Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Dreams


Dreams are the accompaniment of both idleness and work. They “come through the multitude of business,” and occupy the lazy brain; they are associated with the sluggard and the enthusiast; they are honoured as channels of supernatural advice, and blamed as the offspring of sheer sensuality. We dream with our eyes open as well as shut—by day as well as by night. But the phenomena of dreams have defied scientific experiments and metaphysical inquiries. Now and then it seems as if some law were discovered, but the investigator is soon baulked. You fancy you can account for a dream, but you can’t make one. It may sometimes be analysed, but I believe has never been composed. You do not know how it will turn out. Impress your mind strongly with this and that set of ideas, and lo, the whole slips out of the place where you put it, and another occupies your sleeping thoughts. You can’t cook a dream. The skilful speaker can count, with tolerable certainty, upon producing an impression something like that which he wishes upon the waking mind; but, when we sleep, we move out of the reach of his persuasive machinery. But although we cannot construct a dream, or order it beforehand, it may sometimes be directed while in progress with ludicrous effect. Many accounts are published of the way in which the thoughts of a dreamer, once fairly committed to the dream may be effected. He is played with helplessly. An encyclopædia will give anecdotes and references to books about dreaming, in which most absurd results have been obtained by dictating to the sleeper. A man has been made to dive from his bed under the persuasion that he was in the water, and being pursued by a shark. But this sleeping obedience is happily rare. With far the most of us,—indeed, with very few exceptions,—the land of dreams is a strange independent land, and our sleeping life unaccountably cut off from our waking one.

Words may waken, but they seldom influence us. We hear, and do not understand; there is a break between the minds of the speaker and the sleeper; the sounds are not interpreted by the brain. This is the more curious, as many persons talk in their sleep; the tongue obeys the thought, although the ear will not convey it, except, as I have said, in very rare instances. Perhaps the most curious thing connected with dreams is that experience does not correct them. People who, when their eyes are open, go about quietly on the face of the earth ordering their carriages, paying their cab-fare, or trudging in the dust, fly in their dreams. Some people lead not only a distinct but a continued life in their dreams. They take the thread up, for several consecutive nights, with a consciousness that they are dreaming. Most dreams, however, are distinct. They may be repeated, but are without connection.

The most frequently remarked characteristic of dreams is the long series of incidents which are got through in a short time. We do a deliberate dream in several acts, and find we have been asleep for only five minutes. But this is one of the most easily explained phenomena. In dreams we lose our measure of time; while awake we are called to a sense of its passage by the sun, the clock, the appetite, the routine of the day; yet with all these checks and reminders we sometimes even find that hours slip by almost without notice; on the other hand, while we are waiting, counting the moments, Time drags along as if he meant to stop, and yet he moves on, as we say, equally, whether we notice his progress or not. The clock strikes with a steady pulse, though sometimes it seems in a fever—sometimes in a fit. At any rate we have some fixed standard to correct the calculation of our waking time; but in dreams the standard itself is visionary. We measure the succession of fleeting thoughts by a test which is purely fanciful, and thus can shorten or lengthen the dream without violence to our senses. You can think of heaps of things in two minutes—of the sun’s rising and setting, for instance. Do that in a dream, and you have “a day,” with its proportionate number and succession of incidents.

There is only one thing more I must notice before I go on to say why I mainly took up my pen to write about dreams. There are few who have not found themselves, in dreams, uncomfortably scant of clothing. Probably the Lord Chancellor has dreamt of sitting on the woolsack in his shirt. This comes of undressing before going to bed. The touch of the sheets suggest that we are unclothed, in fact, they are the only remaining test of the outer world. We move about in our dreams, and the bed-clothes hint that our own are put off.

I will not, however, dwell over our sleeping dreams; but I must say, by the way, that I pity the man who does not know when he is “dropping off.” The consciousness of standing on the threshold of sleep when you are at liberty to indulge in it, is delicious. You are awake and not awake. The dream god has his hand upon you, though he has not yet led you away. You feel his magic presence, and the gentle dissolution of your waking thoughts under his touch. To you it is a private setting of the day. The sun goes his own road and at his own time, but you sink in a twilight of your own. You do not really “fall” off, nor is it a steady descending slide into the night; the border land is broken, and you don’t reach the level plain of sleep without some retrospective glimpses of the weary track along which you have passed. I pity the man who tumbles into his bed and sprawls away into a dream before the bed-curtains have done swinging at the shock of his plunge. No, it is better far to wait a minute at the palace-gate and let the proper ministers close your eyes and carry you in with irresistible but kindly touch.

A man who bursts into the mysterious land, like a mad bull through a hedge, with a snore for a bellow, deserves to have a nightmare let loose at him, and be ridden out of the place of dreams with a shriek. Mind, I don’t mean to advocate a passage to sleep which has to be assisted by mental arithmetic, the conception of a windmill, or the fixing of the mind’s eye upon some endless procession of sheep. This is distressing. No, given a natural proclivity, let me neither fall headlong from day to night, nor attempt to help the busy ministers of dreamland. Let me lie down—feel them gather round me—lift me up and float me off with their own considerate, inimitable skill.

There is another faculty, which, next to that of tracing one’s own progress to sleep proper, is much abused, but grateful, and, under some circumstances, wholesome. I refer to day-dreaming—not going to sleep by day, but dreaming with your eyes open. Of course, if deeply indulged in, this enervates the brain, but, to an over-worked or tired one, it is refreshing. It is like sleep without the stifling embrace of the blankets and the feather-bed. It is like dreaming without danger of a sudden apparition, or that spell-bound helplessness, which is the paralysis of dream life, when you cannot stir, and yet feel the breath of the unseen terror behind you. Now, day dreaming is free from these possibilities: you sit apart, and let the thinking apparatus play, like a fountain, by itself. You don’t tax or catechise it,—you turn the peg and see what it will do. You have no more idea of what is coming than your shoe has. You watch with something like the interest an old bird on a bough might feel in the frolics of its full-feathered young, and yet you can recall the whole brood with a “cluck.” Now, I mean to say that this day-dreaming is sometimes desirable and healthy. We thus occasionally come across thoughts which we should never start by deliberate hunting. We air the mind; we get out of the little world in which we commonly move, and go back to it refreshed.

Day-dreaming is all very well, now and then, on a holiday; but a woman who gushes with moonshine and romance is seldom a good judge of butcher’s meat, or a skilful interpreter of accounts; and a man who aspires at an angel deserves to dine off stringy mutton and underdone potatoes, on cold plates, for the rest of his life.

Young man, think twice before you commit yourself to the romantic young lady, whose impulsive ideal of faithfulness and devotion will never enable her to protect you from short weight, domestic pilferings, and frayed, buttonless linen.

H. J.