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On "Dream Song 29"


Robert Lowell

[Lowell’s review of 77 Dream Songs appeared in the prestigious (and newly-created) New York Review of Books. He concluded by quoting all of Dream Song 29 and adding these closing remarks:]

The voice of the man becomes one with the voice of the child here, as their combined rhythm sobs through remorse, wonder, and nightmare. It’s as if two widely separated parts of a man’s life had somehow fused. It goes through the slow words of "Henry could not make good," to the accusing solemnity of the Sienese face, to the frozen, automatic counting of the limbs, the counting of the bodies, to the terrible charm and widening meaning of the final line.

77 Dream Songs is a hazardous, imperfect book. One would need to see the unpublished parts to decide how well it fills out as a whole. As it stands, the main faults of this selection are the threat of mannerism, and worse—disintegration. How often one chafes at the relentless indulgence, and cannot tell the what or why of a passage. And yet one must give in. All is risk and variety here. This great Pierrot’s universe is more tearful and funny than we can easily bear.

From Robert Lowell, "John Berryman" in Robert Giroux, Ed., Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) 110-111.


J. M. Linebarger

The Song is about Henry's response to the death of the father, the funeral itself (the "cough," "odour," and "chime"), and Henry's hallucinations about killing others. Berryman quoted the poem in 1965 to illustrate his technique, and then he commented about it: "Whether the diction of that is consistent with blackface talk, heel- spinning puns, coarse jokes, whether the end of it is funny or frightening, or both, I put up to the listener. Neither of the American poets who as reviewers have quoted it admiringly has committed himself so I won't."

from John Berryman. Copyright 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.


Edward Mendelson

This song, number 29, exemplifies in an unusually clear and regular manner the paratactic method by which almost all the songs are organized. The first sestet describes an experience in intensely private terms; the "thing" is on Henry’s heart, the cough "in Henry’s ears." In the second sestet he notices or remembers the world outside, and does so through a metaphor ("a grave Sienese face") whose vehicle at least is publicly accessible, although the tenor is only an unspecified guilty "reproach." Rather than locating sound "in Henry’s ears," it is the bells, outside, that speak; and although blind, Henry at least "attends." Finally, in the last sestet, he acknowledges almost in defeat the social world of others, all those who persist in surviving despite his dreams of violence (the cause of the "reproach" is now identified), who remind him that the thing on his heart is only private. This neat enactment of Husserlian epistemology (awareness of self, things, others) recurs throughout The Dream Songs. But often in reverse order – with the awareness of others narrowing down to awareness of self – or in some other variant pattern.

From Edward Mendelson, "How to Read Berryman’s ‘Dream Songs’ in Robert B. Shaw, Ed. American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perceptions (Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet, 1974).


Joel Conarroe

[Conarroe quotes the last stanza.]

… The lines above describe the morning horrors of an alcoholic who has no memory at all of what he may have done during a blacked-out period the night before, and who automatically fears the worst. Though nobody is ever missing, Henry knows that he is capable of "ending" someone and hacking her up (a recurring misogynous fantasy in Berryman’s work), and this helps account for his identification with [Richard] Speck, who murdered several nurses in Chicago, with the insane Texas sniper [Charles] Whitman (whose father taught him "respect for guns but not for people"), and with Loeb, who gave himself wholly to crime. One is inevitably reminded of Life Studies in which Robert Lowell expresses a terrible sense of kinship with Czar Lepke of Murder Incorporated [in "Memories of West Street and Lepke"].

from Joel Conarroe , John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1977), 101-102. Copyright 1977 Columbia University Press.


Paul Mariani

… [A]nother theme he had: Remorse. Ha! Plenty of Remorse:

[Mariani quotes the opening 4 lines.]

And terror and paranoia, with which the whole thing would begin:

[Mariani quotes the first stanza of #1.]

And the reason for so much terror? In spite of all his wives had done to make him feel otherwise, there was his overwhelming sense of being unloved. As his father had shown him by blowing his heart out with a single .32 caliber shot. Or Eileen, his first wife, turning from him as they drove south together from Paris to Siena in the spring of ’53. For him her image would remain forever linked in another Dream Song with the sorrowing face of the betrayed Christ, the two accusing faces becoming for him "the grave Sienese face a thousand years / would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of …" No wonder he had come in time to fear and hate the world with an intensity approaching paranoia.

From Paul Mariani, "My Heavy Daughter: John Berryman and the Making of The Dream Songs," Kenyon Review 10:3 (Summer 1988), 18-19.


Thomas Gardner

… The thing that has broken his heart seems simply a heaviness to which no action ("weping") or amount of time can adequately respond. So dominant that any sound or smell recalls it, that heaviness remains a tangling of rage and responsibility for which Henry has no adequate object. … 

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 40.


Helen Vendler

The comparable Dream Song #29 turns to Western art, as Henry recalls a Duccio or Simone Martini profile of the Virgin Mary or a saint. Like the Japanese stone garden, this medieval profile—an art-object combining spiritual stillness with aesthetic mastery—reproaches in the way the socialized Superego or even the Conscience cannot. Its reproach is silent, not oral; aesthetic, not ethical; spiritual, not social or legal. Berryman sets his Sienese icon against Henry's obsessive anxiety and sexual guilt, and reproduces in #29 the anguished and irrational thought-processes caused by Henry's conflict of values. The poem begins with the stifling and perpetual weight that torments Henry's guilty conscience, and ends with a baffled sense of its erroneousness: . . .

The cognitive dissonance between terrified conviction ('I have murdered a woman') and absurd enumerative ratiocination ('Nobody's missing') results in the obsessive and habitual, 'often' of the insomniac reckoning. Henry would be relieved if someone were missing; it would make his conviction of guilt rational, and he could reconnect his split pieces. But this solace is denied him.

Behind a lyric such as this there lie the religious lyrics of grief and guilt written by Herbert and Hopkins. But although Freudian poetry is sometimes called "confessional poetry," one can see in the instance of Dream Song #29 that it I often precisely not "confessional" poetry – there is, as the poem demonstrates, no sin to confess, and no way to make amends, no one by whom to be absolved. The therapeutic hour is concerned less with "confession" than with an analysis – carried out by various means – of what is wrongly "confessed." … In Freudian terms, Henry’s free-floating guilt would be seen as the sign of something repressed, not consciously available. The structure of the poem, which locates the "grave Sienese face" between the two stanzas of Henry’s guilt, suggests that what he has repressed is behavior consonant with that austere profile, the sort of behavior he still believes in, if in an unconscious way. The repression of chastity, the repression of asceticism, the repression of spiritual gravity, are odd things to mention in a Freudian context. But for Merryman, the adult repression of his youthful religious Superego is as great a cause of guilt as would be, in classic Freudian terms, the repression of libido.

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 49-50.


Thomas Travisano

. . . This Song is clearly centered on a terrible loss, but whose loss? And what has been lost? And where and when, and how, and why?

[quotes ll. 1-6]

Here is a truly displaced elegy. Loss appears not as a deprivation but as an arrival in the form of an oppressive psychic visitation: "There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart." In the first sestet, neither the nature of the thing that "sat down . . . on Henry's heart" nor the time of its encroachment is spelled out. "The little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime" that "Starts again always in Henry's ears" suggest that these are possible memory triggers, recalling in some way the cause of the oppression that "sat down, once . . . on Henry's heart," but how can "an odour" start in "Henry's ears"? And why, exactly, should Henry have to "make good"? One colloquial meaning of "make good" is to "succeed," a demand parents are wont to place on their children; another connotation is to "make good" on a debt or to make up for an omission or transgression. The poem may be an elegy for childhood losses. But here, unlike Jarrell's "Ball Turret Gunner," a child's consciousness is suggested not through the direct evocation of a child's experiences (a womb, birth, "my mother's sleep"), so much as through the preservation or stylized recreation of childlike forms of speech ("in all them time," "so heavy," "could not make good"). These childish or childlike forms of speech convey Henry's feeling of his own incomplete maturity, the struggles caused by the fact that a part of himself remains locked in childishness, emotionally uncompleted.

The Dream Songs emerged out of a period of intensive dream analysis for Berryman. And the poem's sudden shifts and surprising juxtapositions reflect his extensive exploration of and immersion in unconscious experience:

[quotes ll. 7-12]

Henry feels the reproach of that grave Sienese face, no doubt a Madonna, and the language evokes other religious and ceremonial elements (such as "the bells") that here float in an unsettling sea of indeterminacy that may be drifting toward nondisclosure. Yet is there any reason for reproach? Has any crime been committed? Most important, if this is an elegy, whose death is being mourned?

[quotes ll. 13-18]

This monody is peculiar in part because the reader discovers that there has been no death, certainly no murder, since "Nobody is ever missing." Despite feelings of grief and guilt, particularly over a urge to commit violence to women, reenacting, in effect, Edgar Allan Poe's "Black Cat," there seems to be no deceased object nor any specific action to which Henry can attach his disconcerting feelings of guilt and grief. Yet the feelings of guilt and grief remain, and they assume a character of unusual intensity and duration: "so heavy" and so lasting that "weeping, sleepless, in all them time / Henry could not make good."

Much later, in "Dream Song 327," Berryman concludes that "Freud was some wrong about dreams, or almost all," in part because he saw dreams not as "a transcript / of childhood & the day before," which is how Henry, apparently, sees them, but as "a panorama / of the whole mental life." But Berryman also objected to Freud, that "Grand Jewish ruler, custodian of the past / our paedegogue to whip us into truth" because "you wholly failed to take into account youth." It was in Berryman's youth that the violent death of his father and his own abrupt transformation from the Floridian Catholic John Smith to the Manhattan unbeliever John McAlpin Berryman occurred, in the context of abuses whose pervasive reality Freud's system chose not to acknowledge.

Berryman had reason to fear his mother, both as a possessive and judgmental presence in his life and as his father's possible murderer. Moreover, his father was definitely, if ambiguously, "missing." In "Dream Song 29," he dramatizes the problem of radically displaced emotion that "too much exceeds its cause" or that remains free-floating, unattached to any assignable cause. Perhaps this is because, despite deep self-analysis and even self-punishment, the real cause of Berryman's blocked emotion is too painful to name and thus has been most savagely repressed. And in his quest for self-knowledge and maturity, Berryman would conclude of Freud that "I tell you, Sir, you have enlightened but / you have misled us" (DS 327). Berryman exploits the postmodern elegy to explore the lost world of repressed emotion, that elusive yet strangely imperial kingdom whose hegemony is chiefly felt, and in The Dream Songs expressed, through the language of symptoms. And for insight into this world, Berryman felt sure, Freud's work provides only a partial key.

from Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright 1999 by University of Virginia.


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