I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris by Louis Simpson

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

If imagination gives the poet power to relive history, it can bring insight. The poem begins with a dark picture of loneliness and abandonment and ends with a realization that something positive can be wrested from the “violence of waking life” that spans human history from the Egyptian dynasties to World War I and beyond. Despite the poem’s focus on war’s violence and the soldier’s lonely isolation, the mood is neither very dark nor despairing. One might even feel that a note of nostalgia runs through some of the descriptions, guns rumbling and “pumping color in the sky.” The soldier’s helmet, “with its vestige of a crest,” is reminiscent of the Great War and its ornate trappings. The cathedrals of Paris “loomed/ In speaking majesty” as the airplanes “chased each other tumbling through the sky.” The poem lacks the bitter indictment of war’s devastation and maiming. Simpson focuses, rather, on sounds that only hint at destruction and on scenes that evoke sadness rather than horror—the two airplanes, for example, are “Forlorn as birds” and, if one can imagine them, are as beautiful in design and color as birds. Even the soldier is compared to a shaggy bear, more cuddly perhaps than ferocious.

When Simpson turns from the scene of war, in the penultimate stanza, to a reflection on the passage of time, the nostalgic undertone continues: “These wars have been so great, they are forgotten/ Like the Egyptian dynasts.” The poet’s imagination can save one from despair by discovering not only a shared identity with one of war’s victims but also an understanding of one’s relation to war, history, and the “violence of waking life.”

The poem’s final irony is expressed in the last sentence: “Strange dreams occur,/ For dreams are licensed as they never were.” The dream, this poem, brings understanding but is after all only a dream. The paradox is that the dream can capture a seeming truth about life and a mitigating perspective. Simpson’s subject is not war’s horror but the power of the dream to discover the fraternity of those who are lonely and abandoned. Even great wars are ultimately forgotten, and other wars continue to occur. If one seeks order, death offers it. Those who choose life have their strange dreams, which can lead to an understanding that people are never really alone as long as they can dream.