Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

At its most basic level, The Dream Songs records the search for spiritual meaning and solace of a man who has suffered devastating losses. Henry never finds what he is searching for, but the poems are full of Christian references, pleas for spiritual enlightenment, and anger at God over the suicides of Henry’s father and beloved friends. In poem 168, Henry notes the horrific parallels between his own life, Christ’s life, and vaudeville theater. “God has many other surprises,” he notes, and later in the poem elaborates:

hellish vaudeville turns, promises had& promises forgotten here below,the final wound of the Cross.I have a story to tell you which is the worststory to tell that ever once I heard.

Henry decides to “pass to the next Song” because that story is too much for him to tell; it is unclear whether he refers to his own story or that of Jesus. The Dream Songs as a whole, however, tells of a man filled with horrible stories who is unable to come to terms with the tragedies of his life or to find the understanding he seeks from religion.

The tone of the poems ranges from despair to supplication to outright indignation with God. Dream Song 153 blames God in harsh language for the deaths of Theodore Roethke, Richard Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath:

I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation.First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.That was a first rate haul.

Henry revisits his father’s suicide repeatedly through the poem cycle, with emotions ranging from despair to anger. Even by the end of the poems, he has not accepted the death. In number 384, the second to last of the book, Henry describes himself visiting his father’s grave, imagining himself hacking down to the body with an ax and annihilating his own beginning.

In the four years that remained of his life after The Dream Songs was published, Berryman began the novel Recovery. Published posthumously in 1973, the unfinished work has been hailed by some critics as evidence that Berryman found Christian peace in his final years. His own suicide by walking off a bridge on January 7, 1972, leaves such a claim in doubt.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

As the story and technique of The Dream Songs reside in the character of Henry, so too does its meaning. Henry’s themes are the book’s themes, and they are always near the surface of each song. The Dream Songs is a book about loss: the loss of loved ones, the loss of youth, the loss of purpose, the loss of hope. Every song has its casualties, real or abstract, and Berryman’s Henry catalogs these casualties with relentless accuracy. In his grief, Henry illuminates not only the facts of loss, but also its multiple consequences. These consequences are the dangers Henry must resist and ultimately overcome if he is to accomplish the peculiarly heroic destiny toward which Berryman has launched him. Henry must overcome the obsessiveness that follows loss, the paralyzing fixation on the finality of divorce or death that is itself a further kind of death. Henry must overcome his addictions to alcohol and to meaningless adulteries, the all-too-accessible consolations for loss that are themselves so often the cause of subsequent, deeper losses. Most important, Henry must find the means to resist the temptation of suicide (which, sadly, Berryman himself was unable to find), the temptation that, in offering an escape from despair, plots the irreversible triumph of despair.

Thus The Dream Songs discovers its meaning through Henry’s struggle to outdistance loss. As in the classical epics, the hero (Henry) must reach the furthest extremes of endangerment—states of utter helplessness, uncontrollable delirium tremens, and blank animal despair, literal...

(The entire section is 648 words.)