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Dying Once, Dying Twice

Dreamed (c. 1920?), by Walter de la Mare

Once, at least, in a dream, I have made my final exit.

I am seated on a narrow bench, back against wall, my wrists bound behind me, my lower-jaw tied up with a bandage. This room is of a primitive kind, longer than it is wide, and whitewashed. Seated immediately opposite me, on a similar bench attached to the wall, are two men in a dark nondescript uniform. They are solid and good-humoured, and are quietly talking to one another, leaning forward as they sit, their guns between their hands and their hands between their knees. A little to my right on their side of the room is a doorway, though I cannot distinguish any door to it, or see more than a few feet beyond it.

My one and only chance of life and freedom, I realise, is to leap across the intervening space, and so into the room beyond, and then to risk what may lie in wait for me there. I determine to take the risk, push as hard as I can with my numb and shackled hands against the wall behind me, and in one desperate bound succeed in dodging my guard, and reach the threshold. At that instant, framed in the doorway beyond that, and immediately opposite to me, is entering a man, also in uniform (dark red and blue, I think). He has a calm, resolute and pleasing face. At sight of me, he at once levels his gun. I gaze along the barrel into his grey eye, and, presumably, he fires. All that I am conscious of, however, in this instant is, as it were, a blinding, shattering, soundless explosion of light.

Only a night or two divided this experience from that of finding myself sitting on the grass at the wayside--the smokeless cottages of a village (a village in Ireland, I fancy) in view. I am fagged out, but intensely relieved at having accomplished some unrecallable mission, on account of which I have escaped from the upper room of the house in which I had been confined. Safely out of the window--I had edged along a narrow ledge of brickwork thirty feet above the ground--an ordeal which my usual Me could, I fancy, in no circumstances face at all. Exhausted but serene, I watch time silently ebbing away in the tranquil morning light, while I await, I know well, inevitable recapture, and what it will entail.


In a later commentary de la Mare suggests we let our concern with dreams' meanings overshadow their value as broadening life experience. This same debate is immemorially old, applied to literature; de la Mare's insight is to apply it to the vivider vicarious experience of dreams, which broaden as well as instruct; one need not understand a dream's symbols to gain experience; to live, briefly, a different life. He was of course challenging Freud's insistence that dream-surfaces matter less that their symbolism. To de la Mare, we learn by living. And dreams are life.

This account is from Walter de la Mare's Behold, This Dreamer! (1939). It's undated, but from the content (Ireland's independence struggle) I'd guess 1916-20 or a few years after.

LISTS AND LINKS: war - revolution - Ireland - dying in a dream - dreamwork in general - Walter de la Mare

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