In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed -
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.
Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?
That holy dream - that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.
What though that light, thro' storm and night,
So trembled from afar-
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth's day-star?
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most revered American poets and short story writers, and it occurs to me that I've engaged with very little of his work here. Let's change that! His poetry and short stories continue to exert a strong influence on American culture and literature, and is still very much worth reading today.
This poem in particular reminds me of a sonnet from John Milton, his Sonnet 23, specifically. In that sonnet, Milton, who had gone blind during the course of his life, dreamed that he saw his departed wife, and as she came to embrace him, he woke, "and day brought back [his] night." Upon waking, he was again blind, and alone. The overall sentiment of Poe's poem is similar, I find. Indeed, the first stanza contains much of the narrative action of Milton's poem. In this first stanza, the narrator finds his "joy departed" only "In visions of the dark night." Waking leaves him broken-hearted. It is much the same as in Milton's poem. But whereas Milton stops at his waking, Poe goes on to ponder what such dreams are and what they mean to us, and our relationship with them.
In the second stanza, Poe asks what a dream is. It is not a general question, but rather, what is a dream to someone "whose eyes are cast / on things around him with a ray / Turned back upon the past?" Essentially, what is a dream to someone who looks at all things through the lens of the past? The narrator of this poem is fixated on their "joy departed" which I have trouble not interpreting romantically, given the strong parallels with Milton's poem and the overall content of Poe's poetic work. It could just mean thinking back to a happier time, but my interpretation is that this is a lover in question, especially given that upon waking from the dream, Poe's narrator is "broken-hearted."
The final two stanzas present Poe's answer to that question. The dream cheers Poe, like a "lovely beam" that guides his lonely spirit. He calls it even "a holy dream" and repeats that phrase twice, cementing its importance and impact. Even though the world chides, the dream, the holy dream of his joy departed guides his spirit. Poe is aware that he is engaging with a fantasy, however. In the final stanza, he admits as much, albeit in a roundabout manner.
Though the "light" of this dream's "lovely beam" can tremble from afar, it is brighter to Poe's narrator than "Truth's day-star." It is brighter than reality itself, brighter than Truth. The Truth here is that this joy is in fact departed, is no more. But through storm and night, Poe clings to it, more purely bright than truth to a man whose eyes are cast on things around him with a ray turned back upon the past. It's truly amazing how Poe manages to fit such depth of emotional content into a simple four stanza poem made of simple sing-song ABAB rhymes. It's a testament to his skill and to the power of the content matter that it can resonate so strongly even now.