After reading Virgil's account of the Elysian Fields in the Aeneid, the dreamer retires, awaking to find himself in a beautiful landscape. A crowd stands by the side of a river, preparing to embark on a vessel resembling Cleopatra's barge. The pilot explains that it is bound for the island of pleasure, and turns away all but the young. The dreamer makes the journey, and upon disembarking is joined by Comus and his troop. As they are approaching the Temple of Pleasure, a person standing beside the Dreamer pull off a mask, revealing himself as an elderly man. He warns the dream of the ill consequences following upon the pursuit of pleasure. At the moment, the Dreamer is awakened by the shouts of riot and jollity coming from within the Temple.
It is justly observed by Milton, that it is the bent of human nature to admit delight; and pleasure, rightly understood, must be allowed to be that summum bonum concerning which the antients lost themselves in vain disputes. Pleasure however seems to be confined to one stage of life; when youth, which the French emphatically call "la belle age," is over, pleasure seems to expire at the same time. The enjoyments of manhood are more closely connected with reason, and dull tranquility is the utmost old age can hope for. These reflections were raised in my mind by a vision I beheld a few nights ago, which I apprehend to have been occasion'd by the impression made on me by Virgil's beautiful celebration of the Elysian Fields, which I had perused with attention just before I went to bed. I imagined myself in a plain of vast extent, the liveliness of whose verdure surpassed any thing I had ever seen; through the midst of it rolled a river of a considerable breadth, the banks of which seemed to resemble the Hesperian gardens; they were beautifully variegated with vineyards, groves of orange and pomegranate, and orchards loaden with all sorts of the most delicious fruits. The azure canopy was of a colour not to be matched in the finest climate upon earth, nor represented by the pencil of a Lorraine. Methought I advanced to the banks of the river, where I saw a bark which was upon the point of setting sail, and crouds of persons, of both sexes, stood upon the shore waiting for a passage. The bark resembled that in which Cleopatra sailed down the river Cydnus to meet Mark Anthony. I pressed forward with a croud of young men, elate with hope, and flushed with joy. When we were upon the point of entering, a groupe of venerable old men approached the pilot, and desired to be admitted in preference to us, on account of their age. The very plea you urge, answered the pilot, excludes you, the role which obtains elsewhere is here inverted; the bark is bound to the island of pleasure, and in that voyage young men have always the precedence. As soon as there was a sufficient number on board, we set off, and were wafted by a prosperous gale to the island of pleasure, soft musick playing to entertain us during the passage. As we approached the island, the fragrance exhaled from thence, filled all our senses with delight, and when we landed, a band of young persons of both sexes approached us, with eyes which swam with joy, and welcomed us to the island of pleasure. They were all of them of the most exquisite beauty, and dressed in the gayest and most becoming manner imaginable. Their tresses were adorned with wreaths of brighter flowers than those gathered by Prosperina on Sicilian plains, and in their hands they held garlands of the same. After we had joined in their merriment, and some time had been passed in the sprightly dance and in songs, by listening to which the sould was ravished with delight, a nymph, whose form could not be surpassed by that of Venus, addressed the company to this effect: "Avail yourselves, my companions, of the dear, delightful days of youth; reason, at that age, consists intirely in the choice of pleasures. Let love preside over your festivals; come, follow his footsteps: if your pleasures are not enlivened by the influence of that god, they will soon prove tasteless and insipid: he even here offers your first conquests, he waits only for your vows, make haste to be happy." She then proposed to conduct us to the temple of pleasure, which stood not far off, surrounded by a delightful grove. We set out with joy, and journeyed on with alacrity; Comus with a troop of revellers joined us by the way, and care was banished from every breast. When we approached the temple of pleasure, the exquisite beauty of the edifice struck us with surprise, and what we chiefly admired the architect for, was, that he had found out the secret to conceal his art. The croud entered with such eagerness and precipitation, and there was such justling at the gate of the temple, that I remained among the last. When I was just entering, I was taken aside by a person, who, removing the mask of youth, by the means of which he had entered unperceived into the bark, discovered himself to be a venerable old man. Methought he addressed me in terms like these: "My son, do not enter the temple, the sacrifices which pleasure makes in this island, are such as virtue cannot assist at without a blush. The votaries of love, who sacrifice in the temple of pleasure, are but ill-requited for their pains. Want and diseases in old age are the general consequences of a few fleeting pleasures enjoyed in youth. I do not disapprove of your having come thus far in quest of pleasure; the desire of it is natural, especially at your stage of life; but you should endeavour to taste the honey without wounding the flower. Disgust lies at the bottom of the cup of pleasure; to taste it rightly, we should skim over its surface."
Whilst I was preparing an answer, the temple all on a sudden rung so loudly with riot and jolity, that I immediately awoke, and, in reflecting upon my dream, could not conjecture what resolution I would have taken had it been a reality.