Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.
Hear now a curious dream I dreamed last night
Each word whereof is weighed and sifted truth.
I stood beside Euphrates while it swelled
Like overflowing Jordan in its youth:
It waxed and coloured sensibly to sight;
Till out of myriad pregnant waves there welled
Young crocodiles, a gaunt blunt-featured crew,
Fresh-hatched perhaps and daubed with birthday dew.
The rest if I should tell, I fear my friend
My closest friend would deem the facts untrue;
And therefore it were wisely left untold;
Yet if you will, why, hear it to the end.
Each crocodile was girt with massive gold
And polished stones that with their wearers grew:
But one there was who waxed beyond the rest,
Wore kinglier girdle and a kingly crown,
Whilst crowns and orbs and sceptres starred his breast.
All gleamed compact and green with scale on scale,
But special burnishment adorned his mail
And special terror weighed upon his frown;
His punier brethren quaked before his tail,
Broad as a rafter, potent as a flail.
So he grew lord and master of his kin:
But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?
An execrable appetite arose,
He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.
He knew no law, he feared no binding law,
But ground them with inexorable jaw:
The luscious fat distilled upon his chin,
Exuded from his nostrils and his eyes,
While still like hungry death he fed his maw;
Till every minor crocodile being dead
And buried too, himself gorged to the full,
He slept with breath oppressed and unstrung claw.
Oh marvel passing strange which next I saw:
In sleep he dwindled to the common size,
And all the empire faded from his coat.
Then from far off a wingèd vessel came,
Swift as a swallow, subtle as a flame:
I know not what it bore of freight or host,
But white it was as an avenging ghost.
It levelled strong Euphrates in its course;
Supreme yet weightless as an idle mote
It seemed to tame the waters without force
Till not a murmur swelled or billow beat:
Lo, as the purple shadow swept the sands,
The prudent crocodile rose on his feet
And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands.
What can it mean? you ask. I answer not
For meaning, but myself must echo, What?
And tell it as I saw it on the spot.
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
It is important you know about Rossetti’s life in order to understand her motivations and feelings at the time each poem was composed. However, I’m only going to make brief allusions when I analyse each poem so it is up to you to fill in the gaps in your knowledge (a good place to start would be my Rossetti Timeline and Biography).
This poem was composed in 1855 and published as part of the Goblin Market and Other Poems collection in 1862. This places the poem four years before Goblin Market and the charity work she began to do at St Mary Magdalene’s in London assisting former prostitutes to rebuild their lives. These so called ‘fallen’ women are the subject of some of her later poetry where she takes a sympathetic stance towards their plight. The word ‘fallen’ suggests these women were seen as having sinned and no longer being pure and this term would also be used for women who knowingly engaged in sexual relations outside of wedlock.
I’d take this poem to be a sympathetic look at women who succumb to temptation and then try to redeem themselves in the eyes of God and society.
Probably the most common theme in Rossetti’s poetry is present in this – the conflict between devotion to God and religious morality and Earthly desire and temptation. There is also a fair amount in sexual and biblical allusion, which are other recurring themes.
This is a bit of a nightmare and I apologise if any of my ideas are at all confusing – blame Rossetti!
In the opening two-lined stanza the poetic voice sets up the story of this poem: she’s had a strange dream basically. However, interesting she says this is all ‘weighed and sifted truth’, which suggests she has evaluated the dream and recognises the significance of it and correlation to herself. You could argue alternatively that this simply means she is going to tell us the truth of what she remembers in the dream, but I think it is clear despite her denial in the final stanza that she knows what her words represent. Why else would she write a sodding poem? I had a dream about being attacked in a train station, which was pretty weird, but you don’t see me choosing to publish it in a collection of poetry.
Anyway, the second stanza takes us into the dream. She stands by the river Euphrates which is beginning to ‘overflow’, but is still relatively calm, but then it begins to get a bit rocky and wavy and filled with baby crocodiles. Very odd indeed, but we need to view it symbolically. Take the water as being the poetic voice’s life and desires. When it is calm and tranquil we can associate her with purity, particularly as the Euphrates is a river strongly associated with the Garden of Eden (the home of innocence). The waves then demonstrate this innocence has been disturbed as does the birth of young crocodiles. These represent growing desires of a sexual nature and suggest she is beginning to find temptation. However, initially these desires are shunned or unwelcome as they are described in quite ugly and unappealing terms.
The final four lines of the stanza take us out of the dream briefly as she tells us that things are about to get even weirder. However, I think it is significant that she claims even her ‘closest friend’ wouldn’t believe her as it suggests this growth of desire was hidden from others and maybe so far removed from what people think of her that it would seem unbelievable.
The crocodiles begin to grow in the third stanza, which represents the growth of desire in her heart. In addition, notice how the crocodiles suddenly become a lot more attractive in this stanza (I’ll deal with this at length in the section below). One of these crocodiles is more attractive than the rest and she refers to it in terms that associate it to royalty or potentially even divinity. This may be one particular desire or could even be a particular man who is suddenly the subject of her devotion. We admire his magnificence, but also fear his tail.
In the fourth stanza the poetic voice gives in to the crocodile. Her desire is realised as he munches up all other interests and ideas. This is described in some detail and I will explore the imagery and symbolism in the next section. However, after it is all over he seems to lose his grandeur and shrinks again towards insignificance. Immediately after this a ‘wingéd vessel’ arrives to sort her out. It ‘tame[s]’ the waters of Euphrates, in other words her desires, and the crocodile (her desires) apologises for its actions.
The final stanza tries to dismiss this as just a meaningless dream, as the poetic voice ask rhetorical questions about its meaning. However, don’t be fooled, she is trying to express her thoughts and feelings without doing so directly, but is almost too ashamed to confess that she has had these feelings, thus disguises it as a dream.
Language and techniques
Okay, this a fairly long and complicated poem and therefore I won’t mention everything you see as significant and it’d be great if you’d add your ideas using the forum (someone has to start!).
The first thing I would mention is the contradiction the poem presents to its audience. How can this be a ‘dream’ and be something that the poetic voice asks ‘what can it mean?’ and at the same time be ‘weighed and sifted truth’? As far as I am concerned this indicates the repression of female sexuality, the poem is a confession of earthly temptation, but it is hidden behind a pretence of ignorance.
We are confronted with biblical imagery when the poem talks about the Euphrates, but the fact it ‘swelled’ and grew ‘myriad pregnant waves’ suggests that she is trying to be devoted and innocent like those in the Garden of Eden, but these desires begin to grow inside her. Both these words also have connotations of fertility as they both also link with the idea of motherhood and birth (as too could the ‘fresh-hatched’ crocodiles covered in ‘birthday dew’). This could also simple represent the birth of desire.
Now what about these crocodiles? These are the key symbol of the poem that you have to get your head around. I see the crocodiles as her desires and the things which, in her mind, threaten the innocence and purity of her soul. Initially they are described in negative terms as a ‘gaunt blunt-featured crew’, which makes them seem ugly and malnourished. In one sense I see this as being because they are new to her and thus a bit awkward for her to resolve or understand, but also this could represent the fact she does not want these temptations or desires and sees them as effecting her purity.
However, the crocodiles transform and grow. Being covered in ‘massive gold’ and ‘polished stones’ demonstrates they are now attractive and impressive. Their value and growth also suggests the increased importance of her desires.
Our one special crocodile is referred to in terms of worship as he is seen as possessing a ‘kingly crown’ and all the accompaniments of the throne (‘orbs’ and ‘sceptres’). You could talk about a semantic field of royalty with all the treasure and accompaniments described. However, it also contains a threat and we fear it as a result of its tail as ‘potent as a fail’. I believe this imagery and association is meant to mirror the way God is thought of – as being Almighty and a figure of both love and fear. If the crocodile is referred to in these terms – ‘special burnishment’ vs ‘special terror’ – this gives us a clear idea of the internal conflict between the purity and innocence of a life of religious devotion and her earthly desires and impulses.
Earthly desire wins out. This kingly crocodile ‘grew lord and master’ and thus her desires become the most important influence in her life. However, this is short lived. We have an explosion of passion as he eats up any other thoughts. Rossetti uses onomatopoeia to present a sensual and carnal image of the crocodile’s lust as it ‘crunched’, ‘sucked’ and ‘ground’ her other thoughts. She has completely given in and seems to have binged on her desires (like when you end a diet by eating a whole box of chocolates, a KFC family feast and a multi-pack of crisps).
The imagery is revolting and, for me, sexual. Rossetti apparently denied any allegations of sexual imagery in any of her poetry, but many students of her work have perceived its presence and it is often said that upon publishing writing a writer loses control of its meaning. Thus, you are definitely allowed to interpret the poem in this way and will not be penalised as being wrong. I think it is hard to deny.
As the crocodile consumes he has ‘luscious fat’ dripping down his chin, covering his eyes and nose and is described as ‘gorged’, which implies he is eating greedily and to the point of being over full. The beginning of this stanza suggests that the poetic voice has given into temptation and I read this whole section as giving in the carnal lust and having sex. The intensity and the passion seems uncontrollable and unstoppable. The disgusting sexual imagery, for me, resides in the imagery of the ‘luscious fat’ – imagery that I don’t particularly want to explore her, but brings to mind ideas of a largely Japanese pornographic craze called bukkake. Don’t Google it, just ask a clued up friend.
There is more sexual imagery after the act. After sexual relations the crocodile ‘dwindled to common size’, which is phallic in the extreme. However, it is also meant to contribute to a sense of regret at her giving in to temptation. The crocodile’s sleeping is ‘oppressed’, which in one sense indicates the difficulty we have breathing when we have over consumed, but the word also has connotations of being trapped, vulnerable and weak (e.g. an oppressed people). His ‘unstrung claw’ also suggests weakness as it is no longer threatening or ready to strike. In addition, his grandeur has now disappeared as the ’empire faded from his coat’ making him appear ordinary and unimportant as opposed to his kingly state before she gave in.
The idea of her conflict between spirituality and earthly desire is clearly indicated in the second half of this stanza. I read the ‘wingéd vessel’ as representing an angel bringing a message from God. This message is not a kind one as this spirit is ‘avenging’ meaning it is here to inflict harm or punishment for her indiscretion and it wants to dismiss temptation by ‘tam[ing’ the waters’ of the Euphrates and thus the passions present in her heart. Of course, this wouldn’t physically happen and the angel actually represents the poetic voice’s sense of regret and shame at giving in. This makes me link the poem to Rossetti’s work with and defence of ‘fallen’ women as there is little guilt in a sexual relationship within the confines of marriage, but outside of marriage it would’ve been deeply scandalous. So, our poetic voice has given in to sexual urges outside of wedlock and as a result is overcome with guilt and shame.
However, the last two lines of the stanza are particularly interesting. Here the crocodile begs forgiveness. His tears and his ‘wrung[ing] his hands’ creates an impression of contrition and apology for his greed and lust. However, Rossetti chooses to call him a ‘prudent crocodile’. The word ‘prudent’ means sensible or practical. Thus the crocodile is saying the things the ‘avenging ghost’ wants to hear, but this is being done for practical reasons. Actually, even his tears are describe in practical terms, ‘appropriate’, rather than as genuine (crocodile tears is a commonly used phrases which means fake emotion). This makes me think that although she is overwhelmed by guilt, she does not dismiss temptation or desire completely. The crocodile is still there and is not completely apologetic.
Phew! I think that will do.
I’m going to limit this section because I’ve been wittering on too much and I don’t think there is a huge amount to say.
I’d comment on the size of the stanzas. We have two odds one at the beginning and end, but the others seem to play the key role in the poem and thus the differences between them are crucial. Stanzas 2-3 are both ten lines long and both have a highly irregular rhyme with no real pattern to discern. I see the irregularity as a sign of confusion – conflict between desires and devotion.
However, at the end of the third stanza we have a rhyme repeated four times in the last five lines. This repetition indicates for me a growing obsession as she can’t get off the idea of this one beast and it is almost as if she is rolling over one idea in her head that is indicate by the same sound rolling around this part of the poem – ‘scale’, ‘mail’, ‘tail’, ‘flail’.
This repetitive rhyme then gives way, with the poetic voice, to the desires that become overpowering in the fourth stanza. We now have 26 lines, which seems like an explosion of ideas. This mirrors the passion of the carnal lust and sexual relation – uncontrollable. Also, although the rhyme scheme is again irregular, we also have oft repeated rhymes (ABBACCADCEFCC…) which again indicates an obsessive thought or focus.
You could also make the point that this stanza represents the point where the conflict finally meets head on. Is it significant that the first 15 lines focus on the desire and only 11 focus on devotion and guilt associated?
This is a bit of an odd one. I’d say that there is a pretence at confusion and innocence initially and then at the end of the poem, but during the main body of the dream we have a very intense expression of interest and excitement, giving way to rapture and then subsiding into guilt and suppressed shame.