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02 February 2015

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 —

What harm? Men die — externally —
It is a truth — of Blood —
But we — are dying in Drama —
And Drama — is never dead —

Cautious — We jar each other —
And either — open the eyes —
Lest the Phantasm — prove the mistake —
And the livid Surprise

Cool us to Shafts of Granite —
With just an age — and name —
And perhaps a phrase in Egyptian —
It's prudenter — to dream —
                              F584 (1863)  J531

This rather haunting poem begins and ends with the claim that it is "good" and more prudent to spend life dreaming rather than with eyes open. There is a "truth – of Blood" that kills people "externally" but there is a type of "dying in Drama" where some other "it" plays the game of "kill us". As long as the "we" play along, shrieking as children do at play in some dark scary room, the drama will continue. 

There are numerous instances of "it" in the poem. Something, some malevolent force or being, is playing, and that "it" may be the same "it" as the one that "would hurt us – were we awake". The other its seem to stand for a condition: "it is good we are dreaming"; "It is a truth". The muzzy effects of the its give the poem itself a dreamlike quality. The players themselves don't seem to know what 'it' is. 
        They suspect enough, though, to stay in a dream state. In this drama of kill and shriek, the players are "Cautious" in their fight, not wanting to open their eyes, for they have a premonition that the phantom monster is real and not some dream figure at all. The resulting "livid Surprise" of seeing it would freeze their blood, turn them into their own gravestones reduced to just their ages and names. 
Obelisk at Alexandria

        The "phrase in Egyptian" is an interesting touch. Dickinson originally wrote "a latin inscription" but that isn't spooky at all. Dickinson would have known about the ancient Egyptian obelisks, carved out of granite and inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of which had been removed to Paris about the time she was born. Turning into "Shafts of Granite" with Egyptian writing is an exotic bit of mythology in keeping with some supernatural hunter. 

It is also interesting to think of this poem against its backdrop of the Civil War. Is it better to live in an eye-closed state of denial than to wake to the bloody reality? Dickinson is not an eyes-shut sort of poet, so this reading doesn't have traction with me. Instead, I think she is thinking existentially. There is something here of the Gothic horror of "The Soul has Bandaged moments" (F360) where the soul is stalked and molested by "some ghastly Fright". It doesn't kill but it puts "shackles on the plumed feet" and "staples, in the Song". Another Gothic nightmare is depicted in "One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted" (F407) where the "External Ghost" is less to be feared than "one's a'self encounter". That would indeed be a Drama "that is never dead". And perhaps the only moment you encounter that "superior spectre" that lurks within is at death. Until then you can maintain the charade that the fearsome haunting is just some ghastly dream.


  1. Egyptian style funeral architecture was something of a fad in Victorian times. From a website on Victorian cemeteries: "Curiously, many of the monuments in Victorian cemeteries are not actually Christian, but rather pagan -- classical (Roman) or Egyptian."

    Cemeteries designed by landscape architects were popular, such as the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and the Highgate Cemetery in London -- each of which has examples of Egyptian-style funeral architecture. Highgate Cemertery has an "Egyptian Avenue" with family vaults with obelisks and carved lotus flowered columns.

  2. ED wS terrified of th physical world, which she retreated from---into the boundless imagination that could be equally terrifying. But this terror she could not help but confront through poetry. So, for her it was more prudent to be able to live and die in the timeless drama of her mind than to face the "livid surprise" being an embodied spirit insured.

    1. I can't agree that the physical world terrified ED. Although she was, by the time this poem was written, restricting herself more and more to her home grounds, she wasn't yet the recluse. And her home grounds were big. She, and often her big dog Carlo would tramp around the meadows and orchards, and ED was famous locally for her gardens.

      If anything, it seems she was scared of interior hauntings and darkness -- although she bravely explored there, too.

  3. I love the chilling double meaning of the line "And Drama - is never dead-"

    As you mention, in one sense it is good, only play dead. But in another sense it keeps playing. You can't get rid of it.

  4. What intriques me is that she assume that this applies to all of us, not just her own 'slant' view. If this is so, could she be saying that the cosmos' legacy to us is a haunting that we are better off pretending is a scary dream?

    1. I think she is implying the world/cosmos is a dangerous place, only liveable if we don't really 'see' the senseless deaths, the natural catastrophes, the brutal war, etc. And prayers don't seem to help (as she notes in other poems).