John Berryman Essay - Critical Essays

John Berryman American Literature Analysis

Berryman sought a distinctive poetic voice throughout his career. As a young man, he particularly admired Yeats’s ability to make poetry intensely personal yet mythic. He also admired Frost as a distinctly American and nonacademic poet who believed that what a poem implied was as important as what it literally expressed. Consequently, in the beginning of his career, Berryman was wary of T. S. Eliot’s objective universal themes and characterizations. He also considered Eliot’s use of learned allusions artificial. Neither was Berryman fond of Eliot’s mentor Ezra Pound or “new poets” such as William Carlos Williams. He loved the gaudy imagery and eclecticism of Wallace Stevens.

Berryman would modify such negative positions considerably in the latter half of his career. Even late in his life, he obliquely criticized Williams’s understanding of the function of narrative and history in a typically outspoken interview published in the Harvard Advocate. He also wrote a never-published, scholarly introduction to the poems of Pound, came to love Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and Cantos (1917-1970) as forerunners of his own The Dream Songs, and was himself admired by Pound as a new voice in American poetry.

Berryman’s contacts with Eliot became more amicable over the years as well. His intense dislike for Eliot’s poetry when Berryman was a student at Cambridge was still apparent in 1953, when Berryman wrote that he considered Homage to Mistress Bradstreet a reaction to long poems as they were then written—a veiled thrust at Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958). Berryman courted Eliot’s approval in the late 1940’s when both were residents at Princeton University, but it is noteworthy that Eliot disliked Berryman’s introduction to the Berryman anthology as originally submitted to Faber & Faber, where Eliot held a directorship, and that Eliot rejected Seventy-seven Dream Songs outright.

Clearly, Berryman identified most consistently with poets who were social outcasts, whose verse, like his own, was intensely personal and guardedly self-revelatory. He often began his literature courses with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855, 1881). He had lifelong empathy with fellow suicide Crane and the flamboyant style and way of life of drinking companion Dylan Thomas. He pitied but also admired Delmore Schwartz and Jarrell, and he wished that he had met Plath, whose life so closely resembled his own.

Berryman’s early verse, written before and during World War II, is personal but derivative. An attentive reader will note echoes of Whitman, Frost, Pound, Eliot, and even Williams in The Dispossessed. The sonnets to Lise, written to a woman named Chris with whom Berryman had a love affair during the late 1940’s while at Princeton, are in the Petrarchan mode. They were published in the late 1960’s, and in reprintings the name Chris appears instead of the Petrarchan echo (Lise for Laura). These poems are important in Berryman’s oeuvre primarily because they show his turning toward specific personalities as well as actual locations and events. They also reveal something of the poet’s chaotic life, his frantic and tawdry attempts to keep the affair secret, yet his decided attempt to couch every rendezvous in terms of high art.

The Berryman persona also appears as seducer in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman received guarded critical approval for this long poem. He took the American Puritan poet Bradstreet as its subject, primarily because he considered her personal frustrations overwhelming and her poetry mediocre. In this sense, she represents the way Berryman saw his own life and art at the time. That he was having an affair with his own “Ann,” the woman who would become his second wife, allows the poet’s attempt at the seduction which frames the poem a personal level of meaning.

The Dream Songs, begun in 1955 and continued through 1968, represents the full realization of Berryman’s style. Its 385 lyrics, which Berryman insisted should stand as a single poem, tell in disjointed narrative the life story of “Huffy Henry,” a Berryman persona. Henry is an antihero, invariably thwarted by the circumstances of his life but inevitably rising to meet a new challenge, only to be struck down again. Berryman injects various details from both small and major incidents of his life, though a reader unacquainted with the poet’s private life will miss many of the details. That Berryman successfully mixes various styles and achieves a distinctive tone which is simultaneously tragic and comic is a measure of the degree to which the poet had refined his style and altered his methods of composition.

The Dream Songs came to be a curse as well as a blessing for Berryman. It catapulted his verse to international attention, and fellow writers such as Saul Bellow, Adrienne Rich, and Ralph Ellison helped circulate the individual poems as they appeared. Berryman’s old friend, publisher Robert Giroux, encouraged the poet at every turn, publishing Seventy-seven Dream Songs as an interim text and promising publication of the larger collection once Berryman had determined the number and final arrangement of poems he wanted to include. The literary world realized that Berryman’s most important work was imminent, and by 1966 even The New Yorker, which had repeatedly rejected most of Berryman’s submissions, was accepting new dream songs as soon as they came from his pen. The Guggenheim Foundation provided two year-long grants, in 1966 and 1967, specifically to free Berryman from teaching and to hasten completion of The Dream Songs.

Unfortunately, Berryman had by this time fallen so completely into the distinctive style of this verse that he became unable to write in any other manner. What is more, he became unable to stop writing. In the desperately manic way that characterized so much of his literary life, Berryman would telephone fellow writers in the early morning hours to read the poem he had just written. Ellison bore the brunt of many of these telephone calls, almost always for advice on the poems employing black dialect, but Bellow and Rich also had to render immediate critical opinions on matters of arrangement and choices for inclusion in the final edition. Berryman came to fear that he would never finish, so he arbitrarily closed the collection at 385 songs. His fear that he would never be able to write in other styles led him to rush his next two collections into print; the consensus of critical opinion holds that this was a mistake.

His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968) and Love and Fame, published two years later, represent Berryman’s attempts to deal with larger, more serious subjects inappropriate to the format of The Dream Songs. Berryman’s struggle with alcoholism was greatest at this time; despite his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous, he never permanently conquered his addiction. Similarly, his return to Roman Catholicism, nominally the religion of his boyhood, was short-lived. General despondency over indifferent reaction to his last works, widespread student dissatisfaction with his teaching, and a third marriage nearing collapse because of his alcoholism likely hastened the suicide that he had feared would inevitably conclude his life.

The Dispossessed

First published: 1948

Type of work: Poetry

The best example of Berryman’s early style, this volume’s poems are solidly written and of good quality but derivative.

Many of the poems in The Dispossessed date from Berryman’s student days. Their method of composition is conservative, betraying adaptations from Yeats, Frost, and Eliot. This is not to imply, however, that they stand outside Berryman’s thematic canon. The title of the collection, followed by the dedication to his mother, imply the themes of estrangement and alienation which would become familiar elements in Berryman’s later verse. The dedication ironically reveals Berryman’s bitterness at never having known his father and, legally as well through a changed name, having effaced his father’s memory. The poetry, as a collection, implies that, all attempts notwithstanding, no genuine rebirth is possible in the world of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The opening poem, for example, “Winter Landscape,” establishes the scene of a weary, frozen world in which “three men . . . in brown” return from the hunt and are at once frozen in time. Like the figures of John Keats’s Grecian urn, they are unaware of “the evil waste of history/ outstretched.” Some readers will recognize in Berryman’s setting the details of Pieter Brueghel’s painting Hunters in the Snow (1565), but the poet also allows the reader to see the men as Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts. Human beings participate in the march of history, continuing the cycle from epoch to epoch, but history is forever on a demoralized and degraded course. Even worse, the actors in Berryman’s human comedy have neither the consolations of art and civilization, which one finds in the gyre poems of Yeats, nor the power to act as interpreters of the cause of their malaise. No hidden spiritual life, which was Eliot’s solution for the same problem, ever appears as an avenue of escape.

More telling is the resemblance of “Winter Landscape” to “The Return,” a poem from Pound’s early collection Ripostes (1912); Pound’s poem was itself inspired by a poem of Henri de Régnier. It was written on the eve of World War I and is a prophecy of the ennui and exhaustion felt by hunters returned from the hunt. Berryman’s poem was written immediately before the beginning of World War II. Like Pound, Berryman was experimenting with symbolism at the early stage of his career, and this variation, twice removed from Régnier’s original, underscores Berryman’s conviction, derived via Yeats, that Western civilization is doomed to repeat its mistakes in ever more degraded variation.

Both poems use the same setting, that of weary hunters returning in the snow. Pound’s imagery is more overtly classical—the invincible hunters were “Gods of the winged shoe,” recalling Hermes, the swift messenger. Berryman’s image is that of the invincible Fascist brownshirts. A stanza drawn from each poem reveals quite clearly the degree of Pound’s influence. Pound’s second stanza reads:

See, they return, one, and by one,With fear, as half-awakened;As if the snow should hesitateAnd murmur in the wind,  and half turn back;These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”  Inviolable.

Pound’s stanza may be compared with the first stanza of Berryman:

The three men coming down the winter hillIn brown, with tall poles and a pack of houndsAt heel, through the arrangement of the...

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