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I Didn't Dive In

Dreamed before 1938 by Herbert Read

I dreamt that I stood (I say stood, but one is not conscious of a physical posture--one is just present, omnipresent) by the shore of a lake or inland sea. To my right was a cliff, falling sheer into the lake, whose waters were crystal clear, so clear that I could distinictly see the rocky bed, uneven in surface and mottled in colour.

As I stood there I suddenly became aware of a figure floating between the cliff and the lake. It was a naked female form, very lovely; and she held above her, like a horizontal sail, a sheet of golden silk. She floated gracefully down to the surface of the water, into which she fell without a sound or a ripple. The golden sail remained floating on the water, and in the middle of it I then observed a neat coil of rope, such as one sees on a ship or a pier. Below the sail, on the rocky floor of the lake, the body of the naked girl was now extended, as if lifeless.

I had a distinct impulse to dive into the lake, as if to rescue her from drowning. But as I "registered" this impulse, at the same moment my attention was caught by the floating sail of silk and the superimposed coil of rope; and in the instant that I hesitated another figure ran across the shore and dived into the lake.

As he touched the surface, I awoke.

Here is a dream of very striking imagery. From a psychoanalytical point of view it has certain obvious features, but its interpretation is a personal matter of no immediate interest. I am concerned with its literary possibilities. Can I, while the dream is still vividly impressed on my mind, convert it into a poem?

I made the attempt, and this is what I wrote:

Her angel flight from cliff to lake
sustains its poise upon the sheet of silk
she holds above her head.

The air is still in dreams
a clear and plasmic element.
No ripples dim the surface as she falls
the cold distress
of days unknown of days to be.

The lake receives her, the lake her lover.
Her ravished flesh redeems the rocky floor.
Still, as if asleep, she lies
a treasure to be salvaged by who dares
shatter the level mirror of the lake.

I do not dare; defeatist I have seen
the cloth she held relinquished on the lake;
a baldaquin on which reposes
a neatly ravelled coil of rope.

Another runs and dives and I am free
to stay a prisoner in the timeless cell of dreams.

...I consider this poem a failure.

--Herbert Read

EDITOR'S NOTE

I agree the poem fails. Read is right that art from dreams is both creation and reporting, and either can fail, or both, as here. But I think Read set himself up to fail by an initial error: he chose the wrong medium for this dream.

His regret and shame at hesitating is real, but the dream is more vividly visual than passionate or poetic. So why not draw it, paint it, film it? The spectacular cliffs and mirroring water, the woman flying/falling, the vivid gold silk, her body underwater... the coil of rope like Eden's snake, warning Read not to dive in? Oops. Media slant your decisions--inclusion, emphasis, interpretation. Read implies the rope made him pause, but just by imagining the dream cast in a second medium, I suddenly saw that coiled rope as the snake at Eden's heart and the angel at its gate warning Read off. The mere thought of a new medium evoked this interpretative flash (right or wrong). But Read sticks to a medium his conscious is comfortable with, rather than noticing the needs of the dream.

Even if poetry is appropriate here, Read undermines himself. Understanding your dream will shape how you express and explain it to us. But he sets the personal aside as irrelevant! A radical thing to do to a dream, but OK, it might work--a cinematic view. The images are strong. Could be gripping!

But Read undercuts the images too, by interrupting, intellectualizing, generalizing. "The air is still in dreams"--well, in some. This one? How is the air in this dream like plasma (and does he mean superheated gas or blood plasma? Both seem wrong). Why does he hint the lake is the future--"days unknown days to be"--and that it's distressful? And the last line is simply false. This dream's not "timeless" at all! Read's faced with a split-second decision. Nor did hesitation leave Read in a "cell of dream", timeless or otherwise--he promptly woke up. Inaction ejected him from dreams.

Not that I'm surprised. He'd chosen! And I suspect the whole point of this dream was that choice:

"To dive or not to dive; that is the question."
Dream image: woman jumps from a cliff into a lake, holding a gold cloth as a makeshift parachute. Dream, Herbert Read, before 1938; sketch, Chris Wayan 2009.
The passage is quoted from Walter De la Mare's Behold, This Dreamer! (1939). It's apparently from Read's 1938 Collected Essays: Myth, Dream, and Poem. When I find that, the date may be revised. Title and digital sketch are mine not Read's.

--Chris Wayan



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