(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 poems...

(The entire section is 828 words.)

The Dream Songs Overview

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The life of Henry, the main character and narrator of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, echoes in many critical ways that of the poet. Most notably, Henry’s father’s suicide is a recurring preoccupation of the poems; repeatedly, Henry revisits his father’s death, seeking ways to cope with the loss. Like Henry’s father, Berryman’s father shot himself. His mother remarried quickly, and Berryman, born John Allyn Smith, took his stepfather’s name.

As Berryman began publishing poetry and teaching at universities, including Harvard and Princeton, he became friends with many of the major poets of the time. His work is generally classed in the movement of confessional poetry. Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, and Theodore Roethke, who are all referred to in the poems, were also among the most famous confessional poets. The term “confessional poetry” derives from the poets’ use of deeply personal subject matter in their poems and from the raw emotion the poems reveal.

Henry, in The Dream Songs, laments the deaths of several of these promising and still young poets. Berryman did not know Plath, but her death by suicide touched him deeply and is the subject of several of the poems. Schwartz and Jarrell were close friends of both Berryman and “Henry,” and their suicides are lamented in the poetry. Read as a whole, the poem cycle presents a literary history of the period as well as an extended and emotional elegy that underscores the tragedy of the deaths. The poems capture more, however, than the private details of the lives and deaths of the poets of the time. Henry copes with the events and issues of the day, including the Vietnam War and racial injustice. The narrator describes great personal loss but also an effort to make sense of the social dilemmas surrounding him.

The structure and narrative voice of The Dream Songs challenge many readers. Berryman began work on...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

The Dream Songs Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Begun in 1955, The Dream Songs combines two volumes, 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). The series of 385 songs is an ongoing, evolving account that mixes historical facts with autobiographical material, current events with philosophy, and archetypal myths with vaudeville humor. John Berryman is often associated with the confessional school of poetry, a style popular in the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s and connected with the careers of Berryman’s contemporaries Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath. The design of The Dream Songs (that of a series of lyrics organized around a central motif) has roots in literary tradition, including Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826) by the British Romantic writer Lord Byron, and Cantos (1930-1970) by the American poet of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound. Berryman cited Walt Whitman, the nineteenth century American poet, as his model, claiming that he designed the poem after Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855). In 1965, 77 Dream Songs won a Pulitzer Prize; His Toy, His Dream, His Rest won the National Book Award in 1969.

At first glance, the collection seems loose, spontaneous, and improvised, but actually the individual poems are tightly structured, and they adhere technically and thematically to a complex poetic strategy. Each of Berryman’s songs consists of 18 lines broken into three stanzas of six lines each. The meter is well regulated, utilizing speech patterns ranging from a parody of beatnik black dialect to baby talk to academic jargon. It takes the attitude of a hip literary insider during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In his 1979 essay “How to Read Berryman’s Dream Songs,” Professor Edward Mendelson points out an even more severe, “arithmetical precision” as a further unifying scheme built around the number seven. He demonstrates “seventy-seven Songs in the first volume . . . 77 x 5 in the completed 385 Songs . . . seven epigraphs; seven Books in all.” The songs also suggest a plot, not in a linear episodic sequence of events, but as a quest of the poet’s search for himself, seeking a fixed, centered ego.

Books 1 through 3 detail the metaphysical angst of Henry, the main character, recounting events and meditations. Henry is self-obsessed, petty, brilliant, dysfunctional, and damned by his need for meaning, for transcendence. The characters—including friends, enemies and acquaintances—are “zoned!” and “screwed up” or they are intellectual hustlers with their own lives to waste. Mixing slang with formal diction, discordant meter with perfect lyrical rhythms, Berryman combines pedantry with a street-smart style to portray a tragicomical blend of voices, personas, embodied in the polymorphous figure of Henry. In the preface to the one-volume edition of The Dream Songs (1969), Berryman writes, “The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in his early middle age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.”

This “irreversible loss” may be traced, despite the disclaimer, to Berryman’s own loss of innocence. When Berryman was twelve, his father shot himself to death outside the boy’s window. His life after his father’s suicide was punctuated by transience and dissolution, although he managed to garner prestigious poetry awards and various teaching positions, notably at Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota. Married three times, Berryman spent years fighting alcoholism, infidelity, and madness, and finally began to lose faith in his craft as a poet. The incessant strife and psychological turmoil that began so early in his life, and which is so evident in The Dream Songs, culminated in his own suicide in 1972.

As the title The Dream Songs suggests, the poems are extremely private, subjective, and personal, but as...

(The entire section is 1727 words.)