The Freedom of the Poet

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

A collection of prose pieces, mostly criticism, The Freedom of the Poet includes long and short essays, reviews, literary “notes,” and short stories. Contracted eight months before John Berryman’s death, the book was first organized under the tentative title “Selected Essays” and comprised thirty-seven pieces, eight of which had not been previously published. To these Robert Giroux, the poet’s publisher and friend, added the fine story “Wash Far Away” and an article, “The Ritual of W. B. Yeats,” the earliest work in the collection, originally published in 1936 in The Columbia Review. Berryman eventually changed his title to the one of the volume, drew up a formal table of contents dividing the prose into five sections, and on January 7, 1970, two years before he leaped to his death from a bridge over the Mississippi, drafted a statement about his own practice of criticism, a fragment that he intended to expand into a preface. At that time, still full of hope, he wrote Giroux, “Hurrah for me: my prose collection is going to be a beauty.”

So it has proved to be. Showing few signs of the depression that finally overwhelmed him, the essays, ranging over thirty years of his career, are controlled, meaty; written with wit and sensitivity, sound scholarship, intelligence, and sane good humor. Although many are brief, registering the impressions of the moment, none are trivial. This is not to say that over the years Berryman’s judgments have, in every specific, proved to be reliable. Because many of his reviews of current literature were composed in response to the circumstances of publication, they betray the shortsightedness of the moment. For example, his youthful essay on Yeats’s drama, quite appreciative considering the time when it was written, evidences from a modern point of view insufficient knowledge of the Japanese Nh Theatre, central to an understanding of the Irish poet’s ritual action. Nevertheless, even at twenty-two Berryman shows the dedication, care, and fine discrimination that marks his mature criticism. A serious student of literature, he endeavors to show how the artist, breaking free from the bondage of his own life experiences, is able to express a new, more human sense of reality. Thus the “freedom of the poet” is to extend and enrich the values of life for everyone.

As a critic, Berryman attaches to no particular school, although he says that his practice “was influenced in its inception by T. S. Eliot, R. P. Blackmur, Ezra Pound, and William Empson.” Other critics, past and contemporary, whom he mentions with admiration are Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Mark Van Doren, D. H. Lawrence, and John Crowe Ransom—diverse thinkers, certainly. Yet a clue to his method, or at least his direction, can be understood from his pointed reference to Kafka’s statement: “The story came out of me like a real birth, covered with slime and blood.” The touchstone of Berryman’s criticism is his empathy with the artist. As a poet sensible to another poet (by which is meant any artist, no matter the medium), he attempts to undergo, through re-creating the experience, the birth-pangs and final deliverance of the art form. At his best, Berryman discovers the freedom of the poet by struggling vicariously, along with the artist, against the forces that always attempt to prevent expression: indolence, crassness, ignorance, self-deception.

One final quotation cited with approval by the author—this from Conrad—offers further insight into his method: “All the great creations of literature have been symbolic, and in that way have gained in complexity, in power, in depth and in beauty.” Berryman values literature not for the sake of its social but its aesthetic consequences. Although he is sympathetic to a social realist like Dreiser, he admires that author’s enterprise, symbolic of American vigor, rather than his deterministic message. Further attempts to define Berryman’s critical strategy are likely to fall short of precision. His roots, to be sure, are in the “New Criticism,” with its emphasis upon close and independent textual analysis of the work; but his approach is too eclectic to classify according to any particular school. Indeed, much of his finest criticism, notably on English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is founded upon rigorous historical scholarship. On the whole, we are well-advised to accept Berryman’s opinion: “My interest in critical theory has been slight.”

That cannot be said about his practice of criticism. Following Berryman’s directions, Giroux divides the pieces of the collection into sections treating the Elizabethans; other English and European writers; works of American fiction; poets and poetry; and stories. While one might expect the essays on American writers—particularly on American poets—to be the most penetrating, as a matter of fact Berryman’s best work concerns writers of the English Renaissance. The poet seems to have a special affinity with artists of this robust age. On Shakespeare he includes five essays—three articles and two notes; also he has short monographs on “Marlowe’s Damnations” and “Thomas Nashe and The Unfortunate Traveller.” The most interesting papers from this group are on Nashe and...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, July, 1976, p. 95.

Book World. June 6, 1976, p. H4.

New Republic. CLXXIV, June 5, 1976, p. 23.

New York Times Book Review. April 25, 1976, p. 3.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LII, Autumn, 1976, p. 707.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXXVIII, July 7, 1976, p. 14.