Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although “As the Dead Prey Upon Us” is, on the surface, an elegy in which a son mourns the memory of his deceased mother, it is essentially a poem about the mythological imagination that comes awake in dreams and springs forth in fits of inspiration. The poet who recalls his dream is involved in the act of composing language derived from the mythological depths of his unconscious. Olson spent much of his life defending myth as primal vision, but modern culture has rejected the function of myth and looks now to empirical analysis as the means for grasping the truth of events. Olson’s speaker longs to decode the narrative of his dream but gropes blindly among its shimmering clues. His struggle to understand his dream is a portrait of the artist attempting to express his imagination: both face the unconscious with perplexed ignorance of its language.

The difference between what one sees with the “five hindrances” and what one dreams is that in waking, things are separate, scattered, inert, but in dreams, one thing becomes another, each connected by invisible threads that together make up the “nets of being” that is the central image of the poem. The speaker demands that this “sleep” state of mind, the dreaming function, awake and become an active part of his intelligence. His demand is to himself, and by addressing the “souls” directly he attempts to close the gap between the two faculties of his awareness. Happiness is that state in...

(The entire section is 537 words.)