Fun Stuff/ Research

‘Life is But a Dream’ Meaning

Most nursery rhymes and fairy tales have a disturbing background and meaning. So when my siblings and I were lying around in my room and we started singing ‘Row your Boat’, I figured it’d have some demented origin. Like rowing to your doom, being drowned or being forced down a path to your own beheading.

Surprisingly, this one has a good meaning. And when I looked it up, I was smacking my forehead. Because I already knew what it was a metaphor for. What can I say? Sometimes I forget it’s not all burning people to death and water dragons.

Duh. I love the meaning behind this nursery rhyme.

It’s a metaphor for life. We all agree on that. But there are multiple theories on how to break it down, what each object and line mean.

There are two main ideologies and a few random thoughts on specific verses.





Your boat = your life.

The stream = time. Water is always moving, so is time.

Row, row, row = you’re constantly rowing, constantly moving through life, constantly working at it. You don’t just row for a little while and then rest. Uh-uh. No breaks. No rests. Life. Keep moving.

Gently = It’s not a race. You aren’t racing toward the end – um, your death –are you? Gently row through life, don’t hurry. It’s the trip (life) not the destination (death).

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily = attitude, personality, character. How you look at things, positive versus negative, optimist versus pessimist. Be happy, be passionate on the way. They say attitude is everything. Enjoy your life, enjoy the ride.

Life is but a dream = Dream or nightmare, we have the ability to choose what our life will be. We cannot decide what happens, but we can decide who we are, what we become, how we react, how we cope. It’s our life, our dream. And our choice.



Boat = body. It’s the vessel for your movement, changes, growth, learning, development, awareness.

Row, row, row = you have to work for what you want in life, have to apply effort to get where you want to go. Unless you row, your boat won’t go anywhere. Be careful of distractions that could pull you away from your goal. But don’t be so focused, have such blinders on, that you don’t remain open to change, to life, to possibilities.

Gently down the stream = let go of the past, move toward your future. Row gently because to push or force or fight the natural direction your life is leading you will only create stress and upset.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily = you may already have it hard. Don’t make it worse. Water can be rough but you can get through. A negative attitude will not help, in fact, it will make things worse. Use the challenges you face to make you a better person.

Life is but a dream = touches on the dreamlike state of reality. The world is physical around us, yet thoughts and emotions change, shift, alter, transmutation making something less physical, solid. Dreamlike.





  • Row, row, row your boat:

You have to row your own boat. No one else’s. Don’t try to control other people. Control yourself.

Rowing takes skill. Practice makes perfect.

When someone is rowing on their own, it implicates free will and the choices they make that decide which paths they take.

When rowing with others, it touches on the need to work together, in unity to reach the intended goal.

  • Gently down the stream:

Force creates resistance. Don’t resist if you can flow along with the water’s natural path and make something of it. This is different than fighting the challenges, the bumpy stream’s road.

  • Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily:

Take challenges in stride, meet them with a joyous attitude and a smile. Go with the flow.

This is not a rehearsal, not a dry run, not a trial run before the real thing. This is the real thing. You might as well enjoy it. Don’t waste time being upset longer than need be or by holding grudges when you could be happy instead.

  • Life is but a dream:

So stop making it a nightmare.

It has religious overtones of how life is simply the dream before the consequences/rewards.

Life is only a dream, not real. Everything you do is meaningless. (I don’t like this one.)

Life is a short moment. Only a dream when compared to our eternal soul’s existence.





With that in mind, remember that it’s talking about your life for a reason. Ask yourself;

Row, row, row your boat.

Where are you going? Are you headed where you want to be headed? Are you working for what you want? Are you trying to control someone else’s life (with good or bad intentions)? Are you trying to control things you know you can’t/shouldn’t? Are you trying to race through your life? Are you learning, growing, achieving what you want? Are you open to positive change? Open to new paths?

Gently down the stream.

Are you fighting things for the sake of fighting them? Are you fighting for what you believe in without being cruel or self-destructive? Do you approach your life with hope? Have you worked through and let go of your past? Are you enjoying the journey, the process, whatever it is that you’re doing right now? Are you hurrying through things you could instead be enjoying? Are you flexible when things change? Do you adapt well to change?

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.

Are you happy? Why or why not? Are you holding grudges or focusing on the negative to the point that you’re creating your own heartache? Are you approaching things with a positive attitude? Do you try to find the silver lining? Are you passionate about what you’re doing? Are you aware that regardless of trials, pain, suffering and challenges, there is always hope?

Life is but a dream.

There are three definitions of a dream :

1: “a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep.”

2: “a vision voluntarily indulged in while awake; daydream; reverie.” “an idea or vision that is created in your imagination and that is not real”

3: “something that you have wanted very much to do, be, or have for a long time”

Are you helping your life to be a dream or a nightmare? How can your life be more dreamlike; what would you need to do/achieve/change to shape your life into a dream – your dream? Are you making the right choices for yourself? If your life is a nightmare, what can you do to work toward bettering it?




Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.


Just remember: Water is rough but boats are tough.


What does this rhyme mean to you? Do you have a favorite metaphor?


Sources: and

52 thoughts on “‘Life is But a Dream’ Meaning

  1. What if “life is but a dream” hints at holographic universe theory?
    Or Plato’s allegory of the cave?
    Or Buddah’s “life is an illusion” view of the universe?

  2. Very good analysis. Life is but a dream. It’s exactly what it says. We are actually dreaming. “We” , meaning our soul. This life, this world, this entire universe is but a dream. The real us is just a small, gold ball of light, in our true home, dreaming.

  3. First let me thank you for your prompt response. I believe that i am at the end of a difficult time in my life, everything you have said to me regarding this medalion i felt when i found it. It symbolizes so many asspects of my life thank you so much in helping me understand my path.

  4. Well done Daphne!
    Life IS but a dream; it’s illusory. Human consciousness as a sad joke…on us. We think, therefore we THINK we’re special, when of course we’re really not. We are merely a transient collection of elements, like everything else in the cosmos, yet we are tricked into thinking otherwise because we have this ‘human consciousness thing’.

    “A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste… In an instant, all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!” – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

    1. Theres got to be to life than that. Everything is in Gods will. Even our ability to think and reason was somehow given to us. The illusion is basing life on wants and desires or being carried away by our senses and emotions. We are to a degree just a product of our socialization, but even that… Where did it come from?

  5. The life is but a dream part can mean some stuff:
    Life is everything but a dream, or
    Life is nothing but a dream

  6. Mary
    I was just watching Dr. Wayne Dyer and his interpretation of this Nursery Rhyme. I looked for other interpretations on the Web and found yours Daphne. As an educator I found the rhyme applicable in a bit of different interpretation for me.
    Row, row, row ==the work needed to direct learning
    your boat ==use of individual’s brain and other materials to learn
    Gently down the stream. = consider and try all things on the learning journey
    Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. = Happily learn from everything (mistakes, critique, and others who model the understanding/or learned thoughts)
    Life is but a dream. = Learning is nothing other than your goals.

    Beyond learning, I still find that “Life is but a dream.” means more that life is what we can dream of or make happen by believing in ourselves.

    It is great to share our thoughts together.
    Wishing everyone Health and Happiness.

  7. There is another similar discuss about “life is but a dream” during 300BC in China. The discussion was started from this story…….

    “Once upon a time, Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying about enjoying itself. The butterfly did not know that it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he awoke from his dream and then veritably he was Chuang Chou. However, he started confusing that the butterfly was Chuang Chou’s dreaming, or whether the butterfly dreamed that it was Chuang Chou at this moment.”

    I believe it kinda like the idea from movie “The Matrix”.

    If anyone wants to dig deeper about this discussion, you can search “The Butterfly Dream” in Google.

    Personally, I felt like I was going back to college when I was writing this thing. This was a “sweet dream” for me because it did recall my happy memory from my college life. But I also understood that I needed to face my works after I finished the writing. So, could I say it is my vision of “ A dream but is a life” ?

    Oh yes…. so, could we think “life is but a dream” inversely? Anyway, this is a new discussion then!

  8. Does this song have different meaning when translated from the original French? Propel, propel, propel your craft instead of row etc. Existence is but an illusion instead of life is but a dream. French existentialism. Levrai.

  9. Love this -presently I am taking a Fairy Tale class at my Winthrop University in Rock Hill. SC. There are so many hidden meaning in Fairy Tales. Love : Row, Row, Row, your Boat. Thank you for your insight Daphne.

  10. Life is a fleeting illusion, it doesn’t last long and you probably won’t understand it before it ends. When it’ll end you will not wake up but instead you’ll forget it, you’ll forget yourself as well.

    1. You seem so very sure of your thoughts.. Perhaps, when you die, instead of forgetting your life, you will realize that you are far more than the body that you have been experiencing in this 5 sense reality. Maybe your body/brain is the computer, and you (consciousness/mind/awareness) has possession of the mouse and the keyboard and is in control. I agree that this life is an illusion… But if the illusion exists, that means you must be the creater of that illusion… By the way, you are the universe and the universe is you. You are a smaller version manifested from the whole and you are in control of your reality. This life is only as you perceive it. So think happy thoughts and never stop asking questions because nobody knows everything. We used to know everything before entering this 5 sense manipulated reality, but we’ve forgotten. Many of us think we are our name, job, ethnicity, gender, income bracket, and the kind of music that we listen too…. But we are so much more than that. We are everything. And everything is us.

      1. According to science, one day our planet will die, the sun will die and also our universe will die.. all sucked into a black hole. So are we everything and everything is us or are we nothing and nothing is us? I’m not trying to be negative, just wanting to go a bit further with this.
        Thank you,

  11. Row, row, row your boat. = Your physical body
    Gently down the stream. = The flow of time
    Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. = Be happy, love one another.
    Life is but a dream. = All that is real is one.
    All that is one is light.
    All that is light is you.

    The dream is the illusion of reality.. all that is light is true, all that is darkness is illusion created by our minds to show us the true meaning of the light, but we forgot that the darkness wasn’t real, and we had forgotten about the light. The only truth IS the light, and anything that is not light is illusion.

    1. Andrew … I seek what you know and understand … Dont know if to ask for guidance, or let the universe provide me with what I am to learn at the right time … But, then again, is this all not JUST a dream … Uhhhggg …

  12. May I congratulate you for giving new meaningful life to a lovely nursery rhyme that swept me back in time by more than half a century to my early school days…row, row, row you boat couches the metaphysical essence of life, its dream-like quality and aspirations. Life and the apparently physical world around us are truly a dream defined by our senses. It is a song for the kids and a spiritual truth for the informed mind. Way to go Daphne…best wishes… Raj.

  13. This body holding me reminds me of my own mortality.
    Embrace this moment. Remember. we are eternal.
    all this pain is an illusion.
    – Tool (Parabola)

  14. I love the explanation, although I believe the phrase life is but a dream, more is referring to that life is everything but a dream. For Everything is and is everything.

  15. Love this! And love that you’re still blogging regularly. I need to follow your fine example. I kind of burned out and life got a little busy. Any tips for restarting the motivator?

    And I hope life is going well for you!

    1. lol, thanks 😉

      Normally, I just take a look at everything in my life that inspires me. Anything at all. Books, movies, objects, people, whatever. Something I’m passionate about or am interested in. Research, ideas, random thoughts. And then I try to figure out how to post on it.
      *shrug* Or I just make a list of things that interest me. Or go on the wordpress daily prompt or google blog ideas. Usually something inspires me. Good luck!

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