When I was hired to take in the harvest in the autumn, I used to dream every night that I was back in the orchard rows, picking apples. When I was working as a shop assistant, I used to dream I was serving customers all night. This was, as you can imagine, absolutely exhausting.
Now that work involves reading books, or in the worst case critics (O happy state of University life!) my dreams have taken a different turn. Sometimes, after falling asleep in the middle of Keats’ Endymion, or Wordsworth’s Prelude I end up dreaming in poetry, which is infinitely more interesting.
This is no new thing. Tennyson apparently composed a fifty line poem about fairies in his sleep, and forgot it all the moment he woke up in the morning. Coleridge worked out a three hundred line poem on Kubla Khan, of which he famously only wrote fifty before he was rudely interrupted by an anonymous person from Porlock and forgot the rest (though as his was an opium induced slumber, it shouldn’t, strictly speaking, count). My favourite is A.E. Housman, who woke in the small hours with these words on his lips:
When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.
Which makes it look as easy as pie. It isn’t. Most of the time, the poetry gets forgotten the moment, or I gradually come to consciousness clutching to myself a golden and gleaming fragment of verse, which melts away to the profoundest nonsense in the morning’s rational light. One example which I did note down:
The Comte is the Comte
A most unhappy man
And these three creatures, strange and rare
Would cuckold him of his despair
And from her breed some bastard heir:
That seems to be their plan.
God (or Freud) alone knows what that means, except that possibly I’d been reading too much Byron. Yet I liked the idea of cuckolding someone of their despair so much I actually bothered to roll out of bed and fetch my notebook. There was one time where I did get a usable lyric out of a dream:
Are you cold? she asked me. I said I was
Though I was not really, for even then
I slept naked, beneath a thin duvet
And counted myself in the warm. But when
The voice seductive from the darkness calls
To ask you if you are not feeling cold
She wants the truth no more than you to tell it.
Go meet and warm her ere the night grows old.
I think the first verse is pretty much as dreamt, the second one mostly invented later. There was a lot of bizarre stuff about the sacrament of the snake which I had to cut out, and it took rather a long time to edit into a form where I was happy with it. I think it was either Pope or Swift who once made the lofty boast of never having excused a poem for the sake of a few lines, or a few lines for the sake of a poem. My notebooks are full of lingering, melodic lines without any context whatsoever, and it’s an unspeakable relief to finally hedge a poem around them. Dreaming up a few new fragments to puzzle over is no help at all.
While I was pouring over my files of snatches and doggerel for this, I also found this fragment, which I dug out of my 2007 diary, having completely forgotten about it since I was seventeen years old:
The lights go down, the music fades,
There’s silence in the aisles.
The first few frames begin to roll
Above the cinephiles.
It’s not a very remarkable poem. What spooks me slightly is that I wrote this almost two years before I developed any interest in writing poetry, and certainly long before I had any idea of iambics, and the metrical patterns of the ballad stanza – and yet this is a perfectly acceptable ballad verse. Odd, the things your brain can do while you aren’t really using it.
Last night, by contrast, I dreamt I was sharing my bed with an adder and a small baby leopard, which is much more typical. Of my dreams, that is.