The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

“A Dream of Governors” is the title poem of a five-part collection of twenty-nine poems. This lyric poem is divided into five stanzas, each composed of eight lines. An epigraph borrowed from poet Mark Van Doren provides the source for the poem’s title: “The deepest dream is of mad governors.” The repetitive use of “dream” in the title and the epigraph suggests a common human experience and a basic framework for the poem. Thus the events occur in a dreamworld in which deeply hidden and subjective thoughts, experiences, wishes, and inner truths surface briefly into consciousness before returning to oblivion. The poem is written in the third person from the standpoint of an objective observer who sees, hears, and feels everything the sleeper does in the dream episode. “A Dream of Governors” also uses the familiar childhood memory of reading or listening to fairy tales. Thus, the first stanza introduces characters and plot suggestive of a typical fantasy. The cast includes a knight and his lady, a dragon, a witch, and a chorus. In this scenario, the knight relives stereotypical plot actions. As a young knight, he travels from far away and accepts the supreme task of combating the city’s local enemy, a dragon. After slaying the monster and routing the witch, the brave hero returns and receives his rewards. Crowned king, he marries the lady and plans to live happily ever after.

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The second stanza presents emphatic contradictions. All is not well in this imaginary world. Joy has vanished. Physically, decades of idleness have transformed the vigorous hero into an aged monarch whose arduous exploits are ridiculed and recounted poetically as ancient history. The stanza’s last two lines stress the ruler’s self-doubts and questions. The third stanza reinforces these disturbing thoughts. The first declamatory lines recall the tedious choral platitudes in Greek tragedies. Ironically, the king apparently disregards these allusions to human folly and its ruinous consequences. His reflections parallel Jocasta’s generalizations in Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 428 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus) that dreams should not be taken seriously. Yet the king’s actions in the fourth stanza reverse Jocasta’s advice as the monarch responds to the choral wisdom. In his solitary night journey, the king returns to the earlier scene of his heroism and appeals to the witch to restore “evil” and provide him with a goal. The fifth stanza completes the dream odyssey yet leaves the future open. When the queen hears the king’s returning footsteps, she closes the storybook, for her husband’s request has ended their make-believe, fantasy existence. Together, the royal couple watches the reality and the uncertain fate of their new world begin to unfold.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

As in his other early poems, Louis Simpson follows the formal rules for regular stanzas, meters, and rhyme in “A Dream of Governors.” However, he combines these conventional elements with imaginative images, metaphors, and symbols. Simpson’s often-repeated poetic objective, stated in the final chapter of his book Ships Going into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (1994), is drawn from Joseph Conrad’s preface to his novel The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897): “My task which I am trying to achieve isto make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Simpson uses traditional rhymed stanzas (ababcdcd) and iambic meters (an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable representing an emphatic rhythm of sound). Such a tightly controlled, conventional form provides a practical, objective base for launching imaginative, subjective, and emotional imagery or metaphors. Any unusual metaphoric or symbolic content in such a synthesis becomes much more believable and acceptable when wrapped in commonplace formulas.

The central metaphor suggests the implicit analogy between two ostensibly different things: dreams and fairy tales. In his article “Dead Horses and Live Issues” (A Company of Poets, 1981), Simpson, describing poetic creation, states, “The images are connected in a dream; and the deeper the dream, the stronger, the more logical, are the connections.” Both dreams and fairy tales share this feature: sequences of logically related images or actions. Another parallel points to the term “governors,” common to both title and epigraph, which refers to controls or restraints. However, the epigraph’s qualifier, “mad,” also underlines unconscious dream sensations, emotions, ideas, or even frenetic activities that lack controls or restraints. Key images that stress hearing, feeling, and seeing, combined with imaginative, associational images (mental or literary connections or relations between thoughts, feelings, or sensations arising from previous experiences), dominate the literal details supporting the basic metaphor. Visual images, along with feelings of pity, depict a frustrated and troubled sovereign who is the object of ridicule and who is absorbed with doubts about his worth. Antiphonal declamations of a Greek chorus and of Jocasta’s voice echo throughout the third stanza. Moonlight visually illuminates the witch scene in stanza 4. All three imagery patterns flow together in the conclusion. The queen listens to her husband’s approaching footsteps; fearful feelings of uncertainty dominate the couple’s “silence,” for they, recalling Metaphysical poet John Donne’s lovers in “The Canonization,” watch the significant event in their new world, the birth and rising flight of the winged serpent, rise in “each other’s eyes.”

One universal conflict, familiar throughout world legends, underscores two symbols. References to the mythic dragon signify humanity’s ancient struggle against evil, while the knight represents the universal “Everyman” who battles the foe. His combat is the supreme test of power and control over this primal devil figure who symbolizes the unrestrained instincts that may surface in the deepest dream. One poem, “The Silent Generation,” in the fourth section of Simpson’s collection A Dream of Governors, provides additional thoughts on Adolf Hitler, a contemporary symbol of evil: “It was my generation/ That put the Devil down/ With great enthusiasm./ But now our occupation/ Is gone. Our education/ Is wasted on the town.” The last lines also repeat the king’s motive for restoring evil to the kingdom.

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Themes