Life is but a dream

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I was in Hartford recently and tried a new pub/restaurant for dinner on a Sunday night, free of the usual, but not unwelcome, compromises that comes with weeknight business dinners.  To my surprise, there was a musical performer, and, better, they were good.  Instruments were acoustic, so conversation was not overwhelmed, the music was crisply played, and the lead singer had an excellent baritone voice.  Among other traditional songs, he sang “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” a negro spiritual from South Carolina (not my words, but Wiki’s, lest I offend).   I don’t expect to return on a Sunday night, but if I did, I’d plan a return visit as they play there weekly. 

The timbre in the singer’s voice of “Michael” had potency, and earnestness of conviction to the lyrics which speak of spiritual yearning and freedom. It had been many, many years since I’d heard it, definitely at some childhood age, likely at a church camp.  It was a pleasant recollection that putsrowyourboat the mind to wondering what other songs were sung… aside from “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” always an irritant.

More distinctly, I remember learning “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in kindergarten, sung on different beats between boys and girls or “sung as a round.”  Cutesy.    “Row Your Boat…”  The lyrics had no meaning; it was all about getting the timing right among the four groups in which we were split.  Both songs feature the rowing of boats and, hey, what’s that song about, anyway?

Row, row, row your boat

Gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream

In perfect hindsight, the plain reading remains innocuous, but, hey, as adults, words mean things.   Time to dissect.

“Row, row, row your boat” – I guess no one would row just one stroke, so three strokes make sense.  Still, there’s an obvious repetition that suggests the labor required for movement.  It’s not the same as joyously paddling a kayak, but in any case, perhaps it’s a metaphor for the the work and motion of living or even the passing of time.

“Gently down the stream” – Okay, you don’t have to row hard if you’re going with the current, so there is a definite feeling of going with the flow, stopping to smell the roses.   More pointedly, it’s not rowing up the stream and all of the struggle suggested in that path.  

“Merrily” x4 –  It seems so obvious, but let’s check the definition.


  1. 1) in a cheerful way.
  2. 2) without consideration of possible problems or future implications

These options offer legitimacy to both a harmless ditty or to a masterfully refined wooing, offered like the Child Catcher’s sugary sweets to those gullible kids in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


“Life is but a dream” – To be frank, this is the most troublesome line.  Maybe, well, let’s see what else rhymes with “stream”… “scream?” No.  “Cream,” “theme,” “steam,” “beam,” “scheme”…. no.  “Dream” is clearly the best suited. 

Five syllables to work with, how about “Go and live your dreams?”  It could be tweaked, but at least it’s life affirming.  The problem word is “but.”


  1. 1.
    used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned.
  2. 2.
    used to indicate the impossibility of anything other than what is being stated.
    "one cannot but sympathize"
  1. 1.
    except; apart from; other than.
    "in Texas, we were never anything but poor"
  1. 1.
    no more than; only.
    "he is but a shadow of his former self"
    synonyms: only, just, simply, merely, no more than, nothing but; 
    a mere
    "he is but a shadow of his former self"
  1. 1.
    an argument against something; an objection.
    "no buts —just get out of here"

Of the above, the adverb is clearly the best fit.  Let’s see how it fits:

“Life is merely a dream.”  “Life is no more than a dream.”  “Life is nothing but a dream.”  Well, the last one there is a failure as it uses the word being defined in the definition…  In any case, it’s as obvious what the meaning of “is” is.

So, “life is but a dream.”  Sigh.  Yet another definition is needed for something so seemingly simple.



  1. 1.
    a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person's mind during sleep.
    "I had a recurrent dream about falling from great heights"
  1. 1.
    experience dreams during sleep.
    "I dreamed about her last night"
    synonyms: daydream, be in a trance, be lost in thought, be preoccupied, be abstracted, stare into space, muse, be in la-la land
    "she's always dreaming"
  2. 2.
    contemplate the possibility of doing something or that something might be the case.
    "I wouldn't dream of foisting myself on you"

Well, the noun wins the contest, but that’s not very helpful.  Miriam-Webster offers this:   “An idea or vision that is created in your imagination and that is not real.”   Life is not real?  One might suppose that the life referred to is  purported to be “dreamy,” but I’m not confident that, to borrow from the verb definition, “la-la land” is the best guidance for molding young lives.  But you can choose that if you want.  My choices for the phrase lie between a concise nihilistic philosophy or a metaphysical swing (and miss)at the nature of consciousness.

So, let’s paraphrase the available interpretations.

1) It’s a silly children’s rhyme that doesn’t mean anything, lacking any moral relevance or instructional value other than musical.  It is only useful to occupy kids’ time so that they’re not more of a nuisance than they otherwise would be.

2) A morphine drip.

Do what you have to through life but
take the easy path.
Live without thinking of consequences
because life is not real

3) Simply understood.

Row your boat
Carefully because you’re going with the current
In a cheerful way
because life is as happy as a (good) dream.   (Think… warm puppy!)

I’ll let you choose where the evidence points.

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