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On "Dream Song 14"


Jeffrey Alan Triggs

This is a subtly organized poem, whose theme is well realized in its language. The incessant "ands," the persistent refusal of the syntax to come to rest, the literate colloquial tone all contribute to the poem's feeling of restless dissatisfaction. Berryman satirizes in particular middle class ecstasy over the common functioning of nature ("the sky flashes, the great sea yearns"), which borders on pathetic fallacy ("we ourselves flash and yearn"). The speaker who does not respond to all this flashing and yearning must alienate himself from the mainstream of society, represented by his mother, and conclude that he has "no inner resources." But even the Baudelairean stance of the alienated or adversary poet is boring, as are the artificial paradises of "tranquil hills" and "gin." The speaker himself is a wraith, an empty gesture, the "wag" of a vanished dog. All that is left standing is the elegant structure of the unrhymed stanza Berryman so often uses with its alternating long and short lines in the pattern: A, A, B, A, A, B. Composing his poem with three such stanzas, Berryman aims at the local intensity of a sonnet within a sequence. (Indeed, reviving the idea of the poetic sequence as opposed to the isolated well-made lyrics of the new critics is one of Berryman's real contributions to contemporary American poetry.)

from "Dream Songs and Nightmare Songs: The Balance of Style in the Later Poems of John Berryman." South Dakota Review 26:2 (Summer 1988).


Helen Vendler

. . . when the depressive side of bi-polar illness is ascendant in Berryman, Henry is represented as paralyzed by a pervasive apathy, an unwillingness to play even his own game. Here is the opening of Dream Song #14:

[lines 1-12]

Berryman's debt to the lyric tradition appears in Henry's appeal to Romantic gestures—'The sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn.' On the other hand, in Henry's frame of mind the entire Western literary tradition, from Homer on, is of absolutely no use, and so itself becomes a lower-case cartoon in which Achilles' wrath is reduced to 'plights & gripes.' 'Literature bores me,' says Henry, seeing himself in his plights and gripes' as bad as [a lower-case] achilles.' The Dream Songs visibly adopt certain features of the long autobiographical poem as we find it in Don Juan, which originated, in our literature, the spectacle of an impulsive and greedy protagonist commented upon by a worldly authorial voice.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Helen Vendler


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