Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

Written when Warren was in his seventies, “Dreaming in Daylight” appears in the collection Being Here: Poetry, 1977-1980. In an afterword, Warren discloses that the poems are placed in thematic order “played against, or with, a shadowy narrative, a shadowy autobiography.” Within the five divisions of poems moving from childhood to youth to old age, the poem at hand is listed in part 2, which finds the poet (the protagonist of all the poems) in young manhood after initially wrestling as a boy in part 1 with childhood memories and issues of life and death. Like other works in its division, the poem treats one of Warren’s major themes: man’s ageless drive toward self-discovery and self-determination.

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Victor H. Standberg, in The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren (1977), suggests that for Warren, individuals encounter a sense of alienation as they search for their identity in a perplexing, often corrupt or indifferent world. To overcome estrangement and pursue their intended purpose, they must undergo a period of intense self-examination that ideally can lead to further knowledge about self and the world. Although the search may not always end in success, Warren does not counsel giving up. In this piece, the poet searches for his identity within nature, a typical Warren landscape. Yet in spite of his initial joy in seeking unity with nature, the poet finds in nature no oneness but rather rejection embodied by hidden animal eyes telling him he does not belong there. The author seems to posit that the natural world is indifferent to human affairs and is neither helpful nor sympathetic as a guide in interpreting human life and in answering questions of life and death. Consequently, the climber experiences the pain of isolation and estrangement in his attempted communication with the forces of nature. He feels with dread that some mysterious internal activity “like gastritis or migraine” is going on inside himself (which may be reminiscent of the cancer or stroke that felled his parents in earlier poems). With nightmarish energy, the climber ascends ever higher to flee from the pursuing foam of the waters of the past and from history below, whose contemplation is essential to identity.

In Knowledge and the Image of Man (1975), Warren explains that “man’s process of self-definition means that he distinguishes himself from the world and from other men. Hediscovers separatenessand the pain of self-criticism and the pain of isolation.” The poem’s protagonist has distanced himself from the past and from history to find himself ousted by nature, abandoned by the companionship of memory, and reduced to trying desperately to recall the few people he has ever loved. Finally, the poet, waking from a nightmare (“a dream of eyes”), realizes that he has not yet achieved self-discovery. The seeker of the self has not been successful in the search. The poem may be seen as the emergence of the poet’s artistic purpose or perhaps even as the final-phase efforts of a poet nearing his life’s end. Yet clearly the work represents major Warren themes and demonstrates his marked accessibility to readers.

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