Dreams do not readily lend themselves to theory, even though they are often theorised about: they are not a grand edifice on strong foundations. They are the house built on sand: ‘Þa com Þær regen and michel flod’–then came rain and a great flood. Always that line from Matthew vii, 24-27 in the Anglo-Saxon Bible arises when I think of dreams: it is a metaphor and an old rhythm that says what a dream is: a house where the walls wash away, and the floors and the roof.
Dreamthread is a series of miniature essays, dreambubbles on this inexhaustible topic. In future, you may find that I add other dreamthreads onto The Casket, or I may not (dreams are capricious in keeping promises) but here I at least make an idle start. Below are a few little reveries with their warped surfaces and dangerously alluring colours. And bring your lifejacket: there are sirens out on them there dreamseas.
i. Ted Hughes and the Manfox
Teachers aren’t allowed to teach dreams. We actively discourage dreaming in lessons, bullying the students to ‘concentrate’ and ‘get on with the work.’ But this teacher is a dreamer, and for dreamer read ‘anarchist of the imagination’;’ night pilgrim’; ‘disciple of Queen Mab’. My theories about pedagogy are few and simple, but one of my treasured ideas is that the closer a lesson is to seeming like a dream or beast of the mind, then the better that lesson is. To be a beast of the mind, the lesson has to be one where the imaginative boundary between teacher and pupils is blurred, and all share the dreamscape, all become the beast. Most of the lessons that happen this way (I do not teach this kind of lesson, incidentally; they occur without anyone’s conscious will) take poems as their starting point.
Only yesterday, I taught a lesson on Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’ to my higher ability year 8 group. Before looking at the poem itself, we chatted about Hughes’s ‘Manfox’ dream. I told them that, in the dream, Hughes describes how he is struggling with an undergraduate essay he is writing on Samuel Johnson. As he tries to write, in walks a fox on hind legs, looking like a small man. This fox, this Manfox, is on fire, his skin bloody, black and charred. Manfox walks to Hughes’s desk and places his bloody and blackened handprint on the paper of the unfinished essay, and tells Hughes: ‘Stop this! you are destroying us.’
For my money, this has to be one of the most beautiful dreams I have ever heard described, and so seduced am I by it that a strange thing happens me when I tell its story. Hughes’s dream is such a powerful idea, of the poetic muse rising to the surface of the poet’s mind in order to save his poems and therefore the poet himself, that as I spoke to the students, I felt I was Hughes: Ted Hughes, now ten years dead, but, through the sorcery of his dream, fiery and alive. Thanks to his night-magic, even the most fidgety children in the group listened: they always sense when you are opening a door into a world they do not yet know.
ii. A Game of Cards
I had a great dream about Elizabeth Bishop once. We were playing cards on an old rickety blue-top card table I used as my first proper desk as a child. I gushed about how much I admired her work, and she said ‘Don’t imitate me. Change your hand.’ The conversation was so vivid, and the dark colours so sharp that I’m in the dream now and again now as I write this. Her face blended into the darkness but her voice was ashy, asthmatic and clear. This was years ago, but it felt like such a blessing at the time and still does: my Manfox dream.
iii. Charles Lamb Dreaming
‘Witches and Other Night Fears’ was on the syllabus of my Romantic Literature MA at Manchester, and I vividly remember the tutorial. My teacher Grevel Lindop read aloud Lamb’s description of the dream where Lamb starts off sporting with nereids and ends up being ‘wafted’ down the Thames to Lambeth Palace. Lamb tells us that ‘the poverty of my dreams mortifies me’ and Grevel commented: ‘well, if that’s poverty, I’d be quite happy to be as poor as Charles Lamb.’ Quite, especially when the essay closes with observations like these:
an old gentleman, a friend of mine, and a humorist, used to carry this notion so far, that when he saw any stripling of his acquaintance ambitious of becoming a poet, his first question would be, —“Young man, what sort of dreams have you?”
The ‘notion’ to which Lamb refers is also lovely: ‘The degree of the soul’s creativeness in sleep might furnish no whimsical criterion of the quantum of poetical faculty resident in the same soul waking.’ The brain’s reservoir of making, a dream is colour and memory refashioned. Light like liquor.
Normally we know when a dream is important because of the type of colour it uses. If a dream looks like precious and semi-precious stones (but always including a very shiny jet colour somewhere to add weight and melancholy) then we should know of that dream that it is the mind is at its most wild, lovely and truthful. As for melancholy, I should perhaps have stolen from Byron and said ‘lemancholy’– his word for the sadness involved in love–as there is always an erotic element when those colours are present, even if the dream is not overtly sexual.
Dreams are never finished. You never hit the ground. You open a door and nothing lies beyond it. Think of the half-built sets in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon: the head of Shiva drifting on the flood.