By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best poems about dreams? The word ‘dreams’, of course, is ambiguous: it can refer to both the imaginative stories and visions our unconscious creates for us while we sleep, but it can also refer to our ambitions and aspirations. Here, we’ve taken ‘dreams’ to mean both these things when compiling this list of ten of the greatest poems about dreams.
We’ve tried to limit ourselves to relatively short poems – the kind that can be read in a five-minute break – and so there’s no ‘The Dream of the Rood’ here, one of the earliest poems in English. But we hope you enjoy the poems we have included here.
1. John Donne, ‘The Dream’.
Dear love, for nothing less than thee
Would I have broke this happy dream;
It was a theme
For reason, much too strong for fantasy,
Therefore thou wak’d’st me wisely; yet
My dream thou brok’st not, but continued’st it …
So begins this poem from the first great metaphysical poet. What if you were dreaming about someone, only to be woken up by the very person you had been dreaming about?
This scenario is the focus of this lesser-known John Donne poem, which – as in a number of other John Donne poems – sees the poet trying to seduce the woman to coming to bed with him (well, they’re already in bed – but you know what we mean).
2. William Blake, ‘A Dream’.
Once a dream did weave a shade
O’er my angel-guarded bed,
That an emmet lost its way
Where on grass methought I lay.
Troubled, wildered, and forlorn,
Dark, benighted, travel-worn,
Over many a tangle spray,
All heart-broke, I heard her say:
‘Oh my children! do they cry,
Do they hear their father sigh?
Now they look abroad to see,
Now return and weep for me.’
So begins this poem published in Blake’s 1789 book Songs of Innocence, ‘A Dream’ is about Blake’s vision of three insects: an ant (‘emmet’), a beetle, and a glow-worm, which is in fact a kind of beetle. Not only that, but these are talking insects: the emmet confides that she has lost her children, and the bright glow-worm offers to light the way for her through the night, so she can recover them.
3. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘A Dream within a Dream’.
How can we separate reality from illusion? What if, to quote from Poe’s poem, ‘All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream’?
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?
4. Walt Whitman, ‘I Dreamed in a Dream’.
I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the
attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust
love—it led the rest …
As the repetition of ‘dream’ in Whitman’s title suggests, this poem combines the two principal meanings of ‘dream’ which we mentioned at the beginning of this post. Whitman dreamt of a utopian city where ‘robust love’ triumphed and flourished, above all else. A wonderful short poem about the perfect society – if only, if only…
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘I dream of you, to wake’.
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 …
So begins this sonnet is addressed to the speaker’s lover, and contrasts the wonderful, perfect dream world that sleep brings with the less perfect reality that we wake to. If only she could dream all the time, then things would be all right!
One of the finest Victorian love sonnets, and, for our money, one of the best poems about dreams and dreaming. Not one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, but a marvellous poem nevertheless.
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘We dream – it is good we are dreaming’.
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 …
So begins this lesser-known Emily Dickinson poem, which also favours the world of dreams over the more painful reality of the waking world. Like many of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems, the American Civil War may have fed into this vision of a life lived best in the protective arms of dreams, rather than the bloody horrors of reality.
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …
The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you. But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams.
And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
8. Lola Ridge, ‘The Dream’.
I have a dream
to fill the golden sheath
of a remembered day….
heavy and massed and blue
as the vapor of opium…
fired in sulphurous mist …
Lola Ridge (1873-1941) was born in Ireland but lived much of her adult life in the United States. She’s not read much now, but she was a pioneer of what some call ‘Anarchist poetry’, though her style might be co-opted more broadly under the banner of modernism. This short poem by Ridge shows why she’s worth reading.
9. Langston Hughes, ‘Dreams’.
This short, simple lyric by one of the major figures in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s entreats us to hold fast to our dreams, for a life without dreams is barren and cold, like a bird with broken wings that cannot fly.
Dreams, Hughes’ poem suggests, give us freedom and comfort – whether we mean ‘dreams’ in the sense of ‘aspirations’ or ambitions, or those dreams which provide a refuge from waking reality.
10. Pablo Neruda, ‘Cat’s Dream’.
As well as being one of the best dream poems, ‘Cat’s Dream’ is also a fine poetic depiction of a cat, describing the animal’s physical appearance but then imagining what a cat’s dreams must be like.
Neruda’s arresting description of the night flowing through the cat’s dreaming mind ‘like dark water’ makes it worth reading on its own – but there are many other things to admire here.
Continue to explore the world of poetry with our tips for the close reading of poetry, these must-have poetry anthologies, and these classic happy poems. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Walt Whitman by G. Frank E. Pearsall in 1872, Wikimedia Commons.