Berryman’s Sonnets, a cycle that traces a five-month love affair that began in April, 1947, contains poems that were written in 1947 while Berryman was teaching at Princeton University. The cycle was not published until 1967, primarily because of its explicit references to persons, places, and events of that time. The woman who is its subject was called “Lise” in the first printing of the work, perhaps a Berryman equivalent for the “Laura” of Petrarch’s sonnets. In reprintings which followed upon the success of The Dream Songs, however, Berryman restored his subject’s actual name and changed the title of the collection to Sonnets to Chris.
In isolation from Berryman’s other works the cycle is not impressive; it follows the predictable pattern of meeting, anticipation, love, and loss that one finds in Petrarch. What makes it important is Berryman’s discovery of the “nervous idiom” he would develop in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and, still more successfully, in The Dream Songs. Berryman uses this technique to describe the poet’s increasingly agitated state of mind as his mistress first yields, then rejects her lover’s advances, and ultimately abandons him. Berryman’s sonnets mark the poet’s movement toward the greater use of idiom and what he had called as early as 1934 “a more passionate syntax.” They betray a young poet still searching for his voice and indicate a veering away from Poundian symbolism.
Berryman clearly used the discipline that the sonnet form imposed as a means of tempering his tendency to expand relentlessly and to control the jarring effects of the idiom he was coming to prefer. He candidly admits as much in sonnet 66 when he “prods our English” to “cough me up a word” that will “justify/ My darling fondle.”
Readers of The Dream Songs will recognize in the sonnets several characteristics of Berryman’s fully realized style. First, there appears a fascination with the method of composition. Language becomes a lexicon or thesaurus from which the poet, in vestigial homage to Pound, must select mot juste (“precise word”). The French phrase, which Pound repeatedly used to describe his own process of composition, becomes anglicized in Berryman’s sonnet as “justify.” Then too, the process by which the proper word arrives is fundamentally unattractive, fitful, and spasmodic; in this case, the language expectorates it. Clever as it is, the imagery is fundamentally ugly, with the lover’s word becoming so much phlegm. On the other hand, the poet is aware that the adulterous meetings the sonnets commemorate are also ugly. Thus, in this roundabout way, the poet justifies his “darling fondle.”
Berryman’s real fascination with Lise/Chris was perhaps the new direction in which it took his poetry. Even as the relationship destroyed his marriage, it gave rise to new opportunities to explore the tormented mind of the lover. Lise/Chris was no Dantean Beatrice, nor was she a Petrarchan Laura. The Berryman anima inspires lust and infidelity. In the final analysis, Lise/Chris provides a poet whose greatest fear is creative infertility with the opportunity to write. If there were any doubts that the process of composition underpins the entire cycle, they are dispelled by sonnet 117, the last in the collection. As fall turns to winter and the attraction, too, begins to chill, the poet waits in the grove—with more than a hundred sonnets in his pocket—for his mistress to appear. When “my lady came not/ . . . I sat down & wrote.”
As in a classical sonnet sequence, development of the love relationship is keyed to the changing seasons: the beginnings in spring, with reference to “all the mild days of middle March”; an awareness of death, even at the affair’s zenith in July (sonnet 65); bitterness in the aftermath of dying love (sonnet 71), written in September. The concluding poems, written in 1966 specifically for publication, note the acute, unhappy aftermath of the experience but settle upon another beginning, “free . . . of the fire of this sin” (sonnet 111).
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