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Phoenix

Dreamed 1894 by A. C. Benson

INTRODUCTION

I dreamed the whole poem in a dream, in 1894 I think, and wrote it down in the middle of the night on a scrap of paper by my bedside. I have never had a similar experience, and, what is more curious, it is a lyric of a style which I have never attempted before or since.... I really can offer no explanation either of the idea of the poem or its interpretation. It came to me so (apparently) without any definite volition of my own that I don't profess to understand or be able to interpret the symbolism....

By feathers green, across Casbeen,
The pilgrims track the Phoenix flown,
By gems he strewed in waste and wood
And jewelled plumes at random thrown.

Till wandering far, by moon and star,
They stand beside the fruitful pyre,
Whence breaking bright with sanguine light,
The impulsive bird forgets his sire.

Those ashes shine like ruby wine,
Like bag of Tyrian murex spilt;
The claw, the jowl of the flying fowl
Are with the glorious anguish gilt.

So rare the light, so rich the sight,
Those pilgrim men, on profit bent,
Drop hands and eyes and merchandise,
And are with gazing most content.

Felt pen drawing by Chris Wayan of a crowned phoenix rising from flames. Click to enlarge.
A. C. Benson, quoted in A.J.J. Ratcliff's A History of Dreams, 1913

EDITOR'S NOTE

I have no idea what the symbolism means either.

Oh. Maybe that's it. Freud wasn't the only one at the turn of the century trying to pin down what dreams mean--their practical value. Does the phoenix mean dreaming itself? Benson's dream, after all, hands him a jewel-like poem packed with internal rhymes, alliterations and assonances; these echoes and parallel structures are just like a crystal's facets, planes, reflections, refractions. It's a crystalline dream he can't explain via any symbolism, a gloriously useless dream-gem. All Benson can do, all we can do, is be "with gazing most content." That's its symbolic meaning. To quit treating dreams as symbolic, and live them.

It's also possible I had too much chocolate tonight. Enough theobromine and you'll believe anything.

--Chris Wayan



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