Excerpted Criticism

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Thomas Gardner: On "Dream Song 76"

… "Song 76" is a quiet resolution of Henry’s despair about his father. If life comes to loss ("a handkerchief sandwich"), still Henry wants to taste it all. "You is from hunger, Mr. Bones," the interlocutor tells him. Now, he is able to manage that taste:

[Gardner quotes lines that begin "in a modesty of death" and end "by my knee."]

By "modesty" Henry means a smaller version of the death, a manageable joining with his father through art. (The play with ago-along-gone-one-agony in the word "agone" also seems to indicate distance.) Now, Henry is able to sing about death: "arm in arm, by the beautiful sea, / hum a little." If Henry’s father left him alone, then through these poems Henry will join him: "—I saw nobody coming, so I went instead."

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 45.

William J. Martz: On "Dream Song 76"

The complexity of the problem of responding to "The Dream Songs" as a whole poem inheres, finally, in the relationship between the conception of the character of Henry and the degree of success of the individual Dream Song. It will be instructive to select a fairly representative Dream Song from 77 Dream Songs for commentary, and then to put it next to a fairly representative autobiographical passage from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. Here is Dream Song 76, "Henry's Confession":

[quotes poem]

For purposes of analysis we can disregard the fact that the character of Henry has been previously defined and ask how this poem handles the key problem of characterization. It opens with Negro dialect, the voice of Henry, who is speaking with Mr. Bones, a friend, a vaudeville stereotype, an alter ego, a mere name suggesting death. Both characters are comic, with the comedy springing from Henry's premise that he normally expects something very bad to happen to him every day. We are at once in the world of the vaudeville skit. It is a charming and disarming world, and in its way a fit place to discuss the nature of man. But at the end of the first stanza the voice of Henry—and the vaudeville skit—is dropped, and the poet's voice enters. The handkerchief sandwich motif at the end of the first stanza continues the vaudeville joke but some of the tone of the joke is abandoned. There is nothing particularly funny in the second stanza about the death of a father or a bullet on a stoop, especially if it is read as a reference to the suicide of Berryman's father. But at the end of the second stanza we return to the voice of Henry, though the poet is also speaking the line "You is from hunger, Mr Bones." In the first line of the third stanza we return to the voice of Henry in his conversation with Mr. Bones, but the voice that follows seems to be more that of the poet than that of Henry, and the vaudeville humor is but slightly sustained. But if the poem is to realize its subject, which I take to be man's mortality or his isolation in the universe, then the handkerchief and the sea must become unifying symbols, must take us into the subject. This they do not do in a complete way. A fuller situation for the handkerchief offering is needed, and the relationship between the popular song phrase "by the beautiful sea" and "a smothering southern sea" is not at all clear—metaphor is detached from its subject. Part of the problem is that the reference to "a smothering southern sea" (with bullet, stoop, island, and knee) is itself vague. The referent of lines 9-11 is too personal to the speaker to have universal meaning. The "smothering southern sea" happens to be the Gulf of Mexico, but knowledge of this fact does not improve the poem as a poem. And yet the poem as a whole does have singleness of effect. ". . . hum a little, Mr Bones" becomes Henry's sprightly understatement, right from a vaudeville skit, of self-persuasion and universal affirmation, not to mention the suggestion of darker agony as we hear the line as the poet's voice, or one could say a nonvaudevillian Henry. And the last line seems particularly effective as a summary of the human condition that the poem has been defining: "I saw nobody coming, so I went instead."

from "John Berryman" in Seven American Poets from Macleish to Nemerov: An Introduction. Ed. Denis Donoghue. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1975. Copyright © 1975 by U of Minnesota P.

John Haffenden: On "Dream Song 55"

In a filmed interview for BBC television in 1967, Berryman described the Song as being like the graveyard scene in Ulysses, where, prompted by the words 'I am the resurrection and the light', Bloom utters his thoughts about an afterlife. He is averse to the notion of resurrection since the thought of physical corruption strikes him as too conclusive. So, for different reasons, it is conclusive for Henry. Song 288 (ll. 7-8) alludes again to Ulysses. Although Henry opposes the dogma of Christ's Resurrection, he is yet wary of what he calls 'a coda of blaming' (194: 12). He feels immersed in an existentialist dilemma (347:7-10).

For Kierkegaard, whom Berryman studied, not just to live, but to be a Christian, is to suffer. He makes it clear that, for him in serving an Absolute absolutely, suffering is unavoidable in this world which is a conditioned world. Kierkegaard explains the paradox: 'Suffering depends on the fact that God and man are qualitatively different, and that the clash of time and eternity in time is bound to cause suffering.' (Soren Kierkegaard, The Last Years: Journals 1853-1855, ed. and trans. by Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Fontana Library, 1968), p. 255). He also isolates the paradox by which, for the Christian, grace is known negatively—since it brings suffering. 'Christianity', he explains, 'is sheer grace, and suffering for a few years in this life is infinite, infinite grace' (ibid., p. 279). Henry verges towards the same belief in Songs 113 (ll. 1-3) and 194 (ll. 1-3) but his nuance is invariably ironic, for he severely questions the same paradox elsewhere, as in Song 256 (11. 16-17) or in 266 (l. 10).

Similarly, when Henry speaks of death—and consequent nothingness—he often does so in terms of a refuge from the horrors of Hell (239:14-16).

In general, the balance of Henry's thoughts on the matter is weighted in favour of death being literally a dead end, or at least a condition in which one simply dreams the past forever (123:11) (Cf. 140:14, 146:6, and 195:17-18).

One of the main reasons why Henry desires obsessively to know about the afterlife is because of guilt, his fear of punishment. He asserts almost desperately that he will not believe in Hell, and sues above all for a continuance of this life, as in Song 266 (ll. 11-18).

from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. New York: New York UP, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by John Haffenden

John Haffenden: On "Dream Song 46"

(l. 1) The line alludes to the following dream recorded by Wilhelm Stekel:

'I find myself upon the street. A great panic rules there. The people are in flight, are hurrying; they press into the street cars; in short there is a turmoil. Some one is trying to explain to me the mechanism of what is happening . . . '

In view of Berryman's device in The Dream Songs of employing a voiced dialogue between Henry and his friend, it is interesting that Dr Stekel interprets what he calls 'This beautiful dream' in these terms:

. . . represents a flight from the analysis. The highly intelligent patient wants to escape his own thoughts. . . He feels in life the disharmony in his thought and would gladly come to a unity of feeling and idea. He is always hearing a second voice, and this speaks contrary to the first. He is a typical doubter . . . The lower voices out of the harmony of thought make themselves heard in the doubter and often drown out the upper notes. The counterpoint is often too obtrusive, so that hate manifests itself with love, scorn with appreciation, defiance with submission. (Wilhelm Stekel, Sadism and Masochism, English version by Louise Brink (London: The Bodley Head, 1935), vol. I, p. II.)

In Song 46, which is characterised by blasphemy, 'I am', the first words, probably allude to the pronouncement, 'I am that I am'—Ehyeh asher ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), an utterance which denotes the highest existence. In Song 85 ('Op. posth. no. 8') (ll. 14-18), Henry reports his physical dismantlement. For Henry, being ('I am') means simply having a body. God is complete and sufficient to himself, unconditional; in Song 141, (ll. 16-18), Henry asserts the blasphemous view of selfishness and self-interest.

Finally, in Song 320, Henry wakes from a paranoid dream with the words:

'"I am—" cried Henry, / waking sweated & sordid' (ll. 17-18).

The phrase 'I am' may be regarded, for the sake of convenience, as a "major triad" in Songs 46, 85, 141, and 320. I borrow the term from one of Berryman's favourite texts, Archbishop Carrington's According to Mark (Cambridge University Press, 1960), where it is used to account for "a threefold repetition, at intervals in the narrative, 'of a word or phrase which draws attention to some theme of high significance." (p. 6) It is clear from Berryman's Introduction to Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1960, pp. 7-28) that he thinks of triads, as does Archbishop Carrington, not in terms of an Hegelian dialectic, but in terms of related groups of three. For Carrington, the symbols, phrases and images of the Gospel are structured towards neatness of form, relation and interrelation. The words 'new', 'house', and 'cup', for example, and the phrases 'thy way', 'three days', and 'right hand', are all motifs repeated three times. Although Berryman does not necessarily limit himself to repetition in groups of three, he did use the same technique to bind some of the Songs (not in proximate clusters, but spaced widely about the work) .

Even a partial concordance to The Dream Songs reveals a number of words and phrases—such as 'survive' and 'ax'—which function as triadic—in this sense, as leitmotifs—and accordingly as a structural device binding the poem. J. M. Linebarger (who also observes the feature) calls the device one of 'interlocking phrases and images', but he feels that they are 'insufficient in themselves to structure The Dream Songs'. Nevertheless, he does allow for the possibility that the Songs might contain 'a thematic coherence' ('Dream Song 6', p. 84).

Do, ut des. (l. 18)  In Chapter III, 'The Theory of Resistance', Stekel explains:

Now experience shows that this transference very soon becomes the source of resistance. Love is only a seeking for love in return,' Do, ut des' ('1 give, that thou shalt give').If the patient notices that love is not given in return or that it has not reached that degree which he expected, defiance enters in place of the love, which in turn manifests itself as active resistance. Adler has remarked that the parapathic reacts with obstinacy or with obedience. Often both forms of reaction are combined to make the picture still more confused. An intense, unyielding stubbornness hides behind an apparent obedience . . . (p. 46.)

A note on the manuscript (dated 1 December 1958), which Berryman originally entitled 'SEVEN', observes: 'first one, perhaps, all year, written at home: I can only write in solitude ( = bars)'.

from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. New York: New York UP, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by John Haffenden

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 45"

Dream Song #45 is a list-poem enumerating predicaments which at the time certainly seemed to be ruin (being discovered naked with one's girlfriend by her enraged father, for instance) but which proved, when real Ruin came, to be merely impostors. This Dream Song of Ruin preceded by its earlier impostors is verbally organized by two almost identical lines. In the first, we hear Henry's illiterate boozy remark about ruin, 'He thought they was old friends'; in the second, we perceive that Henry has been shocked into literacy by reality: 'But he noted now that: they were not old friends.' Between these two lines the cartoon-strip of successive pseudo-ruins unrolls. until it dissolves at the encounter with the real thing:

. . . it differs from its prose eqnivalent not only in its shapeliness (produced by grammatical and syntactic parallelism) but also by its reductiveness: Henry and ruin, old pals. cross paths (as if in the successive frames of a cartoon strip) round the world; then ruin, old friend, mysteriously vanishes and a horrible allegorical stranger, saying in effect' I RUIN AM,' fixes Henry with a toxic dissolution-beam, making Henry evanesce into nothingness before our very eyes.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 14"

. . . when the depressive side of bi-polar illness is ascendant in Berryman, Henry is represented as paralyzed by a pervasive apathy, an unwillingness to play even his own game. Here is the opening of Dream Song #14:

[lines 1-12]

Berryman's debt to the lyric tradition appears in Henry's appeal to Romantic gestures—'The sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn.' On the other hand, in Henry's frame of mind the entire Western literary tradition, from Homer on, is of absolutely no use, and so itself becomes a lower-case cartoon in which Achilles' wrath is reduced to 'plights & gripes.' 'Literature bores me,' says Henry, seeing himself in his plights and gripes' as bad as [a lower-case] achilles.' The Dream Songs visibly adopt certain features of the long autobiographical poem as we find it in Don Juan, which originated, in our literature, the spectacle of an impulsive and greedy protagonist commented upon by a worldly authorial voice.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Jeffrey Alan Triggs: On "Dream Song 14"

This is a subtly organized poem, whose theme is well realized in its language. The incessant "ands," the persistent refusal of the syntax to come to rest, the literate colloquial tone all contribute to the poem's feeling of restless dissatisfaction. Berryman satirizes in particular middle class ecstasy over the common functioning of nature ("the sky flashes, the great sea yearns"), which borders on pathetic fallacy ("we ourselves flash and yearn"). The speaker who does not respond to all this flashing and yearning must alienate himself from the mainstream of society, represented by his mother, and conclude that he has "no inner resources." But even the Baudelairean stance of the alienated or adversary poet is boring, as are the artificial paradises of "tranquil hills" and "gin." The speaker himself is a wraith, an empty gesture, the "wag" of a vanished dog. All that is left standing is the elegant structure of the unrhymed stanza Berryman so often uses with its alternating long and short lines in the pattern: A, A, B, A, A, B. Composing his poem with three such stanzas, Berryman aims at the local intensity of a sonnet within a sequence. (Indeed, reviving the idea of the poetic sequence as opposed to the isolated well-made lyrics of the new critics is one of Berryman's real contributions to contemporary American poetry.)


from "Dream Songs and Nightmare Songs: The Balance of Style in the Later Poems of John Berryman." South Dakota Review 26:2 (Summer 1988).

Thomas Travisano: On "Dream Song 29"

. . . This Song is clearly centered on a terrible loss, but whose loss? And what has been lost? And where and when, and how, and why?

[quotes ll. 1-6]

Here is a truly displaced elegy. Loss appears not as a deprivation but as an arrival in the form of an oppressive psychic visitation: "There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart." In the first sestet, neither the nature of the thing that "sat down . . . on Henry's heart" nor the time of its encroachment is spelled out. "The little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime" that "Starts again always in Henry's ears" suggest that these are possible memory triggers, recalling in some way the cause of the oppression that "sat down, once . . . on Henry's heart," but how can "an odour" start in "Henry's ears"? And why, exactly, should Henry have to "make good"? One colloquial meaning of "make good" is to "succeed," a demand parents are wont to place on their children; another connotation is to "make good" on a debt or to make up for an omission or transgression. The poem may be an elegy for childhood losses. But here, unlike Jarrell's "Ball Turret Gunner," a child's consciousness is suggested not through the direct evocation of a child's experiences (a womb, birth, "my mother's sleep"), so much as through the preservation or stylized recreation of childlike forms of speech ("in all them time," "so heavy," "could not make good"). These childish or childlike forms of speech 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.

The Dream Songs emerged out of a period of intensive dream analysis for Berryman. And the poem's sudden shifts and surprising juxtapositions reflect his extensive exploration of and immersion in unconscious experience:

[quotes ll. 7-12]

Henry feels the reproach of that grave Sienese face, no doubt a Madonna, and the language evokes other religious and ceremonial elements (such as "the bells") that here float in an unsettling sea of indeterminacy that may be drifting toward nondisclosure. Yet is there any reason for reproach? Has any crime been committed? Most important, if this is an elegy, whose death is being mourned?

[quotes ll. 13-18]

This monody is peculiar in part because the reader discovers that there has been no death, certainly no murder, since "Nobody is ever missing." Despite feelings of grief and guilt, particularly over a urge to commit violence to women, reenacting, in effect, Edgar Allan Poe's "Black Cat," there seems to be no deceased object nor any specific action to which Henry can attach his disconcerting feelings of guilt and grief. Yet the feelings of guilt and grief remain, and they assume a character of unusual intensity and duration: "so heavy" and so lasting that "weeping, sleepless, in all them time / Henry could not make good."

Much later, in "Dream Song 327," Berryman concludes that "Freud was some wrong about dreams, or almost all," in part because he saw dreams not as "a transcript / of childhood & the day before," which is how Henry, apparently, sees them, but as "a panorama / of the whole mental life." But Berryman also objected to Freud, that "Grand Jewish ruler, custodian of the past / our paedegogue to whip us into truth" because "you wholly failed to take into account youth." It was in Berryman's youth that the violent death of his father and his own abrupt transformation from the Floridian Catholic John Smith to the Manhattan unbeliever John McAlpin Berryman occurred, in the context of abuses whose pervasive reality Freud's system chose not to acknowledge.

Berryman had reason to fear his mother, both as a possessive and judgmental presence in his life and as his father's possible murderer. Moreover, his father was definitely, if ambiguously, "missing." In "Dream Song 29," he dramatizes the problem of radically displaced emotion that "too much exceeds its cause" or that remains free-floating, unattached to any assignable cause. Perhaps this is because, despite deep self-analysis and even self-punishment, the real cause of Berryman's blocked emotion is too painful to name and thus has been most savagely repressed. And in his quest for self-knowledge and maturity, Berryman would conclude of Freud that "I tell you, Sir, you have enlightened but / you have misled us" (DS 327). Berryman exploits the postmodern elegy to explore the lost world of repressed emotion, that elusive yet strangely imperial kingdom whose hegemony is chiefly felt, and in The Dream Songs expressed, through the language of symptoms. And for insight into this world, Berryman felt sure, Freud's work provides only a partial key.

from Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by University of Virginia.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 29"

The comparable Dream Song #29 turns to Western art, as Henry recalls a Duccio or Simone Martini profile of the Virgin Mary or a saint. Like the Japanese stone garden, this medieval profile—an art-object combining spiritual stillness with aesthetic mastery—reproaches in the way the socialized Superego or even the Conscience cannot. Its reproach is silent, not oral; aesthetic, not ethical; spiritual, not social or legal. Berryman sets his Sienese icon against Henry's obsessive anxiety and sexual guilt, and reproduces in #29 the anguished and irrational thought-processes caused by Henry's conflict of values. The poem begins with the stifling and perpetual weight that torments Henry's guilty conscience, and ends with a baffled sense of its erroneousness: . . .

The cognitive dissonance between terrified conviction ('I have murdered a woman') and absurd enumerative ratiocination ('Nobody's missing') results in the obsessive and habitual, 'often' of the insomniac reckoning. Henry would be relieved if someone were missing; it would make his conviction of guilt rational, and he could reconnect his split pieces. But this solace is denied him.

Behind a lyric such as this there lie the religious lyrics of grief and guilt written by Herbert and Hopkins. But although Freudian poetry is sometimes called "confessional poetry," one can see in the instance of Dream Song #29 that it I often precisely not "confessional" poetry – there is, as the poem demonstrates, no sin to confess, and no way to make amends, no one by whom to be absolved. The therapeutic hour is concerned less with "confession" than with an analysis – carried out by various means – of what is wrongly "confessed." … In Freudian terms, Henry’s free-floating guilt would be seen as the sign of something repressed, not consciously available. The structure of the poem, which locates the "grave Sienese face" between the two stanzas of Henry’s guilt, suggests that what he has repressed is behavior consonant with that austere profile, the sort of behavior he still believes in, if in an unconscious way. The repression of chastity, the repression of asceticism, the repression of spiritual gravity, are odd things to mention in a Freudian context. But for Merryman, the adult repression of his youthful religious Superego is as great a cause of guilt as would be, in classic Freudian terms, the repression of libido.



From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 49-50.

Thomas Gardner: On "Dream Song 29"

… The thing that has broken his heart seems simply a heaviness to which no action ("weping") or amount of time can adequately respond. So dominant that any sound or smell recalls it, that heaviness remains a tangling of rage and responsibility for which Henry has no adequate object. … 


from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 40.