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The structure of "A Dream Within a Dream" consists of two stanzas containing two disparate but ultimately connected scenes. The first stanza shows the first-person point of view of the narrator parting from a lover, while the second places the narrator on a beach while futilely attempting to grasp a handful of sand in his hand. The juxtaposed scenes contrast in a number of ways, as the poem moves from a calm, though solemn, farewell to a more passionate second half. Whereas the first stanza features a thoughtful agreement, the seashore scene contains expletives such as "O God!" and anguished exclamations along with despairing rhetorical questions to reflect the torment in the narrator's soul.
Despite the apparent differences between the two stanzas, they are linked through the ironic similarity of their evanescent natures. In the first image, the narrator is leaving his lover, indicating a sense of finality (and mortality) to their love. Accordingly, the falling grains of sand in the second stanza recall the image of an hourglass, which in turn represents the passage of time. As the sand flows away until all time has passed, the lovers' time also disappears, and the sand and the romance each turn into impressions from a dream. Through the alliteration in "grains of the golden sand," Poe emphasizes the "golden" or desired nature of both the sand and of love, but he shows clearly that neither is permanently attainable.