Eleven Addresses to the Lord Themes
by John Allyn Smith

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“Eleven Addresses to the Lord” was originally collected as part 4 of Love and Fame (1970), a volume that explores with often shocking frankness John Berryman’s relationship with women and his public life. In “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” however, Berryman’s public life for the most part disappears as a subject, and love becomes his love for God.

Critical reaction to the collection as a whole and to “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” specifically has been mixed, with a number of critics taking at face value Berryman’s self-congratulatory bombast in the earlier sections of the collection and concluding that his expressions of faith in “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” are uniformly sincere. Examination of the poem’s forms and devices, however, should warn the reader against assuming that anything in the poem is free from ambiguity and irony.

Berryman’s ambivalence toward God is evident from the very beginning of the sequence. In the first quatrain of the first address, God is praised in conventional terms as “craftsman of the snowflake,” but that craftsman also created “the boring Moon.” This ambiguity leads directly to that quatrain’s final line, in which the author thanks God for “such as it is my gift.” Is his gift analogous to the “Earth so gorgeous” or the “boring Moon”? If the latter, should such a gift truly elicit gratitude to God? Two stanzas later Berryman praises God in apparently unequivocal terms for repeatedly rescuing him. This, however, is immediately followed by “You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselves,” the “allowed” being troubling in reference to a supposedly merciful, loving God.

Is God truly loving or indifferent? The next quatrain concludes that there is no clear answer. Rather, God is “unknowable, as I am unknowable to my guinea pigs.” This...

(The entire section is 453 words.)