The structure of "A Dream Within a Dream" consists of two stanzas containing two disparate but ultimately connected scenes. The first stanza shows the first-person point of view of the narrator parting from a lover, while the second places the narrator on a beach while futilely attempting to grasp a handful of sand in his hand. The juxtaposed scenes contrast in a number of ways, as the poem moves from a calm, though solemn, farewell to a more passionate second half. Whereas the first stanza features a thoughtful agreement, the seashore scene contains expletives such as "O God!" and anguished exclamations along with despairing rhetorical questions to reflect the torment in the narrator's soul.
Despite the apparent differences between the
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In particular, the refrain lines "All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream" unite the passages in the poem's conclusion of futility and regret at the movement of time. Poe draws attention to "all that we see or seem" with alliteration, and we can view this phrase as the combination of two aspects of reality, where "all that we see" is the external and "all that we seem" is the internal element. By asserting that both sides are the also alliterative phrase "a dream within a dream," Poe suggests that neither is more real than a dream.
As the title, the phrase "a dream within a dream" has a special significance to any interpretations of the poem. Poe takes the idea of a daydream and twists it so that the narrator's perception of reality occurs at two degrees of detachment away from reality. Consequently, this reality reflects upon itself through the dream medium, and the narrator can no longer distinguish causality in his perception. By showing the narrator's distress at his observations, Poe magnifies the risks of uncertainty and of the potential changes to his identity. Time is a powerful but mysterious force that promotes cognitive dissonance between the protagonist's self and his abilities of comprehension, and the daydream proves to have ensnared him. Alternatively, the poem itself may be viewed as the