Dream Song 29

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Dream Song 29




"Dream Song 29," by American poet John Berryman, was first published in 77 Dream Songs in 1964. The collection was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Several years later, Berryman published more dream songs in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). Taken together, the two volumes contain 385 dream songs and can be read as one long poem. The central character in the dream songs is named Henry. He is a semi-autobiographical figure. Berryman denied that Henry was a version of himself, but critics have taken his denials with a pinch of salt. In his note on the dream songs that appeared in The Dream Songs, a one-volume edition of all the dream songs that was first published in 1969, Berryman commented on the songs as a whole: "The poem … is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss." This loss endured by Henry, which many critics assume to be the suicide of Berryman's father, forms a background to "Dream Song 29," in which Henry confesses to a constant feeling of sorrow and guilt and falsely imagines that he has committed a murder. It is one of the most accessible of the dream songs, some of which are obscure, their meaning difficult to puzzle out. Taken as a whole, Berryman's dream songs are his most enduring work and represent a significant contribution to American poetry in the second part of the twentieth century.


Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., in McAlester, Oklahoma, on October 25, 1914. His father, also named John Allyn Smith, was a banker; his mother, Martha, a schoolteacher. In 1926, the family moved to Tampa, Florida, but in that same year, Smith, depressed over marital and business difficulties, shot himself. Berryman was only eleven years old, and his father's suicide affected him for the rest of his life. After Smith's death, the family moved to New York City, and Martha Smith remarried, to a man named John Berryman, who adopted her two sons. The future poet's name then became John Berryman.

As a boy, Berryman excelled at academics, graduating one year early from South Kent School in Connecticut. In 1932, he enrolled at Columbia College (now University), where he studied literature and philosophy. When he was an undergraduate, he decided he wanted to become a poet, and in 1935 he began publishing poems in the Columbia literary magazine, and had one poem published in the Nation. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1936 with a degree in English, Berryman was awarded a fellowship to Clare College, Cambridge, England. During this period he met some of the great poets of the age, including William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. He also traveled in France and Germany and was awarded the Oldham Shakespeare Prize. He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree by Cambridge in 1938.

Returning to New York City in 1938, Berryman began a lengthy job search, which ended with the start of his teaching career at Wayne University (now Wayne State) in Detroit in 1939. Then he worked as an instructor in English composition at Harvard University from 1940 to 1943. After this, until 1951, excluding a two-year break for some independent research on Shakespeare, he taught creative writing at Princeton University.

Berryman's first collection of poetry, "Twenty Poems," was included in Five Young American Poets (1940); a second collection, Poems, was published in 1942, and a third, The Dispossessed, appeared in 1948. Up to this point Berryman's poetry was conventional, rooted in the poetry of the day, but his next publication, the long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), represented a leap into a more original form of writing. From then on, Berryman forged a reputation as an innovative poet with a highly distinctive voice. In 1955, he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he taught until his death.

Berryman had begun drinking heavily in the 1940s, and in 1947 he had undergone psychoanalysis. He had a restless, brooding nature, given to fits of despair. In the mid-1950s, after a period of intensive dream analysis, he began to write the dream songs with which his name is most frequently associated. In 1964, 77 Dream Songs was published and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In 1967, a collection of sonnets that he had written twenty years earlier was published as Berryman's Sonnets. In 1968, another volume of dream songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest was published; the following year, it won the National Book Award. In 1970, his poetry collection Love & Fame was published.

Berryman was married three times. In 1943, he married Eileen Patricia Mulligan; they separated in 1953 and were divorced in 1956. Very shortly thereafter, Berryman married Elizabeth Ann Levine. They had a son in 1957 and were divorced in 1959. In 1961, he married Kathleen Donahue. They had two children.

On January 7, 1972, Berryman committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis. Two of his works, Delusions, Etc. (1972) and Recovery (1973), a novel, were published posthumously.


Stanza 1

"Dream Song 29" begins by describing an unspecified "thing" that has, apparently for a long time, been afflicting a man named Henry. Henry feels a great weight on his heart and also appears to feel hopeless about it. The poem states that even if a hundred years were to pass, and Henry was to weep and remain sleepless for all that time, he "could not make good." In other words, he would still be suffering from this grief—the cause of which remains as yet unstated—and unable to recover. Commentators have often believed that Henry represents Berryman the poet, and the grief from which he suffers is the suicide of his father, which occurred when the poet was eleven years old. However, such an explanation is not essential for understanding the poem, and stanza 3 will provide another clue to the reason for Henry's state of mind.

The last two lines of the first stanza suggest that Henry is always reliving the memory of some aspect of whatever it was that caused his grief. He keeps hearing, again and again it would seem, "the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime." Some commentators suggest that this may be a recollection of the funeral of Berryman's father—perhaps someone coughed and broke the silence at the service or burial; a certain odour was present that always brings back the memory of the event (it is unclear how an odour could "start" in Henry's ears); the chime may be of a church bell somewhere. Once again, this is speculation; the lines are too cryptic to permit definitive interpretation.

Stanza 2

The first line, "And there is another thing he has in mind," introduces a new idea. It appears that there is another aspect to Henry's grief and distress, another event that is contributing to it. What that might be is not stated explicitly in this stanza, but it is something so serious that because of it, Henry feels that for more than a thousand years (which is ten times more than the hundred years mentioned in the first stanza) he would face the reproach of "a grave Sienese face" in profile. This reference cannot be explicitly identified. It suggests perhaps a painting in which Henry somehow sees a reproach for whatever it is he feels guilty about (which so far has not been explained). Siena is a city in Italy that Berryman visited, and he may have seen there the religious portraits created by painters from that city in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The next sentence, "Ghastly, / with open eyes, he attends, blind," suggests that Henry, perhaps with a ghastly look on his face, is contemplating some as yet unknown (to the reader) horror, but even as he tries to look directly at it and concentrate on it, he cannot see it. Perhaps it is too awful for him to contemplate.


  • There is a recording available on compact disk of the first public reading by Berryman of his dream songs, including "Dream Song 29." The recording was made on Halloween night in 1963 and was sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Berryman reads more than a dozen dream songs and gives introductions to many of them. Robert Lowell also reads. The recording is on two disks and is available from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/17047, which is the website of the Academy of American Poets.

The next line suggests that in Henry's mind, he can do nothing about whatever is distressing him so much. It is "too late" to change anything, and this message is conveyed by "all the bells," another obscure reference, perhaps referring to church bells, the tolling of which remind him of his sins without giving him the means to redeem himself from them. "This is not for tears; / thinking" is another cryptic line, perhaps suggesting that since it is too late for Henry to take any corrective action, it is too late for tears as well; the word "tears" harks back to the "weeping" mentioned in stanza 1.

Stanza 3

This stanza sheds some small light on Henry's situation. It transpires that he feels guilty and has attached that feeling of guilt to the belief that he has murdered someone. However, he is mistaken. He never did "end anyone" or cut her body up and hide it, even though he imagines he has done this and has hidden the pieces of the dismembered body where they would be found. It appears that Henry is obsessed by this act that he believes he committed, even though he knows, at a rational level, that he did not murder anyone. He knows this because he "went over everyone, & nobody's missing," which suggests a rather deranged or disturbed mind frantically going through a mental inventory of his friends and acquaintances and finding that they are all still alive and therefore concluding that he could not have killed anyone. This thought is then repeated in two successive lines, which suggest the obsessive nature of his mental processes: "Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. / Nobody is ever missing." The phrase "in the dawn" suggests that Henry is remembering a recurring nightmare; the poem is, after all, a dream song.


  • Write a confessional poem in the style of "Dream Song 29," or of another confessional poet whose work you admire. The poem could deal with difficult emotions regarding your relationship with a family member, or with some other aspect of your life that is problematic for you.
  • Pick two more of Berryman's dream songs that you like. Write an essay in which you explicate both poems and describe why you respond to them. How do these poems compare to "Dream Song 29?"
  • What is the relationship between suffering and creativity? Does suffering enhance creativity? If Berryman had been happier, would he ever have written the dream songs? Was his personal turmoil the engine of his best work? You may consider the work of other poets or artists, such as Sylvia Plath or Vincent van Gogh, and any others you discover in your research. Make a class presentation on this topic.
  • Research the topic of suicide, especially the effect of the suicide of a close relative on other family members. If a mother or father commits suicide, does that increase the risk that their son or daughter will also commit suicide? What are the warning signs of suicide? If a friend of yours seemed suicidal, what would you do? Make a class presentation in which you present your findings.



The main theme of the poem is guilt. Henry's sense of his own guilt is so all-enveloping that nothing he can do can remove or alleviate it. The irony is that the act he feels so guilty about is clearly an imaginary one. Henry did not commit a murder; he only imagines that he did. At one level of his mind, Henry is aware of this fact. ("He knows.") He has an obsessive habit, apparently when he wakes up in the morning, of making sure that no one he knows is missing (which suggests he believes that his dark fantasy is about someone he knows). But this does not assuage his feelings of guilt, since at another level of his disordered, disintegrated mind he continues to think that he has committed such a deed. Henry appears to be in the grip of an irrational obsession, perpetually experiencing intense feelings of guilt and spontaneously inventing a justification for them, even though that justification has no basis in objective reality. The lurid nature of the crime he believes he has committed suggests that violence lurks somewhere in his mind, even though he has not, it seems, acted on it. The fact that he can think himself capable of killing someone, and hacking the body to pieces and hiding them, suggests the habitual violence of his thoughts, presumably about women, since the victim he believes he has killed is female. His imaginary hiding of the body parts "where they may be found" suggests that he wants to be found out; he desperately wants someone to catch him and stop him from performing such deeds, even though all this is going on only in his imagination. What he really wants is for the feelings of guilt to stop. He is desperate for help, even though he believes no help is possible; as the bells say, it is "too late." Henry, it seems, is in a kind of hell of his own making, and there is no way out of it.

Perhaps, if the autobiographical interpretation of stanza 1 is accepted, the grief that crushes Henry's heart resulted from the suicide of Berryman's father. This would equate Henry with the poet himself. Even though Berryman repeatedly denied this was the case, many critics have read the poem in this way. According to this view, the suicide left the boy feeling guilty as well as grief-stricken, perhaps assuming that he was in some way to blame for the death of his father, perhaps feeling that he was not worthy of his father's love. This left a wound that runs so deep in Henry it can never be healed, and through the mysterious alchemy of the unconscious mind, the guilt he feels over this tragic event translates itself into incessant guilt for a crime he never in fact committed.


Henry's guilt acquires a faint tint of sin also, for which he seems to be reproached by a vague sense of religious feeling. "All the bells say: too late," suggests the tolling of church bells, perhaps calling the worshippers to a service, but for Henry it is too late to be a part of a church. He cannot join the community of believers; his sin, his guilt, permanently excludes him. So does the "grave Sienese face." This could be a portrait of the Madonna, or of a saint whose calm, holy countenance can only be felt by Henry as a reproach. The serenity of this unnamed face is thus a counterpoint to the restless turmoil and distress in Henry's mind. He knows he can never attain this serenity; he is cut off from it forever, and it therefore appears to him only as a look of censure and judgment.


Sestet, Rhyme, and Meter

A sestet is a stanza of six lines. (Sestet is from the Latin word for six.) Usually the term refers to the last six lines of a sonnet, but it can also be used, as in this case, to refer to a stanza comprising six lines.

The general stanzaic pattern in the nearly four hundred dream songs is for each sestet to have four lines with five strong stresses, and two lines, usually the third and sixth, with only three strong stresses. Lines 3 and 6 are therefore usually shorter. (A strong stress indicates a syllable which is pronounced louder, and sometimes held for a longer duration, than another syllable that has a "weak" stress.) However, this pattern is varied constantly in the dream songs sequence. In "Dream Song 29," the lines vary in length but none of the three sestets follows the standard form or any other regular pattern. The metrical pattern is extremely flexible, varying between as many as six stresses ("would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,") and as few as one stress (the one-word line at the end of stanza 2).

There is an occasional inversion of the iambic foot to create a spondee (two approximately equal stresses in one foot), as in the first two syllables of "só heavy" (the poet himself has marked the word "so," which would normally not be stressed, for emphasis), and the first two syllables of "grave Sienese."

The poet makes use of end rhyme but the rhyme scheme is not consistent from stanza to stanza. In stanza 1, line 2 ("years") rhymes with line 5 ("ears"), and line 3 ("time") with line 6 ("chime"). In stanza 2, however, lines 1 and 4 ("mind" and "blind") rhyme, as do lines 2 and 6 ("years" and "tears"). In stanza 3, the rhymes consist of repeated words identical in spelling and meaning: "up" in lines 2 and 5, and "missing" in lines 4 and 6. This is sometimes called identical rhyme. (Thematically, this type of rhyme helps to convey the obsessive, repetitive nature of Henry's thoughts.)

Language and Grammar

The poet uses some colloquial language as well as ungrammatical expressions. In stanza 1, "in all them time," should be, to be grammatically correct, "in all that time." In line 4, "Henry could not make good" is a colloquial, perhaps even childlike way of saying that Henry could not recover from, or remove, his feelings of grief, distress, and guilt. In the final stanza, "end anyone" is a colloquial way of describing murder, and the lines "But never did Henry, as he thought he did, / end anyone and hacks her body up / and hide the pieces" is ungrammatical, since the phrase "hacks her body up" is in the present tense but the sentence of which it forms a part is in the past tense. The discrepancy suggests the logic of dream and obsession; even though the imagined murder is in the past, Henry seems to keep reliving it, as if it is in the present, still going on.


Confessional Poetry

Confessional Poetry is a type of autobiographical poetry, written in the first person, in which the poet candidly reveals some of the most intimate details of his or her own life experiences. These may be shocking, sometimes even shameful details of sexuality, illness, depression or other emotional states, and difficult family relationships; the poet willingly confides in the reader the raw (although still artfully presented) truth about themselves.

Confessional poetry became a force in American poetry in the late 1950s, when Robert Lowell, one of the leading poets of the day, published Life Studies (1959), which had a more directly personal and emotional focus than any of his previous poems, some of which were difficult, veiling rather than revealing any emotion that lay behind them. In Life Studies, Lowell wrote about the mental illness he experienced in the 1950s, as well as his relations with his parents and grandparents, and his marital problems. The collection won the National Book Award, and in his acceptance speech Lowell explained that he was seeking a kind of poetry that was more personal than the restrained, objective approach approved by what was known as the New Criticism, which held sway in American poetry criticism from the late 1930s until the 1960s.

Lowell's new approach was stimulated by the self-confessional style of Allen Ginsberg and the other Beat poets in San Francisco who had made a name for themselves on the West Coast in the mid-1950s. Ginsberg's most famous early poem, "Howl" (published in Howl and Other Poems in 1956) contains the following passage, which well expresses the new confessional mode: "[To] … stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head."

In 1959, the same year that Lowell published Life Studies, W.D. Snodgrass, a former student of Lowell's, published Heart's Needle, a collection in similar confessional mode, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It included poems about Snodgrass's divorce and his difficult relationship with his young daughter.

During the 1960s, confessional poetry continued to gain in popularity. Anne Sexton, a student of Lowell's, published her first book of poems, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960); her subject matter included guilt, madness and suicide; she wrote about the time she spent in a mental hospital, and how she tried to reconcile with her daughter and husband when she returned. Sexton's later work often dealt with suicide, and she took her own life in 1975. Another confessional poet who committed suicide was Sylvia Plath. Plath, who like Snodgrass and Sexton was a student of Lowell's, is chiefly known for her collection, published posthumously, titled Ariel (1965). It was a year after Plath's death in 1963 that Berryman published 77 Dream Songs. The path that led to Berryman's semi-autobiographical confessional work had therefore been laid out in the five years that preceded its publication.

The Interpretation of Dreams

In the mid 1950s, Berryman began analyzing his dreams. By the summer of 1955, he had catalogued 120 dreams, and he wrote that doing so had proved to be a painful process. However, he also reported that he was gradually gaining insight and discovering that some of his simplest dreams were in fact more complex than any poem he had read. He considered publishing the analyses themselves but instead decided to use the insights he had gained in a new kind of poem.

Berryman's interest in dream analysis was not uncommon during the period. Indeed, interpreting dreams aroused significant interest amongst psychologists and educated lay people ever since the publication of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. Freud believed that the unconscious mind expressed its desires in dreams. However, Freud stipulated that such desires were subject to censorship by what he would later call the "superego." According to Freud, the wish that the unconscious wants to express is therefore disguised or transformed by several processes, including representation, in which a thought is translated into a visual image, and symbolism, in which a symbol replaces an action or idea. Freudian dream analysis is thus meant to reveal hidden wishes for the purpose of resolving psychic conflict.

During the 1950s, Freud's theories about dream interpretation were losing some ground to newer ideas propagated by Carl Jung and other psychologists. At the same time, the first researchers also began to investigate the brain during sleep, discovering that dreams were most likely to occur during sleep stages known as rapid eye movement or REM. Since REM is controlled by the part of the brain responsible for such functions as breathing and reflexes, the researchers concluded that the parts of the brain responsible for emotions and memories were inactive during dreams. Dreams were therefore only random images, without the meanings Freud ascribed to them, or any meaning at all. However, such research did not dissuade psychologists and their followers from continuing to research and interpret the meaning of dreams.


  • 1960s: The confessional movement expands the subject matter of American poetry; poets reveal the intimate details of their personal lives.

    Today: The tradition of confessional poetry continues; in the United States, Marie Howe and Sharon Olds are two poets whose work often deals with aspects of their personal experiences.

  • 1960s: The sixties are a decade of social upheaval, marked by the continuing success of the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism and the gay rights movement. Many thousands of young people adopt a countercultural lifestyle, emphasizing sexual freedom and recreational use of drugs such as marijuana and LSD, as well as political and social activism on the left of the political spectrum. The decade is also marked by student unrest on college campuses, and protests against the Vietnam War. This rebellion against tradition is echoed in the work of the confessional poets of this period.

    Today: The United States is in a more conservative period. Many conservatives blame current social problems on the liberal ethos that prevailed in the 1960s. Although the United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that some argue resembles the Vietnam War, there are few demonstrations on college campuses against the Iraq war. This conservatism may be reflected in contemporary poetry as many critics note that the genre has become stagnant.

  • 1960s: With the publication of 77 Dream Songs, Berryman's literary reputation rises; during the 1960s he is considered among the front rank of contemporary American poets and acquires an international reputation.

    Today: Berryman's critical reputation has been in decline for nearly two decades and shows no signs of being revived. He is now represented less fully in contemporary poetry anthologies than his near contemporary Adrienne Rich, even though during the 1960s his reputation exceeded hers. In this decline, Berryman is joined by another confessional poet, Anne Sexton, and other poets admired in the 1960s, friends of Berryman such as Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell. Meanwhile, the work of poet Weldon Kees, virtually ignored during the period of Berryman's success, is now undergoing renewed interest.


Berryman's dream songs have attracted much critical attention, and a number of critics have singled out "Dream Song 29" for particular comment. Berryman's fellow-poet Robert Lowell reviewed 77 Dream Songs in the New York Review of Books (and reprinted in Robert Lowell: Collected Prose), and quoted "Dream Song 29" in its entirety. He regarded it as one of the best of the songs and commented on it as follows:

The voice of the man becomes one with the voice of the child here, as their combined rhythm sobs through remorse, wonder, and nightmare. It's as if two widely separated parts of a man's life had somehow fused. It goes through the slow words of "Henry could not make good," to the accusing solemnity of the Sienese face, to the frozen, automatic counting of the limbs, the counting of the bodies, to the terrible charm and widening meaning of the final line.

Edward Mendelson, in his essay "How to Read Berryman's ‘Dream Songs,’" sees a pattern in "Dream Song 29" that is present in many of the other dream songs, too. The first sestet describes a private experience, in Henry's own heart; in the second sestet, Henry "notices or remembers the world outside," and in the final sestet he "acknowledges almost in defeat the social world of others, all those who persist in surviving despite his dreams of violence … who remind him that the thing on his heart is only private." Mendelson sees this threefold pattern ("awareness of self, things, others") as reflective of the epistemology of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).

For Joel Connarroe, writing in John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry, the last sestet of the poem describes "morning horrors of an alcoholic who has no memory at all of what he may have done during a blacked-out period the night before, and who automatically fears the worst." Connarroe argues that Henry's knowledge that he is capable of murder helps to explain his sympathetic identification in another dream song (number 135) with Richard Speck, the notorious murderer who killed several nurses in Chicago in 1966, and the Texas sniper Charles Whitman, who killed thirteen people, also in 1966.

Like Connarroe, Lewis Hyde interprets the poem in light of the alcoholism from which Berryman suffered, taking a similar view of the meaning of the final sestet. Hyde argues in Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking that the poem is about anxiety, which is a major symptom of alcoholism and also of withdrawal from alcohol addiction. He differentiates anxiety from fear, because anxiety has no object. This means that there is no action a person (such as Henry in the poem) can take to relieve it. "The sufferer who does not realize this will search his world for problems to attend in hopes of relieving his anxiety, only to find that nothing will fill its empty stomach."

Paul Mariani explains in his Kenyon Review article that Henry's terror in biographical terms, referring to Berryman's "overwhelming sense of being unloved. As his father had shown him by blowing his heart out with a single .32 caliber shot." Mariani also mentions the rejection of Berryman by Eileen, his first wife, and believes that the "grave Sienese face" in "Dream Song 29" is in part the reproachful image Berryman retained of Eileen.

Thomas Travisano suggests that the poem "may be an elegy for childhood losses." He argues that:

a child's consciousness is suggested not through the direct evocation of a child's experiences … [but] through the preservation or stylized recreation of childlike forms of speech … [which] convey Henry's feeling of his own incomplete maturity, the struggles caused by the fact that a part of himself remains locked in childishness, emotionally uncompleted.

Travisano also notes that the dream songs were written soon after Berryman had engaged in a period of intensive dream analysis, and the poem's "sudden shifts and surprising juxtapositions," which are especially notable in the second sestet, "reflect his extensive exploration of and immersion in unconscious experience."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he considers the themes of "Dream Song 29" in light of similar themes that appear in many of the other dream songs.

The mind of Henry, the semi-autobiographical figure presented in "Dream Song 29" and throughout the 384 dream songs, is an uncomfortable place to inhabit. Henry is a tormented individual, constantly afflicted by irrational feelings of anxiety and guilt that nothing can assuage. He is also aware of the violent impulses that lurk within him and even believes, in spite of the evidence he carefully, even obsessively, assembles to the contrary, that he has committed a murder. "Dream Song 29" can stand alone as a disturbing poem about the mind of a suffering individual, but further insight can be gained by a knowledge of how similar themes appear in many of the other dream songs.

Suicide, one of the elements that makes up "Dream Song 29" is a recurring theme in the dream songs. Critics are widely agreed that the "thing" that sat down on Henry's heart, crushing his spirits and perpetually disturbing him, was the suicide of Berryman's father, when Berryman was eleven years old. John Allyn Smith was apparently depressed because his wife had fallen in love with another man and wanted a divorce. During his final days he took to walking up and down the beach on Clearwater Isle, across the bay from Tampa, with a gun in his hand. Around dawn on the morning of June 26, 1926, he shot himself behind the apartment building where the family lived. His wife, awakened by the shot, found his body. According to John Haffenden, Berryman's biographer, Berryman wrote as an adult that after his father's death he felt "desolation and rage," although for many years he had believed that his primary emotion was grief. Haffenden continues, "Later in life Berryman believed that he had been stunned by his loss, and took it as the point d'appui of his psychological problems."


  • John Berryman: Poems Selected by Michael Hofmann (2004) contains selections from the whole range of Berryman's poetry, including, in addition to The Dream Songs, selections from his books, Berryman's Sonnets, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Love & Fame, and Delusions, Etc. Hofmann contributes an appreciative introduction.
  • Robert Lowell was Berryman's contemporary and is considered to be one of the finest American poets of the twentieth century. His Selected Poems: Expanded Edition, including selections from Day by Day (2007), offers generous selections from the entire range of Lowell's work, including his seminal book, Life Studies, in its entirety.
  • Before her suicide in 1975, Anne Sexton had established herself as one of the more prominent confessional poets. Her poetry has so far stood the test of time, and her voice remains a distinctive one in twentieth century American poetry. The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton (1999) contains her work.
  • The poet Randall Jarrell was a friend of Berryman; the two men respected each other's work. Jarrell is the subject of "Dream Song 127," which alludes to Jarrell's death in 1965 being ruled a suicide. Jarrell is considered to be one of the best American poets from the period immediately following World War II. His Collected Poems (1981) preserves the entirety of his poetry.

Given this belief on the part of the poet, it is perhaps not surprising that the dream songs contain many references to his father's suicide. The second sestet of "Dream Song 1," for example, looks back to a time when Henry appears to have been happy, and all the world was on his side; but "Then came a departure. / Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought." The last two lines of this sestet explain that Henry does not know how he managed to survive, following this sudden departure, which is clearly of his father. In "Dream Song 15," the cryptic reference to one who "hides in the land" is often taken to be a reference to his dead father. "Dream Song 34" is about the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in 1961, who, like Berryman's father, shot himself. Sestet 2 in this song, which contains the phrase "the dove light after dawn at the island" refers to Berryman's father. Berryman was aware of the fact that Hemingway's father had also committed suicide; referring to the writer he says, "whose sire as mine one same way." (Tragically, Berryman, when he took his own life in 1972, completed the symmetry in the fate of the two sons whose fathers took their own lives.) "Dream Song 76" contains an explicit, no doubt painful to write, description of the scene that early morning in 1926:

A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern sea
spreadeagled on an island, by my knee.

From the evidence of the dream songs, Berryman's own feelings about his father were ambivalent. "Dream Song 143," which is entirely about Henry's father, makes a reference to his threat to swim out to sea, taking Henry or his brother Robert Jefferson with him, and drown both himself and the boy. In this song, the poet insists that he loves his father, and he repeats this sentiment even more powerfully in "Dream Song 145," which is also devoted entirely to his father: "Also I love him: me he's done no wrong / for going on forty years—forgiveness time—." He takes solace in the fact that his father did not carry out his apparent threat to drown himself and one of his sons, but only took his own life. He also admits that he does not know what was going on in his father's mind, "so strong / & so undone," at the time of his suicide. In "Dream Song 384," however, the poet expresses a different view. He records a visit he made to his father's grave (which according to his biographer he never in fact made) and writes "I spit upon this dreadful banker's grave / who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn." He remains angry about what his father did and longs for some peace from the unrest it is still causing him. He expresses a desire to hack the casket open with an ax and then bring the ax down on the remains of his father. He believes, it would appear, that only through this violent act, in which the father is symbolically killed again, can he be free of the tragic event that took place when he was a boy.

Another theme in "Dream Song 29" is a feeling of guilt so pervasive that it dominates Henry's thoughts, allowing him no respite. A feeling of personal guilt is apparent in many of the other dream songs. "Dream Song 20" presents a long list of what Henry regards as serious personal failings. He has failed to write to a friend; he has not listened when, presumably, he feels he should have done; he has told lies; he has hurt others and wonders whether he has ever done any good for anyone. In "Dream Song 43," he imagines himself standing trial as "The Man Who Did Not Deliver" and being deservedly convicted. In other songs, he seems to feel that he deserves punishment. In the fantasy that makes up "Dream Song 8," he imagines being subjected to some kind of physical torture in which an unidentified "they" removed his teeth, weakened his eyes, put burning thumbs in his ears, and finally, "They took away his crotch." In "Dream Song 81," he imagines being mutilated after death; in "Dream Song 236," he imagines himself being hanged, apparently for killing a woman with a knife, and he admits to his guilt, referring to himself in the third person: "It's true he did it." This is a clear parallel to Henry's guilty thoughts in "Dream Song 29" about the murder he thinks he has committed.

In several other songs, Henry considers suicide. "Got a little poison, got a little gun" he says in "Dream Song 40"; in "Dream Song 159," he says, "Maybe it's time / to throw in my own hand," but he decides against it because he thinks he may yet learn to understand some secrets hidden in history, theology and poetry; in other words, Berryman's work—he was a scholar and teacher as well as a poet—offers him some small hope, at least in this song, to counteract the tedium and distress apparent in such lines as "We suffer on, a day, a day, a day" ("Dream Song 153") or the "panic dread" that afflicts him each morning when he wakes ("Dream Song 268") and which recalls the Henry of "Dream Song 29," frantically counting in the dawn to see if anyone is missing.

In "Dream Song 29," Henry's psychic turmoil is set against the comfort offered by religion, hinted at in the tolling of the bells, from which he is excluded. The "grave Sienese face" in the second sestet, suggestive of equanimity and perhaps the product of an austere religious life, Henry can experience only as a reproach. It appears from other songs that Henry is a man of some religious sensibility who mourns the apparent loss of God in his own life. For example, "Dream Song 17," which Berryman described as a conversation between Henry and the devil, ends with Henry seeking solace in a variety of religious figures from different religious traditions: a Catholic saint, a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and distinguished representatives of the Buddhist and Jewish faiths. In "Dream Song 20," discussed earlier in terms of Henry's guilty feelings, Henry appeals to God to "Hurl … / … down / something," and ends by noting something that he has heard: the more sin increases, the more grace abounds. He has chosen his words carefully here; he has heard this, but certainly has not experienced it for himself. In "Dream Song 47," about the feast-day of St. Mary of Egypt, Henry states in the last lines, "We celebrate her feast … / whom God has not visited." In "Dream Song 48," he refers to the crucifixion of Christ and mourns "the death of love"; he is more distressed by the death than comforted by the gospel account of the resurrection, a notion which he regards as "troublesome."

Thus do the dream songs as a whole elaborate on the troubled, perpetually restless mind of the Henry of "Dream Song 29." They present a picture of a man torn by guilt and self-reproach, struggling to find a way of making his life worth living, aware that he could find no answers in religion, but occasionally managing to rise above his own gloom by means of a wry, self-deprecating wit: "Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes" ("Dream Song 14"). Perhaps it was this ironic humor which helped the poet Berryman, afflicted by alcoholism and desperate states of mind, to carry on as long as he did, until that tragic Friday morning in January, 1972, when he jumped to his death from a bridge in Minneapolis.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Dream Song 29," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.

John Haffenden

In the following essay, Haffenden gives a critical analysis of Berryman's work.

John Berryman is associated with a group of poets who have become known as the "Middle Generation," a group that includes Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Lowell. It is a critical convenience to label much of the work of Berryman and Lowell, along with that of Sylvia Plath, as "confessional," but the tag is certainly belittling. It suggests a poetry which indulges in vulgar self-exposure, and neglects to note, for example, that Berryman's poems—even in The Dream Songs (1969) and Love & Fame (1970), which are supposedly his most confessional volumes—are in fact the products of sustained imagination and craft. Berryman and his contemporaries certainly had highly disturbed lives, with elements of self-victimization, but the poems should not be mistaken for the lives. Literary historians must eventually evaluate those lives from the perspectives both of individual psychology and of cultural context. Robert Lowell worried the question in an 18 March 1963 letter to Berryman "What queer lives we've had even for poets! There seems something generic about it, and determined beyond anything we could do." In view of the fact that this generation reached adulthood just before World War II, they had also to wonder, as Lowell later put it, "Were we uncomfortable epigoni of Frost, Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore, etc? This bitter possibility came to us at the moment of our arrival."

Faced with such great antecedents, Berryman had to serve a long apprenticeship as a poet, burdened by influence, which lasted until the late 1940s. "Berryman's earlier work," Kenneth Connelly has observed, "is often that of a very self-conscious, sometimes too respectful scholar sweating in the poet's academy, with results, as Dudley Fitts noted long ago, which were marred by ‘an aura of contrivance’" (Yale Review, Spring 1969). But the apprenticeship paid off, for his major works, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and The Dream Songs, are sui generis, unprecedented long poems of humane interest and high literary art, not of unmeditated expressiveness or merely confessional interest. As Denis Donoghue observed of The Dream Songs, "the poem is all perception, surrounded by feeling. The feeling is not on show, on parade; it comes into the lines only because it attends upon perceptions which could not appear without that favour." Berryman's life is at the center of his best poetry, and his poetry is a function of his obsessions. He in fact experienced the whole gamut of obsessions—emotional, psychological, philosophical, religious—which a modern man might endure, but he managed to stand outside himself in his poems by means of personae. "His poems are so close to a sense of life, an imparting of truth complete with the bias of technique and personality, that they have the true flavour of fiction," Douglas Dunn has written. "An enormously comprehensive and unsentimental pathos slips out of his work, complicated and perplexing. We realize that although it may all be about ordinary Berryman, it generalizes itself, it has compass."

Berryman suffered from mismatched parents. His father, John Allyn Smith, had migrated from the family home in Minnesota and worked in the banking business in Oklahoma, where he met and married a young schoolmistress, Martha Little. It is evident that honor came before passion in their marriage, for Martha soon realized her incompatibility with her husband; she was snobbish, capable and ambitious, while Smith seems to have been a decent but unstriving character. After ten years in Oklahoma, Smith resigned from the bank, and the family, including a second son, Robert Jefferson (born in 1917), moved to Florida to try their business prospects. But the Florida boom collapsed in the mid-1920s; Smith's professional hopes foundered and he became depressed and withdrawn. In addition, perhaps because he had come to feel emotionally dispossessed by his wife's strong, exclusive love for the children, Smith showed every sign of being dangerously unstable and fickle in his behavior. He committed suicide by shooting himself on 26 June 1926.

Berryman often regarded that event, which took place in his twelfth year, as the trauma of his life, and in later years he was obsessed with grief, self-identity, and psychological dislocation, as well as with questions of temporal and religious destiny, all of which infused his major poetry. His cast of mind construed affliction as a creative stimulant. Burdened by his mother's influence and dominance, he continually worried the neurotic conflict he believed his father's suicide had triggered. From time to time, in an effort to rationalize the tribulations which fed his poetry, he quizzed his mother for the truth about his father, but most of what she told him characterized Smith as a man deeply alienated, at a point of existential crisis, and irremediably selfish. Although Berryman often reckoned with the fact that his mother must have contributed to the sense of rejection Smith experienced, he mostly suppressed his own feeling of disaffection for her and so perpetuated the self-divisions which charged his best poetry. While self-dramatization galvanized his mature creative output—as late as 1970, he claimed that he retained "enough feelings" about his father to "dominate" The Dream Songs—he struggled through his personal life in a state of continual disequilibrium, rage and remorse, relieved only by periods of exultation.

In Florida the Smiths had been befriended by a man named John Angus McAlpin Berryman. Late in 1926 he married Martha Smith, and the family presently moved to New York City. Young John, who duly adopted his stepfather's surname, attended the newly founded "jock" school, South Kent School in Connecticut, where he boarded for four years from 1928. At that time the school set the highest value on excellence in competitive sports, much more than on academic accomplishments, and it is clear that Berryman, who had all too little aptitude for the playing field, was grievously misplaced. He was subjected to an emotionally confusing existence which forced him to separate his natural abilities from his pretended ambitions and interests. Although he attained high academic success he had to do so while affecting self-disparagement and in the face of what amounted to the school's depreciation. He suffered from a certain amount of bullying, which provoked him to one suicide attempt on 7 March 1931, but his studiousness and cleverness, much encouraged by his mother, at last worked to his good: he was the first boy in the history of the school to bypass the sixth form and to go straight from the fifth into college.

At Columbia College of Columbia University in New York, he spent two years compensating to himself by becoming a great social success and a lion among the coeds, but his failure in one examination shocked him so much that he soon made steadier academic progress. His mother played an enormously influential part in fostering his intellectual and creative talents, but it was the example and guidance of Mark Van Doren, who became a fatherly mentor, which finally fixed his ambitions. Berryman credited Van Doren as being "the presiding genius of all my work until my second year, when I fell under the influence of W.B. Yeats," and characterized his teaching as "strongly structured, lit with wit, leaving ample play for grace and charm …. It stuck steadily to its subject and was highly disciplined …. If during my stay at Columbia I had met only Mark Van Doren and his work, it would have been worth the trouble. It was the force of his example, for instance, that made me a poet." For his part, Van Doren remembered Berryman as "first and last a literary youth: all of his thought sank into poetry, which he studied and wrote as if there were no other exercise for the human brain. Slender, abstracted, courteous, he lived one life alone, and walked with verse as in a trance." Berryman published several poems and reviews in the Columbia Review, and studied so hard that the dean of Columbia College eventually considered him "conspicuously qualified … for academic distinction."

He finally won the distinction of becoming Kellett Fellow, which enabled him to study for two years (1936-1938) at Clare College, Cambridge, where he worked under George Rylands and won the prestigious Oldham Shakespeare Scholarship in his second year. He met W.H. Auden in England, befriended Dylan Thomas[…] and received an audience with his hero W.B. Yeats, who left him, as he recorded at the time, with "an impression of tremendous but querulous force, a wandering intensely personal mind which resists natural bent (formal metaphysics by intuition, responsible vision) to its own exhaustion." Also in England, he became engaged to a young woman, who visited him in New York when he returned there for the academic year 1938-1939, but the relationship could not last when she decided to stay in England for the duration of World War II.

While in England Berryman had determined to become a teacher, but he failed to gain a job on returning to New York and spent one year in a state of considerable nervous stress, writing poems (some of them were published in Southern Review), abortive plays, and book reviews for New York Herald Tribune Books. In 1939 he became for one year part-time poetry editor of the Nation, and took up an appointment as instructor in English at Wayne University in Detroit (now Wayne State University), where he lived and worked with a charismatic young friend, Bhain Campbell. A poet and Marxist, Campbell strove to inject some social and political consciousness into Berryman's apprentice poetry, but Berryman's early work manifests a concern with the craft of poetry—the dynamics of style, form, metrics—to the extent of neglecting content. The strain of his year at Wayne caused Berryman to suffer from exhaustion and from attacks which were diagnosed as petit mal epilepsy. Furthermore, Bhain Campbell contracted cancer and died late in 1940, an event which caused Berryman a profound grief which he associated with the death of his father. In 1940 he began work as an instructor in English at Harvard University, and in 1942 he married his first wife, Eileen Patricia Mulligan, whose love and moral support for his work and whose sufferance of his increasingly bizarre neurotic drives kept them together for a period of more than ten years.

Berryman's earliest poems were first brought together, along with poems by Mary Barnard, Randall Jarrell, W.R. Moses, and George Marion O'Donnell, in Five Young American Poets (1940), and then in a slim volume of his own, Poems (1942). Most of the items in those first collections were written in 1939, and have been well characterized by Joel Conarroe as "ominous, flat, social, indistinctly allusive, exhausted … an echo chamber." Well schooled and crafted, infused with a sense of loss and unlocated portentousness, they mostly fail to synthesize personal feeling and reflection, and have pretensions to the meditative poise Berryman valued in the poetry of Yeats's middle period. Too much in them is labored and realized only through rhetoric, so that even poems which figure socio-political subjects (prompted by Berryman's association with Bhain Campbell) bury the contemporary ills and evils they treat in specious gestures and solemn style. Conrad Aiken, R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Oscar Williams, and John Crowe Ransom spotted the promise of Berryman and of Randall Jarrell in the group volume of 1940, and indeed certain poems, such as Berryman's "Winter Landscape," deserve their reward as anthology pieces. However, Berryman recognized at an early stage that he had been beguiled by literary influences, Yeats, Auden, and Delmore Schwartz being chief among them, and that both the forms and attitudes of his first published poems derived as much from works of literature as from subjects of real personal concern. "Desires of Men and Women," for example, might have been entitled "Variation on a Theme by Delmore Schwartz"; [….] (Likewise, what really interested Berryman about "The Animal Trainer," a poem in two parts completed by March 1940 but published four years later, was that its form derived from poems by Conrad Aiken and Bhain Campbell.) Berryman struggled to find his own voice throughout the 1940s, trying all the while to break away from the dominant influence of Yeats on what he called "the compositional base" of his poems. Since he protractedly worried the claims of literature over life […]—it is ironic that his greatest achievements as a poet finally came from fashioning the literature of life.

In 1943 he started teaching as an instructor in English at Princeton University, where he worked under another of his heroes, Richard Blackmur, and numbered among his talented students W.S. Merwin, Frederick Buechner, and William Arrowsmith. Berryman showed great respect and affection for Blackmur, Frederick Buechner recalls: "Blackmur seemed an old gull drying his wise wings in the sun, Berryman a sandpiper skittering along the edge of the tide." Princeton was Berryman's home for the next decade, and his circle of friends expanded markedly during that time. After his initial period of teaching, in 1944 he undertook a two-and-a-half-year stretch of independent research in Shakespearean textual criticism (supported by a Rockefeller Foundation research fellowship, he virtually completed an edition of King Lear which has never been published) before he was again appointed to the teaching faculty in 1946. He was successively associate in creative writing, resident fellow in creative writing, and Alfred Hodder Fellow and became a conspicuously successful teacher with a charisma that awed his students. Those students and other friends who were closest to him nonetheless discerned the psychological pressure and pain under which he labored, a restlessness of the spirit coupled with a deep despair of himself. At Harvard University from 1940 to 1943 he had suffered a more oppressive intellectual climate, from much of which (unlike his colleague Delmore Schwartz) he had shielded himself, only to indulge in increasingly morbid and paralyzing self-appraisal. At Princeton long hours of isolated study caused him to brood more and more. His tolerance for personal and professional setbacks became lower than ever, and by the late 1940s he assumed a sort of a second nature, a guise in which to face what he believed to be the overwhelming demands of his work and society. Many of his acquaintances saw his public role as that of an eccentric, a combination of braggart, womanizer, unpredictable drinker, and formidable—sometimes savagely assertive or dismissive—intellectual. In fact, whether intimidating or endearing, his behavior was often just the superficial aspect of a temperament that was all too often tormented by acute insecurity, self-recrimination, and self-exaction. To a degree, after 1947, Berryman came to hide his fears in drink. His diaries from the 1940s give the impression of a man stricken by neurosis and self-analysis, paradoxically sustaining himself by greater demands on the self, and too little evidence of the many happy times he enjoyed with his wife.

In 1948 William Sloane Associates published The Dispossessed, a volume of rhymed stanzaic poems burdened by feelings of hopelessness and confusion, wielding abstruse images and torturing syntax in an unrewarding fashion. It was characteristic of Berryman's desolated attitude during the early and mid-1940s that he should have followed in some verses the example and tone of Louis Aragon, especially as in Le Crève-Coeur (1941; Berryman later complained that he had been "conned" by Aragon), where a bitter sentimentality and sense of personal defeatism vis-a-vis World War II harmonized with Berryman's sense of affairs. He tended to see his own inner conflicts mirrored in the European holocaust. Some of the poems of The Dispossessed, milling with inflated sentiment and opaque image, are virtually incomprehensible in whole or in part. The title poem, for instance, begins with a quotation from Luigi Pirandello and leads into a surrealistic assemblage of images; it is easy to miss the point that the poem actually concerns the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima[….] Joel Conarroe properly comments: "The humorless, abstract, often bloodless quality of much of the early work, inhibited even in an age of arid art, gives evidence of the price Berryman paid for rejecting the validity of his own sensory experience …. Berryman succeeds less well with the social-ironic speculative poem, by way of Auden, than with the personal lyric … that has its source in his own feelings." Contemporary reviewers understandably felt they could find little to praise in the collection, though a number of them expressed hopes for Berryman's future. While Randall Jarrell reasonably discovered "raw or overdone lines side by side with imaginative and satisfying ones" (Nation, 17 July 1948), Yvor Winters taxed Berryman's "disinclination to understand and discipline his emotions. Most of his poems appear to deal with a single all-inclusive topic: the desperate chaos, social, religious, philosophical, and psychological, of modern life, and the corresponding chaos and desperation of John Berryman" (Hudson Review, Fall 1948). However, one group of nine dramatic monologues, "The Nervous Songs" (which are to some extent influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke), stand out as psychologically vibrant dramas which prefigure Berryman's mature work. As Conarroe has written, "In its form, the three six-line stanzas with flexible rhyme schemes, and in its mood of intense auto-revelation, the sequence is an important forerunner of The Dream Songs."

The year 1947, however, had finally brought contingent reality directly into the center of Berryman's creative life. He had an illicit affair with a woman to whom he gave the pseudonym Lise and wrote a running commentary on its progress in the form of a sequence of sonnets which were published only twenty years later as Berryman's Sonnets (1967). The sonnets use a Petrarchan rhyme scheme, much archaic or antic diction, and dislocated syntax (which at best reflects the turbulence of the poet's moods and at worst draws attention to itself as factitious and gauche). The sequence in some ways corresponds to a traditional and perhaps artificial scheme—moving from hope and anxiety through dangerous and guilty fulfillment to withdrawal and reproach—but that paradigmatic design was in fact fortuitous, for the sequence at all stages logs the actuality of the affair. Berryman's Sonnets provides an inventory of the poet's being, mind, and moods, at stages on a blind road. Berryman quickly assumed the role of a spectator of his own drama, and the sonnets served appetite as much as satisfaction. He became at once obsessively "in love" with his mistress and self-consciously withdrawn, exercising a double consciousness which left a discrete gap between the man who experienced and suffered and the writer who evaluated and composed emotion into a literary artifact.

Since circumstances kept Berryman and Lise apart for much of the summer, he was often compelled to fashion an image of her, a myth, drawing on imaginative invention and on literary analogues. Accordingly, the sonnets sometimes fall short of what Roy Pascal has called a "correlative in the outer world" (Design and Truth in Autobiography, 1960). Berryman leaned toward literature to find models of his love, sometimes with a consequent excess of self-regard. In sonnet 75, he compares himself to Petrarch, in 29 to Honoré de Balzac, in 21 to David in relation with Bathsheba; sonnet 16 was suggested by Philip Sidney's second sonnet to Stella. In other words, by comparing himself to well-known precursors in the role of adulterer or sonneteer, he was drawn to behold himself in the role of poet and to diminish attention to the lady. His literary self-consciousness is marked even in the first sonnet of the sequence […] which alludes to Stéphane Mallarmé's poem "M' introduire dans ton histoire"; the first four lines of sonnet 102 (a poem, Berryman recorded in his journal, written on "15 August in the morning after my worst nightmare for months: a killer, mad") are a loose imitation of the first four lines of Tristan Corbière's poem "Heures"; sonnet 105 is a virtuoso performance prompted by a reading of the Grimms' tale "The Duration of Life." Likewise, the final line of sonnet 52 includes a slightly mistranscribed quotation from the last line […] of Wilhelm Müller's "Wasserflut" ("The Water's Flow"), set to music, as part of Winterreise, by Franz Schubert: it is one of many private references in the sequence, for Berryman and Lise loved playing recordings of Schubert's song cycle together. A good deal of the obscurity and inscrutability of the sonnets may be attributed, not only to the necessity of subterfuge and secrecy, but to the fact that much of their content and thematic linkage was the product of the poet's isolation from his love, compelling him to be self-conscious and literary. Many of the sonnets, he knew, were authentic in impulse but made insincere by artistic devices.

On the other hand, perhaps just as many were written in direct response to the lover, and they include the best of all the sonnets, which are fully charged with personal emotion, anguish, and poignancy, and communicate it to the reader. They served, like Jonathan Swift's Journal to Stella or Laurence Sterne's Journal to Eliza, as a way of imparting his feelings to Lise. In that sense the most accomplished sonnets were a form of homage, poems about as well as to his love. Berryman's journal entry for 16 July 1947, for instance, includes the sincere comments: "(… she is my conscience as well as my inspiration); four new sonnets, and even better (what I couldn't get peace for earlier) four old ones perfected—still I die of longing: if I hadn't faith in her I don't know what I would do." Milton Gilman points to the cold surface texture of many of the allusive sonnets, and perceptively argues that Lise "is, in a sense, the creative agent of every poem, the source of tone, rhythm, image, and theme." She is "a provisional deity …. The real center of interest is the increasingly complex psychological state of the speaker …. the illicit nature of the affair is so important in the Sonnets, providing an opportunity to release all kinds of feeling: lust, longing, scorn, guilt, pity, fatigue, despair, fear, impatience, joy."

Reviewers of Berryman's Sonnets, when they at last appeared in 1967, highlighted the importance of their style as laying the ground for Berryman's use of disrupted syntax in his major works, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs, where style—what Anthony Thwaite called in a review for the New Statesman (17 May 1968) the "awful spasmodics" of Berryman's Sonnets—is integrated with subject, functional and not gratuitous. But what is perhaps equally important about the achievement of Berryman's Sonnets is that they showed him the way to marry his creative gift to his life. The essence of Berryman's art and his literary success lay in his ability to tap and impart the deepest reaches of the human personality and consciousness.

Berryman's desire and guilt over the affair of 1947, and over other illicit affairs in the late 1940s, immediately charged the theme and form of his first major work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which he began in 1948 and finished in 1953. A long poem of fifty-seven stanzas, with a complex metric and sophisticated rhyme scheme, it succeeds both as lyric and as drama, and has been called by Edmund Wilson "the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land." Berryman himself declared that he "set up the Bradstreet poem as an attack on The Waste Land: personality, and plot—no anthropology, no Tarot pack, no Wagner." He deplored Eliot's notion of the impersonality of the poet, and rather professed the "passionate sense of identification" he found in Walt Whitman.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet employs an apparently objective scheme of two voices—the voice of Anne Bradstreet, the first poet of New England, and that of the "poet" who both conjures up the heroine and appears to be conjured up by her (since the poem largely follows the putative experiences of her life). Berryman's Bradstreet is rendered as an alienated, creative woman, rebellious against husband, father, and God. She registers a sense of spiritual and domestic displacement, bears a child, momentarily succumbs to the seductive blandishments of the "poet" who figures as a sort of demon lover, but then withdraws from him and moves forward into her declining years and death. The poem ends with a sense of historical quietus and fatalism. Much of the poem draws on the facts of the life of the real Anne Bradstreet, some of which are distorted, even perverted, for imaginative purposes which justifiably serve the work's major themes—religious apostasy, adulterous inclination, creative stultification, guilt, retribution, remorse—all of which match Berryman's personal obsessions. Berryman's own marriage and adulteries are sublimated in the poem, so that its fictive form actually speaks directly for the poet's passionate concerns. In depicting a relationship beyond space and time, Berryman deploys a conceptual device which transcends and encompasses subjective utterance and accordingly succeeds on a multiplicity of structural and thematic levels. In a sense Homage to Mistress Bradstreet does offer a personal confession and an exploration of its subject, but in a form which transfigures self-exhibition through art.

It may be fair, as John Frederick Nims wrote in a 1958 review, to judge that the poem stresses "a sort of depressing propaganda for the view that the flesh is evil," but it needs to be said that the poem is stylistically far more flexible (moving swiftly, for example, between moments of tenderness, triumph, hysteria, and pathos) than the limits Nims sets: "In Berryman's stanza everything is tense, numb, shivering, painful …. Throughout the poem I find this alternation of strength, gravity, even nobility with a shrill hectic fury, a whipped-up excitement, a maudlin violence of mal protesi nervi." (Berryman himself reasonably explained, "I was taking chances at the time of my poem. I had to get a language that was not hers, but not mine, but would not be pastiche, like Ben Jonson's projection of Spenser.") Nims's comments are as just as those by any other adverse critic of the poem (compare, for instance, the severely critical long essay "The Life of the Modern Poet," in the 23 February 1973 issue of the Times Literary Supplement), where the anonymous reviewer perceptively argues that "purportedly concerned with Anne Bradstreet, [Berryman's] poem is really about ‘the poet’ himself, his romantic and exacerbated personality, his sense of loneliness, his need for a mistress, confidante, confessor"; but his conclusion that Berryman "has too little human reality to sustain his myth" may be disputed by emphasizing the transcendent imaginative richness of the achievement.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, as one or two critics have pointed out, has some likeness to Robert Lowell's poem Lord Weary's Castle (1946), but any comparison necessarily fails in essentials: Berryman's poem is peculiar to himself in both style and concerns. He was undoubtedly correct when he observed, "In the Bradstreet poem, as I seized inspiration from [Saul Bellow's novel The Adventures of Augie March, [1953], I sort of seized inspiration, I think, from Lowell, rather than imitated him." Berryman had befriended Lowell as early as 1944, and enthusiastically reviewed Lord Weary's Castle in 1947.

Lowell himself recalled that Berryman "was humorous, thrustingly vehement in liking … more adolescent than boyish …. Hyperenthusiasms made him a hot friend, and could also make him wearing to friends—one of his dearest, Delmore Schwartz, used to say that no one had John's loyalty, but you liked him to live in another city …. John could quote with vibrance to all lengths, even prose, even late Shakespeare, to show me what could be done with disrupted and mended syntax. This was the start of his real style."

There is no doubt that Berryman managed to be both fiercely loving and very competitive toward Lowell and other poets, but he invariably gave his love and kept the rivalry to himself. On the whole, he felt that his own achievements as a poet came second to Lowell's, as he wrote in an undated, not necessarily disingenuous letter to his mother shortly after Robert Frost's death in 1963: "Frost's going puts—as you wouldn't think it would—a problem to me. I have never wanted to be king …. I've been comfortable since 1946 with the feeling that Lowell is far my superior …."

Berryman's obsessional self-inquisition and his growing dependence on alcohol (he first began to drink heavily in 1947) put undue strains on his private life, but it enabled him to develop a strong sense of identification with what he discovered to be (in a sometimes willful and not always strictly scholarly way) the psychological problems of Stephen Crane. Reviewers received Stephen Crane (1950), his critical biography, respectfully but on the whole skeptically, for a number shared Graham Greene's criticism of the book's "tortured prose" and of Berryman's dubious use of depth psychology as a mode of literary criticism. Morgan Blum, on the other hand, considered it a "flawed but distinguished book"—distinguished in its treatment of the intersections between Crane's life and work.

Berryman's bravura teaching continued to flourish: he taught at the University of Washington in early 1950, and spent a most successful semester as Elliston Professor of Poetry at the University of Cincinnati in Spring 1952. His endeavors as a Shakespearean scholar (which at many stages of his life he valued as highly as his work in poetry) and his poetry writing were equally rewarded with a Guggenheim Fellowship for critical study and for creative writing, which enabled him to complete Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. But his psychological disturbances compelled him to seek the help of a psychiatrist, whom he consulted at length in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he also spent some time in group therapy. Moreover, the stresses of his drinking, his anguished disposition, and his increasingly wayward conduct caused his first wife to leave him at the end of a hectic summer in Europe in 1953. Eileen Berryman Simpson has recently published two books of her own, a worthy novel, The Maze (1975), which is, according to one reviewer, "quite transparently the story of the marriage's breakup …. less satisfying as fiction than as biography," and a memoir, Poets in Their Youth (1982).

Berryman then taught in the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in spring 1954 and at Harvard University during that summer. ("He taught by exemplitude," Edward Hoagland, who studied under him at Harvard, has recalled. "He taught mostly about books he had loved with a fever that amounted to a kind of courage"). He returned to the University of Iowa that fall, but he was obliged to resign after a drunken altercation with his landlord which resulted in a night's imprisonment. (His students in the Writers' Workshop included W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, William Dickey, and Jane Cooper.) Allen Tate, whom he had regarded as a master since they first met at Columbia in 1935, saved the situation by inviting him to Minneapolis […], where he started teaching courses in humanities in 1955. It was in Minneapolis that Berryman became fast friends with Saul Bellow, whom he always looked to as a model of literary style and energy. In 1956 he married Elizabeth Ann Levine, who bore him a son, Paul, the following year, but the relationship fared badly and ended in divorce in 1959.

Berryman's sense of personal dereliction led him to undertake a long period of dream analysis on his arrival in Minneapolis, and to embark upon the greatest work of his career, The Dream Songs, first published in two parts, 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968).

"I set up The Dream Songs as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry," Berryman later declared. "The aim was … the reproduction or invention of the motions of a human personality, free and determined …." The Dream Songs is a long poem of 385 sections, each (with small exceptions) being composed of three six-line stanzas, which deal with the multitudinous preoccupations and adventures, notions, and emotions, of a persona named Henry (alias Henry Pussycat, Henry House, Mr. Bones). Henry is now and then challenged and ineffectually corrected by an unidentified friend, his interlocutor. It is neither a narrative nor a philosophical poem, but a poem to which Berryman opened his entire mind and being, acts and eventualities, high thoughts and dark obsessions. […] The shifting pronominal identification of Henry (who is obviously, to all intents and purposes, Berryman himself) became a function of Berryman's self-exploration, an ironic device which throws character and attitude free of solipsism or egotism. Berryman told Jane Howard that "the various parts of [Henry's] identity are fluid. They slide, and the reader is made to guess who is talking to whom. Out of this ambiguity arises richness. The reader becomes more aware, is forced to enter into himself."

The device of splitting facets of himself into dramatis personae owed much to Freud's analysis of ego and id, and to the classical opposition of alazon and eiron (the egoistic and pretentious man confronted by an ironic man who staggers self-possession), but also to an insight which Berryman independently perceived but later found rehearsed by W.H. Auden in "Balaam and His Ass" (The Dyer's Hand, 1963)[…].

In an interview dating from 1963, Berryman said, "I have an anti-hero in [The Dream Songs] who's a character the world gives a hard time to." The poem is often obscure and abstruse, especially in 77 Dream Songs, with private references and arcane allusions; it also uses daring and lively syntax, and a mixed diction including what the poet himself called "coon talk." Such a motley style owes much to a tradition which reaches back through the ethos, rhythms, and attitudes of the blues to the minstrel tradition. Berryman himself pinpointed one source of his inspiration in the figure of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white actor of the early-nineteenth century who mimicked a black—"Jim Crow"—so finely that he managed to transform painful dispossession into art. Berryman identified with the social and spiritual underdog, and his Henry in a black mask expresses his own pain and pathos in a mode which extends beyond egotism and embraces other outcasts. Minstrelsy, as William Wasserstrom has written, "represents the climactic and synoptic solution to the poet's ‘long, often back-breaking search for an inclusive style, a style that could use his erudition,’ Robert Lowell says, and ‘catch the high, even frenetic, intensity of his experience, disgusts and enthusiasm.’"

The Dream Songs, which Berryman called an epic, is a poem as ambitious as Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, William Carlos Williams's Paterson, or Hart Crane's The Bridge, but unlike Song of Myself, for instance, it proposes no system. It contains and bodies forth a personality, and philosophical and theological notions, but it is above all a pragmatic poem, essaying ideas and emotions, love, lust, lament, grief. Several of the finest poems are elegies for fellow poets—Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath—and certain key songs compass Berryman's ambivalent feelings for his dead father. "Always," Kenneth Connelly has written, "Henry stands above his ‘father's grave with rage,’ resentful, compassionate, jealous, accusing, finally gaining the courage to spit upon it. (The mystery of a careless earthly father modulates inevitably into Henry's analogous broodings over the Heavenly Father and his family, provoking some of the most brilliant religious poems of our time.)" Through the persona of Henry, Berryman, as Wasserstrom expresses it, "synthesizes all fragments of the self [and] helps the self to mediate, accommodate, comply and in this way avoid all menace of extinction."

Berryman believed that feelings might be imaginatively controlled in the order of art, and hoped that The Dream Songs might be as useful to the reader as to himself. […] He felt that Whitman's Song of Myself was a poem that "will do good to us," and the same may be true of The Dream Songs, which is by turns highly comic and savagely painful. It also has inevitable weaknesses and faults, one of which is perhaps not unlike the fault Berryman found in Song of Myself when he described it as "too idiosyncratic[…]" A number of critics have objected to Berryman's "abuse" of syntax, the whirligig of his demotic and literary diction (Robert Lowell found himself "rattled" by "mannerisms"), and what Denis Donoghue has called his "hotspur materials." However, a larger area of unrest, which Berryman always shared, concerns the shape and structure of The Dream Songs, epic or otherwise. Berryman continually attempted to model his poem on traditional epic structures, including Dante's Divine Comedy, the liturgy of the Bible, and the Iliad, and included a group of poems in which the hero dies and visits the underworld (book 4, the opus posthumous sequence which occupies the middle section of the poem, many critics consider to be among the finest of the songs; Robert Lowell told Berryman he considered book 4 "the crown of your wonderful work, witty, heartbreaking, all of a piece …. one of the lovely things in our literature"), but the nature of the songs entirely depended on the plotless fortunes of Berryman's own life during the thirteen years of writing. The "individual human soul under stress" to which he referred in a 1970 conversation with Richard Kostelanetz is that of Berryman as Henry; Berryman could no more map the poem to a prefigured narrative or philosophical conclusion than he could forecast the luck of his own life, as he virtually acknowledged in an interview for the Paris Review: "I was what you might call open-ended. That is to say, Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life—namely, he didn't know and I didn't know what the bloody f——ing hell was going to happen next. Whatever it was he had to confront it and get through."…

The dissociated "pieces," as Denis Donoghue has explained, go to make up the whole of the man and his work: "This is not Whitman's way. Whitman's aesthetic implies that the self is the sum of its experiences, not the sum of its dissociated fragments …." In a 29 April 1962 letter to Robert Lowell, Berryman worried that the songs "are partly independent but only if … the reader is familiar with Henry's tone, personality, friend, activities; otherwise, in small numbers, they seem simply crazy …," but many good critics have demonstrated not only the folly of accusing the poem of confessional self-indulgence and disorder but also that what Berryman thought a weakness is actually a strength. Adrienne Rich, for instance (in a review Berryman called "the most serious study any large area of my work's ever had"), observed "first of all, the presence through the book of an effective unifying identity, and second, the power of that identity to define its surroundings so accurately …. a truly original work, in the sense in which Berryman has made one, is superior in inner necessity and by the force of a unique human character."

Berryman fought hard to finish The Dream Songs, and incorporated into it all the adventures, observations, and vicissitudes of his life. In 1957, for instance, he undertook a successful but exhausting lecture tour of India, which gave him acute insights into a foreign culture. At home in Minneapolis the disestablishment of the department of inderdisciplinary studies in 1958 sustained his sense that his professional life would always be hapless and harrowing. He nonetheless fully committed himself (for the rest of his life, as it turned out) to teaching in the humanities program at the University of Minnesota, and developed a spectacular pedagogical style, ardent and terrified, and accentuated by the problems of alcoholism. The Minneapolis Star reported after his death: "In the classroom, Berryman was electrifying …. When he was wrapped up in a lecture—and he usually was, whatever the specific topic—he would stalk from one side of the room to the other, now whispering, now bellowing, invariably trembling with emotion and perspiring freely." His academic career reached a peak in 1969, when he was appointed Regents' Professor of Humanities, a distinction which left him far more humbled than conceited, and Drake University conferred on him an honorary doctorate. He also became a formidably successful performer in the role of public bard, and in his last decade he gave many campus readings at which his voice was by turns thick with drink, engagingly bombastic, and even menacing. His audiences found him thrilling, alarming, exhilarating, ripe with quips and asides. Jane Howard's profile of the poet (Life, 21 July 1967) served as much as any other report of the 1960s to sell Berryman in an image reminiscent of Dylan Thomas; she perfectly reflected the eccentric style—sensational, temperamental, learned—he had encouraged in his conduct. William Heyen, Berryman's host at a visit to the Brockport Writers Forum in 1970, likewise described him as "Charming, disputatious, dominating, brilliant." Like Samuel Johnson, however, Berryman always felt the anxieties of fame, and sustained himself with equal parts of arrogance, self-irony, and terror.

He gained much happiness and a focus for his personal life when he married his third and last wife, Kathleen (Kate) Donahue, in 1961. Three years later they managed to buy a modest house, the first and last home Berryman ever owned, on Arthur Avenue in Minneapolis. The couple had two children, Martha in 1962 and Sarah Rebecca in 1971. In 1966-1967 the family lived on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Dublin, where Berryman passed long hours drinking but finally assembled The Dream Songs. The conclusion of that poem after thirteen years of work could not but be a great loss to him, for reasons he might have known when he recalled (in "A Tribute," Agenda, 4, 1965) how he had once pressed T.S. Eliot to urge Ezra Pound to finish The Cantos: "‘Oh no,’ Eliot said gravely, ‘I could never do that. That would be the end of him. He would have nothing to do.’ I did not then like this attitude but it was right and I was wrong."

The consensus of critical opinion on Berryman's next volume of poetry, Love & Fame (1970), is that it marks a falling off in inspiration and technique, an unfortunate return to the lyric form. Wistful for the ambition and scope of his major works, even Berryman registered the inevitable limits of his latest venture[…]. Half of Love & Fame consists of autobiographical poems, which Robert Lowell considered "profane and often in bad taste, the license of John's old college dates recollected at fifty." Quite apart from the question of "bad taste" (which several reviewers impugned), the lyrics are in fact compellingly accessible, witty, and often ironic. The volume acquired a fortuitously ironic structure when Berryman ended it with "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," a group of lyrics which reaffirm a querulous and ambiguous religious faith […] and require the reader to measure the secular and lubricious poems which precede them only in the context of the book as a whole. One reviewer, Walter Clemons, gave this perceptive and generous construction of Love & Fame: "Some of those poems are very hard to take. Behind a coarse jocularity, a desperate man was trying to cheer himself up, I thought when I first read and disliked them. I now think he was deliberately caricaturing, in bold poster colors, the bumptious, lost eagerness of his youth." However, no reader can afford to overlook the cautionary irony of Robert Lowell's comment that Berryman may have found his autobiographical excursions "too inspiring and less a breaking of new ground than he knew."

As with all Berryman's major works, the writing of Love & Fame ran in tandem with the experience of his life. He recovered his faith in Christ while undergoing treatment for alcoholism in 1970. He had suffered from alcoholism for more than twenty years, and first took steps to recover in 1969. The lessons he learned during two courses of treatment at St. Mary's Hospital, Minneapolis, in 1970, which included his conviction that a "God of rescue" had interceded in his life, established him as a recovering alcoholic but also left him feeling perilously self-exposed. He tried hard to take a stable view of his anguished sensibility and of his disturbed career (which he too often insisted on dating back to his father's suicide), but years of sickness and waste of spirit had taken their toll. Berryman's "late conversion," Douglas Dunn has saliently written, "proves the honesty of his anguish at the cruelty of the world, the competition without kindness. Yet it derives from fatigue."

Berryman drafted an autobiographical novel about the process of becoming a recovering alcoholic, but most critics have judged that the unfinished Recovery (1973) stands as an extraordinary and readable document about Berryman himself rather than as a fully realized work of literary art. He also completed a last book of poems, Delusions, Etc. (1972), but it fails on the whole to embody the passionate intensity of his best work, despite the undoubted success of certain poems—the idiosyncratic relish, for example, of "Beethoven Triumphant" and "Scholars at the Orchid Pavilion," the fierce identification of "Drugs Alcohol Little Sister" and "Tampa Stomp," and the poignant lament of "He Resigns." As the anonymous author of "The Life of the Modern Poet" (Times Literary Supplement, 23 February 1973) has written, "The last books have an intense but narrowly documentary appeal," and represent "the brave valediction of a man who chose his own way to die." In 1971 Berryman won a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in order to complete a critical biography, Shakespeare but he would not live to do so. He found that he no longer had the patience or energy for persevering with his writing, and ultimately that his capacity had failed; he committed suicide by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on 7 January 1972.

Berryman spent himself in his dedication to the work of poetry, as Daniel Hughes, who witnessed him at his desk in the early 1960s, observes: "I have never seen before or since such concentration …. I felt the presences of his terrible cost and commitment, and I loved him." When an interviewer asked him in 1965 to state the most important elements of good poetry, he replied, "Imagination, love, intellect—and pain. Yes, you've got to know pain." In at least one other interview Berryman seemed to find self-gratification in his "overdevelopment of sensibility"—"It's the price we pay," he announced. But whatever strain of misplaced and painfully ironic complacency that observation contains need not condition our reading of his best creative work, in which he found a dynamic form and style to make art of his life and obsessions. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet offers a remarkably imagined and densely achieved drama, with conceptual vigor and intricate execution, and deserves the praise it received from Edmund Wilson, Conrad Aiken, and Robert Lowell. That poem and The Dream Songs survive as the supreme achievements of a poet[…]. Despite its vaunted difficulty and occasional weakness—local incoherence, word thickness, stylistic obscurity—The Dream Songs is a richly imagined and moving work. Berryman also merits attention as one of the most notable religious poets of recent years.[…]

It is worth emphasizing the word heroic in Robert Lowell's claim that The Dream Songs is "the single most heroic work in English poetry since the War, since Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos." Any discussion of literary history since World War II will also need to take account of the fact that The Dream Songs manifestly inspired Lowell to emulate Berryman's achievement with his own Notebook (1969), a work he subsequently refashioned and (according to some critics) weakened by imposing on it an overtly chronological and possibly lame form in its revised version, History (1973).

Source: John Haffenden, "John Berryman," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 48, American Poets, 1880-1945, Second Series, edited by Peter Quartermain, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 20-37.

Muffy E. A. Siegel

In the following excerpt, Siegel examines the grammatical elements of "Dream Song 29," showing how Berryman's guilt about a murder that he did not commit is actually related to the artistic creation of the poem itself. Siegel compares the language patterns of the poem to those of the larger body of The Dream Songs to illustrate that the protagonist's "crime is really art, not murder."

On an ordinary reading, Berryman's "Dream Song 29" conveys to the reader its hero's feeling of amorphous and paradoxical guilt, but the details and sources of the effects remain mysterious. Apparently a main character by the name of Henry has at some time in the past committed some sort of crime against someone, for which he is reproached by a "thing." Yet we feel that Henry is greatly mistaken about the crime he thinks he committed. We find out in stanza three that Henry's supposed murder has no victim. The poet repeats with perplexing emphasis that "nobody's missing." From this we can only conclude that Henry's crime, or at least the particular crime of murder, is just a horrible fantasy. But the question remains as to why anyone would continue inventing and living with something as frustrating and guilt-inducing as a non-existent murder. The poem seems to offer only the answer that Henry believes in his story and, in some way, needs it.

"Dream Song 29," however, is meant to be understood as part of a "large work, which will appear, / and baffle everybody" (D.S. 308), that is, the 385 Dream Songs as a whole. When we have read the rest of the Dream Songs, we know a good deal more about Henry than is stated explicitly in "Dream Song 29." Henry hasn't in fact murdered anyone, but he feels just as guilty as if he had, because of other events in his past. For one, Henry's father committed suicide when Henry was a child, after threatening to kill his son as well: "He was going to swim out, with me, forevers, / […] but he decided on lead" (D.S. 143). The suicide seems to have made Henry feel guiltily murderous for the first time. Henry feels so angry with his father for leaving him (D.S. 145) that he would like to be able to re-kill him. Although Henry says, "while all the same on forty years I love him" (D.S. 143), he wants to get "right down / away down under the grass / and ax the casket open ha to see / just how he's taking it, […] & then Henry will heft the ax once more […]" (D.S. 384). Later in his life, Henry has turned out to be an alcoholic ("Madness & booze, madness and booze. / Which'll can tell who preceded whose?" [D.S. 225]) and an unfaithful husband ("He was always in love with the wrong woman" [D.S. 213]). Both of these problems make him feel murderous and guilty. In a Dream Song about admittance to a hospital for the treatment of alcoholism, he sees himself as a destructive ally of the alcohol attempting to murder "the brains": "I saw the point of Loeb / at last, to give oneself over to crime wholly, / baffle, torment […] / until with trembling hands hoist I my true / & legal ax, to get at the brains. I never liked brains—" (D.S. 95). Naturally, he feels guilty about the attempted murder: "Why drink so, two days running? / two months, O seasons, years, two decades running?" (D.S. 96). He also considers his promiscuity to be a serious crime against his lovers (D.S. 222), his wife (D.S. 187), and society in general:

for years Henry has been getting away with
the Sheriff mused. There'll have to be an
specifically to stop climbing trees.
& other people's wives:
(D.S. 350)

In fact, throughout the Dream Songs, Henry constantly identifies with criminals, especially with murderers of multiple victims (Conarroe, 1977:99). He has fantasies of patricide (D.S. 384), rape-murders (D.S. 222), and even infanticide (D.S. 271).

Henry is not, however, a professional murderer. It becomes clear quite early in the Dream Songs that he is an artist of some sort. We read "The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once" (D.S. 26), and "Tides of dreadful creation rocked lonely Henry" (D.S. 260). As the songs progress, we learn that Henry is a writer: "Turning it over, considering, like a madman / Henry put forth a book" (D.S. 75). In fact, it turns out that Henry is the poet who is writing the Dream Songs. We receive early hints of this in "Dream Song 47," in which a friend of Henry's asks him about the title of the poem, as if Henry were responsible for it. A bit later, in "Dream Song 168," Henry excuses himself, saying, "I pass on to the next song." The later Dream Songs, though, actually contain comments about other people's reactions to the earlier songs (D.S. 267, 333) and complaints about the difficulty of finishing the later ones:

he couldn't say whether to sing
further or seal his lonely throat, give himself

There was a time he marched from dream to
but he seems to out of ink,
he seems to be out of everything again
save whiskey & cigarettes, both bad for him.
(D.S. 356)

If Henry is the writer of the Dream Songs, then Henry is John Berryman. The facts fit; Berryman's father also committed suicide, and Berryman was also alcoholic and promiscuous. However, in a well-known note to His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, Berryman denied being Henry, writing that the Dream Songs are "essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, no me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second." On the other hand, in his own criticism, he reminds us that "poetry is composed by actual human beings, and tracts of it are very closely about them" (1976:316). In a discussion of his peculiar use of pronouns (partially described in the note by Berryman presents a reconciliation of his two apparently contradictory positions on how autobiographical his work is. He says, "The poet is both left out and put in […] we are confronted with a process which is at once a process of life and a process of art" (1966:98). Most critics have concluded that at least the content of the Dream Songs can be considered largely autobiographical: "Henry is an imaginary character simply in the sense of serving as an alter ego, a device whereby the poet may look at himself, talk about himsef, talk to himself, and be a multifarious personality" (Martz, 1969:39).

The fact that Henry is very close to being Berryman suggests another possible source for Henry's feelings, expressed in "Dream Song 29" and elsewhere, that he is a guilty murderer. Berryman, it seems, felt at least as guilty about his art, as about his drinking and womanizing. In Sonnet 115 (lines 5-8) a flirtation with a woman in fact wards off the more serious crime of poetry:

my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, an evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen. ecstasies—
among so much good we tamped down the

But by the middle of the Dream Songs, it becomes clear that Henry-Berryman is incorrigible as an artist:

Restless, as once in love, he put pen to
a stub point with real ink, he hates
and on a thick pad, on lap—
how many thousand times has this been the
in fear & love, with interest, whom None
taking instead the fourth rap—
habitual—life sentence—will he see it
(D.S. 261)

The crime of poetry outlasts his criminal "lust-quest" (D.S. 163). It even outlasts his drinking. In a hospital, alcohol-free, he reports that he is still driven to write: "They are shooting me full of sings. / I give no rules. Write as short as you can, / in order, of what matters" (D.S. 54). Poetry is the crime which he cannot stop himself from committing.

Charles Molesworth has written (1975:21) that we must "give over any attempt to name his [Henry's] guilt, or ours, in explicit terms." However, even in "Dream Song 29," where there is little explicit reference to art, there is some indication that a good deal of Henry's guilt stems from activities which are actually artistic, and not homicidal in the least. The small indications in the content of the poem that Henry has his crime all wrong, that he has actually created the murder, are matched, elaborated, and reinforced by iconic syntax and other language patterns. These patterns, against the background of the rest of the Dream Songs, help to bring out the more specific interpretation that Henry is wrong about his crime in that the crime is really art, not murder, and that Henry's invention of the murder is just another instance of his criminal, that is, artistic tendencies.

The crucial language patterns, those that help maintain the artist-as-criminal theme in "Dream Song 29", fall into two groups: patterns which suggest either directly or through an iconic correlative experience that Henry's crime is more like art than like murder, and patterns which identify Henry more directly as an artist. The first group contains three patterns of systematic stylistic choice which support art, more than murder, as an underlying theme. First, the grammatical aspect is marked contradictorily in the poem. Aspect, which can be perfective or imperfective, is an indication in the grammar of how long an activity continues and what kind of activity it is, a complete event (perfective aspect) or an ongoing process (imperfective aspect). Berryman writes lines which seem to be in both aspects at once, and of course such lines often sound peculiar: "end anyone and hacks her body up." The contradiction in aspect forms part of a cross-level pattern with the contradiction in the account of Henry's crime: Was there a murder or wasn't there? Through the correlative experience induced by the pattern, the contradictions in aspect marking take on meanings from the contradiction described in the poem, the non-murder. Henry is presenting as a discrete event, a murder, what is actually an ongoing process, more like the experience of art. Second, several transformations are applied to the sentences of "Dream Song 29" that have the effect of removing or de-emphasizing as subjects of main clauses the noun phrases that refer to Henry or the vengeful thing that is tormenting him. Since the subject position is most commonly occupied by a noun phrase expressing the agent of an action (Chomsky, 1970), such syntactic choices would pattern iconically with any theme that involved the failure of someone or something to act, In "Dream Song 29," they correlate with the revelation in stanza three that Henry has not been the agent of any murder, and so there is probably no real avenging thing that is actively oppressing him. Finally, as Berryman wrote, "a commitment of identify can be ‘reserved’ so to speak, with an ambiguous pronoun" (1966:98). In "Dream Song 29," vague and missing anaphoric pronouns very nearly obliterate the distinction between Henry and the "thing," thus suggesting that they are part of the same person. Henry the artist may have created the "thing."

The second group of syntactic patterns that I will discuss indicates more directly that Henry is an artist, and that his art is somehow wrong. "Dream Song 29" contains repetitions of syntactic constructions which are typical of traditional fairytales. Consequently, it suggests that Henry is to be associated with traditional creators of fiction in the same way that other syntactic constructions can indicate that the speaker or writer is to be associated with certain sociolinguistic groups or literary schools. There is in addition a repeated logical pattern that can mean only that Henry's story about a murder is an infelicitous attempt at a tall tale. From the rest of the Dream Songs we know that Henry is not just any teller of tales; he is a poet. The murder story, then, is a kind of metaphor for a poem. Berryman uses this metaphor more explicitly in "Dream Song 355," where Henry says to a woman, "You would have made a terrific victim in one of Henry's thrillers." By this point in the Dream Songs, Henry has been identified clearly as the writer of the Dream Songs, so the "thrillers" must be the Songs. The analogy is appropriate. Conarroe has written that "the songs represent, as much as anything else, Berryman's attempts to get his dreams, memories, and fears out in the open […]" (1977:95). The poet, then, transforms feelings and experience into a discrete public event or object, the poem. In "Dream Song 29," Henry, in parallel fashion, attempts to transform his internal states, which seem to be depression, hostility, and self-loathing, into another kind of external event that involves others, a murder. Henry's real crime can be seen as this essentially artistic one of creation, rather than murder.

Let us consider how the first group of language patterns, those which, when correlated with the meaning of the whole Dream Song and of the longer work of which it is a part, indicate iconically that the crime involved is not murder, but more like art itself. In themselves, of course, the language patterns can have only very abstract significance. The use of aspect shows that there is some confusion of an ongoing process with a discrete event. The syntactic operations that demote subjects show that there is some failure of agentive action, and the manipulation of pronouns shows that there is some question about the status of the characters as individual independent entities. In the context of the poem, however, all these pattern with various aspects of the theme of the non-existent murder.

Let us consider first the use of aspect in the poem. As I have said, the common aspectual distinction, one important in the verb systems of French, Russian, and many other languages, is between habitual or continuous action (imperfective aspect) and complete or discrete action (perfective aspect). Aspect is not always unambiguously marked in the English verbal system, but the progressive is usually imperfective:

(5)a. Carol is eating the carrot. (imperfective)
b. Carol ate the carrot. (perfective)

We can use adverbs or other locutions to make the distinction clearer:

(6)a. Carol is always eating carrots.
b. Carol ate carrots for the first time on
    Thursday. (perfective)

The devices for marking aspect in English are used frequently in "Dream Song 29." However, something peculiar happens with them in the first stanza:

1 There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's
2 so heavy, if he had a hundred years
3 & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them
4 Henry could not make good.
5 Starts always again in Henry's ears
6 the little cough somewhere, an odour, a

First, we encounter sat down, which is marked as perfective by the appearance of once, then a weakly imperfective verb or two—had, weeping—and finally two verbs, made good and starts, which are contradictorily marked for both aspects. In the non-standard dialect that Berryman uses from time to time in the Dream Songs, "in all them time," the adverbial that modifies "could not make good," should have read either, "in all them times," where both them and times are plural, or "in all that time," where both the determiner and the noun are singular. The plural version would have indicated that Henry's unsuccessful efforts to make good were repeated discrete events, or perfective in nature, while the singular version would have indicated that the effort continued over a long period of time continuously, or that it was imperfective. Berryman has used a little of each version, indicating that there is some confusion. Which is correct? Since the noun in "them time" is the head, or more important word (Chomsky, 1970), and it is singular, and since the plural "them" is in the right case only for a non-standard dialect, it would seem that the singular, imperfective version is the more correct one. The "mistake" is the introduction of the plural which acts here as an indicator of perfective aspect.

Similarly, in line 5, always indicates that the starts are habitual or continuous, that is, imperfective, while again seems to indicate that they are discrete events, or perfective. Since the overall aspect of the stanza is imperfective, the imperfective interpretation seems, once again, to be the more correct grammatically. The stanza sounds a good deal more peculiar read with again, but not always in line 5, than it does with only always left in it. The conflict on the grammatical level between perfective and imperfective aspect, then, if it forms a cross-level pattern with the conflict on the semantic level, will reinforce the theme that the murder is a deviant delusion. When perfective aspect markings conflict with imperfective ones, the imperfective item is the more grammatically appropriate one. In parallel fashion, when Henry's story that he has perpetrated a real, discrete murder conflicts with the evidence that he has done nothing but create poetry, the latter crime, the continuous making of poetry, is seen as the more accurate charge.

There is a short suspension of the aspect conflict during stanza two. The grammatical tense is mostly present—one conditional would, to which I return in section VII, the progressive thinking, and five simple present verbs. The semantic time, though, jumps wildly from the present to one thousand years into the future, back a bit to the indeterminate past (reproach, too late), and back again to the present. Yet there are no discrepancies in aspect marking and no ungrammatical markings of such discrepancies. Actually, aspect is not really marked on the verbs in this stanza at all. However, the consistent use of the grammatical present to represent widely divergent semantic times produces an idea of the kind of continuum usually expressed in the imperfective aspect. The grammatical aspect of stanza two, then, is consistent with the idea that Henry's problems are due to an ongoing condition, not to any discrete event.

The imagery in stanza two carries on, more strongly than the grammar, the theme that the discrete events of Henry's guilty past are of his own creation, a fiction. In fact, this imagery provides the only indication at the level of lexical content within "Dream Song 29" that Henry is an artist. The stanza begins by telling us that another thing that Henry has in mind is "like a grave Sienese face." Henry's first "thing," the one in stanza one, oppresses Henry's heart like an emotion; this second "thing" is in his mind like an idea. "A grave Sienese face" sounds as if it is an idea of a portrait or statue. Like other artists, Henry has recreated a thing of the heart as "another thing" of the mind. Henry imagines either that the reproach that the face expresses is "still profiled" even now, or that it is in a still, that is, unmoving, profile. Either way, Henry sees that the thing his mind has created is perpetual (or imperfective), and he finds its permanence awful, perhaps because human beings in general are mortal (perfective), and it is "too late" for him in particular. The artist is not only out-lived, but also intimidated and accused by his art. Henry might wish to retreat to his murder fantasy, a source of guilt more self-contained, more explicable, than art. However, after he has been "thinking" about his art, he realizes that "this is not for tears." He has not, after all, murdered anyone.

Stanza three presents Henry's grudging realization that the murder could not really have taken place. Once again, the manipulation of grammatical aspect helps set the fondly imagined murder against the true source of guilt, which is imperfective. The stanza is divided into two contrasting sections. Each section is built around an interrupted sentence:

13 But never did Henry, as he thought he
17 Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.

The first section, the one built around line 13, is a description in the negative. The negative element never is moved by transformation from its usual place before the verb toward the beginning of the sentence. Compare line 13 with the same words in ordinary word order in line 13'.

13 But never did Henry, as he thought he
14 end anyone and hacks her body up
15 and hide the pieces, where they may be
13' But Henry never did, as he thought he
14 end anyone and hacks her body up
15 and hide the pieces where they may be

This preposing has the effect of emphasizing the never and, since it makes the word order of the first half of the line different from that of the second, it also has the effect of pointing up the discrepancy between what Henry did and what he thought he did. The description, so clearly negated, in lines 13 through 15 is of the perfective crime that Henry never committed. "But never did Henry […] end anyone […]" means ‘It is NOT TRUE that Henry killed someone at some time.’ The sentence which is negated, Henry killed someone at some time, is very strongly perfective. So line 13 denies the perfective fantasy, insisting that Henry never performed the single, contained act of killing a person. But the guilt is real; there must be some crime. In line 14, the crime begins once more to show itself as a process, not an event. The unexpected inflection of hacks in line 14 and may in line 15 is not a change in time or tense, but a threat of an imperfective aspect. It is an example of the continuous present, also found in a sentence like Carol eats carrots (generally). That the crime is, in fact, a continuous state is indicated more strongly in the second section of stanza three. The opening of the section contrasts sharply with the first section. It is both strongly positive and strongly imperfective: "He knows." The last two lines of the poem describe the clearest bit of reality that Henry glimpses. These lines are marked imperfective by often and ever.

16 He knows: he went over everyone, &
    nobody's missing.
17 Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
18 Nobody is ever missing.

Henry has been so taken in by his fictional murder that he is baffled by the dull continuous reality of everybody's being there. The simple present of "nobody's missing," because its aspect is ambiguous, is not strong enough to make the point that whatever crime exists is ongoing. Simple present tense can conceivably refer to perfective point-action in a present tense narrative. The line is repeated, this time clearly marked for imperfective aspect: "Nobody is ever missing." …

"Dream Song 29" presents the paradox of Henry's debilitating, yet groundless guilt in language that is notably old and mannered. From a critical perspective that includes a theory of iconic syntax, I have tried to show that Berryman's manipulations of elements of morphology, syntax, and logic constitute stylistic choices that contribute to the significance of the poem. They form patterns that reflect important semantic elements not only of "Dream Song 29" itself, but also of a theme that is central to the 385 Dream Songs as a whole and to other modern confessional poetry, the theme of the guilty artist …

In "Dream Song 29", Berryman develops and articulates this theme as he examines what he calls, in "Dream Song 29", "the original crime: art, rime." Largely through iconic user of idiosyncratic grammar, Berryman presents a frightening metaphorical vision: The artist who is the subject of his own art is the victim of his own murder.

Source: Muffy E. A. Siegel, "‘The Original Crime’: John Berryman's Iconic Grammar," in Poetics Today, Vol. 2, No. 1, Autumn 1980, pp. 163-88.

Jack Vincent Barbera

In the following excerpt, Barbera explores the patterns found throughout Berryman's Dream Songs, noting that the poet does not create a structured narrative that is brought to an end with the last song. Rather, the critic asserts, Berryman offers only "local" patterning. Occasionally, he groups a few songs together into a somewhat cohesive whole, but overall Berryman refuses to imbue his songs with any larger sense of order or meaning.

It may or may not be true that, as Nietzsche's Zarathustra says, unless a man is full of chaos he cannot create a dancing star. But John Berryman was and he did. The patterned movement of The Dream Songs is its dancing; its fiery mass Berryman's life of chaotic circumstance and his powerful imagining. Ultimately one cannot divorce dance from dancer, the overall flow of The Dream Songs from John Berryman. I mean more than just the impossibility of wholly distinguishing Berryman from the singer of the Songs, Henry—though that too. The Dream Songs is open-ended: open to Berryman's life and ended by an act of his will and, irrevocably, by his death. One could say the poem stops rather than ends: this in contrast to long poems which complete some narrative or logical design. Although patterning is everywhere in the poem, it is everywhere local. There is the structured movement within Songs and the grouping of Songs; but there is no actual or implied overall pattern by which all the groups are ordered, the whole finished and sealed. Thus the poem combines shape and flow, patterning and openness.

Pattern is tightest in the individual Songs with their surface arrangement of triple sestets (there are about twenty exceptions, most of which consist of an added line), the sestets following only casually a stress order of 5-5-3-5-5-3. Just as important is Berryman's shaping of Song content. Before leaving for Ireland to assemble the last four Books of The Dream Songs he told Jonathan Sisson that, besides unpublished Songs whose fate he would decide, he was taking with him "a large body of manuscript which is fragmentary, dealing with beginnings and ends and some middles." Remarkably the Songs—with their beginnings, middles, and ends—are not formally monotonous.

Consider a few examples. "Song 56" opens with the vision of an empty Hell, in accord with Origen's belief that at the end of time God will have mercy on all. Lines 10-11 indicate that the second sestet account of a terrified deer encircled and clubbed by hunters is emblematic of a ruthless fate for all. In the last sestet Henry weighs these contrasting visions and alludes to Daniel's vision of the fiery judgment throne of the Ancient of Days (Dn 7.9-14). "What sigh borrowed His mercy?"—Henry asks—thinking of the Son of Man. The Song's structure, then—its beginning, middle, and end—is along the lines of a Hegelian triad: a vision, its antithesis, and an allusion suggesting a possible reconciliation between Absolute ruthlessness and universal mercy.

By way of contrast the beginning, middle, and end of "Song 33" define a narrative action, Henry relating the anecdote of Alexander's slaying of Kleitos. The Song moves from the king's rage in the first sestet; to the hustling out, return, and killing of Kleitos in the second; culminating, finally, in Alexander's grief. Turning to "Song 171," which echoes Waller and Pound, one finds a purely lyrical movement: Henry tells his book to go to his beloved; he lists all the qualities for which she should be praised; and he concludes that he and his beloved are permanently and beautifully linked. Many other Songs are in the mode of self-conscious monologue or dialogue, much of The Dream Songs' dramatic context resulting from its minstrel machinery banter between Henry and the unnamed friend who calls him "Bones." Berryman's experimentation sometimes leaves one at a loss for a descriptive label. For example, consider the arrangement of "Song 66." The powerful and clear spiritual stance of a fourth-century Desert Father, humorously conveyed "over the telephone," ironically contrasts with the lunatic medley of the world and Henry circa early June 1963, the Father's words woven through the whole Song yet, appropriately, parenthetically isolated from it. The weaving keeps the form from being a simply juxtaposed presentation of one thing, then another; the isolation keeps it from being an interaction. Perhaps such structuring should be called "thematic counterpoint." Whatever the label, both strands have their identifiable beginning, middle, and end. Despite the consistency of such structuring, the Songs' several modes—logical, narrative, lyric, dramatic, and other—give them a greater formal variety than, say, the lyric meditations in a sonnet sequence—be it Shakespeare's or Berryman's own.

Besides creating patterned movement within the Songs, Berryman arranged many of them into clusters of varying cohesion: for example, the elegiac Three around the Old Gentlemen for Frost ("Songs 37-39", preceded by two which mention that Frost is "dying" but "still around") and the twelve for Delmore Schwartz ("Songs 146-57"). In Book 6, the longest, there are three titled clusters, but other groups can be recognized, such as the sequence from 163-66 touching on Henry's various infirmities. "Song 56"—which, as I have noted, presents contrasting views of God's final judgment—is preceded by a Song in which Henry imagines himself before St. Peter, and is followed by a Song in which Henry says he doesn't believe in Hell, "save sullen here." These three Songs are preceded by three set in a hospital, Henry recovering from perhaps a mental breakdown. In his Harvard Advocate interview Berryman observed that "Some of the Songs are in alphabetical order; but, mostly, they just belong to areas of hope and fear that Henry is going through at a given time." In fact, alphabetical order is not very extensive in the poem; what little of it there is could be accounted for by chance, so it does not seem an ordering principle at all. But Berryman's mention of alphabetical order suggests that for some Songs a search for immediate thematic context will prove fruitless. Immediate context is worth checking, however, for as Berryman also maintained, it clarifies certain Songs: "you don't need to follow the specific details if you hear the tone of the Song in relation to the Songs around it" (Sisson, p. 34).

Source: Jack Vincent Barbera, "Shape and Flow in The Dream Songs," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 22, No. 2, May 1976, pp. 146-62.


Berryman, John, "Dream Song 29," in 77 Dream Songs, Farrar, Straus, 1964, p. 33.

———, The Dream Songs, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, pp. vi, 3, 10, 16-17, 22, 33, 38, 44, 47, 51-52, 83, 96, 160, 162, 172, 178, 255, 287, 406.

Conarroe, Joel, John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1977, p. 101.

Ginsberg, Alan, "Howl," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 2nd edition, Vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 2415-16.

Haffenden, John, The Life of John Berryman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, p. 29.

Hyde, Lewis, Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking, Dallas Institute Publications, 1986, p. 12.

Lowell, Robert, "John Berryman," in Robert Lowell: Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987, pp. 110-11.

Mariani, Paul, "‘My Heavy Daughter’: John Berryman and the Making of The Dream Songs," in the Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer 1988, p. 19.

Mendelson, Edward, "How to Read Berryman's ‘Dream Songs,’" in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Carcanet Press Limited, 1974, p. 41.

Travisano, Thomas, Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic, University Press of Virginia, 1999, p. 246.


Gustavvson, Bo, The Soul Under Stress: A Study of the Poetics of John Berryman's Dream Songs, Uppsala, 1984.

Gustavvson explores Berryman's debt to Walt Whitman. He also discusses Berryman's desire to record how the soul under stress determines both the craft and the content of the poem. Gustavvson sees Book 2 of 77 Dream Songs (numbers 27-51) as being concerned with the sense of being rejected and abandoned by both earthly father and heavenly father.

Kirsch, Adam, The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath), Norton, 2005.

Kirsch approaches the work of these confessional poets in terms not of how shocking their personal revelations were, but of the ways in which they were able to translate their difficult experiences into art.

Mariani, Paul, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, University of Massachusetts Press, reprint edition, 1996.

In this biography Mariani examines Berryman's brilliant but self-destructive life, using accounts given by his family, friends, students and other associates, Berryman's letters and journals, and of course his poetry. The biography provides insight into both the man and his work.

Vendler, Helen, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition: The T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 49-50.

Vendler points out that there are similarities between "Dream Song 29" and the religious lyrics of grief and guilt by earlier poets such as George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In an unusual twist to Freudian analysis, she argues that Henry's guilt is caused by his repression of chastity and asceticism, this being conveyed by the reproach he feels from the Sienese face in the second sestet.