Study Guide

A Dream Within a Dream

By Edgar Allan Poe

A Dream Within a Dream Introduction

These days Austin Powers is the most famous International Man of Mystery, but unfortunately he wasn't around in the 19th century. Back then the biggest international man of mystery was Edgar Allan Poe. His spontaneously imploding houses, black cats that just won't die, and guys burying each other alive have baffled and unnerved even the most stalwart of readers for almost two centuries.

While "A Dream Within a Dream" doesn't feature anything as morbid as the usual Poe fare, we'd be lying if we said it wasn't just as mysterious. "All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream," the speaker notes at the end of the first stanza, telling us that all of life is one big illusion—a dream within a dream. Reality doesn't really exist, or we have no way of knowing what is real and what is not. Yeah, we're befuddled, too, Shmoopers.

Now, even though Edgar Allan Poe was definitely one of the most original guys of all time, he may have ripped off this bit about life being a dream within a dream. Philosophers have been puzzling over this pickle for at least two thousand years. In fact, it's often referred to as the dream argument or dream hypothesis.

The dream hypothesis was first discussed in Western literature by Plato (in Theaetetus) and Aristotle (in Metaphysics) in Ancient Greece about a zillion years ago. Then our man Rene Descartes made it one of the central ideas in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). Generally speaking, the dream hypothesis is associated with a little thing called philosophical skepticism. Skepticism, as you may have guessed, is all about being skeptical about our ability to know things for certain. So was Poe a skeptic? Well, we can't say for sure, but we do know that he wondered about these ideas. And hey, haven't we all?

So while 1849's "A Dream Within a Dream" does have a bit of a philosophical bent, it's also totally relatable, and the rhymes don't hurt either. Think of it as a digestible version of the dream hypothesis, with a distinctly Poe-ish air of mystery about it.

What is A Dream Within a Dream About and Why Should I Care?

Admit it. When you think no one's around, you've been known to get a little emo and ponder the meaning of life. Where are we going? What's the point? Is any of it even real?

Rest assured, dear Shmoopers: you're not alone. In fact, you're in the very good company of one Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, who's in full existential crisis mode in "A Dream Within a Dream." All it takes is one little goodbye kiss to send this guy reeling into a terrifying spiral of contemplating the very nature of reality. But hey, Edgar, we've been there.

Whether it's the sound of the rain on your windowpane, the death of a loved one, or even just the life-altering deliciousness of a love handle-forming pint of cookies and cream, sometimes we can't help but wonder at the miracle/disaster that is reality. But wait a second. What if it's not a miracle at all? What if reality isn't even real? What if we're actually in The Matrix?

A scary thought, but it's one you're bound to have a time or two. So you can stave off the existential angst by diving right into the heart of the problem with good ol' EAP. And don't worry; he'll hold your hand all the way down.

A Dream Within a Dream Resources

Websites

Poe's Life's Story
See if you can spot any autobiographical elements from "A Dream Within a Dream" in this old biography of Poe written in 1941.

Theories of Poe's Death
Here's some great material for a gripping episode of Law and Order.

What a Character
Wow, there have been this many movies featuring Poe as a character?

More About Skepticism…
… than you ever wanted to know, courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Video

Henry Kissinger Reads Poe
Just kidding, but this deep-voiced dude reading the poem really does sound a lot like the old guy.

John Cusack Edgar Allan Poe?
Now there's a name for your firstborn. Here's the trailer for the 2012 film The Raven.

The Alan Parsons Project
Check out their song "A Dream Within a Dream."

Audio

"A Dream Within a Dream" Meets Electronica
"A Dream Within a Dream" by The Glitch Mob is downright dreamy.

Images

Looking Good, Edgar
And not totally unlike John Cusack, either.

See What We Mean?
Here's Mr. Cusack as Mr. Poe.

Prime Real Estate
Check out Poe's 1840's Bronx home (which has since been moved to a new location). Can you believe this place only cost a hundred bucks a year to rent?

Articles & Interviews

A Poebituary
Sorry, we couldn't resist the pun.

Books

It's All Right Here
The complete poems and stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

A 1992 Biography of Poe
If you're in the mood for some biographical material check this out.