Dreams and Literature by William Sebastian Walsh 1920
Many dreams are said to have produced, directly or indirectly, excellent stories, poetry, music. Hermas is said to have had his Pastor dictated to him by a voice when he slept. It is claimed that Voltaire dreamed a whole canto of Henriade. Coleridge's Kubla Kahn is credited to a dream; his Ancient Mariner resembles a dream. Tartini, the composer, after striving in vain while awake to conclude a sonata is said to have gone to bed and to have dreamt that the devil offered to finish the sonata in exchange for the composer's soul. Tartini accepted, whereupon the devil played on a violin, with wonderful execution, the sought-for sonata. The composer awoke, and is said to have written down from memory what he had heard; to the composition the name The Devil's Sonata is given.
Robert Louis Stevenson, who was from childhood a very vivid dreamer, and who, like Dr. Thomas Reid, Lamb, and Bunyan suffered from night terrors, obtained many of the ideas of his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the plots for many other tales from his dreams; he tells of the debt he owes "the little people" in his very interesting Chapter on Dreams contained in Across the Plains. Bunyan, who is best defined as a constant dreamer—day and night—owes his Pilgrim's Progress to dreams; most of his other works seem to have been suggested in the same way. The writings of Poe and De Quincey were, in some cases at least, indebted to vivid dreams. Edward Lucas White describes the aid he received from dreams in the preface to his book of short stories entitled The Song of the Sirens. Dante, Goethe, Lamb, Chatterton, Blake and many others evidently owed some of their compositions to the world of dreams.
Sometimes dreams that are forgotten during the day recur, or come to mind on again falling asleep. Ribot says: "I have often observed how, on falling asleep, a dream of the preceding night till then forgotten comes back to memory in great detail and very distinctly. In travelling, when I leave one town to sleep in another, this recurrence of the previous night's dream sometimes takes place, but then the dream comes back piece-meal, disjointed, and hard to reconstruct." Many stories have been founded on these dreams, among the best known being Theophile Gautier's short story entitled La Morte Amoureuse.
Many of the productions credited to dreams must be discounted. For example, Tartini said, when old, that on awaking from his dream he did not retain the memory of the dream music; he wrote, after vainly trying to recall the music of the dream, a composition which in his judgment was inferior to the dream performance. If the composer had not striven so hard to complete the sonata, and had given himself up to abstraction, it is probable that he would have completed his work without the aid of a dream. Many composers find that their compositions come easier when they do not strive to produce them. For instance, Haydn, who was of a very religious nature, always resorted to his beads when he found difficulty in composing, and said he never knew this to fail. Tartini's idea of selling his soul to the devil was probably the awakening of an old day-dream.
As regards Kubla Kahn, it was written when its author was under the influence of opium taken to relieve an indisposition. Coleridge made no claim that the poem, as finally written, was entirely a dream production. As Ellis says: "It may be added that it is difficult to believe that Coleridge could have recalled the whole poem from either a normal or abnormal dream: as a rule, when we compose verses in sleep we can usually only recall the last two or at most four lines."
If we bear in mind that the memory of dreams is at best fleeting, we will see how impossible it is for a poem or work of any length to be remembered intact on awaking. And, as a rule, dream-compositions are very inferior when subjected to waking criticism. It is, of course, possible for a work to be written during somnambulism. In many cases in the waking state, the best productions, especially of poets, seem to have been written while the authors were in a state of mental dissociation, their compositions coming involuntarily, unconsciously. George Eliot considered that she did her best work when she was taken possession of by another personality; Goethe wrote his Werther and other compositions as if in a state of trance. However, while we may find instances of work being performed "as if in a dream" we will find few, if any, instances of work of merit being remembered after a night dream, or written in a state of nocturnal somnambulism.
What most literary men and others who make profitable use of the imagination obtain from dreams are suggestions. These suggestions they are able to employ usefully, just as they can make use of newspaper articles, scraps of conversation, incidents of one kind or another, etc., as bases for new productions. The idea is the essential feature; given the idea they can build a play, novel, or poem about it. When we consider how rich the world of dreams is in images, incidents, symbolisms, we can readily understand how it may prove a never ending source of inspiration to those who are competent to develop the suggestions therein received.
Comparatively modern studies show us that many myths, fables, and works of ancient origin were suggested by dreams. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles is presumably founded on a fairly common dream. Bergson suggests that the fable of Eudymion, the shepherd, lapped in perpetual slumber, for whom the goddess Selene, the moon, is smitten with love while he sleeps, may have originated from dreams instigated by the rays of the moon falling on a sleeper's eyes: the moon's rays falling on the eyes during sleep not infrequently instigate dreams in which virgins figure prominently. The tendency of dreams to make composite photographs of persons and things, the monsters that appear in nightmare, etc., will account for many stories of a mythical nature, as animals with human heads, witches with blue faces, monstrous or dwarfed men and animals, etc.