Henry's Fate, and Other Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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 At the time of his death he left a large body of unpublished work.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a number of poems which represent, according to John Haffenden, who wrote the Introduction, but a fraction of the unpublished poetry.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...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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.