The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

“Dreaming in Daylight” is a poem in free verse; its forty-one lines are divided into twenty unrhymed couplets plus one final, single-line phrase. The title suggests the contradictory images of darkness and light and of nighttime dreaming (in which intuition and emotion have full play) and daydreaming (which connotes rational meditation). Written from the second-person singular point of view, the poem’s only implied persona is poet Robert Penn Warren, who is also the speaker of the poem. Addressing himself as “you,” he recounts to the reader personal experiences grounded in a familiar activity: a mountain climb.

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In the first two stanzas, the climber energetically clambers up rocks, through thickets, and over brooks. Stopping for breath, he quotes some verse and then perceives—in the next three stanzas—that “Small eyes, or larger, with glitter in darkness, are watching” from stone crevices, leaf shadows, and hollow logs. To the climber, the eyes of nature are “like conscience . . ./ Like remorse” judging him as an outsider who does not belong. The speaker’s interpretation of a watchful nature prepares the reader for the next fourteen lines. Falling into meditation about self, he complains of feeling a mysterious, internal, and physical unease that sparks a concern about his own identity: “Do you/ Know your own name?” Questioning himself as he questions the reader, the poet describes the sea below as a “heaving ocean of pastness” from which he is trying to escape. However, his flight causes him regret: “Oh, try/ To think of something your life has meant.” As he seeks to contemplate his life’s meaning, he admits he is more a stranger to himself than to nature.

After the twelfth couplet, there is a shift from internal to external action as the climber energetically resumes the ascent, moving higher—“For the past creeps behind you, like foam”—until he reaches the isolated peak. Now at the peak, the climber again becomes reflective and urgently admonishes himself to remember the few people he has truly loved. In the poem’s last seven lines, the climber returns to his bed and wakes from his recurrent dream of being spied upon by peering, “dark-glistening” eyes. The speaker, in the last line, repeats his failure of self-discovery. The dream of the daylight has become one with the dream of night. The poet’s vision is triggered by precise observation of details in nature that become metaphors for unfulfilled quests or unanswered questions. The poem concludes with the recurrent image of the alienating eyes of nature that mysteriously instill a feeling of guilt or regret in the poet for remaining a stranger to himself.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

References to nature abound in Warren’s poems, providing him with much of his inspiration and imagery, and “Dreaming in Daylight” is no exception. The mountain landscape seen by the climber at first presents friendly, explicit images: rocks, thickets, brooks, birches, crevices, and leaves. Yet these become implicit images of isolation and estrangement such as the “stern rock, majestic and snagged” that is a “sky-bare” peak where frost has destroyed any vegetation. They also become images of alienation: glittering, reproachful eyes peering from a “rotted-out log, from earth-aperture,” metaphors for conscience or remorse that imply that the climber does not belong on the mountain. Below the mountain is a “beach of/ History” and a sea of the past from which the climber is seeking to escape by moving higher. Both serve as metaphors for the poet’s concern with related issues of self-identity. Such imagery clarifies Warren’s less-than-sanguine attitude toward nature. In his introduction to Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo (1904), Warren observes that “man is precariously balanced in his humanity between the black inward abyss of himself and the black outward abyss of nature.” Similar examples of a threatening nature can be found in Warren’s later poems.

The syntax offers a variety of long and short sentences, with many phrases or sentences interrupted at the end of one stanza and completed in the next: “This/ Is the end.” This structure lends a sense of ebb and flow, of activity and thought stopping and starting. The athletic and expended energy of the mountain ascent is suggested by action verbs and active images: “clamber,” “crash,” “leap,” “past birches,” “up bluffside.” However, when the climber stops and meditates the verbs become more passive and imply internal activity: “feel,” “try to think,” “know,” “wake,” and forms of the verb “to be.” Sometimes action and nonaction verbs are juxtaposed to suggest that the physical activity of the climb is interrupted by periodic contemplation: “Move higher!/ For the past creeps behind you” and “You clamber up the few mossed shards that frost has ripped off./ Then stop.” The poem’s last five lines, as the speaker wakes from a dream, employ verbs such as “wake” and “peer” and reinforce the recurrent images of the eyes of nature “dark-glistening, like/ Conscience.” The images reactivate thought of one’s alienation and ignorance of self.

The continual use of the second-person singular, even though the speaker is clearly the protagonist, is significant. The poet disguises himself behind “you” and in so doing pulls the readers into his experience, compelling them to consider the same issues of identity and life’s meaning that he does. At the poem’s conclusion, after twenty stanzas of recurrent image patterns and self-accusatory questions, Warren characteristically concludes the work by reiterating the persona’s realization that he is less a stranger to nature than to himself.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

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