The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

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In Louis Simpson’s “I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris,” the speaker imagines himself a soldier in Paris during World War I witnessing the bombardment of the city and reflecting upon his relationship to his imaginary soldier, with whom he ultimately feels a shared identity. The poem unfolds as though the reader is viewing a drama filled with the colorful flash of cannons and airplanes buzzing overhead. The speaker describes the scene in details that convey his solitary condition—“I stood alone in a deserted square,” he says—and his emotions are reflected in his description of this night, “trembling with a violet/ Expectancy.”

The second stanza shifts to the speaker’s feelings of forlorn abandonment, highlighted by the “empty city and the empty square..” He feels even more alien to this world because of his uniform, which consists of a “helmet with its vestige of a crest,” along with an overcoat and hobnail boots. The heavy, oversized uniform is a metaphor for the burden of a war that is exploding around him.

The poem develops on two levels at once. It offers itself as the speaker’s dream, which frames the wartime scene in Paris, which in turn becomes the central focus through most of the poem. Although readers see what the speaker describes, they are constantly made aware of the speaker himself: the first two lines of the poem begin, “I dreamed” and “I stood alone,” and in the next stanza, the speaker continues, “I was lonely,” “I wore,” “I was the man.”

The final two stanzas turn to the speaker’s reflections on the nature of dreams and the truths they can reveal. Near the end, the speaker addresses the imaginary soldier as “My confrere” and asks him whether he is “amazed/ To wander through my brain four decades later/ As I have wandered in a dream through yours?” In this way, Simpson distances the speaker from the soldier, who is a fiction of the speaker’s imagination, and reflects on all wars, on history, and on “waking life” itself, whose violence “disrupts/ The order of our death.” The speaker realizes that ultimately peace is achieved only in death and that life is a dream, a strange dream in which war is the prevailing condition that creates disorder.

The somber mood of the beginning never dissipates entirely, but by the end of the poem the speaker’s attention has turned from feelings of loneliness to a sense of brotherhood with the soldier he has imagined. In stanza 2, the speaker declares, “I was the man,” that is, he was the soldier; by the end, the speaker and his fictional companion have become one: “My confrere/ In whose thick boots I stood.” The speaker has also discovered something positive about himself and about human history: Brotherhood is possible. At the beginning of the dream-poem, he has been “Left behind, abandoned by the army,” but at the end, he has found companionship through an act of imagination and insight.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

The poem consists of five stanzas, totaling twenty-nine lines. The second and fourth stanzas are of equal length, six lines each, and the others are irregular in length. One pair of lines in the second stanza and the poem’s final two lines rhyme. The poem’s rhythms are sustained by metrical stresses, essentially five in each of the lines. The absence of a regular rhyme scheme or uniform stanzaic pattern shifts the reader’s focus from these traditional devices to more subtle uses of sound and design, and when rhyme does occur, especially in the final stanza, its effect is enhanced. Simpson also uses repetitive structures generously to give his poem unity and force. The opening repetition of the personal pronoun “I,” for example, places the focus on the central figure, and similar structures in the second stanza add weight to the soldier’s catalog: “The helmet,” “The rifle,” “The belt,” “the trailing overcoat.” The accentual pattern, too, is so subtle that, without end rhymes, the soldier’s narrative has the quality of conversation, as when he reports, “The German Taube and the Nieuport Scout,/ They chased each other tumbling through the sky,/ Till one streamed down on fire to the earth.”

Simpson’s use of stanzaic length also subtly guides the reader’s response. The poem’s central drama, Paris under fire, occupies almost three quarters of the poem, running through the three longest stanzas. Of these, the second stanza focuses on the soldier’s appearance and feelings. The poem’s emotional center is the soldier’s sense of isolation, abandonment, and alienation, and Simpson devotes his longest stanza to this subject. The six-line opening stanza sets both mood and scene, which the second stanza elaborates, making the soldier central to both; the third stanza directs attention to the airplanes and concludes appropriately with the ending of the aerial dogfight. Stanza length works like a spotlight on a stage, moving attention from place to place, thereby controlling emphasis and pace.

Simpson also uses specific details, run-on lines, and striking language to highlight the poem’s drama and underscore its meaning. The poem’s third line, for example, develops an attractive image—“The night was trembling with a violet”—which runs grammatically into the next line, where the image is abruptly transformed into something very unpleasant, a violet “Expectancy.” One of the poem’s themes is that war yokes together beauty and ugliness, as when guns pump “color in the sky” and beautiful airplanes destroy each other.

The rhythms of lines also helps control the emotional effect of the soldier’s narrative, as when he describes his predicament: “There was the Front. But I was lonely here,/ Left behind, abandoned by the army.” Pauses and full stops here reflect the soldier’s mental state, which is matter-of-fact yet consistent with his reference to his “unrest” two lines later. When he describes aerial flight, however, the line moves with unsettling swiftness: “They chased each other tumbling through the sky.” His use of “inhabitation” to describe his place in the empty square forecasts in its awkwardness his later statement: “I was the man, as awkward as a bear.”

To suggest the soldier’s static alienation from the battle, Simpson surrounds him with words that express vivid images of motion: “trembling,” “flickering,” and “pumping.” To suggest the soldier’s alienation further, Simpson gives a sprinkling of foreign words, such as “poilu” to describe his shaggy appearance, and the names of the airplanes, “Nieuport Scout” and “Taube” (which, ironically, means “dove”).