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18 May 2013

Dreams — are well — but Waking's better

Dreams — are well — but Waking's better,
If One wake at morn —
If One wake at Midnight — better —
Dreaming — of the Dawn —

Sweeter — the Surmising Robins —
Never gladdened Tree —
Than a Solid Dawn — confronting —
Leading to no Day —
                                                                           F449 (1862)  J450

This rather maddening poem contrasts dark and dawn, waking and dreaming, life and death, and heaven and hell. I find the poem“maddening” because Dickinson’s grammar is so sketchy. Words are left out with abandon and it sometimes isn’t clear to me which clause goes with which other clause.

         The first line begins clearly enough and then the poem slowly slides into the ambiguities and mysteries of the second stanza. It’s tempting to feel that if missing words could be supplied, if grammar could be regularized, then the poem would make complete sense. But I’m pretty sure Dickinson wanted this poem to be suggestive rather than descriptive.
         First stanza: It’s good to dream but waking up is better – as long as you wake up in the morning. If you wake up at midnight, on the other hand, you’d be better dreaming of dawn. After this, I am conjecturing: such dreams would be much sweeter than being confronted by a “Solid Dawn” that doesn’t lead to any day. The dream sweetness would better than even the dreaming, “Surmising Robins” who wake up and gladden the trees with song.
        What is the “Solid Dawn” that leads to “no Day”? While “dawn” suggests a new and heavenly or eternal life, its opposite, “Midnight,” suggests the blackness of torment, the grave, or hell. Dreaming of dawn would be sweeter indeed in comparison. With that in mind, Midnight itself is the “Solid Dawn”: the dark, black of the grave. Waking at the blackness of midnight (remembering that Dickinson would never have experienced the light pollution we currently ‘enjoy’) presages waking into that eternal night. There’s a resulting terror in the last line of the poem, warning that no day will ever follow that black dawn.

Dickinson uses a few word sound groups to emphasize her images. The poem is sprinkled with the “d” sounds that remind us of “death,” but here go with “Dreams, Dreaming, Dawn, Dawn, and Day – all of which take on a darker meaning as the poem progresses. The breathy “W” sounds of “Waking,” and the repeated “One wake” provide a hushed and mysterious mood. The one bit of lightness comes from the “S” sounds of “Sweeter – the Surmising Robins.”



  1. I agree -- this is a very difficult poem to interpret. Not difficult in the sense of profound -- just cryptic.

    It could be that "Solid Dawn" refers to a false dawn -- an astronomical phenomemon that can trick birds into waking and singing. But it is hard to understand why "solid" is the right adjective for this.

    My bigger problem is that ED has such a devotion to truth that it is hard to read the poem as endorsing as "sweet" a dream grounded in a lie.

  2. There's a second interpretation I rejected when writing the commentary above: in the second stanza we see Dickinson saying that the sweetest thing of all (better than waking at dawn, better than dreaming of dawn, better than robin song) would be to wake up to an endless dawn, i.e., heaven. That dawn would lead to no day for it would be an endless fresh newness. "Nothing would be sweeter, robins never gladdened such a tree, than to wake up confronted by the endless dawn of heaven."

    My objections to that interp are that 1) it is pretty sketchy, and 2) it's pretty cheery and I just don't take a cheery mood from the poem as a whole.

  3. I agree. Leading to no day is a shock -- and not a cheery prospect.

    1. But then again, Dickinson is sly about heaven... mixed opinions.

  4. I think she leaves it deliberately vague. I also find the second stanza, much harder than the first. That said--I think she's up to some of her usual set of tricks. The first line, "Dreams — are well — but Waking's better," could be read as "Dreams are superior to Wake."--a better version of wake, if you think the "'s" is a possessive instead of the "wake is" contraction "wake's." If you think it's the contraction, then it's the opposite, wake is better to sleep. I think she wants the reader to consider both, and settle on the one they prefer.

    I think she's also try to compare contrast dreams/wake to life/death, but she might also be inverting the usual syllogism. So, this time dream/sleeps is to life as wake is to death (not opposites but actually companions). So, the "surmising robins" know or can surmise of death's inevitability, but chirp all the same (and simply choose life over death and never really display any remorse at the thought of death). The never gladdened tree could work one of two ways: as a contrast to the chirping colorful robins, or simply as a symbol that constantly knows and evokes death but never succumbs to the pull of it--or knows that it is far off. "Never gladdened" might mean that the tree never gets happy itself, but lends its branches to the sweet robins who clearly are happy. I also think "Solid Dawn" is a euphemism for death as it leads to "no day." ED probably is getting to ideas she write's about in "The Skies can't keep their secret!"

  5. I like your insight on the surmising robins. I do think, though, that the never gladdened tree is just a way of saying that robins gladden trees with their songs -- such a sweet thing that something else (waking? dreaming of dawn? death?)is very sweet indeed to be "Sweeter." But that "Sweeter" is, I think, at the heart of the poem's ambiguity.

  6. WAKING UP in the morning is better than dreaming.(Waking up in the middle of the night? You're better off dreaming.)Better dream birds in a dream tree than never waking up.

    1. Thanks -- that makes a lot of sense and seems to fit.

  7. I agree that this poem is so cryptic that the sense could flow in many directions, depending on the reader. It helps a little to go back to poems #427 and #429 which also use different times of day as symbols with religious/spiritual meanings. My own personal reading is that she is comparing true religious awakening (awaking at the real dawn) to formalistic, maybe church-going belief (the Solid Dawn that leads to no Day). Compared to the latter, the simple beauty and truth of nature (the surmising/unknowing robins and the physical tree bearing no Glad Tidings is sweeter than solid/stolid formalistic beliefs.

    1. Thanks, riverwoman. Your reading has the advantage of her delight in the flow and seasons of this world. Better the robins never existed than to have that drear Solid Dawn of churchly dogma.

  8. Impressionist grammar! I like it! Any evidence that she was influenced by the just-emerging impressionist art? The very next poem is about painting...

  9. As happens to all of us, she wakes intermittently during the night, and sometimes her thoughts aren’t happy ones.

    What if she died in her sleep and that ended everything, no day, no light, no Heaven, no Hell, “mere oblivion”. She’s “confronting” the very real possibility that after death there is nada, a courageous thing to do.

    The previous poem, F448, was headed in that direction: two corpses chatted nightly through a mausoleum wall until spreading moss silenced their conversation, with no mention of heaven.

    The “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion; / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”