Tuesday, March 31, 2009

All that we see or seem

On March 31, 1849, Boston's Flag of Our Union held the honor of being the first to publish the poem "A Dream Within A Dream." Today it is recognized as one of Poe's best poems. At 24 lines, it is a short but poignant poem which questions the blurry line between reality and ideality.
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
The work is, possibly, a reflection of many of Poe's dreams being swept away (The Stylus, his wife Virginia, Sarah Helen Whitman, and others). More likely, Poe was trying to reach out to a universally-understood aspect of the human condition. It has retained its popularity because of this and has become one of Poe's most-quoted works.

This popularity is further emphasized in pop culture, something which Poe has heavily spread into. The Alan Parsons Project, for example, began their 1976 concept album Tales of Mystery and Imagination Edgar Allan Poe with an instrumental homage to the poem (a later re-release included a previously unreleased recording of Orson Welles reading the poem). Even Britney Spears owes something to Poe's poem, when she named her 2001 concert tour "Dream Within a Dream."

Poe's last year included many submissions to the Flag of Our Union — a weekly journal printed in Boston with a very small circulation. Payment was prompt, however, and editor Frederick Gleason dared to match the "Graham page" rate (Graham's was known for its generous payment). In fact, it was Gleason who sought out Poe as a contributor. "I shall be happy to contribute," Poe responded, likely intrigued by the $5 per page rate, "as often as possible." Gleason excitedly reported in each issue that Poe was now a "regular contributor." As an editor, Gleason was an interesting fellow, who staunchly defended his original submissions (he made a minor spectacle of Sartain's Union Magazine and the Home Journal printing one of the poems Poe submited to the Flag for first publication rights).

I would speculate that Poe had a love/hate relationship with the Flag of Our Union. Some of his greatest works were first printed in the journal (including some of my favorites: the poem "Eldorado" and the short stories "Hop-Frog" and "X-ing a Paragrab") but the circulation was so low, it was hardly worth it - not to mention that the publication was based in Boston, far from his more loyal audiences. By April 1849, Gleason announced he could no longer afford to pay contributors, despite his early optimism. Poe unapologetically stopped contributing.

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