The Dream Songs Summary
by John Allyn Smith

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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 written in black minstrel dialect, which employ jazzlike rhythms and sometimes a minstrel show format with Mr. Bones as interlocutor, are especially effective in maintaining the tragicomic tone. Bones is not only the classic minstrel show figure, he is also a tragicomic persona of death and reveals the bitterly comic features of life, as in the final lines of song 50:

—Mr. Bones, your troubles give me vertigo,& backache. Somehow, when I make your scene.I cave to feel as ifde roses of dawns & pearls of dusks, made upby some ol’ writer-man, got right forgot& the greennesses of ours.Springwater grow so thick it gonna clotand the pleasing ladies cease. I figure, yup,you is bad powers.

Though Berryman’s break with symbolism was complete by the time he began composition of The Dream Songs, he retained to the end of his career the conviction (shared by Robert Browning, another poet he admired) that life is action and that the best verse portrays not character but character in action. For this reason, Berryman tells his readers relatively little about Henry as a person. It is enough that his subject bears a name the poet dislikes intensely. It is equally revealing that Henry lives his life on a much more mundane level than Pound’s mask, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Mauberley, like Pound, is Ulysses, a heroic figure who relentlessly combats Philistinism in all its forms. Henry, on the other hand, is a lovable nonentity who is usually defeated before he begins. The fact that neither character is an accurate self-portrait of its creator is unimportant.

Berryman saw the writing of poetry as a practical matter, as a process whose primary purpose was to dispel fear. For him, as for Stephen Crane, the subject of a Berryman biographical study, verse was an “anti-spell,” a kind of word magic. Berryman’s fears, like those of Crane, were essentially three in number: abandonment, uncertainty, and death. This view of poetry as ritual is a consistent element in Berryman’s development. It...

(The entire section is 1,634 words.)