Roving thoughts and provocations

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Nighthawks

Martine Franck/Magnum Photos
Zoological Museum, Strasbourg, France, 2000

This bird’s name is somewhat inappropriate, since it is not strictly nocturnal, often flying in sunlight, and it is not a hawk…
                                            —National Audubon Society

On a gray September morning, I awoke from uneasy dreams to find a strange sentence fully formed in my still drowsy mind: “No one in the history of the world has ever universalized both the game given and the god given.” I didn’t remember anything else from the dream that had produced these portentous words, nor did I have a clue what they might mean. I couldn’t even make out the syntax, since the last two words could mean either an inherited capacity, like a god-given talent for tennis, or, instead, a god who is “a given” (“Given an all-powerful god, what place does free will have in the divine scheme?”). And what in the world might it mean to “universalize” such things?

There are countless poems about dreams, of course, and even some, like Poe’s, about dreams within dreams. Rarer are those poems, or other literary inventions, in which the actual words arise in the dream, to be recorded by the writer upon waking. The most famous example is Coleridge’s opium-abetted “Kubla Khan,” the transcription of which was interrupted, according to the poet, by the arrival of “a person on business from Porlock,” a nearby village. When Coleridge returned to his desk, he found that the rest of the poem “had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.”

According to Richard Holmes, Coleridge’s biographer, “The idea that poetry or visionary prose might be composed in sleep, dreams, or drug-induced ‘revery’ became increasingly influential after the publication of ‘Kubla Khan.’” Skeptics, predictably, have questioned Coleridge’s account. John Livingston Lowes wrote a whole book, The Road to Xanadu, in which he proposed various literary sources for much of the poem. For example, Coleridge’s underground river, “five miles meandering with a mazy motion,” was lifted from William Bartram’s travels in Florida (1791). The poet Stevie Smith thought Coleridge had simply run out of inspiration, and had reached for a convenient explanation of his writer’s block:

He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.

Jorge Luis Borges was charmed to discover that the original design of the Chinese pleasure dome (fragments of which were on view during the fall of 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum), where the Khan hunted swans with falcons among other princely amusements, was apparently based on a dream that Kubla (or Kublai) had—though this detail, drawn from a Persian source, was apparently unknown to Coleridge. In Borges’s characteristically labyrinthine formulation:

The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace, and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other’s dream, was given the poem about the palace. If this plan does not fail, someone, on a night centuries removed from us, will dream the same dream, and not suspect that others have dreamed it, and he will give it a form of marble or of music. Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one will be the key.

Fortunate Coleridge, to dream a coherent masterpiece, albeit a fragment, of fifty-some lines! My own experience, with my gnomic little sentence about “the game given and the god given,” was more like that of Jonathan Swift, author of the very dreamlike Gulliver’s Travels, who woke up in the middle of the night during the winter of 1713—he was sixty-six at the time—and jotted down, in the dark, a puzzling couplet that he had just dreamed:

I walk before no man, a hawk in his fist;
Nor am I a brilliant, whenever I list.

Swift had no idea what the words, reminiscent of outsider art or phrases called up at a séance, might mean, but he carefully recopied the scrawled words so that “two such precious lines may not be lost to posterity.” “Strange and even haunting,” Leo Damrosch remarks in his new biography of Swift, “they would never have gone into a Swift poem during waking hours.”

None of the Swift scholars I have come across attempts to decipher Swift’s couplet. One writes, preemptively, “The lines, needless to say, are utterly meaningless.” They appear in The Everyman Book of Nonsense Verse. But why, then, did Swift consider them “precious”? It isn’t difficult to venture plausible interpretations of the couplet. Might Swift be saying something, in the first line, about aristocrats with falcons in their fists, and his own reluctance to follow or (as he did in his early life) advise them? This would be an example of the “saeve indignatio” invoked in Swift’s epitaph, translated by Yeats as “savage indignation.” The second line might then mean something like: “Nor do I aspire to aristocracy myself in any endeavor.”

But that second line could also allude to Swift’s lifelong attacks of vertigo, when he felt “giddy from morning till dark,” as he wrote in his Journal to Stella, “and I totter [i.e., “list”] a little, but can make shift to walk.” At such times, he certainly wouldn’t have felt witty and “brilliant.” I myself suffer from recurrent vertigo. The dizzying flight of the hawk loosed from the fist, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” as Yeats imagined it, might also be associated with vertigo. My head spins even to think of it.

Yeats wrote an atmospheric short play, “Words on a Windowpane,” about Swift’s ghost speaking from beyond the grave to a motley gathering of guests at a modern séance. Yeats thought Swift didn’t marry Stella or Vanessa, the two women in his life, because he was afraid to pass on his vertigo to his offspring (“something in my blood that no child must inherit”). Yeats himself imagined the decline of civilization as a time in which “The falcon cannot hear [or “list” to?] the falconer.”

In a less famous poem, “The Hawk,” Yeats suggests that the bird of prey is a figure for freedom (the year was 1916, a decisive moment for Irish independence): “I will not be clapped in a hood,” says the hawk, “Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist.” In the final stanza of the poem, Yeats, like Swift, links the hawk to doubtful “brilliance” and wit:

What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit?

It is tempting to imagine that Yeats summoned Swift’s dream couplet, his nighthawk, along with his ghost.

An extreme example of poems drawn from dreams appears in Kipling’s 1893 tale “The Finest Story in the World,” a favorite of both Borges (for its “circumstantial phantasmagoria”) and Brecht (for its underdog’s perspective). An ordinary bank clerk who is an amateur poet wakes from dreams about seafaring and writes down lines like this:

The salt made the oar-handles like shark-skin; our knees were cut to the bone with salt cracks; our hair was stuck to our foreheads; and our lips were cut to our gums, and you whipped us because we could not row.
                                    Will you never let us go?

One day he gets out of bed and writes down “on a piece of paper the sort of stuff the men might be supposed to scratch on their oars with the edges of their handcuffs.” Despite the dreamer’s assurances that “it’s nonsense,” the narrator takes the scratchings to the British Museum where they are identified as “extremely corrupt Greek.” Deciphered, they mean: “I have been—many times—overcome with weariness in this particular employment.” The explanation? The bank-clerk was a Greek galley-slave in a previous life.

Paul McCartney composed the melody of “Yesterday” in a dream one night. When he woke up, according to his biographers, he went straight to the piano and played the tune in order not to forget it. Then he tried to make sure, by asking everyone he knew, that he hadn’t inadvertently plagiarized it. The German chemist Kekulé, struggling to understand the molecular structure of benzene, dreamed of a snake with its tail in its mouth and hurried to his desk with the solution: a ring of carbon atoms. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed the plot of Jekyll and Hyde, and was annoyed when his wife—from Porlock, no doubt—woke him up in the midst of “a fine bogey tale.”

Well then, what of my own sentence about universalizing the game given and the god given? Had I stumbled upon some insight, some shimmering bit of brilliance? Had I plagiarized it? I fed the whole sentence into Google, our own universal dream-catcher, to see what I might have dredged up from the night world. I was cheered to find that the first entry that came up, the passage with the most words matching mine, was a pair of phrases by Jorge Luis Borges gathered in a Wikiquote compendium:

All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. [Twenty-Four Conversations With Borges (1984)]

I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist. No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men. [“The Immortal” (1947)]


Part of a continuing NYRblog series on dreams. For earlier contributions by Daniel Mendelsohn, Margaret Atwood, Nicholson Baker, and other writers, visit the New York Review dreams page.

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