Atheeqa's post on Poe's "A Dream Within A Dream" can be connected in so many ways with issues we've been discussing and reading about that I've decided to speak to these in a separate post rather than in a comment.
First, have a look at the poem as presented on the website of the Poetry Foundation. Notice that in this version, several words are italicized. Do these different material features of the text make any difference in the way we read it? This is the sort of question — really one of several sorts of question — that McGann is asking us to think about in his essay "How to Read a Book" (the link will work only if you're logged in). There, he makes a distinction between "linear reading," "spatial reading," and "radial reading." We're reading "spatially" when we're being attentive to the text as a material form, including not only such features as italicized words but blank spaces in the text — in the case of Poe's poem, the space that separates the two stanzas. We're reading "radially" when we do something like leave the text to find another version online that displays it differently. We would continue along that same radius if we were to try to find out whether or not those words were italicized in the poem as it originally appeared in print. I don't know the answer, and so I'm charging all of you with the task of trying to find out. If the italics make a difference to how we experience the poem, this is information we ought to have.
Second, remember the title of the second chapter you read by Frye (again, login required): "The Keys to Dreamland." The association between poetry and dreaming goes back a long way, as do broader questions about the relationship between reality and dreaming. Is the poet's role to be a dreamer? How can we know whether we're dreaming or waking? Is all life a dream? Frye isn't particularly interested in the individual poet as dreamer. He argues that literature as a whole represents a kind of collective dreamworld — not because it's unreal, but because it gives form to the way the human imagination makes of reality a world of human meaning. Literature, he says, is like an anxiety dream and a wish-fulfillment dream brought into focus together. It doesn't turn away from reality but instead gives shape to the only way we can engage reality — through our fears and desires. In doing so, however, it invariably flouts the constraints of reality. Plants and animals talk. People fly. A lifetime gets compressed into two hours on stage.
Third, this dreaming thing is going to come up over and over in our other writers. Lewis Carroll's Alice will fall down a rabbit hole and only later discover that her whole experience underground was a dream. She'll be introduced to the frightening idea, on the other side of the looking-glass, that she's only "a kind of thing" in someone else's dream. She'll return unsure whether she was the dreamer or the dreamed.
Dickens' Scrooge will have a dream in which he's visited by three spirits. It will be through this dream that he comes to understand social and political realities of the world immediately surrounding him that he had ignored at his own peril.
As old as the uses of and concerns about dreaming may be, the nineteenth century seemed particularly preoccupied with the "life is but a dream" idea. Another example is Stephen Foster's haunting song, "Beautiful Dreamer."
And finally, Poe's poem turns out to be pretty interesting to play with as an example of "deformative" reading, a mode of reading McGann introduces in the other essay we're reading by him, "Deformance and Interpretation" (login required). As you'll see in class.