At its most basic level, The Dream Songs records the search for spiritual meaning and solace of a man who has suffered devastating losses. Henry never finds what he is searching for, but the poems are full of Christian references, pleas for spiritual enlightenment, and anger at God over the suicides of Henry’s father and beloved friends. In poem 168, Henry notes the horrific parallels between his own life, Christ’s life, and vaudeville theater. “God has many other surprises,” he notes, and later in the poem elaborates:
hellish vaudeville turns, promises had& promises forgotten here below,the final wound of the Cross.I have a story to tell you which is the worststory to tell that ever once I heard.
Henry decides to “pass to the next Song” because that story is too much for him to tell; it is unclear whether he refers to his own story or that of Jesus. The Dream Songs as a whole, however, tells of a man filled with horrible stories who is unable to come to terms with the tragedies of his life or to find the understanding he seeks from religion.
The tone of the poems ranges from despair to supplication to outright indignation with God. Dream Song 153 blames God in harsh language for the deaths of Theodore Roethke, Richard Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath:
I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation.First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.That was a first rate haul.
Henry revisits his father’s suicide repeatedly through the poem cycle, with emotions ranging from despair to anger. Even by the end of the poems, he has not accepted the death. In number 384, the second to last of the book, Henry describes himself visiting his father’s grave, imagining himself hacking down to the body with an ax and annihilating his own beginning.
In the four years that remained of his life after The Dream Songs was published, Berryman began the novel Recovery. Published posthumously in 1973, the unfinished work has been hailed by some critics as evidence that Berryman found Christian peace in his final years. His own suicide by walking off a bridge on January 7, 1972, leaves such a claim in doubt.