A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allan Poe (New Criticism analysis)

Posted on November 8, 2011


New Criticism analysis is an astonishing analysis because there are a lot of pros and contras surrounding the development of this analysis. The analysis is, as far as I know, the “loosest” in terms of the theory and methodology. There are many standards on how to analyse literary works using this theory. For example, Cleanth Brooks denies that New Criticism does not aware of the historical background by presenting the analysis that based on the history of word formations. Meanwhile, Michael Riffaterre focuses his analysis on the binary oppositions of nature in analysing William Blake’s The Sick Rose. These varieties make an analyst can make his/her own New Criticism’s method.

Upon analysing Edgar Allan Poe’s A Dream Within A Dream, I refer to both Cleanth Brooks’ and Michael Riffaterre’s methodology. My primary source is, of course, the poem itself. I use the dictionary as a tool to find the meaning of the poem. If the dictionary defines more than one meaning for a word, it is probably a signal for the reader to decode the true meaning of it. As a response to the phenomenon, I will choose the closest meaning in terms of the proximity between the word and the poem’s “world”. The poem’s “world” is derived from the collocations. In this poem, I can find “a surf-tormented shore”, “grains”, “sand”, and “wave”. These words are collocated with “sea”. So, I can assume that the poem’s “world” is at the “sea”. However, I have not known yet whether the “sea” is tangible or intangible. According to Riffaterre,

These [the poem] elements are indeed present inside the text but only as words, and as words that point to something other than themselves, that is, to a significance determined by the rules of a grammar valid only for this text, determined by the fact that these words actualize again and again a structure first realized in the title and in the first line.

The title of the poem is “A Dream Within A Dream” and the first line says “Take this kiss upon the brow!”. The word “Dream” can be a noun, a verb, or an adjective. I can eliminate Dream as a verb and an adjective because the grammar indicates that it is a noun. According to Encarta Dictionary, there are six meanings of Dream itself. Other reason why I use Encarta Dictionary is that the dictionary mentions the origin of words in every entry. In the end of the poem, it is written “1849”. I assume that this is when the poetry was written. So, all of the meanings must be originally derived before 1849. A Dream Within A Dream can be read “something in something”. Are those two “Dream”s indicate the same meaning? Or different? One sure thing is that all definitions are considered as intangible nouns. So, from now on I will interpret all the words in the poem have intangible quality. I read the title as “An Idle Hope In Something Hope For”. In the same way, I paraphrase “Take the kiss upon the brow!” as “Claim the very light, almost imperceptible touch in passing, upon the brow!”. By just looking at the title and the first line, I can make a hypothesis that this poem is about someone who has a faulty obsession about something. I do not know the story of the man yet. The story is explained in the rest of the poem.

Using the same method, A Dream Within A Dream is paraphrased as follows:

An Idle Hope In Something Hope For

Edgar Allan Poe

Claim the very light [almost imperceptible] touch in passing, upon the brow!

And, in leaving [sadly] from you now,

Thus much let me affirm [that something is true]—

You are not wrong, who consider or judge [in a particular way]

That my time of fame have been an idle hope:

Yet if (my) confident desire has dissapeared

In a period of cultural or emotional gloominess, or in a time of fame,

In a mental picture, or in none,

Is it therefore the less are gone?

All that we perceive something as pleasing [or good] or appear to be something

Is just an idle hope in something hoped for.

I am in a particular condition while something is happening [which is] a loud crashing or blowing noise

Of a foamy waves [which cause] mental anguish [in the] land at edge of water,

And I believe within my power

(my) Basic qualities of the excellent courage and determination—

How few! yet how they gradually develop

Through my fingers (parts of the power) to the intense part

While I mourn [something]—while I mourn [something]!

O God! (interjection) can I not take

[The opportunity] with a tighter clasp?

O God! (interjection) can I not redeem

One from the burst of feeling [of being threatened without mercy]

Is all that we perceive something as pleasing [or good] or appear to be something

Is just an idle hope in something hoped for?


From the paraphrasing above, the story of the man is clear. At first he believed in a faulty idea of success (indicates by the word “take”=”claim”). As the time goes he met someone. This someone considers that the man had a wrong idea about success. The man affirms that he had a wrong idea. However, he still hopes he can manage his mistake in the past.

The second stanza tells about his struggle to seize the success. He is mentally in a chaotic condition. He believes he has the determination. But he realizes that he only has a few of it. He is mourning and trying to take the opportunities to be successful. In the end, he is questioning himself about his idea of success because he seem he cannot take the pain of being threatened without mercy.


Brooks, C. 1979. The New Criticism. The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Fall, 1979),

pp. 592-607. The Johns Hopkins University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27543619?origin=JSTOR-pdf

Riffaterre, M. 1973. The Self-Sufficient Text. Diacritics, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 39-45. The Johns Hopkins University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/464526?origin=JSTOR-pdf

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Posted in: essay, poem