The Stuff that Romantic Dreams are made Of
We all dream. We dream when we sleep, but also when we are awake; the humdrum of reality has us transporting ourselves to fantastical realms. This whimsical dreamland of ours is very important to us as human beings. It serves as an escape from our everyday lives. Dreams, whether those that manifest in our slumber or in our state of boredom at our desks, are our getaways. But they seemed to be more than just that to the Romantics.
Could it be that dreams fuelled the greatest literary works produced in the Romantic era? After all, it is widely-known that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after having a dream about the creation of a new man by a scientist with the hubris to play God. If we look at the other Romantic greats, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Lord Byron, we will find that dreams had a big part to play in their works as well. These Romantics took to heart and fully explored Shakespeare’s notion that “we are such stuff dreams are made on”. What exactly did dreams mean to them?
Many critics contend that the Romantic movement rose as a backlash to the reason, logic and science-ridden Age of Enlightenment. Romantics believed that the advances and developments in science were creating a conformist society that made no room for dreams and human imagination. The Romantics protested against science and rationality and fought for freedom of expression and the love of nature. In this fight, dreams, nightmares and visions played a huge part. They were extremely important to the great Romantic poets and writers, as it was believed that dreams were the core of the human spirit and creative mind; everything that science and logic of the Enlightenment Age was not. Yet, the Romantics’ obsession and fascination with dreams have quite possibly led to some answers to one of science’s biggest questions: ‘Why do we dream?’
One of the leaders of the Romantic Movement, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is known for his extensive exploration of dreams and nightmares in his works. In his early life, Coleridge was plagued by vivid and terrible nightmares that became worse following his opium addiction. They served as inspiration for many of his poems, including “The Pains of Sleep”, “Dejection: An Ode” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Coleridge was in love with Sara Hutchinson while married to another woman. In the 1802 poem “Dejection: An Ode”, Coleridge describes a waking nightmare. He declares that he feels only a “dull pain”, “a grief without a pang”—a persistent deadening of all his emotions. In the poem, Coleridge refers to a certain lady as being “pure of heart”. He asserts that she is already aware of the light and music that encompasses her soul, which is Joy. Joy, he says, gives us “a new Earth and new Heaven, / Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud”.
This could all point to the first answer to the question of why we dream: we dream to heal. Some researchers have theorized that we dream to take the edge off painful experiences and memories so we can heal psychologically. While we may not know if Coleridge ever lost interest in Sara Hutchinson, we might speculate that he managed to go through a healing process by having dreams about her. Dreaming can help take mental stress off events that traumatise, hurt or deeply affect an individual. We can clearly see that Coleridge is hurting, but at the same time, trying to see the bright side of his pain. And he does so by transforming his emotions negativity and agony into love.
Calling the lady the “devoutest friend of (his) choice”, Coleridge hopes she will awake from “gentle sleep” with a “light heart”, and that she may “ever, evermore rejoice”. Since this poem was inspired by a dream or nightmare of his, Coleridge could have put it to paper as part of a healing process. He explores many emotions throughout this poem, ostensibly to enhance his ability to cope with and control his troubled feelings and stress over the matter.
We dream to heal.
Another Romantic legend, Lord Byron, explores the power of dreams in his poem, aptly titled “The Dream”, written in 1816. In it, Byron questions the nature of dreams : “The dread of vanished shadows - Are they so?/Is not the past all shadow? - What are they?/Creations of the mind.” He starts his poem with a stanza discussing the psychology of dreams. This is followed by nine stanzas which appear to be successive stages of Byron’s dream.
According to Byron, dreams belong to the realm of reality and they “have breath, and tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy.” He wonders whether these images are “heralds”, “spirits”, or “sibyls”: Dreams are indeed like highly-condensed heralds and sibyls from our deepest unconscious, but once decoded, they can summon our deepest, darkest desires that shape our past, present and future. Byron fully realizes the power of dreams: “They have power-the tyranny of pleasure and pain-what they will, and shake us with the vision that’s gone by.”
The second and third stanzas of the poem detail Byron’s passion for his boyhood love, Mary Chaworth. The recounts are vividly expressed, and he fondly calls her the “Lady of his love” with her “beloved face” shining on him. This stanza is full of unbridled romantic words of love for her.
In the sixth stanza, Byron speaks of his marriage: his bride "gentle" and "fair", but not the "one beloved"; not the one who “made the Starlight of his Boyhood”. This refers to his marriage to Annabella Millbanke, which crumbled. Byron conveys what he felt at the altar, and it is clear that he deeply yearned for the “Lady of his Love”. In the last stanza, Byron describes his dream as “almost like a reality - the one to end in madness - both in misery”. This poem is a recount of Byron’s dream, and it follows him through a journey of many memories and events.
Byron writes: a dream is a “slumbering thought, is capable of years, and curdles a long life into one hour.” Dreams are condensed mental images of all our innermost memories locked away in our subconscious. Dreams have the power to eat away at us because they bring up parts of our life that we no longer thought we still had with us. Byron vividly demonstrates that he can still feel the emotions from his youth, and it almost seems like reality to him.
We dream to remember.
Mary Shelley famously wrote Frankenstein after having a dream about the events that unfolded in the story. However, what about the dreams that actually occur in the story itself?
In Frankenstein, there are at least two levels of a dream, or dream-like vision experienced by the titular Victor Frankenstein. The first, which is given a dream-like quality by his insistence that it is not "the vision of a madman" (Shelley 47), is his hopeful daydream of what his scientific creation of another human being would mean.
Victor refers to this vision he has, along with his hope that his creation might be "beautiful," when he later laments, on actually witnessing it come to life, that "the beauty of the dream vanished" to be replaced by "horror and disgust" at a "wretch" more "hideous" than a "mummy again endued with animation" (Shelley 52-53).
Victor’s second dream takes a much darker turn. He rushes from his laboratory after recoiling in disgust at the creature and tries to escape his problems by focussing his thoughts on his fiance, Elizabeth.
This horrifying nightmare that Victor experiences raises many questions and theories. There are Freudian critics who have said that this Victor’s nightmare of digging up body-parts in Mother Earth is rooted in an unconscious desire for a reunion with the body of his deceased mother. Is this nightmare a representation of Victor’s real urges and deep desires? He could have been pointing us to the third answer to our question: we dream to fulfill our most profound wishes.
In the early 1900’s, Sigmund Freud proposed that our dreams have symbolic meanings that relate to the fulfilling of our subconscious wishes and desires. Freud theorized that everything that we remember from a dream after waking up is an indication of what we unconsciously desire to do or accomplish. In our dreams, these thoughts and urges are at their most primitive, hence the vivid and horrifying nature of some of our nightmares. Victor could have been subconsciously revealing and unearthing his deepest urges and wishes.
We dream to fulfill our deepest desires.
One poem, written by John Keats, encapsulates all three reasons for why we dream: La Belle Dame Sans Merci. It tells of a knight’s obsession with a lady he saw “in the meads”. We find out that the knight is on the verge of death. The lady’s romantic gestures “lulled (him) to sleep” and he “dream’d” the “latest dream he’d ever dream’d”. In this dream, the knight is transported into some kind of hell where he sees the lady’s previous victims, “pale kings and princes” who warn him of the dangerous woman.
Like Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode”, “La Belle Dame” also conveys the message that we dream to heal. In reality, Keats was in love with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne, while he was stricken with tuberculosis and on the brink of death. The knight in the poem is enchanted by a beautiful seductress who traps him and causes him to fall into a coma-like slumber. Keats’ choice to portray the knight’s downfall in this way could be, like Coleridge, a way to heal and cope with his own feelings.
Keats’ feelings of love for the woman are clearly expressed in the way he describes her: “full beautiful - a faery’s child”. He then describes the romantic gestures he carried out for her, including making a “garland for her head”. This strikes a similarity with Byron’s “The Dream”, in which the persona recounts romantic memories with a beautiful lady he is passionate about.
Above all, the dominant theme in “La Belle Dame” is the extent to which the knight is entrapped by the woman. The knight’s nightmare of hell is a Keats’ representation of the consequence of ungoverned emotion and perilous obsession. Much like how the knight was enraptured with the beautiful lady, we sometimes have such a strong desire for certain things that they appear to us almost frighteningly in our dreams, emerging from our subconscious. Reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein, these subjugated and repressed emotions could ultimately be the death of the individual or his salvation. “La Belle Dame” showcases the power of dreams and their influence on the leading literary minds of the Romantic era.
Dreams were an integral part of the works and lives of the Romantics - some were deeply affected by them in real life and put them into the form of literature to ease emotional distress, while others saw them as inspiration for new ideas. Regardless, they have taught us many things about our subconscious mind. Our dreams serve a much greater purpose than just to put on a show for us to enjoy while we sleep. They present to us memories, images and the deepest and darkest thoughts we unknowingly keep. They have a power over us that the Romantics used to fuel their creative process, no matter how much pain and confusion they felt.
It is fair to say that our dreams represent who we are. The Romantics were fascinated by the human spirit and individual personality, and I believe they found both very much alive in dreams. Everything about a person can be told from what he or she dreams, and how a dream makes he or she feel.
Why do we dream? We dream because dreams, as Byron writes, “ . . . do divide our being; they become a portion of ourselves as of our time”.
George Gordon Byron. The Dream. 1816. Print.
John Keats. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. 1819. Print.
Lisa LaBracio. "Why Do We Dream? 7 Theories from Science (in TED-Ed GIFs)." TEDEd Blog. 25 Jan. 2016. Web. Accessed 26 Jan. 2016.
Mary Shelley. Frankenstein. 1818. Print.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dejection: An Ode. 1802. Print.
William Shakespeare. The Tempest. 1611. Print.
Sofia Amanda Bening
, Published in the Keats-Shelley Review, Issue 31