Thursday, June 08, 2006

An examination of John Donne's "The Dream"

In John Donne’s poem “The Dream,” the narrator is woken from a dream by the person who he claims to have been dreaming about. Like in the more popular Donne poem “The Flea,” the narrator attempts to cajole the woman into coming to bed with him by talking about the poetic conceit (the dream, the flea) and how it relates to them. Unlike in “The Flea,” however, Donne uses some very complex imagery to describe the dream and the waking and to form his arguments for her staying.

Although nothing in “The Dream” uses the feminine pronoun to describe the one who wakes the narrator, the imagery of an angel and the cajoling tone all point to a feminine character. Because of this, Donne’s romantic reputation, and his use of the female pronoun in other similar poems the following explication assumes that the unnamed person who wakens the narrator is a woman.

Dearest, for nothing worth less than you

Would I have woken up from this dream;

For reality was stronger than fantasy.

The clause is an explanation from the narrator that reality (her in his room) is stronger than fantasy and simply the reality of her being there woke him up. In the actual poem, this clause reads “For reason, much too strong for fantasy.” It’s an odd juxtaposition – why “reason” and not “reality,” the more exact opposite of fantasy – that hints at a pun. According to Merriam-Webster OnLine, the entry for reason includes an archaic definition meaning “treatment that affords satisfaction,” the very sort of treatment the narrator is looking for.

Therefore, it was wise [good] that you woke me; yet
You didn’t end my dream, but you [yourself] are the continuation of it
You are so true that the thought of you
Is enough to make a dream true, and fables [factual] history;
Enter my arms, for since you thought it was best,
For me not to dream, let us act [out] the conclusion of that dream.

The narrator, glad to be awoken by the person he was dreaming about, starts off by complementing her and attempts to bring her into his bed. He tells her she is so true that she makes dreams into reality and histories into fables.

Although it’s not a theme he uses often, the idea of a woman altering history appears in one other Donne poem: The Damp. In “The Damp” Donne challenged the wooed to “…like a Goth and Vandal rise, / Deface records and histories,” (lines 13-14) –to make different choices then what she made in the past. In each poem, Donne uses this image to portray women as have remarkable power over reality and perceptions of reality.

At the end of the stanza, much like the quip that was in his usage of reason, Donne again makes a reference to the activities occurring in the dream but in a less veiled way. “Let’s act out the rest,” (line 10) as the line was originally written, coupled with his calling her back into his arms, gives away the sexual nature of this dream.

As lightning, or the light of a candle,
Your eyes, and not your noise woke me;

The abstraction of the woman’s eyes fits perfectly into both the Petrarchan tradition, where Laura’s eyes are often described as stars, and also to the more contemporary Philip Sidney. In Sidney’s sonnet “7,” Sidney describes Stella’s unveiled eyes as “sunlike, should more dazzle then delight” (line 8). With this metaphor of eyes and light being a common one, it’s not surprising to see it here. But, in other poems, Donne uses eyes and light to express something else. In Elegy IV: Julia, Donne describes Julia as a “This she Chimera that hath eyes of fire, / Burning with anger —anger feeds desire—” (lines 15 – 16). In each of these Donne poems, eyes inspire desire through a burning light, candle and fire, and create desire. In “The Dream,” Donne happily moves from fantasy to reality when those eyes wake him. In Julia, he describes the burning anger within the subject that creates desire within her.

Yet I thought you
-for you love truth- were an angle when I first saw you [after I woke up];
But when I saw that you saw [what was in] my heart,

There is irony in the lines “Yet I thought thee / —For thou lovest truth—an angel, at first sight” (lines 13 – 14). Donne positions her love for truth right next to his flattery. By doing this, he is able to use the hyperbole of thinking her an angle, while at the same time saying “this is true and I’m telling you this not to flatter you, but because you love truth.”

And that you knew my thoughts better than an angel has the ability to do,
When you knew what I was dreaming, when you knew when
An excess of joy would wake me, and then you came,
I must admit, it would be nothing but
Profane to think of you as anything but yourself.

Going beyond calling her an angel, Donne says that she knew what he was dreaming, so exactly, that she was able to wake him up at the very moment before he could experience an “excess of joy,” his euphemism for a nocturnal emission. And her ability to do that proves that she knew him better than an angle would and to call her such would be calling her something less than she already is.

Coming and staying showed you to be yourself [revealed your intentions]
But rising [leaving my arms] makes me doubt, what your real intentions are.

The toughest and last stanza of the poem begins with the easiest lines to paraphrase. She came into Donne’s room and woke him from an erotic dream. In the previous stanza he said she knew the precise moment to wake him and, for him, this means she was interested in playing out that dream in reality. But as she gets up to leave, he questions why she is leaving.

Love becomes weak with fear [hesitation]

And if this fear [hesitation] is a mixture of shame, then have honor

Like torches, which must be ready for
Men to light and put out, so you deal with [treat] me;
The original text for this section reads “That love is weak where fear's as strong as he; / 'Tis not all spirit, pure and brave,” (lines 14 – 15). When viewed through the Petrarchan tradition it lends itself to an interpretation based upon the personification of Fear and Love, with the former becoming stronger as the latter becomes weaker. But this doesn’t mesh with the implied question of the two previous lines: Why is she leaving?

When viewed through this question, it becomes an answer. Love, the woman’s resolve to express the emotion of love through a physical act, weakens as she is confronted with the reality of the social mores and taboos regarding sex outside the confines of marriage. Donne recognizes this along with the sense of shame that would accompany a fallen woman and almost sardonically lets her off the hook by saying “Fine, if this makes you feel shame then find the honor in the fact that you are treating me in the way men treat torches.” It’s a bit bitter but it aligns her shame with a normal thing even an honorable man would do.
You came to kindle, then you go to leave; and then [now] I
Will dream that hope [of you coming] again, or die.

If before Donne almost let her off the hook, he attempts to drive it home now: He lets her go but not without an “I’ll die without you parting shot.” It is not, however, in the same sardonic spirit as before. Instead, he is returning to the same power of altering history and waking him up with her eyes. It is the classic “without you I am nothing,” concept from the troubadours.

Works Cited

Donne, John. The Works of John Donne. Anniina Jokinen. 10 April 2004. Luminarium. 20 December 2005 <>.

“The Flea” .

“The Dream” .

“The Damp” .

Elegy XIV. Julia”

"reason." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2004. 20 December 2005.

Sidney, Philip. “Sonnet 7.” Rick Abrams. University of Southern Maine. 20 December 2005 .

For a complete bibliography and/or permission to use the above text beyond the terms of fair use, please contact the author, Joseph R. Thompson, by email


Anonymous said...

fantastic analysis, thank you.

Anonymous said...

how can i cite you?