Night and the Light and the Half Light

April 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Christina Rossetti, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I dreamed last night that I had a mailbox full of replies from publishers. As I sorted it, the haul dwindled to one passionate reply about a book proposal I’d sent out; the editor noted all the things she loved, what small changes she’d make. As I read, I was eager to get back to my desk, plunge into this dense, imaginative work…

Upon waking, I realized that this book did not exist except as a dream.  It was about a child with strange powers sent away from the family. There was a dim and narrow hall, an uncle urging haste, dark coats. Was there something about wings? The plot was set, perfected; hidden from me.

Every culture has a theory on the meaning of dreams. Messages, portents, wishes. What if they’re only the subconscious showing off? Look, it’s saying (that clutch of grub-white neurons), I can do all this, create worlds and exquisite emotional textures, without words or paint, research or effort…I’m the genius, the god; I reign in sleep; you will never surpass me.

I never have. What’s conscious is always clumsier. I used to dream more before I accepted that. I dreamed all the time, I was a glutton for dreams, because I thought they would lead me somewhere in the world—even if it was another world—somewhere I could go with my eyes open.

I dreamed of vampires and lions; of lovers never met and houses with endless rooms; of cars, trains, mountains, famous men; of the dead; of flying. I dreamed I was a queen once, standing on a balcony in sunlight. In the distance were immense, naked gods, walking toward me over the ocean.

There are so many wonderful poems about dreams, but this first one is probably new to you.

My Dream

Hear now a curious dream I dreamed last night

Each word whereof is weighed and sifted truth.

I stood beside Euphrates while it swelled

Like overflowing Jordan in its youth:

It waxed and coloured sensibly to sight;

Till out of myriad pregnant waves there welled

Young crocodiles, a gaunt blunt-featured crew,

Fresh-hatched perhaps and daubed with birthday dew.

The rest if I should tell, I fear my friend

My closest friend would deem the facts untrue;

And therefore it were wisely left untold;

Yet if you will, why, hear it to the end.

Each crocodile was girt with massive gold

And polished stones that with their wearers grew:

But one there was who waxed beyond the rest,

Wore kinglier girdle and a kingly crown,

Whilst crowns and orbs and sceptres starred his breast.

All gleamed compact and green with scale on scale,

But special burnishment adorned his mail

And special terror weighed upon his frown;

His punier brethren quaked before his tail,

Broad as a rafter, potent as a flail.

So he grew lord and master of his kin:

But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?

An execrable appetite arose,

He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.

He knew no law, he feared no binding law,

But ground them with inexorable jaw:

The luscious fat distilled upon his chin,

Exuded from his nostrils and his eyes,

While still like hungry death he fed his maw;

Till every minor crocodile being dead

And buried too, himself gorged to the full,

He slept with breath oppressed and unstrung claw.

Oh marvel passing strange which next I saw:

In sleep he dwindled to the common size,

And all the empire faded from his coat.

Then from far off a wingèd vessel came,

Swift as a swallow, subtle as a flame:

I know not what it bore of freight or host,

But white it was as an avenging ghost.

It levelled strong Euphrates in its course;

Supreme yet weightless as an idle mote

It seemed to tame the waters without force

Till not a murmur swelled or billow beat:

Lo, as the purple shadow swept the sands,

The prudent crocodile rose on his feet

And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands.

What can it mean? you ask. I answer not

For meaning, but myself must echo, What?

And tell it as I saw it on the spot.

Christina Rossetti

I dreamed a thousand new paths. I woke and walked my old one.

~Chinese proverb

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats


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