How A Dream Within a Dream Influenced Inception

Poems and paintings influence movies all the time. It follows that as great works are created which skillfully capture specific emotions, artists of the future will pay homage or make their movies more interesting and profound by alluding to those works. One of the most famous poems of the modern world, Edgar Allen Poe’s A Dream Within a Dream is one such work, as it was the main inspiration for Christoper Nolan’s Inception. This article will describe, in detail, the entirety of the rather short poem and offer an explanation of how each section played into Inception in a following paragraph.

The poem A Dream Within A Dream is Edgar Allen Poe’s confrontation with subjective reality as a driving force in forming his capacity to experience and understand feeling, supported with beautiful imagery. The infamous poem opens with Poe parting with who we may assume to be a lover or close companion, for Poe says “Take this kiss upon the brow!”(1). Poe admits that he has behaved as a dreamer to what the audience may assume is an accusation made by whoever he is parting from as his poetry reads “Thus much let me avow'”/ You are not wrong, who deem/ That my days have been a dream;”(3-5). However, he asks if the cause for temperamental feeling is significant. Poe includes in his poem the question “Yet if hope has flown away/ In a night, or in a day,/ In a vision, or in none,/ Is it therefore the less gone?”(6-9) meaning that he questions whether it matters if a feeling, such as hope, is eroded by objective forces, as symbolized by “day”(7) or not because of visions (8), or if the forces are more subjective, as symbolized by “night”(7) and “visions”(8) which we can assume are a symbol for dreams. The implications of this question suggest that Poe is utilizing poetry in order to show how he accepts his state as a dream and does not see how it is inferior to a state in which one assumes they know truth or objective meaning. Furthermore, by creating imagery in which hope may fly or otherwise become personified, Poe brings into question the very nature of hope. This type of imagery asks whether hope can be contained.

For anyone who has seen Inception, these themes and ideas are obviously central to the plot. Inception‘s main protagonist, Cobb, has literally spent a lifetime in a dream within a dream. The imagery Poe uses of his main character kissing his lover goodbye relates because his lifelong adventure within a dream causes Cobb to lose his wife. Likewise, the imagery of Poe’s main character being accused of having spent what is implied to be too long within a dream world is also as relevant, as Inception is based upon the premise of Cobb having to live with the consequences of such actions. Moreover, Inception also explores the corrupting potential of hoping or wishing to re-experience the past; Inception is flooded with scenes in which Cobb’s wife interferes with his plans.

As seen in Poe’s other works of poetry, such as Annabell Lee, he has made an association with loss to that of the ocean. More specifically, in the second stanza of A Dream Within A Dream, Poe uses marvelous imagery when he paints a similar picture in writing “I stand amid the roar/ Of a surf-tormented shore,” (12-13). Here he creates the metaphor of losing thoughts and emotions to the might of time; “And I hold within my hand/ Grains of the golden sand'”/ How few! yet how they creep/ Through my fingers to the deep,”(14-17). Accordingly, this illustrates Poe’s hand as metaphorical for the mind which cannot hold onto his emotions or thoughts, symbolized by the grains of sand slipping into the sea. Furthermore, the sea becomes a symbol for the unattainable past and unforeseeable future; parts of Poe which he can no longer personally recognize or predict. This type of imagery within his poem shows that, because he is merely inside a dream, Poe cannot retain significance or even acknowledge it as having existed. Moreover, using the imagery of sand to symbolize time, events, feeling, or the present shows how finite such intervals truly are.

If you recall, the imagery of Poe’s beach relates to Inception as Cobb and his wife has erected their homes within a dream near the ocean. This ocean scene seems even more significant because most of Inception takes place in a city; because the dream world homes are the only instance of an ocean, it seems even more obvious that the allusion to Poe’s imagery in A Dream Within a Dream was intentional.

In lamenting this loss, Poe repeats the experience of the present moment in hopes to have it solidified, “While I weep–while I weep!” (18)., the imagery of such actions obviously depicting his tremendous desperation. Poe longs to ground himself, to belong to a moment with significance which can carry itself. Yet, Poe cries because he understands his very tears are the remnants of an experience which will not last, or of an experience which may have a cause as tangible as that of a dream, or that of the sand imagery. All things, he realizes, even the thoughts in his head, are fleeting. Just as he loses the grains of sand to the ocean, he loses parts of himself and his subjective experience to time. “All we see or seem” is merely the analysis of a subjective experience which will inevitably fade into something else. Thus, Poe states that everyone amongst the conscious is a merely a dreamer.

This section of the poem correlates with Inception as Cobb is seen to be crying, fitting with Poe’s imagery. Although, we can assume the narrator of the poem is experiencing a private moment or otherwise is not crying in public. This type of imagery is consistent with Inception, as Cobb is characterized as keeping his emotions to himself, although tremendously painful.

A Dream Within a Dream closes with Poe wondering if the assertion he has thus far put forth, that “all we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”(23-24) is truly correct. Though he has spent the majority of his poem advocating his perspective, Poe becomes frantic towards the end. The poet writes “O God! can I not grasp/ Them with a tighter clasp?/ O God! can I not save / One from the pitiless wave?”(19-22) as an appeal to God for the rights to his experience and relevant emotions as time progresses. Moreover, the imagery of a bottomless pit denies the existence of the ocean bed below, removing all hope of ever reaching a static foundation. It seems Poe cannot accept what he has logically concluded, that all experiences are as objectively real and timeless as a dream.

Although Cobb understands the impossibility of a preserving a dream within a dream, he not only attempts to keep alive the memory of his dead wife, but the endures the same end as Poe’s character in A Dream Within A Dream, as Inception ultimately ends in Cobb losing her.


Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. 2010. Film.

Poe, Allan Edgar. “A Dream Within A Dream – A Poem by Edgar Allan Poe – American Poems.” American Poems – YOUR Poetry Site. Web. 02 Apr. 2011.

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