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Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Dreams, Song, Alice, and a Lewis Carroll Poem

"A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky" or "Of Alice in Wonderland"

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?


This was Poetry Magazine's poem of the day last week, and the last line struck me as familiar. Ah, but of course: 

Row, row, row your boat, 
Gently down the stream. 
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, 
Life is but a dream.

Wikipedia lists this song's first printing as 1852 (although it was possibly in existence before that). Which came first? Was he the originator or merely referencing the song? Carroll would have been 20. Possibly the phrase predated both. Carroll references Alice in Wonderland (published 1865 although he'd written earlier versions prior it's first printing. 1862 is listed as the date he first orally told the tale, so he had to have at least written that--likely later than 1862, then. Bartleby suggests the poem's first printing was 1895 under the above alternate title.

Carroll may have been referencing that song although it is an American song, which hampers that possibility a bit. However, if the poem was composed nearer 1895, then Carroll's likelihood of hearing the phrase from the verse seems probable.

When you hear "Life is but a dream," what does that mean? In "Row Your Boat", the use of "gently" and "stream" and the repetition of "merrily" four times (not to mention the lilt of the song itself) suggests that the song presumes "Life is unbearably wonderful." Is that wishful or hopeful thinking, or indoctrination of young minds? Who thinks of life being a dream? Beyoncé? At least she had a documentary called that. Songwriters in the fifties released sugar-coated songs with that title. It just seems odd or perhaps someone was born extraordinarily lucky and/or rich.

Carroll's use of the phrase seems quite different. His interpretation adds a bittersweet flavor, especially if it were composed so many years later. The persona's voice sounds wistful for the time he rowed the young ladies out ("Lingering onward dreamily") as well as for the Alice of the tale ("Still she haunts me"). Throughout, he mentions the end of things: evening, frost, Autumn, not to mention "Echoes fade and memories die").

In fact, he equates the dream with Alice herself: "Never seen by waking eyes." So a tale is a dream. When Carroll gets to his final line, he references the old song's blind devotion to believing life is unbearably wonderful, but ties to that idea that life is fleeting and story-like, perhaps due to the uncertainty of memory.

Interestingly, the poem that references a song became another song, which seems to mirror the moods mentioned here. The song (or poem?) is apparently famous enough to get riffed here and here.

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