What is the meaning of John Berryman's poem Winter Landscape?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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John Berryman, famous for his many sonnets and particularly Dream Songs, wrote Winter Landscape in response to a landscape picture by Pieter Brueghel (Bruegel), Hunters in the Snow. He has attempted to capture the moment as it is reflected on the picture and has used only one (long) sentence in his description. John Berryman was a conflicted man who never recovered from his father's suicide and who attempted suicide himself as a schoolboy and successfully killed himself years later, leaving his third wife and young children. 

Capturing a moment in time in this poem allows for interpretation, especially if the painting by Brueghel is not viewed simultaneously. The reader gets the image of the men, overlooking their town, "returning cold and silent." This would suggest that, whatever they had been doing, was not particularly successful. It is "twilight" so they have, seemingly, been out all day and are returning tired. 

Then there are the "five figures at the burning straw" who do not seem to belong in the town or are perhaps not welcome there. There is a contrast between these men, set apart and not part of the fun as the children play on the frozen lake or rink, and the obvious "lively" events taking place in the town.

The historical element of Berryman's poem should not be overlooked as "the evil waste of history" not evident in the actual painting, is referenced in Berryman's interpretation, the painting having been completed during Catholic and Protestant reformation in Holland.

There is a consistency that Berryman describes as the hunters will " keep the scene" although the reader should not be concerned with what "Sent them into the wood" but should know that they will "return as now we see them."

Therefore, the meaning of the poem depends on the reader's interpretation and an ability to capture a moment in time and interpret it. The poem allows the reader to get a visual picture of, as he says, a winter landscape. 

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