Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950
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 trees,Past the five figures at the burning straw,Returning cold and silent to their town.
Consequently, disfigurement and distortion are recurring images, particularly in the poems of the first part of the collection. “The Statue” of the volume’s second poem is “tolerant through years of weather,” and it cynically looks at passersby though it is never considered by those who glance at it. The person it commemorates is long dead, and no one knows or cares that it immortalizes someone named Humbolt. “A Point of Age” marks the start of a life’s journey in a world where all the travelers are uncertain of their destination. “The Ball Poem,” literally about a boy’s lost ball, sets forth Berryman’s epistemology of loss: that one can replace missing elements in life, but these replacements never duplicate what is gone. Berryman saw life as a series of losses, the first and most significant for him being the death of his father.
“Fare Well,” written in December, 1946, represents Berryman’s attempt to lay the ghost of his father to rest. The poem juxtaposes the mysterious rebirth imagery of Yeats (the phoenix, the tree of life, and fire) with the warm snow of Eliot’s The Waste Land.
O easy the phoenix in the tree of the heart,Each in its time, his twigs and spices fixesTo make a last nest, and marvelously relaxes,—Out of the fire, weak peep . . .Father I fought for Mother, sleep where you sleep!I slip into the snowbed with no hurtWhere warm will warm be warm enough to partUs. As I sink, I weep.
The poems of parts 2 through 4 continue these themes. “Canto Amor,” a love song written when Berryman was thirty, expresses the poet’s hope that his marriage will survive the uncertainties of the world. “The Lightning,” which concludes part 4, reproduces the terza rima of “Canto Amor,” the three-line rhymed-verse form of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). The poet’s sister-in-law, Marie Mabry, fears a violent lightning storm, but the poet sees the lightning as simply one manifestation of the violent chance of nature. The title poem of The Dispossessed ends part 5. Part of the poem dates from August 6, 1945, the day of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. The new dawn of the nuclear age is as lifeless as the winter landscape of the collection’s opening poem. The child of the nuclear age is deformed and grotesque, a “faceless fellow.”
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