“Was it a Vision, or a Waking Dream?”

One of the most interesting themes I’ve noticed in these Romantic-Era texts is the focus on the unknown. This week’s readings were especially loaded with images of vast, dark abysses where the happenings of Earth are determined or overseen by a shadowy entity. Many of these images are implied to have been conjured up in a  half-dream-like state in which the author insists must be a reflection of the waking world. In Byron’s “Darkness,” the author begins by telling the reader that the scene that follows came from a dream that “was not all a dream,” implying that there are some aspects of the poem intended to mirror the real world (614). The that follow this disclaimer–the extinguishing of the sun, humanity’s self-destruction, and the eventual still barrenness of Earth–all hypothesize how the end of the world would play out if there were to be no more light left on Earth. The author’s images are bleak, portraying a world in which humans burn their surroundings for light, eat each other for food, and–when only two humans (enemies!) remain–die at the shock of what is left of humanity. All of this, Byron suggests, would result in Darkness (which he finds synonymous with “the Universe”) consuming the planet. Yikes.

Byron wasn’t the only one pondering the terrifying vastness of the unknown at the time. Though considerably less dark than “Darkness,” Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and “Ozymandias” both touch on themes of vastness, eternity, and the great unknown in relation to the human experience. In “Mont Blanc,” it seems that Shelley, like Byron, is imagining an Earth-ending power, this time ice rather than fire. As he marvels in the scenery of the “Ravine of Arve,” Shelley notes the “deep eternity” of the glacier that formed the river (785). It seems like both authors are aware of the tininess of humanity in comparison to the Earth and the universe, and both seem to imply a greater state of being because of this awareness. For Shelley, however; the tone seems to be more of admiration than horror–the power of glaciers to carve the land and overpower man is something that is liberating to behold.

Another similarity between “Mont Blanc” and “Darkness” that I noticed was the reference to the dream world. In “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes, “Some say that gleams of a remoter world / visit the soul in sleep,– that death is slumber…” and “I look on high; / has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / the veil of life and death? or do I lie / in dream, and does the mightier world of sleep / spread far around and inaccessibly / its circles?” (lines 50-57). Here, he is questioning the role of the waking and sleeping worlds, and whether death reveals the “remoter world” which sits at the outskirts of our dreams. While humans certainly began questioning the role of dreams long before the Romantic Era, it’s interesting to me that so many authors during this time wrote of dreams in relation to humanities role in the universe. This seems to be an indirect result of the scientific breakthroughs occurring at the time–as we started knowing more about the universe, we started having more and more questions about our role in it.

Jumping on the dream wagon last this week is Keats, who, like Byron and Shelley, also wondered about reality and humanity. Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” is similar to the aforementioned poems in a few ways. Like Shelley, Keats uses an interaction with nature to make a broader statement about humanity and its relationship with the universe. Considering getting drunk on wine and following the bird into the woods to “Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget / what thou among the leaves hast never known,” Keats implies a purity in nature that humans have lost hold of (lines 21-22). He turns to the “immortal” bird to tap into its centuries-old wisdom, saying “The voice I hear this passing night was heard / in ancient days by emperor and clown: / perhaps the self-same song that found a path / through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home…” (lines 64-66). This observation–that birds had been singing the same song for an immeasurable amount of time–seems to echo the themes of eternity and immortality in Byron and Shelley’s works. Furthermore, Keats wraps up his poem by questioning whether any of it really happened by asking “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?” (lines 79-80).

These poems all seem to touch on the Romantic-era themes of the sublime, the dark and unknown, the connection between emotion and experience, and the role of nature in our world. Even in these authors’ less-grandiose poems, images of space, vast openness, and dreaming play a major role in the poets’ depictions of life at the time. Which says a lot about how insecure they must’ve felt about their places in the universe!

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