Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less

These lines (lines 6–9) appear in the middle of the first stanza, as the speaker addresses their unnamed companion. Evidently, the speaker’s companion has just made some comment about how the speaker lives their life as if in a dream. We can infer that the companion has made this comment out of concern for the speaker, who has apparently lost their sense of hope. The speaker agrees with their companion, but then goes on to utter these lines. A paraphrase of the speaker’s response might run something like this: “Is hope any less absent if it departs during the night rather than during the day, or if it disappears in a dreamlike vision rather than in the starkness of reality?” The speaker’s question here is rhetorical, since the only possible answer is “No.” As such, the speaker uses this rhetorical question to set up their subsequent claim about the dreamlike reality of life: “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream” (lines 10–11).

And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!

The speaker utters these lines (lines 14–18) near the beginning of the second stanza, after establishing that they’re standing alone on “a surf-tormented shore” (line 13). In these lines, the speaker explains how they can’t stop a handful of sand from seeping through their fingers, falling back into the sea. As the speaker’s distress quickly approaches the height of its emotional intensity, Poe underscores the power of the moment by disrupting the poem’s couplet-based rhyme scheme with a triplet. In fact, lines 16–18 are even more concentrated with rhyme when we consider the internal rhyme generated from the repetition of the phrase “while I weep.” The insertion of a triplet here marks a key stylistic tactic in the poem. By interrupting the expectation for rhyming couplets, Poe underscores the speaker’s growing sense of existential instability.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

The poem closes with these lines (lines 23–24), in which the speaker makes a question out of their earlier assertion: “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream” (lines 10–11). On the one hand, the transformation of the assertion into a question marks a shift from certainty to uncertainty. Whereas the speaker starts the poem feeling comfortably certain that life is but a dream within a dream, they end the poem feeling less sure. However, it’s important to note that the final lines take the form of a rhetorical question. That is, the question is less of a genuine question, and more of a rhetorical device. Based on what happens in the second stanza, it seems relatively clear that the speaker’s belief in life’s fundamental unreality has not changed. What has changed, though, is their emotional reaction to that belief. Whereas they felt relatively unperturbed by the idea in the first stanza, the idea distresses them in the second. Thus, when the speaker asks the question that closes the poem, the answer seems clear. Even though they may want the answer to be “No,” deep down they know the answer is probably “Yes.”