Summary

(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.)

Summary

(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.)