Alexander Smith

On dreams and dreaming

In dealing with the curious phenomenon of Dreaming, the materialists and the spiritualists are, as usual, in extremes: the one class regarding the phenomenon as mainly the result of indigestion, the other as one of the proofs of the immortality of the soul. In this matter it may be prudent to steer a middle course. One thing is certain, that whatever by the cause, the substance of a dream, whether it be beautiful or ghastly, depends entirely on the dreamer. All men dream, just as all men live; but the dreams of men are as different as their lives. You require opium and Coleridge combined before you arrive as Kubla Khan: few men have extracted such terrors from a pork chop as Fuseli. Every man has his own fashion of dreaming, just as every man has his own opinions, conceptions, and way of looking at things. While asleep a man does not in the least lose his personality. Dreams are the most curious asides and soliloquies of the soul. When a man recollects his dream, it is like meeting the ghost of himself. Dreams often surprise us into the strangest self-knowledge. If a man wishes to know his own secret opinion of himself, he had better take cognizance of his dreams. A coward is never brave in his dream, the gross man is never pure, the untruthful man lies and knows he is lying. Dreaming is the truest confessional, and often the sharpest penance. In sleep the will is quiescent, and dreaming is like the talking in the ranks when the men are standing as ease, and the eye of the inspecting officer is absent for the nonce; it is like the chatting of the domestics round the kitchen-fire of the castle after the lord and the lady have retired—incoherent babblement for the most part; but the men in the ranks say things that the commanding officer might ponder on occasion, and the gossiping servants in the comfortable firelight downstairs, commenting on the events of the day, give their opinions on this thing and the other which has happened, and criticise not unfrequently the conduct of the master and mistress. You feel your pulse when you wish to arrive at the secret of your bodily health; pay attention to your dreams if you wish to arrive at the secret of your health, morally and spiritually.

All men dream, and the most common experience of the phenomenon is the sort of double existence which it entails. The life of the night is usually very different from the life of the day. And these strange specters and shapes of slumber do not perish; they live in some obscure ante-room or limbo of memory, and reappear at times in the most singular fashion. Most people have been startled by this reappearance. Something of importance to you has happened quite new, quite unexpected; you are sitting in a strange railway-station waiting for the train; you have gone to see a friend in a distant part to the country, and in your solitary evening stroll you come on a pool of water, with three pollard willows, such as you see in old engravings, growing beside it, and above the willows an orange sunset through which a string of rooks are flying; and all at once this new thing which has happened wears the face of an old experience; the strange railway-station becomes familiar; and the pool, the willows, the sunset with the undulating line of rooks, seem to have been witnessed not for the first time. This curious feeling is gone almost as swiftly as it has come; but you are perplexed with the sense of a double identity, with the emergence as of a former existence. The feeling alluded to is so swift and intangible that often you cannot arrest it; you cannot pin it down for inspection as you would a butterfly on a card; but when you can, you find that what has startled you with familiarity is simply a vagrant dream—that from the obscure limbo of the memory some occult law of association has called a wandering wraith of sleep, and that for a moment it has flitted betwixt you and the sunshine of consciousness, dimming it as it flits.

One thing is worthy of remark, that in dreaming, in that reverie of the consciousness, men are usually a good deal cleverer than when they are awake. You may not be much of a Shakespeare in your waking moments, but you attain to something of his faculty when you head is on the pillow. In dreams, whatever latent dramatic power you may possess awakes, and is at work. The dreamer brings far-separated people together, he arranges them in groups, he connects them by the subtlest films of interest; and the man who is in the habit of taking cognizance of his dreams soon learns that the phantoms of men and women whom he has once known, and who revisit him in slumber, are more life-like images—talking more consistently, and exhibiting certain little characteristics and personal traits which had never been to him the subject of conscious thought—than those he is accustomed to deal with during his waking hours. And then the strange persons and events one does dream about on occasions,—persons long dead, localities known in childhood, and never seen since; events which happened to yourself or to others, and which seem to have faded out of remembrance as completely as the breath of yesterday has faded from the face of the mirror. But these things have not so faded. There is “Lost Office” in the memory, where all the waifs and strays of experience are taken care of. Word and act; the evil deed and the good one; the fair woman’s face which was the starlight of your boyhood; the large white moon that rose over the harvest-fields in the September in which you were in love; the thrush that sang out in the garden betwixt light and dark of summer dawn, when the pressure of a hand at parting the night before kept you awake,—all these things, which you suppose to have perished as utterly as the clothes you wore thirty years ago, have no more perished than you have yourself. Memory deals with these things as a photographer deals with his negatives; she does not destroy them, she simply paces them aside, for future use, mayhap. If you are a dreamer, you will know this. And in dreams the imagination does not always deal with experience; it frequently goes beyond that, and guesses at matters of which it cannot have any positive knowledge. There is no more common terror in dreams than that of falling over a precipice; and most dreamers are aware that in so dreaming they have felt the air cold, as they cut through it, in their swift rush earthwards. This, of course, cannot be matter of experience, as those who have been so precipitated are placed conclusively out of court. But it is curious that the dreamer should so feel; that the swift imagination should not only vividly realise the descent itself, but an unimportant accessory of the descent—the chilliness of the swiftly-severed air—as well. And then the all-absorbing fact of Death exercises an intolerable fascination over many a dreaming brain. A man dreamed once that he, along with sixteen others, had been captured on a field of battle, and that, by a refinement of cruelty, they were to be shot singly, It so happened that the dreamer was the seventeenth. The sixteenth man knelt, the levelled muskets spat fire, crackled, and he fell forward on his face. The dreamer was then conscious of the most burning feeling of envy of the dead man—he had died, he was dead; he who was but a few yards distant a second ago, was now removed to an immeasurable distance; he had gained his rest. And when the dreamer’s turn came to kneel, and when the muskets of the platoon converged upon him, he found himself marvelling whether, between the time the bullets struck and the loss of sensation, he could interject the thought, “This is death.” Of death this man knew nothing; but even in the dream of sleep his imagination could not help playing curiously with the idea, and attempting to realise it; and in his waking moments he could not have realised it so thoroughly. Altogether this vividness of the imagination in dreams is something to which nothing exactly corresponds in the waking state. A Scotch schoolboy dreams that he is being chased by the Foul Fiend, and as he flies along, he hears behind him a hard and a soft sound alternately; and this does not surprise him, because he knows perfectly that the hard sound is the clang of the cloven hoof on the roadway. In thus unconsciously working the tradition of the cloven hoof into the body of his impression, the Scotch schoolboy has become a John Bunyan for the time being, and is far beyond his normal state of imaginative activity. If you are aroused from sleep by hearing your own name called, you start up in bed with an impression so vivid that you fancy the sound is yet lingering in your ears. I once heard a friend, and one not specially fanciful usually, tell how he had been one night tormented by the strangest vision. He was asleep, and on a curtain of darkness there hung before him a beautiful female face; and this face, as if keeping time with the ticks of the watch under his pillow, the beating of his pulse, the systole and diastole of his heart, was alternately beautiful—and a skull. There on the curtain of darkness, the apparition throbbed in regular and dreadful change. And this strange and regularly recurring antithesis of beauty and horror, with the spiritual meaning and significance under it—for the loveliest face that ever poet sang, or painter painted, or lover kissed, is but a skull beclothed with flesh; we are all naked under our clothes, we are all skeletons under our flesh—was as much out of my prosaic friend’s usual way of thinking as crown, sceptre, and robe of state are out of a day labourer’s way of life. He was a good deal astonished at his dream, and I, with my perhaps super-subtle interpretation of it, was a good deal astonished that he should have had such a dream. But the truth seems to be, that when the will is asleep the imagination awakes and plays. The most prosaic creature is a poet when he dreams. Every dreamer is, for the time being, in possession of the lamp of Aladdin—the world is ductile to be shaped as fancy wills. And this vividness of impression in dream—the realisation of strange situations, the recalling of dead persons—is not only singular, as showing the potency of imagination, which, perhaps unsuspectingly, we all possess—but out of the chaos of dreams a man may now and again extract a curious self-knowledge. The dreamer’s belief in his dream is usually intense, and I suppose the man who fancied himself the seventeenth man to be shot, and who saw the muskets of the silent platoon converging upon him, felt very much as the poor mutineer does, who, seated on his coffin, sees the same thing of a raw morning; and from his dream he might discover, to some extent, how nature has steeled his nerves, how he might comport himself in deadly crises. In dream, better often than in waking moments, a man finds out, as has been said, the private opinion he entertains of himself; and in dreams, too, when placed in circumstances outside of his actual experience, he becomes in some sense his own inspecting officer, and reviews his own qualities. Through dreaming, a man is dual—he is actor and spectator: and in dreaming, he is never a hypocrite; the coward never by any possibility can dream that he is brave, the liar never that he is truthful; the falsest man awake is sincere when he dreams.

Looking into a dream is like looking into the interior of a watch; you see the processes at work by which results are obtained. A man thus becomes his own eavesdropper, he plays the spy on himself. Hope and fear, and the other passions, are all active, but then activity is uncontrolled by the will, and in remembering dreams one has the somewhat peculiar feeling of being one’s own spiritual anatomist. And as the dreaming brain concerns itself mainly with the ideas which stir the waking one, and as dreams are ruled by no known logic, conform to no recognisable laws of sequence, are stopped in career by no pale or limit, it is not in the least surprising that in remote unscientific periods these wild guesses of the spirit and bodyings forth of its secret wishes and expectations should have been credited with prevision. Even people in the present day, if any superstitious tincture runs in the blood, or if they are endowed with fineness of imaginative perception, find it hard to shake off the old belief. For, come how it may, dreams, in point of fact, often do read the future. We do not know what subtle lines of communication may radiate between spirit and spirit. If, a century ago, a man had sent a message from London to Edinburgh in ten minutes, he would have been looked upon as the blackest of magicians; now such messages cost only a couple of shillings, and are matters of daily commerce. That a man in London should speak to a man in Edinburgh was just as astonishing and incredible to all practical minds a century ago, as that spirit should speak with spirit is incredible to the same minds at the present day. But the apparent prevision of dreams falls, of course, to be explained on quite other grounds than that of some supposed spiritual telegraphy. The dreaming brain is continually busying itself with the objects of fear or desire, and that it should occasionally make a lucky guess is not an unlikely circumstance. Suppose a man is a candidate for some office or post which he covets, the chances are that, while the bestowal of the post is yet in abeyance, he will dream either that he has obtained it, or that he has lost it; and should his dream jump with the ultimate result, he at once concludes it to have been prophetic. Suppose a man has a near relative at an Indian station, that for a couple of mails, contrary to custom, he has received no letter, and that he dreams a ship is bearing on through a sea of moonlight with the dead body of his friend on board (a result, as regards the friend, certainly on the cards, and a dream, as regards himself, not in the least improbable—on the contrary, most likely and natural, should his interest in his friend be great), and that it proves true that the friend has died—it would be difficult to convince the man that his dream had not something of prophecy in it. If dreams are not fulfilled, they are naturally forgotten; if fulfilled, they are just as naturally remembered. That dreams, working continually in the stuff of daily hope and fear, giving palpable shape and image to desire and dread, should sometimes be found to forestall the future fact, is not in the least a matter for wonder. Such coincidences are as certain to occur, by the law of chances, as that a penny, if tossed up a hundred times, will come down heads a certain number of times. What concerns the dreamers more are the hopes and fears, the desires and aversions with which the dreaming fancy works; looking into these he may gain some information concerning himself not easily obtainable otherwise.


MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “On dreams and dreaming.” 1867. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 30 Nov 2007. 04 Dec 2023 <>.

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