Study Guide

Dream-Land Analysis

By Edgar Allan Poe

  • Sound Check

    Readers beware! We think this whole poem sounds like a hypnotist's spell. The rhythm of the lines – coming in short little pulses – rocks you back and forth. In a way, the rhyming makes "Dream-Land" seem like a lullaby, but the words sound so dark and mysterious that you can't imagine them being said in a loving way. They come out in a hissing whisper. Just try saying these lines out loud: "Their still waters – still and chilly/ With the snows of the lolling lily" (20). Do you hear that repetitive, slightly creepy patter? The soothing, scary rhythm starts to really pop out. "Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever" (26) and then…wham, you're hypnotized.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is key in this poem. It sets our expectations for the whole thing, letting us know that this poem is going to describe, or at least relate to, a place called Dream-Land. What's more, Poe, never uses the word "dream" again in this poem. In fact, he never talks about dreams at all. So, if you didn't have that title, you might not think about dreams at all. The landscape and the events in the poem might seem weird, but you might not connect them with Dream-Land.

    At the same time, Poe definitely puts his own spin on the idea. The word "Dream-Land" sounds kind of cozy and pleasant doesn't it? Just slipping off to Dream-Land… Well, because it's Poe, things aren't quite so warm and fuzzy. The speaker seems to like it OK, but this Dream-Land is definitely not a place where we'd like to visit for very long.

  • Setting

    Have you ever been on one of those amusement park haunted-house rides where you get pulled along in a little car and things jump out at you? OK, imagine the coolest possible version of that, and we think you've got a pretty good idea of the setting of "Dream-Land."

    We know it sounds a little weird, but think about it for a second. In this poem you are getting pulled along in the dark, and you don't really ever know where you came from, where you are, or where you are going. Sometimes something pops up, like a lake or a mountain, but you don't really have time to look at it, because the poem keeps pulling you along, just like that little car. Sometimes a ghost or a ghoul jumps out to give you a scare, but it's all in good fun. You never really feel terrified; you just enjoy the spine-tingling thrill of being a little scared. Most of all, you pay money to go on those rides because they take you on a tour of another place, and get you out of your normal life for a minute. We think that's the real fun in this poem, the way it takes you on an amazing ride through Poe's Dream-Land in just 56 lines.

  • Speaker

    Doesn't this guy sound a lot like your Cure-listening, black-wearing, super-dramatic friend? You know, the one who can make a bad mood seem like the coolest thing in the world? Who reads old poetry and quotes it aloud to let you know how deeply he feels things?

    Bottom line: this speaker's approach is all about attitude, about knowing how to work a mood. Every line – make that every word – is designed to make you feel how depressed he is, to make you soak in his angst and his despair. The thing is, he somehow manages to make it really fun. He turns being sad into a lifestyle. For our speaker, being filled with agony isn't just a part of who he is, it's everything. He commits to it so completely that you can't help but get wrapped up in it. He makes every moment seem so dramatic that a happy, quiet life starts to seem kind of boring.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Poe definitely throws in some tough words here, and it's pretty hard to tell what he's describing at some points. Still, we think that once you've got a general sense of what's going on, this should be a smooth and easy climb.

  • Calling Card

    Musical Sadness, Beautiful Loss

    In their heart of hearts, all of Poe's great poems are about the pain of losing someone. In a way, though, they are also about the intensity of grief, and how that feeling can almost become beautiful. We know it's weird, but bear with us a little. In this poem, and in others by Poe (think the "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "Ulalume"), the pain of losing loved ones is mixed with a beautiful, musical style. Poe picks rich words and exciting images, and mixes them together with his sense of sadness. It bums you out a little, but it can also fill you with a soaring, weirdly joyous feeling. You feel how upset the speaker is, but you also can't help but get caught up in the beauty of what he's describing. We think this mix of beauty and sadness is definitely Edgar Allan Poe's calling card.

  • Form and Meter

    Rhyming Couplets in Trochaic Tetrameter

    Let's deal with the rhyme scheme first, because it's pretty simple (well, mostly…). The basic idea here is that the lines of this poem make little rhymed pairs. The first line rhymes with the second one, the third one rhymes with the fourth, and so on. Every two lines, the rhyming sound at the end of the line changes. English teachers call this a rhyming couplet, and it's a really old technique. For example, the last two lines of Shakespeare's sonnets always rhyme like this. Here, we'll show you how it works, using letters to mark the rhymes:

    By a route obscure and lonely, A
    Haunted by ill angels only, A
    Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT, B
    On a black throne reigns upright, B
    I have reached these lands butnewly, C
    From an ultimate dim Thule [pronounced thoo-lee]— C

    See that? Six lines, three pairs of rhymes: lonely/only, night/upright, newly/Thule. The whole poem is set up like that. Well, almost the whole poem. (You knew there was a catch here, didn't you?) Part of the fun of setting up a pattern like this is that then you get to play with it. Check out the first lines in the second stanza:

    Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
    And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,

    "Floods" and "woods" look like they would rhyme, but they sure don't when you say them out loud. The fancy term for that is a near rhyme, because it gets close, but doesn't quite rhyme. We think it adds to the slightly weird, disorienting effect that Poe is aiming for in this poem.

    The meter of the poem switches around a little bit, but, for the most part, it follows a pattern called trochaic tetrameter (don't worry, we'll break it down for you). What tetrameter means is that there are four pairs ("tetra" = 4) of syllables in every line. Here's an example in which we've divided up the pairs of syllables:

    By a | route ob|scure and | lonely,

    If you count it up, that means eight syllables per line. Sometimes there's one or two more or less, since Poe like to be tricky like that, but you see the basic idea, right? Trochaic means that, in each of those pairs of syllables, the emphasis falls on the first syllable. We'll show you how that works by putting the stressed syllables in bold and italics:

    By a | route ob|scure and | lonely,

    Hear the rhythm there? DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da. Voila, trochaic tetrameter. That's all there is to it. Like we said, you can find tons of spots where Poe breaks this pattern, but we think it really helps to have a sense of the basic structure.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Dark Angels

    There are a lot of creepy critters in this poem, but these are the first ones we meet. Poe doesn't tell us exactly who they are, or if they are the same or different from the "Ghouls" and "sheeted memories" we meet later. For now, they help set the mood. We don't know where we are, or where we are going, but if we are surrounded by ill angels, it's probably bad news. Plus, putting a supernatural image in the second line lets us know that we're not in the everyday world.

    • Line 2: This is our first glimpse of the "ill angels." We think that phrase has a spooky, mysterious feel. We know this must refer to some kind of evil spirit. Still, it's a little hard to tell exactly what an "ill angel" would look like. That's partly because the phrase is a bit of a paradox. Angels are supposed to be full of goodness and light and health, so using the word "ill" to describe them is surprising and a little contradictory. That works perfectly for Poe, since he wants us to feel a little lost in this strange new land.
    • Line 52: Now, at the end of the poem, the angels come back. This line is exactly the same as line 2. Repeated lines like this in a poem are called a refrain. We've learned a lot about Dream-Land by this point, but in a weird way, we don't really have a better idea of who these angels are. By this point we'll definitely link them to the other spirits we've met, but they remain mysterious. We think that's exactly the point. If you could clearly see and explain everything you saw in Dream-Land, it wouldn't be Dream-Land, right?

    The Eidolon

    This is another important image that's a little scary and a little mysterious too. Even after we've figured out that an Eidolon is a phantom (don't worry, we had to look it up too), that still doesn't tell us much about what it would look like. Still, that's not really the point, is it? Poe is trying to establish a feeling here, and this dark spirit, sitting on his throne, is the perfect ruler for this weird world.

    • Lines 3-4: We learn three things about the Eidolon here. First, his name is "NIGHT," which is scary in itself, but given that it's all in caps too, we're pretty sure Poe wants us to be impressed by this guy. Second, he rules Dream-Land from a black throne (scarier still). Last, he's sitting "upright." That's kind of a funny detail to put in there, but for us at least, it creates a really strong image. Suddenly we can see a terrifying ghost sitting straight up in his throne. A spirit king with bad posture would be way less scary.
    • Lines 53-4: Another refrain. The Eidolon crops up again, and like the ill angels, he's still kind of a mystery. In a way, he guards the two ends of the poem, and of the speaker's journey. He was there when we entered Dream-Land, and he's watching over us as we leave too.

    Tears

    We're not talking about a few drops here. We're talking about a huge, raging flood of tears. That's why this image is so important. It makes the speaker's sadness into a real, physical thing. The tears in this poem are just as dramatic and major as the speaker's feeling. His grief is huge, and so the world is covered in tears. We're way beyond Kleenex.

    • Line 12: Have you ever felt so depressed that the whole world seemed sad? That's exactly where our speaker is. He sees tears that "drip all over" that blur his vision, and cloud the shapes of things in Dream-Land. This is a weird place, so maybe the world is really crying, but we think it's more likely that he's seeing dewdrops or rain, and turning them into tears because that's all he can think about.

    Mountains

    The Mountains in this poem aren't pretty little hills that sit there and look nice. They are huge, raging peaks that move and crumble and crash all over the place. The whole landscape of Dream-Land is meant to be intense and supernatural. Nothing here is like it is in normal life.

    • Line 13: Can you imagine what it would be like to see mountains that were forever ("evermore") falling into the ocean? It's a pretty crazy image, and just the kind of thing Poe would be likely to throw at us. A less intense poet might say that the mountains were really tall, or black or something like that. Not Poe. He gives us mountains that shake and move and collapse in ways we've never even imagined. Lines like this pack his poetry with energy. They make his descriptions dynamic and exciting, and give us a rich sense of what this strange place must be like.
    • Line 25: The mountains make another quick cameo here. They're not as super-dramatic as before, but seeing them come up twice like this sets up nice rhythm in the poem. By this point we are starting to get a feeling for the landscape, and starting to see how important the natural world is in this poem.

    Lakes

    The lakes are another big feature of the natural world in Dream-Land, and Poe actually spends a lot of time on them. We get a real feeling for how sad and cold and lonely they are. Poe is building a mood here, and it seems like the speaker's feelings are always mirrored in the things he sees. There's also something creepy about lakes, isn't there? Just a shiny surface, and no way to know what's underneath. We're imagining a lake kind of like the one in Friday the 13th.

    • Line 17: Just like the mountains and the oceans, the lakes here are endless. Everything here is on an infinite scale, and goes on forever and ever. This kind of poetic exaggeration is called hyperbole. In this case, Poe is using it to give us an intense feeling for the strangeness of Dream-Land.
    • Line 23: Poe has a lot to say about what these lakes are like, but we think this line gives a really interesting example. He says that the waters are "sad." Now maybe water can look sad, or make you feel sad, but we all know that it can't actually be sad. When you give human emotions to something that isn't alive, like water, that's called personification. Poe uses it here to build the connection between the speaker's feelings and the outside world. This poem seems to be about a place, but we think it's really about a feeling: the pain and suffering of grief.

    Ghouls

    Another set of creepy bad guys who live in Dream-Land. A ghoul can specifically refer to an evil spirit that eats dead bodies, although we also use it to mean any kind of awful, gross monster. These particular Ghouls just pop up for a moment, but they make a big impact. They come out of nowhere, and really make us feel the darkness and despair of the icky marsh where they live.

    • Line 30: Poe plays a neat poetic trick here. He drops the Ghouls in right in the middle of the poem, and the line where they show up is really short. That makes the reader trip a little, and really notice them. It's a little like having something jump out at you in a horror movie. We don't hear much more about these grimy creatures. It's almost like the poem runs away from them.

    Sheeted Memories

    In contrast to the Ghouls, these spirits might seem creepy at first, but they turn out to be exactly what the speaker is looking for. They are the ghosts of people who have died, and their presence is soothing for him. When these guys show up, things start to change, and a world that seemed evil and disgusting suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

    • Line 34: Poe never actually says that these are ghosts, but the phrase "sheeted memories" is a really beautiful way to call up that image. We can see their lonely faces floating by, draped in cloth, visible, but impossible to see clearly. It might be the saddest part of a poem that's pretty sad already. Still, there's something really lovely about it, too.

    Eldorado

    This is an imaginary paradise, a place of wealth and happiness and peace. In the old legends, it was a city made entirely of gold. In this case, though, it's not gold that our speaker is looking for. He wants to be reunited with his loved ones, to be free of his grief. The image of a sparkling city may be meant to make us think of heaven (line 38) where the departed have apparently gone.

    • Line 42: In this line, the image of the glittering city flashes in front of us for a second, and we feel a little bit of hope for the first time in the poem. The bummer about Eldorado, though, is that it doesn't exist. It's famous, like Atlantis, for being a place you could search for, but never find. The happiness of the speaker is a mirage, a fantasy, or, more specifically, a dream. Nothing that he finds in this dream world really exists, and he can't take anything back with him.

  • Sex Rating

    G

    No sex here. Not a bit. Still, if this we're a movie, we probably wouldn't take the kids.

  • Shout Outs

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Ultima Thule (line 6): In ancient times, this referred to the most northern part of the world. Ultima means "farthest" in Latin. "Thule" was the name for an island in the North, maybe the place we call Iceland now. So Ultima Thule meant beyond Thule, at the edge of the world. Over time, people started to use it to refer to any mysterious and far-off destination. For Poe, then, it means a place that's unimaginably far away.

    • Darkened Glasses (line 50): We think this is probably a reference to a famous line in the Bible about versions of reality. The original quote is from 1 Corinthians 13:12 – "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face." Both Poe's poem and the Bible passage are talking about how we see things in dim, dreamlike ways, how reality can seem like a shadow-world, hazy and unclear. Both of these works ask us to imagine a world where we see clearly at last. There are tons of differences here, of course, but we think this reference makes Poe's text even richer.

    • Eldorado (line 42): This is a mythical city of gold. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro went looking for this city in 1541. Since then, it has become a general term for a fantastic, unreal paradise full of riches – just the kind of place that would have to show up in a Poe poem.