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...
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