The Dream Songs, a work that Berryman always maintained is one poem in 385 parts, is the poet’s tragicomic view of his chaotic existence. Its distinguishing features are its humor and its idiom, both portrayed by Henry, the Berryman “I and not I” ofall the songs (Berryman identified Henry this way in the Harvard Advocate interview). Berryman chose the name Henry precisely because he did not like it, which allows Henry’s occasional identification as “Henry Pussycat,” the compliant one on whom the world unloads all its woes, as well as “Huffy Henry,” who sulks, is arrogant, but ultimately accepts every calamity. The only other character in The Dream Songs is “Mr. Bones,” who appears as minstrel interlocutor in the black dialect poems. All the particulars of the individual songs refer to specific events in Berryman’s life. Often these are obscure or seem relatively unimportant in themselves—a film he sees, the weather, a trip to Ireland—but even these neutral or happy events reveal Henry’s predisposition to sadness and depression. Significant events, such as the birth of a child or the death of a friend, elicit the same serious doubts and questions.
Berryman sought to represent in modern form many of the elements one finds in classical heroic epic. For this reason, The Dream Songs presents skewed time sequences and a heroic prospectus that is the tragicomic counterpart of the typical mythic hero. For example, Henry dies in section 4, approximately a quarter of the way into the songs; the entire section, written as fourteen posthumous poems (numbers 78 through 91), tells of his struggle toward heroic resurrection. Henry being what he is, he naturally never achieves a classical heroic apotheosis; if anything, his despair appears more pronounced in the episodes that follow. The best he manages, though he does so with relative consistency, is a small spark of hope, most often in the poems which concern his daughter’s birth and growth.
(The entire section is 828 words.)