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Notes for
A Dream
by James Whitcombe Riley (d. 1916)

Exercise AK - L6.7

     This poem was suggested by "Celia" in Australia, who wrote that

     We read a poem today that I thought would be fun to parse, and it was. I did the first three verses and noticed interesting clauses, infinitive phrases being used as subjects, and those noun + gerundives (whose name escapes me at the moment) which act like single entities, being used as direct objects. Also it uses the semicolon in every verse.
"Celia" also sent a scan of her perceptive analysis of the poem, but her comment caught all the really interesting grammatical aspects of the poem. I particularly appreciate her reference to " those noun + gerundives (whose name escapes [her] at the moment) which act like single entities." The reference is to the debatable KISS concept of noun absolutes that function as nouns do. There are five examples of the construction in the poem, and thus the poem might serve as a good object of discussion for students about the validity of the KISS explanation. (Remember that the traditional explanation is also acceptable within the KISS framework. The question is: Which explanation better matches the grammatical analysis and the meaning?)
     The poem can also illustrates another debate in grammatical analysis. To my knowledge, most grammars do not include the KISS concept of the gerundive. Instead, they use the term "participle," which is the traditional term for the "-ing," "-ed" (or irregular) forms of verbs. This results in tremendous confusion since, when they speak of "participles," some grammarians and teachers include among the participles the "playing" in "They were playing ball." Other grammarians, however, disagree and consider as participles only such things as the playing in "Playing ball, they forgot to go to school."
    A similar problem arises with these participial forms that appear before the noun they modify. Some grammarians, for example, would consider "palsied" in "With a dozen palsied limbs" a participle. There are several more of these in this poem: "their buzzing wings," "their horror-stricken faces," "a highly flavored pleasure," and "intoxicating pleasure." KISS does not count them as gerundives because most of these terms are probably learned almost, in not exactly, in the same way that children add adjectives to their vocabulary. (For more on this, click here.) This poem, however, provides fertile illustrations for any teacher who wants to have students discuss these questions.

Writing about the Poem

     Some teachers and parents will not want to use this poem because of its moral and linguistic contents. (If I read Diane Ratite's The Language Police correctly, this poem could never be used on any official assessment test because spiders may upset some students.) Evil, however, does exist, the poem is interesting, and there are many other texts on this site that teachers and parents can choose from. For anyone who does want to have students not only analyze, but also discuss or write about the poem, the following questions may be helpful.

1. What are the implications of the title? (All too often, my college students ignore the titles of works.) Is this a dream about a temptation? Or does it reflect the speaker's real desire?

2. Why does the speaker delight in seeing the flies strangled in the middle "of their hymns"? Is this simply a statement against religion, or could the speaker be using "hymns" as a symbol of something else? (If so, what?)

3. What does the speaker mean by "for the sake of sin alone"? What is "sin"?

4. How could the spider have killed the flies with "caressing"?

5. Consider the implications of the speaker's choice of other words, such as "rusty," "palsied," "dangled," "fondly false."

6. Why does the spider refer specifically to "three" flies? ("The" would have fit the meter just as well as "three" does.)

7. Characterize the spider.

8. What is the primary conflict in the poem? Is it the struggle between good and evil? (If so, what is "good"? And what is "evil"?) Is it the struggle for and against religion? Or is it the conflict between an individual who feels himself outside of (and perhaps envious of) society's norms.