The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Dream of a Brother” consists of twenty lines divided into five unrhymed quatrains written on an iambic pentameter base. That this is a dream poem, or a dreamed meditation, is made immediately clear both by the title and in the first line: “I fall asleep, and dream. . . .” This fact is important structurally and thematically. Bly has said that he began the original version of what finally became this poem by imagining his own childhood as having been made up of two individual personalities, “one of whom had betrayed the other.” It is, therefore, not surprising that the poem begins with another instance of betrayal by alluding to the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers. In the first stanza the speaker dreams that he shows his father a “coat stained with goat’s blood,” a clear reference to the biblical story. In the second stanza, he says, “I sent my brother away.” Having banished his brother, as Joseph’s brothers did him, the speaker enfolds the biblical allusions into a quintessentially American context: “I heard he wastaken in by traveling Sioux.”

There is a strong break after the third stanza. This is not surprising, since the two rather distinct sections of this poem come from two totally different sections in an earlier, much longer, poem entitled “The Shadow Goes Away,” published in Sleepers Joining Hands (1973). Although in the two final stanzas Bly merges the times and places he has alluded to...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Dream of a Brother” had a complicated composition and publication history. In an introductory note in his Selected Poems (1986), Bly reports that he rewrote the poems from Sleepers Joining Hands, “some in minor detail, others in a larger way.” “A Dream of a Brother” is one of these largely rewritten poems. Indeed, it has been culled from two separate, rather disparate, parts of the much longer and thematically quite different poem, “The Shadow Goes Away”—which itself was only the first section of a very long free-verse poem, “Sleepers Joining Hands,” the title poem in Bly’s book of the same name.

In addition to the fact that “A Dream of a Brother” is only one fourth as long as “The Shadow Goes Away,” it is also a much more formal poem, although Bly eschews the use of a strict metrical pattern and other more formal poetic devices, perhaps for the obvious reason that such devices would seem to be inappropriate in a dream poem. Instead of such devices Bly relies on the more informal devices of juxtaposition, allusion, and imagery to organize and control his poem. The poem is also organized through the use of comparisons and contrasts. Some of these, such as the comparison between Joseph and his brothers and the speaker and his brother, are explicit, while others, such as the comparison between a literal brother and an imaginary one, are merely implied.

The poem is further built around three...

(The entire section is 419 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Altieri, Charles F. “Varieties of Immanentist Experience: Robert Bly, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara.” In Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Davis, William Virgil. Understanding Robert Bly. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Friberg, Ingegard. Moving Inward: A Study of Robert Bly’s Poetry. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta University Gothoburgensis, 1977.

Harris, Victoria. The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, eds. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Malkoff, Karl. Escape from the Self: A Study in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Peseroff, Joyce, ed. Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Robert Bly Web site.

Smith, Thomas R. Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. New York: Perennial, 1991.

Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986.