Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1962
One Minnesota morning in January, 1972, John Berryman ended his life, presumably in a fit of the depression which dogged him, by plunging himself onto the ice in the Mississippi River from a bridge in Minneapolis. At the time of his death he left a large body of unpublished work. In 1976 his publisher and friend, Robert Giroux, saw to the publication of The Freedom of the Poet, a collection of prose pieces, mostly literary criticism. The present volume adds to the material by Berryman now available to the reading public a number of poems which represent, according to John Haffenden, who wrote the Introduction, but a fraction of the unpublished poetry. Haffenden reports that several hundred Dream Songs and miscellaneous poems have yet to be published. In addition to the poetry he reports there is a “harvest” of essays on Shakespeare, including a critical edition of King Lear and a biographical study of the playwright. Also, there is a book on dream analysis, some plays, and some stories and essays not published in the 1976 volume. From any point of view, John Berryman was a successful writer, as well as a successful professor of literature (he taught for more than thirty years, off and on, at Harvard, Princeton, Wayne State, and the University of Minnesota). From his own viewpoint, the fatal weakness in any writer was a lack of seriousness, a lack of purpose, and failure to heed the artistic voice within one’s self: no such weakness can be ascribed to John Berryman, for he worked hard and purposefully at his craft.
In the Introduction to Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, John Haffenden advises the reader that many of the poems in the present volume were written while the poet was working on the poems that were published in Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. of John Berryman, but he also warns the reader that one may not presume that the omission of certain poems from those volumes was due to, in Berryman’s opinion, their poorer quality.
Part I of Henry’s Fate & Other Poems consists of uncollected Dream Songs. Those poems which Berryman called Dream Songs have been judged consistently the greatest of the poet’s achievements, despite his earlier (and rightful) fame from his long poem entitled Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Two volumes of the Dream Songs appeared during the poet’s life: 77 Dream Songs in 1964 and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968. The Dream Songs were, according to the poet himself, finished. But Berryman continued to write them and those in the present volume were written in 1968 or later. The forty-five Dream Songs have been printed, so far as it is known, in the chronological order of their writing.
The title poem reintroduces Henry, an imaginary character who inhabits the world of Dream Songs. Henry is a white American, middle-aged, who sometimes makes an appearance in black-face. Henry, according to his creator, is a human being who suffered an irreversible loss, who has a friend referred to as Mr. Bones (who seems to be Death). Henry refers to himself often, the references being in first person, second person, and third person. Indeed, the Dream Songs are, in Berryman’s own admission, about Henry. Haffenden suggests in the Introduction to this volume that the Dream Songs dramatize the vicissitudes of the sense of human identity, that Henry is, at least in some sense, mid-twentieth century man. But as a persona Henry has aroused dissent, particularly where his meaning is concerned. Certainly the poet said that he did not regard Henry as an extension or substitute for himself, and yet the careful reader of the Dream Songs is aware that what happens to Henry also happened to the poet who created him. The poetry of Berryman, especially the Dream Songs, has consistently been regarded by literary critics as confessional, personal poetry of a type common among poets of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Recollecting “Henry’s Confession,” published in 1964, the reader is aware that Henry speaks in that poem of his father’s death by a bullet, too close to the death of Berryman’s father to be simple coincidence. And in recollecting the same poem now, the reader will remember, too, perhaps painfully, that someone, persona or poet, speaks of “joining my father” in “a modesty of death.” In the title poem of this volume we find the poet writing of Henry’s fate, referring to Henry as “he,” but giving him small daughters and predicting his fate, in 1968, as being dead, with no forwarding address. The personal, expressionistic elements in Berryman’s poetry are hauntingly inescapable. A man exposed to professional therapy many times in his life, Berryman seems to have applied therapeutic, confessional techniques to himself. And one recalls, too, that, reared within Catholicism as a child, Berryman returned to that faith in his maturity. He seems to have been able to look at himself as someone else, but at the same time to see only himself. One can acquire the eerie feeling that even Berryman’s fine critical and biographical study of Hart Crane was motivated by an obsession with suicide: Crane, like Berryman’s father, like Berryman himself, was a suicide. Even more closely, Hart Crane disappeared into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as Berryman found his end at the hands of the mighty river which feeds the Gulf of Mexico. As for identity, it is revealing that the poet was born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma, but that he went through life with another man’s name—in a culture which emphasizes the patronymic and its symbolic significance. No wonder, from one point of view, that “Henry’s Fate” says “Crusht him out/surprising God, at last, in a wink of time./ His soul was forwarded./ Adressat unbekannt.”
Another side to Berryman comes through occasionally. As has been noted, he took his work as a poet seriously, believing that seriousness of purpose was of utmost importance to every writer. In “The assault on immortality begins” in this volume we find commentary on the awarding of Nobel Prizes, with the observation that Ibsen and Frost never became Nobel Laureates, although “. . . Icelanders and Latin Americans have it, for the birds.” And then there is the suggestion that the Swedish Academy is ignorant of both Chinese and American English. But we also note in the first line the poet’s reference to his assault on immortality, not astounding in one so seriously a poet. In his own view, life treated Berryman badly, and readers have rather generally agreed with the poet. He was an intense man, given to drinking too much and to smoking too much. “Great flowing God, bend to my troubles, dear” illustrates with graceful fluidity of thought, typical of Berryman’s poetry, the way in which he thought and expressed some of the problems his intensity brought home to him. In this poem he reflects on a way of life of more than two decades, which he may not be able to leave, despite the pleas of the wife who loves him. In the poem the persona sees that life is not himself, but a set of habits, like the ghastly habits (to use his word) that we find in tragic drama. And the final lines of the poem remind the reader of John Berryman’s own career as scholar and literary critic, for these lines recall to the reader the density of his knowledge of Renaissance literature and the Shakespearean plays in particular, for the Henry of the poem, unlike a Hamlet, walks on in life, surviving his holocaust.
Perhaps like Hamlet, too, Berryman could not be sure that his achievements were such as he had dreamed, in which he could take pride. In “He sits in the dawn, if it can be called dawn,” we find Henry thinking of his dreams, of the disappointment of life. It is a failed Henry, one who, though not wholly in despair, counts his losses in the dim light of dawn, with wife and child lying innocently asleep, unaware of his thoughts.
What was Berryman’s view of life? Some critic-interpreters have found his view (and they may be correct) to be an ironic one. Throughout his career he appears to have hunted for a poetic expression that was, at the same time, his own expression: this is the dilemma of the confessional poet. Indeed, like Dr. Severance, the protagonist in Berryman’s novel, Recovery, the poet seems to be reaching for something on which to rely for guidance in recovering from alcoholism and depression, from a personal chaos. In the Dream Songs, those published in this volume as well as those published earlier, Berryman appears at his best, with his utilization of Henry and Henry’s Mr. Bones, even in the duality of Henry as white and, at times, as black. Language, as in all poetry, holds the key to understanding the work, if not the poet. Berryman moved through a wide range of diction, from the flat ordinariness of exchanges in everyday conversation to the more formal language commonly thought of as literary or poetic. His ability to see himself and others is extraordinary and seldom dull. He had the ability to see in an everyday occurrence, in a personal occurrence, something worth his intense attention—as in the Dream Song entitled “Hallowe’en.” His little daughter, age seven, with her insistence on going with other little girls to “trick or treat,” led her father on to see that the childish independence is the first step to the child’s lessening need to depend on Daddy, even, indeed, the first step toward the time when Daddy will depend upon his child.
Part II of Henry’s Fate & Other Poems contains some miscellaneous poems which illustrate the range of Berryman’s later writing. For example, “Enlightening Morning” recounts thoughts about a letter from a young woman, a sad but merciless letter. Looking at what she says, the poet sees her life and his to be as disparate as their ages, as he says, “I’ve not been where this girl is. . . .” Noting that she thought of him as an oddity, an anachronism, a dinosaur, he remarks that she strikes him as some entirely new form, a pathetic carnivore. Other poems in this section deal with Minneapolis, where Berryman lived for many years, with Che Guevara, and with some remembered incidents from the past. Part III of the volume contains “Fragments and Unfinished Poems.” Included here is another version of “Washington in Love” that Berryman published earlier in Delusions, Etc. of John Berryman. The earlier version contained but seven lines; the version published here, dating from January, 1970, was discovered by Haffenden in the attic of the poet’s house in Minneapolis, sixteen pages clipped together. Discussing his find, Haffenden says in the Introduction, “They are reproduced here just as Berryman wrote them, complete with disjunctions and occasional lack of punctuation. I feel that they merit attention as throwing light on Berryman’s methods of working, insights and style, as parts of an ambitious, if unfinished poem.” Also in Part III is “Proemio,” a beginning to what the poet apparently anticipated, had he lived, to become his third great work, after his earlier successes with Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs. Again, according to Haffenden, the subject of this later poem was to have been the poet’s quest for a subject, a quest “at once fulfilled and abandoned” resolving itself as concentration on the next generation, in Berryman’s three children. The poet’s own notes suggest that the unfinished work would have been wide-ranging in scope, instructing his children in everything the poet knew well or was perplexed by.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28
Christian Science Monitor. LXIX, July 8, 1977, p. 23.
New Leader. LX, August 15, 1977, p. 14.
New York Times. August 26, 1977, p. C19.
Virginia Quarterly Review. LIII, Summer, 1977, p. 94.
Yale Review. LXVII, October, 1977, p. 72.
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