‘Dreams’ by John Dryden-Notes, Explanations & Poetic Devices

John Dryden’s poem “Dreams” explores the whimsical and fantastical nature of our dream world. When our rational mind rests, imagination takes over, creating a mix of disjointed and bizarre elements. Dryden vividly illustrates how dreams blend forgotten memories, childhood beliefs, and daily experiences into an absurd, entertaining reflection on the nature of dreams.

Notes: Dreams Poem by John Dryden

Poem text

Vocabulary

  1. Interludes: Short breaks or intervals; a period or event that comes between two others and is different from them
  2. Fancy: Imagination or fantasy.
  3. Monarch: A ruler, often a king or queen.
  4. Monarch Reason: Rational thinking, personified as a king.
  5. Mimic: Someone who imitates (here it refers to imagination at work during dreams).
  6. Medley: A mixture.
  7. Disjointed: Unconnected or unorganized.
  8. Mob: A large crowd or group.
  9. Cobblers: Shoemakers.
  10. Court: The residence or establishment of a king or queen.
  11. Fumes: Vapors, often referring to thoughts or emotions.
  12. Light fumes: Happy or light-hearted thoughts (dreams).
  13. Grosser: Larger
  14. Grosser fumes: Heavier, sad thoughts (dreams).
  15. Reasonable soul: The rational mind.
  16. Monstrous: Strange or frightening.
  17. E’er: Ever.
  18. Legends: Traditional stories or myths.
  19. Nurse’s legends: Stories or myths told by a caretaker or nanny.
  20. Rehearse: To repeat or practice something.
  21. Restores: Brings back.
  22. Hounds: Hunting dogs.
  23. Prey: An animal hunted by another animal.
  24. Farce: A ridiculous or absurd situation.
  25. Of a piece: Of the same kind.
  26. Chimeras: (say kai-meer-uh) a Greek mythological creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a snake’s tail; here, it means absurd, wild and fanciful ideas or fantastical things.
  27. Absurd: Ridiculous or nonsensical.

Summary

John Dryden’s poem “Dreams” describes the nature of dreams as imaginative interludes that occur when rational thought is asleep. When reason is dormant, imagination takes over, creating a mixture of unrelated and often absurd elements. Dreams can blend the mundane with the grand, bringing together common people and royalty in a chaotic medley. Emotions influence dreams, with lighter, happier thoughts leading to merry dreams and heavier, sadder thoughts resulting in somber ones.

In dreams, we often encounter monstrous and fantastical forms that have no basis in reality. Forgotten memories and childhood beliefs can resurface in our dreams, showing the deep connection between our subconscious and our past. Dreams can also reenact our daily experiences, much like hunting dogs reacting to prey even while asleep.

Ultimately, Dryden portrays dreams as a farcical collection of absurd and fantastical images, highlighting the imaginative and irrational nature of the dreaming mind. Dreams are whimsical and unpredictable, reflecting the boundless creativity of the imagination when reason is at rest.

Central Idea

The central idea of John Dryden’s poem “Dreams” is that dreams are a product of the imagination that come to life when rational thinking is asleep. They are a chaotic and irrational mixture of memories, fantasies, and emotions, often blending together unrelated and absurd elements. Dreams reflect the mind’s ability to conjure up strange, fantastical, and sometimes nonsensical images, illustrating how the boundaries of reality and logic are blurred in the world of dreams. Essentially, Dryden portrays dreams as whimsical interludes filled with unpredictable and imaginative visions that highlight the contrast between reason and fancy.

Theme of the Poem ‘Dreams’

The theme of John Dryden’s poem “Dreams” revolves around the nature of dreams and the interplay between imagination and reason. Several sub-themes can be identified:

  1. Imagination vs. Reason: The poem contrasts the structured and logical nature of reason with the chaotic and fantastical nature of imagination, which takes over when reason is asleep.
  2. Absurdity of Dreams: Dreams are depicted as a medley of absurd and fantastical elements, reflecting the irrational and often nonsensical nature of our subconscious mind.
  3. Memory and the Subconscious: The poem explores how dreams can bring forward forgotten memories and childhood beliefs, showing the deep connection between our past experiences and our subconscious mind.
  4. Human Experience: By depicting dreams as a blend of various disjointed and fantastical elements, Dryden highlights the complexity and unpredictability of human experience and the mind.
  5. Childhood Influences: The influence of childhood stories and beliefs on adult dreams underscores the lasting impact of early experiences on our subconscious thoughts and imaginations.

Overall, the poem delves into the mysterious and whimsical world of dreams, emphasizing the contrast between the rational mind and the boundless creativity of the imagination.

Key Points

John Dryden’s poem “Dreams” takes a cynical and satirical look at the nature of dreams. Here’s a breakdown of the poem to understand its deeper meaning:

Reason vs. Fancy:

  • The poem opens with a personification of reason and fancy. Reason, the “monarch,” sleeps while Fancy, the “mimic,” wakes up. This suggests that during sleep, our logical mind takes a backseat, allowing imagination to run wild.

Disjointed and Absurd Imagery:

  • Fancy creates a chaotic mix of images – “a mob of cobblers” and “a court of kings.” These contrasting elements highlight the nonsensical nature of dreams.
  • Dreams are further described as “fumes” – light fumes for happy dreams and grosser fumes for sad ones. This reinforces the idea that dreams are fleeting and based on internal processes, not reality.
  • The line “And many monstrous forms in sleep we see, That neither were, nor are, nor e’er can be” emphasizes the bizarre and impossible creatures that can appear in dreams.

Sources of Dreams:

  • The poem explores the origins of dream content. Sometimes, forgotten memories or childhood beliefs (“the nurse’s legends”) resurface in dreams. This suggests that dreams can be a repository of past experiences.
  • Other times, dreams seem to replay our recent actions, like “hounds in sleep will open for their prey.” This implies that daily activities can leave an imprint on our subconscious and manifest in dreams.

Overall Theme: Dreams are Meaningless Farces:

  • The poem concludes with a strong statement: “In short, the farce of dreams is of a piece, Chimeras all; and more absurd, or less.” Dreams are compared to a farce, a type of comedy known for its absurdity.
  • “Chimeras” are mythological creatures with mixed-up parts, further emphasizing the nonsensical nature of dream imagery.
  • The final line “and more absurd, or less” adds a layer of ambiguity. Are all dreams equally absurd, or do some have a lesser degree of absurdity? This leaves the reader to ponder.

Dryden’s Viewpoint:

  • Dryden’s poem presents a skeptical view of dreams. He sees them as meaningless products of an unconstrained imagination. This perspective reflects the scientific understanding of dreams during his time (17th century).
  • However, the poem’s vivid imagery and exploration of dream sources offer an interesting insight into the human experience of dreaming.

Additional Points:

  • The poem uses a specific rhyme scheme (ABAB) and meter (iambic pentameter) which creates a sense of rhythm and structure, even though the content is about chaos and absurdity.
  • Some interpretations suggest that Dryden might be poking fun at the popular belief in dream interpretation during his time.

Explanation of the Poem “Dreams” by John Dryden

John Dryden’s poem “Dreams” explores the nature of dreams and their relation to reality and reason. Let’s break down the poem, line by line, and explain its meaning.

Lines 1-2:

Dreams are but interludes which Fancy makes;
When monarch Reason sleeps, this mimic wakes:

Vocabulary:

  • Interludes: Short breaks or intervals.
  • Fancy: Imagination.
  • Monarch Reason: Rational thinking, personified as a king.
  • Mimic: Imitator, referring to the imagination.

Explanation: Dreams are short breaks or intermissions created by imagination (Fancy). When our rational mind (Reason) is at rest, this imagination becomes active.

This stanza introduces the key players: Reason and Fancy. Reason, the logical mind, is compared to a sleeping “monarch.” When Reason slumbers (sleeps), Fancy, the imaginative counterpart, awakens like a “mimic,” taking control. This suggests that during sleep, our logical thinking takes a backseat, allowing imagination to run wild (in dreams).

Lines 3-4:

Compounds a medley of disjointed things,
A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings:

Vocabulary:

  • Compound: Form by mixing two things
  • Medley: A mixture.
  • Disjointed: Disconnected or unorganized.
  • Mob of cobblers: A group of shoemakers (representing common people).
  • Court of kings: A gathering of royalty.

Explanation: Imagination (fancy) mixes together a variety of unrelated things. In dreams, we can see a mix of people like ordinary people (like shoemakers) and royalty (Kings), showing the randomness of dreams.

Here, Fancy’s creations are described. It “compounds” a bizarre mix of unrelated elements: “a mob of cobblers” (commoners) and “a court of kings” (nobility). This exemplifies the nonsensical nature of dream imagery, where social hierarchies and reality can be jumbled together.

Lines 5-6:

Light fumes are merry, grosser fumes are sad;
Both are the reasonable soul run mad;

Vocabulary:

  • Fumes: Vapors, often referring to thoughts or emotions.
  • Light fumes: Happy or lighthearted thoughts.
  • Grosser fumes: Heavier, sad thoughts.
  • Reasonable soul run mad: The rational mind becoming irrational.

Explanation: Happy and light thoughts create cheerful dreams, while heavy and sad thoughts create sad dreams. Both types of dreams show how our rational mind can become irrational and unreasoning during sleep.

This stanza explores the emotional aspects of dreams. Dreams are described as “fumes,” suggesting they’re fleeting and internal. “Light fumes” bring happiness, while “grosser fumes” induce sadness. Both types, however, represent the “reasonable soul run mad,” meaning our logical mind is temporarily out of control during dreams.

This reinforces the idea that dreams are fleeting and based on internal processes, not reality.

Lines 7-8:

And many monstrous forms in sleep we see,
That neither were, nor are, nor e’er can be.

Vocabulary:

  • Monstrous forms: Strange or frightening images.
  • Neither were, nor are, nor e’er can be: Never existed, do not exist now, and never will exist.

Explanation: In our dreams, we often see bizarre and frightening images that never existed in reality and never will.

This stanza emphasises the bizarre and impossible creatures that can appear in dreams. The line “That neither were, nor are, nor e’er can be” highlights the fantastical nature of dream imagery, where things that don’t exist in reality can come to life.

Lines 9-10:

Sometimes forgotten things long cast behind
Rush forward in the brain, and come to mind.

Vocabulary:

  • Forgotten things long cast behind: Memories we have long forgotten.
  • Rush forward: Suddenly appear.
  • Come to mind: Enter our thoughts.

Explanation: Sometimes, dreams bring back old memories that we have forgotten, making them appear vividly in our mind.

This stanza explores an important source of dream content i.e. past memories. Sometimes, forgotten memories, “things long cast behind,” resurface in dreams. This suggests that dreams can be a repository of past experiences that may have been pushed aside by our conscious mind.

Lines 11-12:

Vocabulary:

  • Nurse’s legends: Old stories or myths told by caregivers.
  • Truths received: Accepted as true.
  • The man dreams but what the boy believed: Adults dream about things they believed in as children.

Explanation: Stories and myths we heard as children are often taken as truth in our dreams. Adults tend to dream about the beliefs and ideas they held as children.

Here, the poem explores another source of dream content – childhood beliefs. “The nurse’s legends” represent stories or myths told in childhood. These can be accepted as truths during those early years and might reappear in dreams even if the adult mind no longer believes them.

Lines 13-14:

Vocabulary:

  • Rehearse: Repeat or practice.
  • Former play: Previous experiences.
  • Restores: Brings back.
  • Actions done by day: Daily activities.

Explanation: Sometimes, dreams are just replays of what we did during the day i.e. dreams are just a repetition of what we experienced during the day. Our nightly dreams bring back our daily actions and events.

This stanza suggests that dreams can be a replay of our recent experiences. “The night restores our actions done by day” implies that daily activities leave an imprint on our subconscious and can manifest in dreams, like a rehearsal of a play. For instance, someone who exercised vigorously might dream of running.

Line 15:

Vocabulary:

  • Hounds: Hunting dogs.
  • Open for their prey: Bark or react to their prey even while sleeping.

Explanation: Just like hunting dogs bark or react to their prey in their sleep, we also reenact our daily experiences in our dreams.

 This stanza suggests that dreams can be a replay of our recent experiences. “The night restores our actions done by day” implies that daily activities leave an imprint on our subconscious and can manifest in dreams, like a rehearsal of a play. For instance, someone who exercised vigorously might dream of running.

Lines 16-18:

Vocabulary:

  • Farce: A ridiculous or absurd situation.
  • Of a piece: Of the same kind.
  • Chimeras: Mythical creatures, representing wild and fanciful ideas.
  • Absurd: Ridiculous or nonsensical.

Explanation: In conclusion, Dryden (poet) says that dreams are like a farce, a collection of absurd and fantastical images and ideas. Dreams are all chimeras, meaning they are strange and imaginary, sometimes more ridiculous and sometimes less.

The line “In short, the farce of dreams is of a piece” suggests Dryden views dreams as a whole as a “farce,” a type of comedy known for its absurdity and nonsensical elements.

Calling dreams more or less “Chimeras” further emphasises the nonsensical nature of dream imagery.

The last line “and more absurd, or less” adds a layer of ambiguity. Are all dreams equally absurd, or do some have a lesser degree of absurdity? This leaves the reader to ponder on the nature of dreams and their potential significance.


Poetic Devices Used in “Dreams” by John Dryden

Rhyming Couplets

  • The poem is structured in rhyming couplets (AABB), which provide a rhythmic and cohesive flow to the exploration of the dream world.

Personification

  • “Reason sleeps”: Attributes human characteristics to reason, suggesting it can rest and wake.
  • “Fancy makes”: Gives imagination the ability to create, as if it were a person.
  • Reason vs. Fancy: Reason is personified as a sleeping “monarch,” and Fancy as a “mimic” who wakes up. This metaphor highlights the shift in control during sleep, where logic takes a backseat to imagination.

Metaphor

  • “Monarch Reason”: Personifies and represents ‘reason’ as a king to emphasise its authority over the mind.
  • “Mimic”: Refers to imagination as an imitator that takes over when reason is asleep.
  • “Dreams are but interludes”: Dreams are compared to interludes, suggesting they are brief, imaginative breaks from reality.
  • Dreams as Fumes: Dreams are described as “fumes,” light or gross depending on their emotional content. This metaphor suggests dreams are fleeting and internal, not reflecting reality.
  • Dreams as Farce: The poem compares dreams to a “farce,” a type of comedy known for absurdity. This metaphor emphasizes the nonsensical and ridiculous nature of dreamscapes. Chimeras: The final line uses “Chimeras,” mythological creatures with mixed-up parts, as a metaphor for the bizarre and impossible imagery of dreams.

Imagery

  • “Compounds a medley of disjointed things”: The poem creates a vivid image of dreams as a chaotic mix of unrelated elements.
  • “A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings”: Creates a vivid image of the chaotic and diverse scenes in dreams.
  • “Many monstrous forms”: Evokes images of strange and frightening figures.

Juxtaposition

  • “A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings”: Places common people alongside royalty to highlight the randomness and diversity of dreams.
  • “Light fumes are merry, grosser fumes are sad”: Contrasts happy and sad dreams to show the range of emotions experienced in dreams.

Alliteration

  • “Sometimes we but rehearse a former play”: The repetition of the ‘s’ sound emphasizes the repetitive nature of dreams.

Simile

  • “As hounds in sleep will open for their prey”: Compares humans reenacting their daily actions in dreams to dogs reacting to prey in their sleep. Hunting dogs might twitch in their sleep showing how dreams can replay our recent actions.

Contrast:

  • “Light fumes are merry, grosser fumes are sad”: The poem contrasts light, happy thoughts with heavy, sad thoughts to show the different emotional impacts on dreams.

Symbolism

  • “Chimeras”: Symbolises the wild, bizzare and fantastical nature of dreams, representing mythical creatures that are combinations of different animals.

Enjambment

  • The poem uses enjambment, the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, to create a flowing, uninterrupted rhythm. For example:
  • “Sometimes forgotten things long cast behind / Rush forward in the brain, and come to mind.”

Irony

  • The poem’s conclusion that dreams are a “farce” and “chimeras all” carries a tone of irony, as it acknowledges the absurdity of dreams while exploring their profound impact on the human mind.

Hyperbole:

  • Monstrous Forms: The line “And many monstrous forms in sleep we see” uses hyperbole to emphasize the bizarre and impossible creatures that can appear in dreams.

Rhetorical Question:

  • “and more absurd, or less” The final line poses a rhetorical question, leaving the reader to ponder the varying degrees of absurdity in dreams. This adds a layer of ambiguity to the poem’s overall message.

Allusion

An allusion is a reference to a person, place, event, or another piece of literature. In this poem, Dryden makes a few allusions:

  1. “The nurse’s legends”:
    • This phrase alludes to the traditional stories, myths, or fairy tales that nurses or caregivers would tell children. These stories are often taken as truth by the young and can resurface in dreams later in life. This allusion helps to illustrate how childhood beliefs and stories can influence adult dreams.
  2. “Chimeras”:
    • The term “chimeras” alludes to the mythical creature from Greek mythology, which is a fire-breathing monster with parts from different animals (typically a lion, goat, and serpent). By referencing chimeras, Dryden underscores the fantastical and absurd nature of dreams, filled with impossible and bizarre images.

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