Daniel J. Berrigan Critical Essays

Berrigan, Daniel J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berrigan, Daniel J. 1938–

Berrigan, an American, was formerly a Jesuit priest. He is a poet, essayist, and social activist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

[Love, Love at the End] is a thing of great potency. While it contains very few "poems" as one gets into the habit of defining poems, nearly all of these "parables, prayers and meditations" take structure from imagery….

[While] it is true that both Berrigan and his brother have certainly gone as fervently to the streets as anybody, it seems to me the poet and priest have survived without being corrupted—that the priest has prospered greatly, and the poet has found new spine for his work….

In all, this is a strong book, both religious and worldly—a scarifying vision, even when oblique, of the kind of adventure we have pursued in Southeast Asia.

Robley Wilson, Jr., "Five Poets at Hand," in The Carleton Miscellany, Fall, 1968, pp. 117-20.

Daniel Berrigan, priest and poet, flew to Hanoi to bring three captured American fliers home. [Night Flight to Hanoi] is his journal and, as well, a set of eleven poems based on the experience. It is certainly a promising subject, and Father Berrigan has proven himself in the past to be a poet of some skill. What the book is, however, is a manifestation of the moral hysteria which has swept the minds of so many good men over the past few years. Father Berrigan, motivated by love and moral anguish, condemns the United States for its behavior in an "immoral" war, but then he goes on to exalt Lenin and Ho Chi Minh to the status of modern saints. He condemns the fliers he rescued because they still believed in America after their confinement, because they did not succumb to the Communist teachings of their captors. What began as a book of love ends as a book of hate. Father Berrigan becomes the merci-less accuser of a God of revenge and violence. The book is a frightening document, for in it poet becomes mouthpiece for propaganda and priest becomes prosecutor. It is a flight into a night of moral rage; there is no dawn of new love and understanding at the end of that flight.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1969, p. xx.

A considerable part of my purpose in this review [is] to suggest that contemporary poetry in America finds it difficult to make simple, unadulterated statements…. Of all the poets I have been reading, I should have supposed Daniel Berrigan would have been most direct: here, after all, is a man involved in action as very few of us have allowed ourselves to become involved. But action must have another idiom than the one I would have assigned to it; the man acting is something other than what I thought he was, or is reflected in different mirrors. Berrigan's work, which I would have supposed revolutionary and absolute, is instead involute: the mind that can consider the possibility of action is extraordinarily intricate before it starts….

I do not think that this poetry [Encounters] is very public …, rather, it seems the poetry of a public position, what is said by someone who has confused the private and the public roles. I think that such a confusion is easier than it ought to be in our time, and I can hardly fault Berrigan for having allowed it. But I still feel that the nimbus of his language is instructing me without having the direct right to instruct me. The elevation of the language is like and unlike the elevation of the Host; the first elevation assumes that I share a ritual in which, as it happens, I am not a participant.

William Dickey, "Public and Private Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXV, No. 2, Summer, 1972, pp. 295-308.

Father Berrigan's major purpose [in America is Hard to Find] is to defend his anti-government actions and those of his associates. This purpose is inseparable from another purpose, the attack upon America, the decent, healthy heart of which is, for the author, hard to find. It's difficult to find out from the book what it is which makes up this hard-to-find America but the tone suggests that it is that magnificent potential for greatness to which Nick Carraway referred in another expression of disillusion with American life, "The Great Gatsby." But if the elements of this America are hard to find in the book, the elements which have crushed it are not: the military mind, police power, the F.B.I., and the collapse of American morality under the weight of American technology. "Who owns this land anyway?" Berrigan asks and though he answers that we, the people, do he implies that it is being taken from us by the powers just mentioned.

Father Berrigan's anger and bitterness are great and of contemporary commentators on the American civilization few whites have spoken so harshly. Strangely enough, this passionate Jesuit sounds like the wild-eyed Henry Miller who could digest neither American food nor American manners. But where Miller took refuge in rancor and concentration on human aberrations which, unfortunately, he could not transcend himself, Father Berrigan concentrates his actions and ideas into a revolutionary role which at times, alas, takes on the appearance of a sought-for martyrdom. There is, however, no single picture of Father Berrigan to be taken from the book. In those sections which read like prose poems he appears as a sort of visionary, Whitman-like in his symbolic vision of American life. In his letters home he is the attentive son and brother, attached to his family with restraint, dignity, yet with passion. In the essays, which seem to be the backbone of his expression from the underground (hiding from the authorities) he is both an expositor of the conditions of American life and an exhorter to overt action against the government, the military, and police mentality.

As exhorter Berrigan fluctuates between exhortations to overt actions and admiration for the quiet yet deep and significant moral life. Unfortunately, the tone of the former dominated that of the latter. Though moved by his call to overt action, I was also troubled by it for it rendered hollow his professions of belief in a quiet life—for example, one dedicated to the moral and physical stability of family. When he recommended such overt action as that of individuals and their families camping on the White House grounds until specific decisions are made I said yes, yes, yes, but almost simultaneously wondered at the potential horror and even absurdity of its impracticality. Could I bring eight small children to the White House grounds without the whole of my personal venture crumbling into an absurd exhibition of the waywardness, frailty, and innocence of these children? I don't wish to overemphasize this particular recommendation of Father Berrigan, yet I do wish to stress that possibly the quiet life (his mother's for example) is not devoid of revolutionary tactics, that after the captains and kings depart and after the shouting and the tumult has died "the humble and the contrite heart" remains.

On the other hand I wish to praise Father Berrigan for helping me to understand him better; for his choice of hero for our time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to wartime Germany and persecution so that he could earn his right to an eventual peace; for his clarification of and gentle dismissal to the "near" hero; for his insight into and condemnation of such half truths as that which stolidly dictates that "one who acts against the law, if he is to act virtuously and responsibly, must always take the consequences."

Frank L. Ryan, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1972, p. 301.

Berrigan's most mature poetry [Prison Poems] was probably written during his nearly fatal 30 months in Danbury Federal Penitentiary, to which he was sentenced in October, 1968, as one of the so-called Catonsville Nine…. In style, tone, imagery, idiom and insight, these three-score poems convey a toughened singleness of vision that is no less religious, even mystical, for all its resort to a blunt, sardonic vernacular…. Berrigan moves in close to "whiff the cup" of prison life; his glimpses of brother prisoners are moving, his message is hang on.

Publisher's Weekly (reprinted from July 23, 1973, issue of Publisher's Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), July 23, 1973, p. 68.

[As demonstrated by "Prison Poems,"] Berrigan's faith and humor never seem to flag, even under the worst circumstances…. The effect [of the poems] is to deflate the innate tragedy of the circumstances. Often the effect is also to escape the real issue at hand.

Berrigan insists on [a] stream-of-consciousness method and defiant sense of irony throughout the book, both I think to a poetic disadvantage…. Berrigan's wit and "craziness" too often preclude a serious atmosphere in which the poetic facts can breathe….

[But he] is capable of a fine short lyric now and then….

Berrigan's debt to Hopkins is noticeable.

Paul Kameen, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1973, p. 298.

It is Dan's talent for publicity that accounts for the swiftness of his elevation to the ranks of the exalted. Unlike [Thomas] More, Dan has written a play about his own martyrdom—probably the first to do so—in which he is likened to Jesus Christ and Socrates. Thus he serves as his own chronicler, being unwilling, the times being what they are, to wait for an apostle or a Plato or Xenophon, or to trust them with the nuances of the material. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has been a smash hit in theaters in Europe and Canada, as well as in the United States; and now, thanks to Gregory Peck and the actor who plays Dan, and managed to catch his "essential soul," there is the film, capable of bringing the message to millions. The third act is the important act; here the nine defendants speak to the court and, through the agency of Dan's poetry, to Gregory Peck and the rest of mankind. Dan sees to it that his brother Philip speaks first and that he himself speaks last, sort of wrapping it up for the defense, and not only last, but longest, getting 14 and a half pages to John Hogan's one and a half, for example, or Mary Moylan's three and a half. Anyone can burn a draft card, but only a poet can be trusted to immortalize the event, because only the poet, or someone like him, can see its full significance. Only the poet will know what to say in the dramatic presentation of the trial, because only the poet can see the significance of The Trial….

It is surely not the profundity of his political thought that accounts for his fame and the esteem in which he is held…. The fact is, it does not make sense; there was no relation between his analysis of the political situation and the action he proposed by way of remedy or solution….

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine may be a dramatic and propagandistic triumph, but its poetry, and the license enjoyed by poets (in general and by this one in particular), conceals the absurd or, alternatively, the pernicious character of the doctrine it espouses….

The Dark Night of Resistance, won the Thomas More Medal as the "most distinguished contribution to Catholic Literature in 1971," and it will not do for an Episcopalian political scientist to question this award or to suggest that 1971 must have been a particularly poor year for Catholic literature. Dan recounts in this book how in Hanoi, where he had gone to assist in the repatriation of the first American fliers released by the North Vietnamese, he experienced one of his rather frequent spiritual awakenings, this one brought on when he encountered Buddha, the "many faces of Buddha," at a time when "the United States of America was taking an Infant Jesus to its religious heart, changing His underpants on major feast days. A culture of infancy savored and prolonged; a religion for infants."

One might have thought that the Thomas More awards committee would be put off by such talk—I mean, it certainly does not seem very Catholic, or even very Christian, not, at least, to someone brought up on the Book of Common Prayer; but in the day of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair and Oh! Calcutta! one must be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that there is some truth in the old saying that all roads lead to Rome. Still, Christianity a "religion for infants"? Nowadays you get Christian prizes for that?

Walter Berns, "The 'Essential Soul' of Dan Berrigan," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 9, 1973, pp. 1231-43.

Although Daniel Berrigan insists in his introduction to the published version of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine that he has "worked directly with the data of the trial record, somewhat in the manner of the new 'factual theatre,'" his play differs not only from most plays produced by that theatre of fact, but from most other courtroom dramas. It is more document than documentary, more personal testimony than play. It does not argue with the audience; it makes no revelations; it partakes of no "reconstructions" or dramatizations of the events that lead the nine defendants to where they are…. It offers no hypertensive confrontations between court and defendants or defendants and prosecution. Yet it is surprisingly, even intensely, dramatic, more so than many more deliberately theatrical works…. Although it is a mediocre "play" by traditional standards, it is provocative politics and exceptional theatre….

Berrigan's play is tendentious and at times simplistic….

Daniel Berrigan has one great advantage over most other writers of political drama: he is a poet…. His lines have a resonance where others's frequently are earthbound; he can evoke, where they usually can only expound.

Catharine Hughes, "'The Trial of the Catonsville Nine'," in her Plays, Politics and Polemics, Drama Book Specialists, 1973, pp. 83-90.

Daniel Berrigan is not a poet. He hasn't the equipment. His imagery, his language are humdrum as check stubs…. We endured his trivial crimes; now we endure his trivial punishment [Prison Poems]. Verses on: a tooth extraction, a visiting skunk, an anal search. Your average pickpocket has as much to say…. Jesus and Vietnam and Watergate are overwhelmed by peevish complaint. He seems to say merely "I—I—was imprisoned. I was made uncomfortable. I."…

The man who, in Catonsville, spoke for his superior moral passion has been outpassioned. Diminished. Daniel Berrigan's time has come. And, as suddenly, it has gone.

D. Keith Mano, "Berrigan Agonistes," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), March 1, 1974, pp. 263-64.

Berrigan has searched for some years for the proper literary medium to tell his life story. He has produced 14 books of prose, including an effective and successful experiment in "factual theater," The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, and eight books of poetry, including Time Without Number, which received the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957. His characteristic writing style is highly metaphysical, and not always appropriate to the basic lessons in morality and politics that he offers to teach. It makes use of extravagant metaphor and wit, hyperbole that often achieves confusion rather than clear thought. His skill as a writer showed itself best in older, short prose pieces, like his invitation to Catonsville during the time of the trial; his letter to the Weathermen while he was underground, or, in the present prose volume [Lights On In the House of the Dead], "Acknowledgements and Dedication, Sort Of"; letters to his brother Jesuits, and other occasional pieces where he seems to have a particular audience well in mind.

Frequently the prose is hard to read—rhetorical displays that serve no useful purpose….

[Sympathetic] as I am to Daniel Berrigan, teacher of a generation of passive resistors, and to his book as one kind of record of the Danbury experience, I wish it were better as a literary work. As a reader I need some help, some way of participating in the experience, rather than this account in which he rarely reveals any concrete detail about himself or others…. In many of the diary commentaries on conversations with prisoners, the reader waits for important facts, the size, shape, distinctive characteristic of the people one hears about, but seldom sees. Berrigan seems too impatient, too concerned with message and thus careless about his listener, too hurried, so he fails to respond with so much as a nod to the reader before moving on.

The problem is one of distance in the prose, distance from people, from time, as if the speaker in his diary lived in a world beyond. Perhaps it is the voice of the prophet of one who sees what no one else sees, hears what no one else hears. But how can I be sure? Maybe it's only that detached, unworldly voice of the Sunday sermon, the newspaper editorial, the government document, the college catalog—the "we" of the papal bull. Why should I, as reader, trust the voice when it shows so fragile a link with my world, my time, when it speaks in such a stilted way about the ordinary person's wish for common things, when it shows so little sense of other people involved, either in the American past or the antiwar present, in common struggle?

It is the voice, after all, in prose that the reader must trust before he can take on the heavy message of the writer as prophet. In this, one cannot help but compare Daniel's account with his brother's, since both deal with roughly the same time span. In Philip Berrigan's Widen the Prison Gates, one finds all the details that one misses in Lights On In the House of the Dead—people named, conditions described, the hard, patient facts of day-to-day existence in prison: the struggle to survive the harassment of the screws, the betrayal of the media, the gossipy and empty concern of the public.

Daniel Berrigan is not patient enough in prose to let the dogged and simple facts, the natural shape of things, speak for themselves. He intrudes on them, wearying us with the snap, crackle, pop of verbal display. As a prose writer he needs a good dose of Orwell.

The poems [in Prison Poems] are another matter. They are the best poems of his career, frequently brief lyrics, where the telling metaphor brings the event to life, tuned to the music of natural speech….

"My Father," an elegy of 500 lines, written during Holy Week 1971,… is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful extended lyrics in contemporary poetry.

Taken together these two books remind us of what Daniel Berrigan's war resistance cost him in physical illness and mental anguish. For this reason alone they are useful records, written for the same purpose that he "confessed or read or kept silent": to guard his sanity. In the poems, particularly, one gets a strong sense of the courage and talent he had for giving new life to plain moral truths, in word and in action, at Catonsville and from prison.

Michael True, "Verbal Display," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 13, 1974, pp. 27-8.