soul s dream and that of the mind are distinguishable; and whether sometimes, or indeed often, they are not both at the same moment bearing their part in the nocturnal vision.

That dreams, or, as they were then generally called, visions, were a means of supernatural instruction, if we believe the bible at all, is proved by Jacobs dream, the several visions of Ezekiel and other prophets, as also of later date, the Revelations to Saint John; and there appears no reason why this mode of divine communication should be discontinued in the present day.

We thus come to the difference between dreams of the mind and visions of the soul — making this distinction of terms, not only on account of convenience, but also, as I consider, of applicability. Upon retiring to rest after a fatiguing day of either corporeal or mental exertion, should a dream present itself either as recapitulatory of, or connected with, the past events, this I should say was produced by the immaterial mind, which, unlike the body, was [column 2:] still in a state of vigor and activity; and reflecting or re-enacting at night the scenes which had occupied its attention and energies during the day. But when slumbering, should a vision be induced either concerning Heaven or Hell, or any mystical and apparently prophetical forewarning of a coming event, and in connection with which the awakened visionist can trace no analogy to his thoughts or actions, this, I say, must proceed from the soul; as the mind cannot have any thing to do with that it has not been engaged upon, as we all know that the mind only expands, and is active in proportion to its various degrees of employment. Not so the soul; that of the infant is as ripe as the man’s; it is as immortal and as ready for Heaven; and I have known children have nightly visions which were as evidently superior to the general tenor of their youthful ideas as possible, and which, had they not for the time being appeared to have had their mental powers raised above their usual level, they would have been totally unable to narrate.

It is a question, in my humble opinion, whether the soul ever slumbers at all; whilst the mind evidently does, or else we could always give upon waking some relation of our thought’s employment during sleep. Besides which, it not unfrequently happens that when broad awake, a temporary absence of mind as it is called, takes place, and the person so affected cannot with all his endeavors discover upon what his meditations have been employed, or whether they have been so at all. Thus three portions of the one man seem to be most essentially different, in this way; that the body often sleeps, the mind occasionally, the soul never; and now I am expected to explain how, if the soul never sleeps, we have not always some vision to employ our waking consideration. I imagine that here in order to remember the vision of our soul, it is necessary for the connecting link between it and the body, viz. the mind, to be in full activity, although possessing its powers of memory from the eternal nature of its superior, and companion, the soul; thus rendering it no difficulty to the mind to retain the reminiscence of its own dream, as the soul never sleeps; which assertion may receive additional confirmation from the following argument; that were it only for one single moment to be unconscious of its existence, this would at once break in upon its eternal principle, as being a suspension of its own powers, and which cannot happen to eternity. It is the slumber of the mind and not the soul, therefore, which causes forgetfulness.



1 - Poe’s statement to Burton as to the number of pages he contributed ro the magazine may be questioned in light of his identification elsewhere of the reviews he wrote for July, August, and September 1839. See Letters, 1, 131, 119.

2 - Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), p. 197.

3 - Complete Works, XVI, 88-89.

4 - P. 281. For full information on Wallace, see George E. Hatvary, Horace Binney Wallace (Boston: Twayne, 1977).

5 - Notes and Queries, 198 (December 1953), 543

6 - The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe . . . (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p lxiii.

7 - Edgar Allan Poe: The Man (Chicago Philadelphia, Toronto: John C. Winston, 1926), 1, 580; 11, 126;.

8 - “The Poe Canon, rpt. in The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (1933; New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), pp. 189-190.

9 - See bibliographical commentary, Works, 1, 589, 593.

10 - Literary Criticisms and Other Papers ( 1856; rpt. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1972), p. 379.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • The article “An Opinion on Dreams” has been traced to the original source, and as it turns out it is not by Poe or Wallace.


[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]