Dreams versus waking reality

The tension of two ‘realities’

There is considerable tension between the two worlds of dream/vision and material reality in Keats' poetry. For instance, the speakers in poems such as Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale, as well as characters in narratives such as The Eve of St. Agnes, express disappointment when they compare the ideal worlds created by the imagination to the limited world of reality.

The narrative poems

In Lamia, Lamia herself withers and dies under the cold stare of the rational philosopher Apollonius, who sees through her illusion. Lycius also dies as his dream is shattered. This idea of dream/illusion versus reality is very similar to that explored in The Eve of St Agnes, but here the opposition is starker and much more public.

The Eve of St Agnes is a meditation on desire and its fulfilment, on wishes, dreams and romance. Indeed the moment of Madeline’s awakening is a crucial one. Porphyro must waken her to his real presence, but his fulfilment also depends on his ‘melting’ into her dream. The moment is typical of the transition from innocence to experience as depicted in much of romantic art. The consummation of their love ‘is no dream’, says Porphyro, as Madeline weeps out of fear that he has betrayed her. ‘Sweet dreamer!’ Porphyro then responds, ‘’tis an elfin storm from faery land,’ into which he will carry her to be his bride, ‘o’er the southern moors’.

The Odes

The theme of dreaming versus reality is central to the Ode to a Nightingale. Here the speaker of the poem begins by stating that he feels as if he has drunk something poisonous that has drugged his senses. He ascribes this sensation to listening to the song of the nightingale and to subsequently being intoxicated by the bird’s happiness. The speaker wishes for oblivion, to escape from the cares of being human ‘where but to think is to be full of sorrow’. He tells the nightingale to fly away and he will join it, carried aloft on the wings of his own imagination. Eventually, however, the speaker is brought back to his senses and, at the poem’s conclusion, is no longer sure whether he has experienced a vision or a ‘waking dream’.

In the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats enters into a dream world in which the characters depicted on the urn are alive. The final scene portrayed by the speaker (of the heifer’s sacrifice and the eternally emptied town) brings the speaker back to reality from this dream world and causes him to remember that when he and all those of his generation have died, the urn will still be there communicating its eternal message to all who contemplate it in the future: ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’.

The ‘sleep’ poems

In To Sleep Sleep (and the dreams it brings) is seen as the soft and benign provider of ‘forgetfulness’ for the troubled human spirit. The speaker calls on sleep to ‘save’ him from disturbing thoughts of the day that has passed and from the delving of conscience through buried memories. Sleep holds the key which can lock the ‘casket of my soul’.

In Sleep and Poetry Keats distinguishes poetry from dreams because poetry engages with ‘the strife of human hearts’; it explores life’s sorrows as well as engaging with the joys of sensation.

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