I have read somewhere that you cannot read in dreams, that there is some neurological block against processing written language. I don’t remember where, maybe in a dream. Because I can and do read in dreams. Not often, and not for long, because usually when I am reading in dreams, it’s something so exciting it wakes me up.
When I was eighteen or nineteen, I dreamed I was in a furniture store, where there were some decorative hardcover books on the display bookshelves. They were jacketless versions of the Everyman series. To my surprise, I saw that said “Byron” on the spine. I sat down on a comfortable couch and opened it, and the pages were blank, in the manner of an unlined journal. “Of course,” I thought in my dream. “These are his lost Memoirs. The words will be here in a moment.” And while I stared, the words started appearing, floating grayly, like the spots at the intersections of a Hermann Grid optical illusion. In this way, I dream-read a snippet of Lord Byron’s lost Memoirs, the ones his publisher John Murray burned because they were too salacious. A modern publisher would rejoice to print a literary celebrity’s tell-all, but this was the 19th century, and I presume Byron, with characteristically ahead-of-his-time frankness, went into his various affairs, including the incestuous one. In the snippet I read, Byron was discussing what kinds of liquor he liked. He mentioned “sack,” which is, apparently, a “dry white wine from Spain.” And that is all I remember of that; because in a fit of curiosity and unrest, I reached for a second hardcover, whose spine read Don Juan: The Infernal Cantos, which were, I realized immediately, the last never-written Cantos of Don Juan, in which Byron intended to send his hero to a Hell populated with 19th- and 18th-century political figures, as well as more historical figures and poets.
I actually retained two rhymes from this dreamread, and I woke up and wrote them down on pencil and paper; they were well in advance of what I was doing in my teens. The rhymes I remember were the closing couplets of the ottava rima stanzas:
1. “….And, once the [something] session’s reached a quorum,
Twirl their tridents and commence to gore ’em.”
Which I presume related to imps goring (political?) sinners. Earlier in the stanza, I remember, Byron/my subconscious rhymed creature, of fearsome feature, and proper Parliamentary procedure. (Byron did sit in the House of Lords.)
2. “Lest my attempt at this infernal stuff
Reduce my Epic to an opera bouffe.”
This seems to be part of an invocation before he launches into a description of Hell. “Stuff” and “bouffe” are not perfect rhymes, but Byron’s narrator in Don Juan is always mispronouncing foreign words and rhyming them. (Hence the protagonist’s name is the Korean-sounding Don Joo-Un, not the more properly Chinese-sounding Don Hwan.)
3. The rhymes risible, visible, and his Sibyl, with “Sibyl” being either one of Juan’s dalliances from earlier in the poem, encountered Dido-like in Hell, or else the mythological Sibyl herself, guiding Juan as she guided Aeneas. The problem with the latter explanation would be that Juan is dragged down to Hell in the story, not given an Aeneid- or Odyssey-like tour of it. It may be that the Sibyl, charmed by Juan, takes him under her protection and shows him around.
4. The rhymes Dryden; intent upon confiding; and widen. This same stanza concluded with the couplet,
“But thanks to Peter’s [something] moral standard,
There’s but one Pope in heaven, Alexander.”
Byron was known to be a fan of the Augustans, quite contrary to the spirit of his age.
5. The rhymes thruppence and comeuppance in a closing couplet. Perhaps in a circle punishing Greed.
Although—to be accurate regarding this half-remembered dream of a dead man’s unwritten description of an unreal place that it may or may not have been neurologically impossible for me to have read—I should not say “circle”; Byron, in his/my dream “Infernal Cantos,” structured his Hell as a continuous landscape, with fenced-off regions Juan was required to cross en route to his own locus of torment. I remember reading something about Napoleon in his “tattered tricorne,” yoked to a plough with no pants on, and Castlereigh, an 19th-century British statesman, apparently much reviled by the Left-equivalent of the time.
I often wish this were a recurring dream, so that I could re-read the entire book and bring it back line by line. In this alternate reality, the “Infernal Cantos” became famous as a freestanding book, separate from the by-then unreadably long final version of Don Juan, much as the Mutabilitie Cantos are read independently of The Faerie Queene’s complete text (or, for that matter, as the Inferno is read and translated independently of the full Commedia.) Descriptions of hell appeal even to those who do not believe in it. Perhaps—judging from how Dante’s popularity in English has spiked with the decline of Christianity—especially to those who do not believe in it. It may be than a purely aesthetic contemplation of hell’s poetry is possible at last, in a secularized literary culture; now that readers believe neither in the soul nor in a hell to which it can be sent forever, they experience hell without moral self-reflection or the associated negative feelings of fear, worry, and guilt: They experience the tremendous (in the sense of “fear-some”) as mere poetic pleasure—the admiration of genius, and the delight of dark fantasy.