What We See and What We Seem

picnic

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 sublime ‘A Dream Within a Dream,’ by Edgar Allan Poe. I only realised, quite by accident yesterday, how much this meditation on paradox and brevity was influenced by Shakespeare’s allegorical ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle.’ The line length in the latter was uniquely short for Shakespeare; there’s an unexpected echo between the speed and rhythms of the poems when read together. The declarative first lines – ‘Take this kiss upon the brow,’ and ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ – also seem to exist in the same moment of poetic address. Another obvious echo: ‘Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream?’ and ‘Truth may seem but cannot be … Truth and beauty buried be.’ The simplicity is so sad and beautiful – a triumphal sadness? What is this peculiar joy in the recognition that nothing can be saved? Is this what memory is?

 

I have no idea why I didn’t go to the gorge with Vervy before he left. When he asked me about it last night I was uncomfortable, monosyllabic, tired. He then told me a story about a girl he teaches, who recently gave a talk about Japanese archery. She said, ‘The beauty of archery is that you only think about one thing and that one thing is nothing.’ Later, at the end of class, she came up to him to ask what he thought of her new shoes. What a class act.

 

Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;
That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.”
Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.
Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
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