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.”