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Dream-Pedlary -- Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Thanks to Ira Cooper for suggesting today's poem
(Poem #1253) Dream-Pedlary
 If there were dreams to sell,
 What would you buy?
 Some cost a passing bell;
 Some a light sigh,
 That shakes from Life's fresh crown
 Only a rose-leaf down.
 If there were dreams to sell,
 Merry and sad to tell,
 And the crier rang the bell,
 What would you buy?

 A cottage lone and still,
 With bowers nigh,
 Shadowy, my woes to still,
 Until I die.
 Such pearls from Life's fresh crown
 Fain would I shake me down.
 Were dreams to have at will,
 This would best heal my ill,
 This would I buy.

 But there were dreams to sell
 Ill didst thou buy;
 Life is a dream, they tell,
 Waking, to die.
 Dreaming a dream to prize,
 Is wishing ghosts to rise;
 And if I had the spell
 To call the buried well,
 Which one should I?

 If there are ghosts to raise,
 What shall I call,
 Out of hell's murky haze,
 Heaven's blue pall?
 Raise my loved long-lost boy,
 To lead me to his joy.--
 There are no ghosts to raise;
 Out of death lead no ways;
 Vain is the call.

 Know'st thou not ghosts to sue,
 No love thou hast.
 Else lie, as I will do,
 And breathe thy last.
 So out of Life's fresh crown
 Fall like a rose-leaf down.
 Thus are the ghosts to woo;
 Thus are all dreams made true,
 Ever to last!
-- Thomas Lovell Beddoes
  Passing Bell (The): It now means the bell tolled to announce the death of
  one who has died in the parish; but originally it meant the bell which
  announced that the person was in extremis, or passing from time into
    -- [broken link]

As Hamlet put it in his famous soliloquy

  To die -- to sleep --
  To sleep? perchance, to dream. Ay, there's the rub;
  For in that sleep of Death what dreams may come,
  When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
  Must give us pause.
        -- Shakespeare, 'Hamlet'

and it is the same parallel between sleep and death, dreams and the
afterlife, that Beddoes addresses in today's poem. And addresses well -
there's a surprising density of images and concepts, and they shift and
blend seamlessly and with a deceptive air of uncraftedness.

The tone, too, exhibits that same smooth variation. "If there were dreams to
sell, what would you buy?" - a happy, innocent opening that is at once
darkened by the reference to a passing bell, then softened once more by the
"rose leaf" (interesting that he didn't say 'rose petal'), so that by the
time Beddoes says "merry and sad" he has indeed foreshadowed both types of
dream. This shifting mood continues throughout, though shifting is perhaps
not the word - what it does is build up a coherent whole by adding to it
from various directions. And even that carries an unfair suggestion of
haphazardness - there is definitely a clean logical progression running
through the poem, for all its back-and-forth moods.

Actually, the first thing that came to mind when I read the opening lines of
the poem was the ending of Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning was the
Command Line"[1]. In a mild flight of fancy, Stephenson speculates briefly
on the ability to design your life down to the last detail, and notes that
people will, in general, fly the complexity and seek refuge in ever-simpler
prepackaged lives, which they'll spend complaining that things don't work
the way they want them to. And what, I hear you ask, does this have to do
with the poem? Well, there seems to be something awfully *passive* about
buying a dream - and something boringly generic, too, about 'a dream' as
opposed to 'your dreams'. Of course, the rest of the poem doesn't support
this jaundiced interpretation, but that first impression did colour my
reading a bit.

And returning briefly to the 'mood swing' theme, note the interesting
ambivalence with which the poem treats death - everything from a price to
pay, through a lotus-eater's fantasy, to a genuine opportunity for 'dreams
made true'. The biography attached to Poem #595 mentions that Beddoes had "an
obsession with death that was to dominate his life and work", and that is
certainly very much in evidence here.

[1] which everyone ought to read. Really.


90 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Martin DeMello said...

--- Alan Kornheiser wrote:
> This attempt to smuggle SF into the most amusing.

This wasn't, for once :) "In the Beginning was the Command Line" is
Stephenson's classic - indeed, almost cult-status - essay on the design
and philosophy of operating systems.

> I call to your attention the late Fritz Leiber's "Bazaar of the
> Bizarre," in which dreams are also sold and in which the Grey Mouser's
> dreams turn out badly.

Need to reread those - vaguely remember the Bazaar (and why no Cathedral
of the Commonplace?), but not the dream bit.

> And we haven't even started on Lord Dunsany.

And I think Dick has touched on the theme once or twice too.


Anonymous said...

I need to interpret this poem in flowers for a flower festival. To buy a dream today means to buy a lottery ticket and win. What do you think of this interpretation.

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