Excerpted Criticism

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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.

Joel Conarroe: On "Dream Song 29"

[Conarroe quotes the last stanza.]

… The lines above describe the 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. Though nobody is ever missing, Henry knows that he is capable of "ending" someone and hacking her up (a recurring misogynous fantasy in Berryman’s work), and this helps account for his identification with [Richard] Speck, who murdered several nurses in Chicago, with the insane Texas sniper [Charles] Whitman (whose father taught him "respect for guns but not for people"), and with Loeb, who gave himself wholly to crime. One is inevitably reminded of Life Studies in which Robert Lowell expresses a terrible sense of kinship with Czar Lepke of Murder Incorporated [in "Memories of West Street and Lepke"].


from Joel Conarroe , John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1977), 101-102. Copyright 1977 Columbia University Press.

Edward Mendelson: On "Dream Song 29"

This song, number 29, exemplifies in an unusually clear and regular manner the paratactic method by which almost all the songs are organized. The first sestet describes an experience in intensely private terms; the "thing" is on Henry’s heart, the cough "in Henry’s ears." In the second sestet he notices or remembers the world outside, and does so through a metaphor ("a grave Sienese face") whose vehicle at least is publicly accessible, although the tenor is only an unspecified guilty "reproach." Rather than locating sound "in Henry’s ears," it is the bells, outside, that speak; and although blind, Henry at least "attends." Finally, in the last sestet, he acknowledges almost in defeat the social world of others, all those who persist in surviving despite his dreams of violence (the cause of the "reproach" is now identified), who remind him that the thing on his heart is only private. This neat enactment of Husserlian epistemology (awareness of self, things, others) recurs throughout The Dream Songs. But often in reverse order – with the awareness of others narrowing down to awareness of self – or in some other variant pattern.

From Edward Mendelson, "How to Read Berryman’s ‘Dream Songs’ in Robert B. Shaw, Ed. American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perceptions (Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet, 1974).

J. M. Linebarger: On "Dream Song 29"

The Song is about Henry's response to the death of the father, the funeral itself (the "cough," "odour," and "chime"), and Henry's hallucinations about killing others. Berryman quoted the poem in 1965 to illustrate his technique, and then he commented about it: "Whether the diction of that is consistent with blackface talk, heel- spinning puns, coarse jokes, whether the end of it is funny or frightening, or both, I put up to the listener. Neither of the American poets who as reviewers have quoted it admiringly has committed himself so I won't."

from John Berryman. Copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

J. M. Linebarger: on "Dream Song 22"

Dream Song 22, "Of 1826," criticizes America for its anti-intellectualism, Dale Carnegie salesmanship, domineering women, and devotion to television. The last stanza mentions one important fact we have forgotten ("Collect" here means "prayer"): "Collect: . . . the dying man / . . . is gasping "Thomas Jefferson still lives" / in vain. . . ." Berryman said in 1967 that "no national memory but ours could forget the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day—the fourth of July in 1826." Adams did make the remark "Thomas Jefferson still survives" as he lay on his death-bed.

from John Berryman. Copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Joel Conarroe: On "Dream Song 5"

[Conarroe quotes the first stanza.]

As in many of the poems, the peculiar language, which adds a comic tone to the whisky broodings, presents no obstacles to a reader’s comprehension. Henry, sitting at a bar (perhaps The Brass Rail [in Minneapolis]), is reflected in a mirror, which is some distance from his glass of bourbon. He likens himself to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death, and sees himself as "getting even" for his own martyrdom by being at odds with God, and by "getting stoned" in the bar. The "getting even" is played against "was odd," and "at odds," producing a play on "odds and evens." The cruel references to his wife is softened if we notice Henry’s habitual baby-talk, as in number 114 ("Henry is weft on his own") and translate "wife" to "life," so that the bitter comment is also self-directed. (It is curious that he also uses "wif," which makes a play with "wife," but not "nuffing." It is never possible to predict exactly where Henry’s verbal inventions will take him.)


from Joel Conarroe , John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1977), 100-101. Copyright 1977 Columbia University Press.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 4"

Dream Song #4, a farcical sketch of Henry in a restaurant lusting after someone else's young wife: this is Berryman' s picture of the Id at work, checked in its lust by Conscience. It is a poem unthinkable in American poetry before the postwar Freudian era: . . .

It is Berryman's gaiety of writing, his joyous blasphemy of traditional love-poetry, that wins us in this Song. The parodic aspects are several: the planctus takes place in a restaurant; the lady is reduced to her body engaged in the inglorious act of eating; she is guarded not only by her husband but by a comic superfluity of 'four other people'; the Petrarchan lover's cry of adoration is debased to 'You are the hottest one . . . / Henry's dazed eyes /have enjoyed'; the lover continues to eat, and does not omit to notice that it is spumoni that he is, even if despairingly, eating; the lover's jealousy makes him cartoon the husband as 'The slob beside her'; the lover's admiration of the lady's beauty suddenly descends to a crude interest in her buttocks ('What wonders is / she sitting on, over there?'); and the conventional eloignement of the lady takes on tones of science fiction: 'She might as well be on Mars.' The lover's comment is of the fist-to-brow soap-opera kind—'Where did it all go wrong?'

The growling, resentful, truculent, unmanageable Henry is an enviable comic creation, and his repertoire of semiotic reference, old and new, is lovably various in both serious and parodic ways. We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention. And yet, at the same time, we see the negative of this truth: that even the lustful and coarse-minded Henry wants to call his 'feeding girl' by a name like 'Brilliance,' to see her eyes as 'jewelled' and her company as a 'feast.' These are all metaphors straight out of the love-tradition, and what is exhilarating in Berryman as a writer is the balance between the parodic and the ecstatic that he keeps alive, as he reveals both the body's abject yearning for idealization, and the mind's conspiratorial desire for buttocks.


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