(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 950 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Berryman. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Haffenden, John. John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Haffenden, John, ed. Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999.

Halliday, E. M. John Berryman and the Thirties: A Memoir. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Hirsch, Edward. “One Life, One Writing! The Middle Generation.” The American Poetry Review 29, no. 5 (September/October, 2000): 11-16.

Kelly, Richard J., and Alan K. Lathrop, eds. Recovering Berryman: Essays on a Poet. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Linebarger, J. M. John Berryman. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. 2d ed. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Thomas, Harry. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Travisano, Thomas. Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.