Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

MONDAY MORNING MUSINGS

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

–William Shakespeare, The Tempest

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

–Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”

I had a dream the other night that I was explaining the difference between a comma and a semicolon to my niece’s six-year-old son.* Unlike my niece, he got it right away. (My niece is amazing, but she is the first to joke about her sometimes grammar-challenged writing.) Unfortunately, I don’t remember my great nephew’s dream sentences now, but they were kind of deep reflections of life and death in nature. It’s funny what we remember from dreams, and what we don’t.

I often have dreams of writing. I also dream of food and recipes I want to try. While finishing my forthcoming World of the American Revolution, I dreamt of editing primary sources. I actually saw and read texts in my dreams. In a half-conscious state I’ve written brilliant prose in my head (or so it seems) that I promptly forget once I’m up and about.

I’m waiting to dream of a masterpiece, something like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” For those unfamiliar with the poem, subtitled, “Or, a vision in a dream: A Fragment,” or with its origins, it is a well-known poem, one of the great works of Romantic poetry, a poem of beauty and imagery, and a poem of dreams. I can remember my dad reciting its opening lines. (You can read the poem here. ) Coleridge said the poem came to him while he was in the midst of an opium dream. While writing it down, he was interrupted by someone who came to his door. When Coleridge returned to his desk, he could not remember the rest of the poem.

Coleridge was an opium addict. Opium, in the form of laudanum, or a tincture of opium dissolved in a base of alcohol, was a common household medicine in the nineteenth-century in England and the United States. (The modern hypodermic needle was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, allowing morphine to be injected to relieve pain—and creating a group of Civil War veteran addicts, among others.) Laudanum did not require a prescription, and it often cost less than alcohol. Poor parents and unscrupulous nurses dosed infants with laudanum to keep them from crying from hunger or to induce sleep. Men and women took it to relieve the myriad pains of nineteenth-century life—everything from toothaches and menstrual pains to migraines, diarrhea, and severe coughing. It was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Many of the other Romantic Poets also took laudanum, although perhaps not as often or notably as Coleridge.

I would love to awaken with the memory of a brilliant book, poem, play, or other creative work that I could quickly write down before it disappeared from my memory. (I could say I dream of it, but I won’t.) Unlike Coleridge, I would have to do so without actually taking any mind-altering substance. Unless you include chocolate or caffeine, or an occasional glass of wine, as mind-altering–which I suppose they are in a kind of happy mouth-feel kind of way. Yes, I do dream of chocolate. You’re not surprised, are you?

If you have a cat or dog, you’ve probably seen them dreaming. Their bodies twitch and sometimes their legs move as if they’re running. I remember one of our dogs sometimes barked in her sleep. I always wonder if their dreams are happy and what they see. Dreaming must be necessary for them, as well as for humans.

Dreams are essential to human life–both the nighttime fantasies that take place as our brains process the events of the day, and the daydreams we all have. C’mon you do, too. Dreams can be scary. They can bring out inner demons and taunt us with visions of things that cannot be. At least not now. But the dreams of artists, scientists, explorers, and revolutionaries have led to discoveries and movements that have changed the world. Dreams are the visions of the real and the unreal that meet and mingle in our brains. Dreams twist time and space. Sometimes they even twist and shout.

Most Americans probably know of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” If you haven’t read or heard the entire speech, you can read and listen to it here. It is still soul-stirring.

Perhaps what’s odd is not that we have dreams, but that we seldom remember or act upon them.

* If anyone needs help with commas and semicolons, here’s a great post from The Oatmeal

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

–John Lennon, “Imagine”