Leigh Hunt

Of dreams

The materialists and psychologists are at issue upon the subject of dreams. The latter hold them to be one among the many proofs of the existence of a soul: the former endeavour to account for them upon principles altogether corporeal. We must own that the effects of their respective arguments, as is usual with us on these occasions, is not so much to satisfy us with either as to dissatisfy us with both. The psychologist, with all his struggles, never appears to be able to get rid of his body; and the materialist leaves something extremely deficient in the vivacity of his proofs by his ignorance of that Primum Mobile which is the soul of everything.

What seems incontrovertible in the case of dreams is, that they are most apt to take place when the body is most affected. They seem to turn most upon us, when the suspension of the will has been reduced to its most helpless state by indulgence. The door of the fancy is left without its keeper; and forth issue, pell-mell, the whole rout of ideas or images, which bad been previously stored within the brain, and kept to their respective duties. They are like a school let loose, or the winds in Virgil, or Lord Anson’s drunken sailors at Panama, who dressed themselves up in all sorts of ridiculous apparel: only they are far more wild, winged, and fantastic.

We were about to say that, being writers, we are of necessity dreamers; for thinking disposes the bodily faculties to be more than usually affected by the causes that generally produce dreaming. But extremes appear to meet on this as on other occasions; at least, as far as the meditative power is concerned; for there is an excellent reasoner, now living [Hazlitt], who, telling another that he was not fond of the wilder parts of the “Arabian Nights,” was answered, with great felicity, “Then you never dream :” which, it turned out, was actually the case. Here the link is totally lost that connects a tendency to indigestion with thinking on the one hand, and dreaming on the other. If we are to believe Herodotus, the Atlantes, an African people, never dreamt; which Montaigne is willing to attribute to their never having eaten anything that died of itself. It is to be presumed that he looked upon their temperance as a matter of course. The same philosopher, who was a deep thinker, and of a delicate constitution, informs us that he himself dreamt but sparingly; but then, when he did, his dreams were fantastic, though cheerful. This is the very triumph of the animal spirits, to unite the strangeness of sick dreams with the cheerfulness of healthy ones. To these exceptions against the usual theories, we may add that dreams, when they occur, are by no means modified of necessity by what the mind has been occupied with in the course of the day, or even of months; for during our two years’ confinement in prison, we have a strong recollection that we did not dream more than twice of our chief subjects of reflection, the prison itself not excepted. The two dreams were both about the latter, and both the same. We fancied that we had slipped out of jail, and gone to the theatre, where we were much horrified by seeing the faces of the whole audience unexpectedly turned upon us.

It is certain enough, however, that dreams in general proceed from indigestion; and it appears nearly as much so, that they are more or less strange according to the waking fancy of the dreamer.

It is probable that a trivial degree of indigestion will give rise to very fantastic dreams in a fanciful mind; while, on the other hand, a good orthodox repletion is necessary towards a fanciful creation in a dull one. It shall make an epicure, of any vivacity, act as many parts in his sleep as a tragedian, “for that night only.” The inspirations of veal in particular are accounted extremely Delphic: Italian pickles partake of the spirit of Dante; and a butter-boat shall contain as many ghosts as Charon’s.

There is a passage in Lucian which would have made a good subject for those who painted the temptations of the saints. It is a description of the City of Dreams, very lively and crowded. We quote after Natalis Comes, not having the True History by us. The city, we are told, stands in an immense plain, surrounded by a thick forest of tall poppy trees, and enormous mandragoras. The plain is also full of all sorts of somniculous plants; and the trees are haunted with multitudes of owls and bats, but no other bird. The city is washed by the river Lethe, called by others the Night-bringer, whose course is inaudible and like the flowing of oil. There are two gates to the city: one of horn, in which almost everything that can happen in sleep is represented, as in a transparency; the other of ivory, in which the dreams are but dimly shadowed. The principal temple is that of Night; and there are others, dedicated to Truth and Falsehood, who have oracles. The population consists of Dreams, who are of an infinite variety of shape. Some are small and slender; others distorted, humped, and monstrous; others very proper and tall, with blooming, good-tempered faces. Others again have terrible countenances, are winged, and seem eternally threatening the city with some calamity; while others walk about in the pomp and garniture of kings. If any mortal comes into the place, there is a multitude of domestic Dreams, who meet him with offers of service; and who are followed by some of the others, that bring him good or bad news, generally false; for the inhabitants of that city are for the most part a lying and crafty generation, speaking one thing, and thinking another. This is having a new advantage over us. Only think of the mental reservation of a Dream!

If Lucian had divided his city into ranks and denominations, he might possibly have classed them under the general heads of Dreams Lofty, Dreams Ludicrous, Dreams Pathetic, Dreams Horrible, Dreams Bodily Painful or Pleasant, Dreams of Common Life, Dreams of New Aspects of Humanity, Dreams Mixed, Fantastic, and utterly Confused. He speaks of winged ones; which is judicious, for they are very common. Nothing is more common, or usually more pleasant, than to dream of flying. It is one of the best specimens of the race; for, besides being agreeable, it is made up of the dreams of ordinary life, and those of surprising combination. Thus the dreamer sometimes thinks he is flying in unknown regions, sometimes skimming only a few inches above the ground, and wondering he never did it before. He will even dream that he is dreaming about it; and yet is so fully convinced of its feasibility, and so astonished at his never having hit upon so delightful a truism, that he is resolved to practise it the moment he wakes. “One has only,” says he, “just to give a little spring with one’s foot—so—and—oh it’s the easiest and most obvious thing in the world. I’ll always skim hereafter.” We once dreamt that a woman set up some Flying Rooms, as a person does a tavern. We went to try them; and nothing could be more satisfactory and commonplace on all sides. The landlady welcomed us with a curtsey, hoped for friends and favours, &c., and then showed us into a spacious room, not round, as might be expected, but long, and after the usual dining fashion. “Perhaps, sir,” said she, “you would like to try the room;” upon which we made no more ado, but sprung up and made two or three genteel circuits, now taking the height of it like a house-lark, and then cutting the angles like a swallow. “Very pretty flying indeed,” said we, “and very moderate.”

A house for the purpose of taking flights in, when the open air was to be had for nothing, is fantastic enough; but what shall we say to those confoundings of all time, place, and substance, which are constantly happening to persons of any creativeness of diaphragm? Thus you shall meet a friend in a gateway, who besides being your friend shall be your enemy; and besides being Jones or Tomkins, shall be a bull; and besides asking you in, shall oppose your entrance. Nevertheless, you are not at all surprised; or if surprised, are only so at something not at all surprising. To be Tomkins and a bull at once, is the most ordinary of commonplaces; but that, being a bull, he should have horns, is what astonishes you; and you are also amazed at his not being in Holborn or the Strand, where he never lived. To be in two places at once is not uncommon to a dreamer. He will also be young and old at the same time, a schoolboy and a man; will live many years in a few minutes, like the Sultan who dipped his head in the tub of water; will be full of zeal and dialogue upon some matter of indifference; go to the opera with a dish under his arm, to be in the fashion; talk faster in verse than prose; and ask a set of horses to a musical party, telling them that he knows they will be pleased, because blue is the general wear, and Mozart has gone down to Gloucestershire to fit up a house for Epaminondas.

It is a curious proof of the concern which body has in these vagaries, that when you dream of any particular limb being in pain, you shall often have gone to sleep in a posture that affects it. A weight on the feet will produce dreams in which you are rooted to the ground, or caught by a goblin out of the earth. A cramped hand or leg shall get you tortured in the Inquisition; and a head too much thrown back, give you the sense of an interminable visitation of stifling. The nightmare, the heaviest punisher of repletion, will visit some persons, merely for lying on their backs; which shows how much it is concerned in a particular condition of the frame. Sometimes it lies upon the chest like a vital lump. Sometimes it comes in the guise of a horrid dwarf, or malignant little hag, who grins in your teeth and will not let you rise. Its most common enormity is to pin you to the ground with excess of fear, while something dreadful is coming up, a goblin or a mad bull. Sometimes the horror is of a very elaborate description, such as being spell-bound in an old house, which has a mysterious and shocking possessor. He is a gigantic deformity, and will pass presently through the room in which you are sitting. He comes, not a giant, but a dwarf, of the most strange and odious description, hairy, spider-like, and chuckling. His mere passage is unbearable. The agony rises at every step. You would protest against so malignant a sublimation of the shocking, but are unable to move or speak. At length, you give loud and long-drawn groans, and start up with a preternatural effort, awake.

Mr. Coleridge, whose sleeping imagination seems proportioned to his waking, has described a fearful dream of mental and bodily torture. It is entitled “The Pains of Sleep.”

If horrible and fantastic dreams are the most perplexing, there are pathetic ones perhaps still more saddening. A friend dreaming of the loss of his friend, or a lover of that of his mistress, or a kinsman of that of a dear relation, is steeped in the bitterness of death. To wake and find it not true—what a delicious sensation is that! On the other hand, to dream of a friend or a beloved relative restored to us—to live over again the hours of childhood at the knee of a beloved mother, to be on the eve of marrying an affectionate mistress, with a thousand other joys snatched back out of the grave, and too painful to dwell upon—what a dreary rush of sensation comes like a shadow upon us when we wake! How true, and divested of all that is called conceit in poetry, is that termination of Milton’s sonnet on dreaming of his deceased wife!—

But oh, as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked; she fled; and day brought back my night.

We wonder that so good and cordial a critic as Warton should think this a mere conceit on his blindness. An allusion to his blindness may or may not be involved in it; but the sense of returning shadow on the mind is quite true to nature on such occasions, and must have been experienced by every one who has lost a person dear to him. There is a beautiful sonnet by Camoëns on a similar occasion; a small canzone by Sanazzaro, which ends with saying, that although he waked and missed his lady’s hand in his, he still tried to cheat himself by keeping his eyes shut; and three divine dreams of Laura by Petrarch.

But we must be cautious how we even think of the poets on this most poetical subject, or we shall write three articles instead of one. As it is, we have not left ourselves room for some very agreeable dreams, which we meant to have taken between these our gallant and imaginative sheets. They must be interrupted, as they are too apt to be, like the young lady’s in “The Adventures of a Lap-dog,” who, blushing divinely, had just uttered the words, “My lord, I am wholly yours,” when she was awaked by the jumping up of that officious little puppy.


MLA Citation

Hunt, Leigh. “Of dreams.” 1820. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 30 Dec 2007. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/dreams/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“Dream fugue”

Thomas De Quincey

A thousand times has he followed thee in the worlds of sleep... through fugues and the persecution of fugues; through dreams, and the dreadful resurrections that are in dreams--only that at the last, with one motion of his victorious arm, he might record and emblazon the endless resurrections of his love!

“On dreams and dreaming”

Alexander Smith

If a man wishes to know his own secret opinion of himself, he had better take cognizance of his dreams.

“The vision of sudden death”

Thomas De Quincey

Even so in dreams, perhaps, under some secret conflict of the midnight sleeper, lighted up to the consciousness at the time, but darkened to the memory as soon as all is finished, each several child of our mysterious race completes for himself the aboriginal fall.

“Of life”

Thomas Browne

There is surely a piece of divinity in us; something that was before the elements.

“I talk of dreams”

William Dean Howells

The dreamer is purely unmoral; good and bad are the same to his conscience; he has no more to do with right and wrong than the animals.