The Dramatic Presentation of Inner Turmoil: Shakespeare and John Berryman’s Dream Songs

by Jay Peters

March 29, 2008


This paper examines John Berryman's Dream Songs from a psychoanalytic perspective. The paper formulates a means of discussing three factors that impinge on Henry's construction of himself: the heteroglossic nature of thought one's relationship to power and one's relationship to the metaphysical. Though other major mid-century "confessional" poets (such as Bishop and Lowell) had developed ways of interiorizing the modernist poetics of Eliot, Williams and Pound, the main lens through which the paper examines the interiorizing poetics of the Dream Songs is Shakespeare's tragic period, which Berryman had studied closely his entire career. Berryman found in Shakespeare's tragedies not only a means of dramatizing one's relationship to power and to God, but also the use of dramatic dialogue to represent an individual mind.


[Delmore] Schwartz once asked me why it was that all my Shakespearean study had never showed [sic] up anywhere in my poetry, and I couldn’t answer the question. . . . I seem to have been sort of untouched by Shakespeare, although I have had him in my mind since I was twenty years old.     --John Berryman (Stitt)

Berryman’s remarks notwithstanding, the influence of Shakespeare can be found on almost every page of The Dream Songs. In the conceptualization of Henry’s world, in the poems’ thematic preoccupations, and in the formation of Henry’s thought, the song sequence owes as much a debt to Shakespeare’s tragic period as to any other poetry whose influence Berryman has acknowledged. Shakespeare understood theater as a kind of dream, and Berryman understood dreaming as a kind of theater. And both poets understood that in dreaming and playing, anything can be represented as long as it is properly contained. Both dreamwork and plays “constitute strategies of psychological defense, defending…against the very fantasies they represent” (Fineman 73). Henry’s dreams are very much attempts to represent yet contain unspeakable fantasies. And as Joel Fineman has provocatively pointed out, Elizabethan theatrical conventions—the logistical requirements of producing a play on the Elizabethan stage—correlate with three central procedures of such dreamwork: displacement, repression and condensation (Fineman 72-73).

     In writing the two collections of dream songs—77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest—Berryman was faced with the challenge of finding a form and a language that would allow him to dramatize Henry’s conflict from within Henry. Throughout the songs Henry, like Hamlet, searches for the solutions to questions about whether the world and his own soul is sacred or corrupt. How could his father have died and left behind his son to this teeming and seedy world? Unable to reconcile the trauma, Henry suffers a disintegration of the self that is partially willed and welcomed by his desire to end his own life. Other poets of the so-called “confessional” school (to which critics have given Berryman an honorary enrollment) might have been describing trauma and loss and commenting on the effects of it, but their poetics were essentially those inherited from the modernists. The content had turned inward, but the poetics had not. To meet this challenge, Berryman turned to Shakespeare, whose work he had studied intimately his entire adult life—his friend Elizabeth Bettman once said that Berryman “identified personally with the period of Shakespeare’s tragedies” and that he tried to “recapture” Shakespeare’s experience “by trying to relive it” (Berryman Shakespeare xxxv). From Shakespeare, Berryman found a means of dramatizing a character’s inner turmoil through interior dialogue—Henry is made up of multiple voices, some in conflict and some in accord. And in Cassius’s and Hamlet’s conflation of fratricide with suicide, Berryman found a means of containing Henry’s central trauma, the suicide of his father, within a cycle of agonistic violence to which Henry would be heir and avenger.

     “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasma or a hideous dream” (Julius Caesar II.1.63-65). Imagine a convex lens through which, as through a funhouse mirror, the physical world transforms into dream and then back again. Objects and actions become at once external to the self and yet representative of some inner turmoil, from being to seeming and back to being. Through this lens, the physical world momentarily becomes a collective, externalized dream in which we all take part. In the pause between intention and action, Brutus feels the strange nature of his own self as it participates in the invention of the Roman state. He is about to sacrifice Caesar to an idea of what Rome should be, not the “womanish” (I.3.84) and submissive state represented by physical debilitation, but rather a state of freemen, represented by “blocks” and “stones” (I.1.35)—to borrow from Murellus—the plebeians in the streets, but also the actual marble from which Rome itself is built. For Brutus, the physical world is comprised of ideas enacted.

     “I can’t go into the meaning of the dream / except to say a sense of total LOSS/ afflicted me thereof: / an absolute disappearance of continuity & love / and children away at school, the weight of the cross, / and everything is what it seems” (DS 101). John Berryman’s Dream Song 101 describes a liminal world in which fantasy, reality and the metaphysical merge into “a sense of total LOSS”—loss of children, love and God. The “children away at school” are what they “seem”, symbols of Henry’s loss, but also children away at school. The physical world loses its representational power as Henry loses his faith in God. Metaphor—seeming—is metaphysical. The flesh is symbolic of our separation from God: what is divided will be made one again in death. Eighty dream songs earlier Henry defied God to “hurl…down something” as an indication that another life exists (DS 20). Presence of metaphor correlates to a divine presence. A divine presence allows for the possibility of grace and salvation, that divine love that Beatrice showed Dante at the end of his long wandering. So once Henry loses faith in God, his attitude towards suffering becomes antagonistic. Henry has no Beatrice waiting at the end of his journey, and he fears that painful and traumatic wandering is all he has, that everything is just what it seems.

     Loss of metaphor signifies a loss of God. “Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems’” (Hamlet I.2.76). Hamlet repeatedly describes the world as a garden gone to seed, the idealized Edenic past lost to a corrupt present. His stubborn insistence at taking his mother at her word “seems” refracts the light yet again. Before meeting the Ghost, before his antic disposition, here he is in the first act willfully quibbling with Gertrude, insisting on taking her figure of speech literally. She only meant to ask him why he is so sad, but by quibbling on the meaning of “seems”, he forces her language into a figure that she did not intend, the suggestion that his extended mourning is pretense. Although nothing in Hamlet’s life is falling out “as it might or ought”—to borrow from Henry—perhaps when Gertrude asks him why he seems so sad, Hamlet just “should have come out and talked” (DS 1). Instead he withholds from her the answer she seeks, only to reveal the source of his brooding to the audience forty-five lines later—his mother’s remarriage has made the world into a “rank” and unweeded garden.

     In Hamlet’s exchanges with Polonius, the figurative value of language vanishes. He sticks to Polonius’s “words, words, words” (II.2.192), and his inability to speak figuratively is the sign of his madness. But then with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—in the same scene—Hamlet’s language is intensely figurative. “Denmark’s a prison” (243). “A dream itself is but a shadow” (260). “To speak to you like an honest man, I am most dreadfully attended” (268-269), with the pun on the royal connotations of “dread” indicating that Hamlet knows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spying on him, and so will not in fact speak to them honestly. For Hamlet, all language becomes metaphor—the whole world becomes metaphor—a reaffirmation of the divine presence in the world. The objects and actions of the world are representative of a “divinity that shapes our ends” (V.2.10). Much of Hamlet’s tragedy stems from his belief that impulsive action is expressive of some divine plan, while plots—“rough-hew them how we will” (V.2.11)—are sort of like grammatical frameworks into which true expression irrupts.

     Brutus, Hamlet and Henry suffer the same burdens. All are introspective characters compelled to act by some outside force, which creates a dissonance within them that they struggle to understand and overcome. They all brood over the enactment of violent fantasies. The inner turmoil of each character stems from a fraternal rivalry that in each instance has lead to fratricide or suicide, and must either lead to further fratricide, suicide or both. In the dream songs specifically, the turmoil stems from suicide, which is an internalized form of fratricide—first that of Henry’s father, and then the suicidal thoughts and desires of Henry.

     All are melancholy figures, governed by black bile, lacking “that quick spirit” found in Marc Antony (I.1.29). They are all capable of seeing their actions objectively, despite what Brutus says about the eye seeing not itself “but by reflection” (I.1.53). But they are also unable to fully grasp their own motives and drives, and so are deeply suspicious of themselves and others: the eye sees not itself but by reflection. They are cautious, and they believe that human reason can be used to deduce correct action. Hamlet must “have grounds more relative” than the Ghost’s word (II.ii.603-604). Brutus must “consider” and “with patience hear” Cassius’s case for insurrection (I.ii.168-169). He then diplomatically murders Caesar not because of any crime Caesar has committed, but rather on the soundness of an argument: because men become ambitious, “so Caesar may; / then lest he may . . . think him as a serpent’s egg, / . . . And kill him in his shell” (II.1.27-34). They have the intellect of kings but the unconscious of the oppressed. Hamlet and Brutus are the enfranchised, but having marginalized themselves by opposing those in power, they have become “imaginary Jews / like bitter Henry” (DS 48).

     “[L]ife, being weary of these worldly bars, / Never lacks power to dismiss itself. / If I know this, know all the world besides, / That part of tyranny that I do bear / I can shake off at pleasure” (I.3.96-100). Cassius, like Hamlet, is obsessed with agonistic fraternal rivalry, but he conflates that rivalry with suicide. He opposes Caesar’s elevation to power because he must then be made one of Caesar’s “underlings” (I.2.142). Cassius and Brutus want a republican Rome—a Rome based on fraternity—and they fear Caesar’s popularity will re-establish a patriarchal Rome, with Caesar a new Tarquin. “Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that Caesar? Why should that name be sounded more than yours” (I.2.142-143)? But Caesar’s assassination will not remedy Cassius’s agony, for “Cassius is a-weary of the world” (IV.3.95) even after Caesar’s death. Cassius calls life itself a “tyranny” of the soul—the soul enslaved by the world of the flesh, which is a corrupt master. Fineman writes, “To kill a brother who is unalterably the same [as oneself]…undercuts both the phenomenological and the psychological rationale of the murdering brother’s own life [and] necessarily translates itself into suicide” (88). Suicide is an internalized fratricide, a self-rivalry. Cassius would “dismiss” his spirit from his corporal frame as a king might dismiss a subject from service in his court. Freedom then only comes in death. The same drive that would have Claudius kill his brother to become king would have Cassius impaled on his own sword. At the moment of Cassius’s suicide, Pindar becomes the spirit to Cassius’s body: the soul says, “So, I am free,” as it stabs the body (IV.3.47).

     “Many fall into despair and cast themselves of their own will into that post-mortem darkness…[Modern man], in his equality with God, either becomes a tyrant or joins the army of the despairing and dying” (Hunted). Dream Song 3, “A Stimulant for an Old Beast,” is crucial to understanding how Henry, “the old beast,” internalizes tyranny and oppression. At first glance, the poem is a defense of a love affair, the female “stimulant” of the title sensually represented in the first line’s musky “acacia” and “burnt myrrh.” Henry’s relationship with a “screwed-up lovely 23” year old woman is his attempt to ward off “a final sense of being right out in the cold”--that is, a sense of his own mortality (DS 3). Sexual corruption equals vivification; Adam and Eve’s lapse into the mortal world begins the temporal experience of life as sex and death. However, in the first stanza the woman makes Henry embarrassingly aware of his age. With no illusions about her role, the woman responds, “I’m not so young but not so very old”—not so very old as Henry, that is. With his bubble burst, Henry goes on in the second stanza to curmudgeonly read some old magazines and meditate on death. “All these old criminals sooner or later / have had it. I've been reading old journals. / Gottwald & Co., out of business now. / Thick chests quit.” The “old criminals” were Klement Gottwald and his Communist Czech government. “Gottwald & Co.” is taken verbatim from an article in one of the “old journals” Berryman was reading when he wrote this song, an elegiac Time-Life article about Jan Masaryk, at whose funeral Gottwald, a political rival, spoke.1 Masaryk was the son of Tomas Masaryk, the first Czech president. Gottwald viewed the young Masaryk as a political rival who had nationalist support. Jan Masaryk died under suspicious circumstances officially explained as suicide, but that were widely suspected to be a political assassination by Gottwald’s Stalinist regime. What is interesting here from Henry’s perspective is the conflation of his own death with a political assassination, or fratricide. Like Masaryk’s death, Henry imagines his own death in one of two ways: either as a suicide or as the resolution to an internalized fraternal rivalry—the oppressed nationalist offed by the tyrannical ideologue. Almost seventy years earlier, Tomas Masaryk had written, “Modern man wants only to live and to let live, but it is very often because of this that he takes his life” (Hunted). Gottwald too would be dead, by 1953. His thick chest quit.2

     “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (I.2.129-130)! Hamlet, like Henry, would like to cast himself into the “post-mortem darkness”; he wills his flesh to melt, and he laments that suicide is a mortal sin—“that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (I.2.131-132). Hamlet’s mother’s remarriage, though certainly the central trauma for him in every scene in which his mother figures—this scene and the bedchamber scene—is not his character’s main preoccupation. Rather, brother killing, what Joel Fineman calls the “primal curse” of fraternal rivalry, echoes throughout Hamlet (76). The elder Hamlet defeats the elder Fortinbras. Claudius defeats the elder Hamlet. Young Hamlet finds rivals in Claudius, the young Fortinbras, and in Laertes. Even when the players visit Elsinore, Hamlet is compelled to compare himself to them: “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (II.2.550)! Once the Ghost reveals Claudius’s role in King Hamlet’s death, Hamlet becomes obsessed with winning a fraternal rivalry between himself and Claudius, whose position Hamlet now inhabits. Fineman has described a sort of fraternal displacement that occurs in Hamlet as a result of King Hamlet’s murder. By killing the king and installing himself in the place of young Hamlet’s father, Claudius actually makes Hamlet a brother rather than a son: like Claudius before, Hamlet must now murder a king to claim the throne for himself (76). The symmetrically structured play-within-a-play perfectly expresses this relationship. Hamlet and Claudius share a fraternity.

     The Czech folk song “Ach Synku, Synku” played at Jan Masaryk’s funeral. “Oh, my son, home so soon? / Have you been plowing, been plowing? / Have you been plowing all afternoon? / Father, the wheel broke, Father, the wheel broke. / We'll have to strengthen each spoke” (Hunted). The broken spoke is the site of trauma, re-enacted each time the wheel cycles past it. Hamlet and Henry repeatedly pass the same site of trauma. Hamlet cycles through his father’s death and his own desire for revenge—in many ways Hamlet is a play made of mirrors, all reflecting Claudius’s murder and Gertrude’s rejection of Hamlet’s idealized father. The death of Polonius mirrors the death of King Hamlet. Laertes’s revenge mirrors Hamlet’s. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia mirrors Gertrude’s rejection the idealized father. And all of these re-enactments mirror the cyclical nature of the physical world, in which the world constantly dies so that it may live. Thus Polonius goes to a dinner “[n]ot where he eats, but where ‘a is eaten” (IV.3.19), in which “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (IV.30-31).

     In the dumb show that Hamlet has chosen to entertain Claudius, we see the re-enactment of trauma presented as a fratricidal fantasy, brother murder begetting brother murder. First the players perform the murder of Old King Hamlet by pouring poison into the porches of the sleeping king’s ears. In the second dumb show, we’re presented with Gonzago, who will attempt to murder his own uncle: “ ‘A poisons him i’ th’ garden for his estate” (III.2.261-264). The play-within-a-play presents Hamlet’s traumatic loss of his father and then the subsequent re-enactment of that trauma in his murder of Claudius.

     Henry returns to his father’s suicide many times. In the penultimate dream song, he visits his father’s grave. “Often, often before / I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one / who cannot visit me, who tore his page / out: I come back for more” (DS 384). Henry takes an ax to his father’s casket and chops the corpse, prying open the coffin and killing his father in the grave. Many of his meditations on his father’s suicide contain patricidal fantasies, as though the real trauma is that the father, by killing himself, enacted the son’s own wish to destroy him, leaving Henry powerless and emasculated. The father was Old Hamlet and Claudius in the same body, a simultaneous idealization and degradation. The “irreversible loss” described at the beginning of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest is a loss of the object of his violent fantasy. With no father to kill, Henry/Hamlet must contain within himself a continuation of the agonistic violence.

     “The desire for oblivion . . . surfaces again and again, invariably in the context of an undeserved (and unwanted) survival” (Connaroe 135). Killing undercuts the rationale for one’s own life. Hamlet and Henry find themselves in a time “out of joint,” they at the center of an existential problem not of their making. Is God Henry’s enemy? Can revenge killing set the time right, or does it just push the broken, agonistic wheel another revolution? “There seems to firm no answer / save from the sexton in the place that blinds” (DS 164). The only way to successfully negotiate the situation is to die—the consummation of Schopenhauer’s claim that life is something that should not have been. Thus Henry welcomes heading “toward his friendly grave” (DS 269), where at last his troubles can end.

     Berryman had written a long sonnet sequence prior to working out the dream song form, and the basic structure of the songs bears a vague resemblance to the sonnet. The considerable variation across the dream songs notwithstanding, the basic form can be said to have 18 lines, consisting of three 6-line stanzas, each stanza further divided into a pair of 3-line units that sequentially break down an iambic pentameter line—“The weather fleured. They weakened all his eyes, / and burning thumbs into his ears, and shook / his hand like a notch”(DS 8)--the third line providing much of the force of expression in the songs by unceremoniously breaking the foot and meter. Though the rhyme scheme is highly varied, a basic ABCABC pattern emerges in each stanza, similar to the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet. It’s as though the songs are always galloping towards a concluding thought, just past the volta, but are subject to having their reins yanked without warning. Henry’s story, then, is told as a series of broken sonnets, where the thesis and antithesis is embedded line by line rather than by octet and sestet.

    Huffy Henry hid the day,
    unappeasable Henry sulked.
    I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
    It was the thought that they thought
    they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
    But he should have come out and talked.

    All the world like a woolen lover
    once did seem on Henry’s side.
    Then came a departure.
    Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
    I don’t see how Henry, pried
    open for all the world to see, survived.

    What he has now to say is a long
    wonder the world can bear & be.
    Once in a sycamore I was glad
    all at the top, and I sang.
    Hard on the land wears the strong sea
    and empty grows every bed.

Dream Song 1 is an excellent example of the thesis/antithesis interior dialogue that composes Henry’s thought. The poem is composed of three voices: the analytical voice of the present; the primal voice of the child; and in between these we have the lyrical voice of the poet. Henry’s lyrical voice recounts (often in first person) an idealized past in which the world provided love and comfort, before Henry suffered his irreversible loss, a time when “all the world like a woolen lover / once did seem on Henry’s side.” For its power, the lyrical voice relies on pathetic fallacies contained in elemental—almost Biblical—images of the land: wool, the sycamore and the sea. These elemental images move from an idealized past of love and singing to the desolate attrition of the present, in which the sea wears on the land and empties its own bed.

     “A rather large number of songs make their points not by a process of association or through images dredged up from the unconscious but by direct expository statements that conceal no mysteries” (Connaroe 106). The analytical voice soberly describes and accounts for the trauma underlying the shift from comfort to attrition: “Then came a departure. / Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.” Now Henry is considering his condition from one remove, so the voice shifts to third person. Rather than examining the way his loss is affected by time, he examines how his loss affects his relationships with others. He is “wicked & away” because of something others “thought they could do” to him, and now he is “pried open for all the world to see.” The loss has made Henry powerless and vulnerable. He has no agency in the analytical voice.

     The poem opens with an alliterative sigh: “Huffy Henry hid the day,” like a pouting child. The trochaic childlike rhythm of the line echoes nursery rhymes—it’s the male counterpart to “Mary, Mary, quite contrary”—and other baby talk in the dream songs. Dream Song 175 opens with a riff on the Old King Cole nursery rhyme, for example. Also, Henry often will elide his L’s with W’s: “wife” for life and “wuv” for love. So the primal voice of childhood is given full sway in the dream songs, communicating Henry’s emotive state more through sound and rhythm than through figurative imagery or cultural reference. In order to scan trochaic, the line contains a deliberate but inexplicable gap in the middle of it, where a preposition seems to have been left out. Huffy Henry hid from the day? The effect of the omission is as though only part of the thought has surfaced into language.

     Berryman’s brilliant poetic invention requires that any close reading of Shakespearian influence in the songs remain vague and allusive, but I hope that my reader will take from this discussion of Dream Song 1 a sense of how certain dramatic techniques are at work in structuring Henry’s interior. We might imagine that, structurally speaking, Henry’s mind functions like the structure of Hamlet. Henry’s superego, for example, is expressed as the voice of an analyst, and it corresponds to a compression of Claudius/Gertrude/Polonius. The reader himself is included in the superego structure: we are critics and judges of Henry, those who will see inside Henry now that he is pried open. Henry speaks to us the way Hamlet speak to Polonius; we always feel we are in the presence of a great intellect that we don’t understand, one that suspects us of prying, and that we are the receivers of a cordial shrewdness in which is contained some joke on us and our gullibility.

     One further salient element of what Connaroe has called “Henryspeech” (116) should be mentioned in its relationship to Hamlet. In Dream Song 1, lines 5, 10 and 14 contain zeugma and syllepsis, an instantly recognizable characteristic of Henry’s language because of its idiosyncratic use of the ampersand: “wicked & away”; “might or ought”; and “bear & be.” The first four books of dream songs (all of 77 Dream Songs and the Op. posth. section of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest) contain over 300 instances of zeugma and syllepsis linked with an ampersand, an average of almost one per stanza. Such verbal patching together of incongruities is also the most memorable rhetorical device in Hamlet: “things rank and gross in nature” (I.ii.136); “wild and whirling words” (I.v.133); “a rogue and peasant slave” (II.ii.550). Henry and Hamlet see the doubled nature of things, an echo of their shared inability to reconcile the world as idealized and degraded, sacred and corrupt.

     Henry is disintegrated. In Dream Song 48, he deceptively says, “I am a monoglot”; as we have seen, he consists of a number of voices: the lyricist, the analyst, the critic and the child among them. The dream songs are a conversation of these voices, the dramatic presentation of Henry’s inner turmoil. But the most unusual voice contained in Henry, and the most controversial, is the voice of the minstrel. In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin describes every utterance as the composition of a matrix of cultural forces, which can be distilled into two basic groups of cultural dialect: the dialect of centripetal force and that of centrifugal force. Centripetal force is the force of the state; in Henry’s case this is the psychoanalyst and literary critic. The centrifugal voice degrades and subverts the state: for Henry, the voice of degradation is the interlocutor and blackface performer who calls friend Henry “Mr. Bones.”

    Mr. Tambo: Mr. Bones, Mr. Bones. How do you feel, Mr. Bones?
    Mr. Bones: Rattlin’!
    Mr. Tambo: Mr. Bones feels rattlin’! Ha ha ha! That’s a good one. Tell a little story, Mr. Bones.

    Sound like the whole side 'a the buildin' open up and in come a long angular spook seventeen gas lights and stove pipes hung together with jingle jangle bells all over. Scrooge takes a look at this cat, says, "Do I have to go with you?"

    Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. / In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

Janglin’ bells and rattlin’ bones: the minstrel show is a white parody of black oppression, in this case an inversion of the process of emulation because here the powerful emulate the powerless. Minstrelsy is a white identification with black oppression that does not risk power loss because it is symbolic. The social order is safe, maybe even reinforced. In the dream songs the minstrel voice represents that part of Henry that feels tyrannized by life in the same way Cassius feels his soul trapped by his body. Henry is slave to God, the “ol’ Marster” who holds complete dominion over man (DS 51). Although Berryman’s use of this voice has been criticized as racially exploitative and insensitive, it should be pointed out that the language of minstrelsy was still in wide use in the 1950s when Berryman began writing the first dream songs. The three passages that begin this section cite parodic minstrel performances by white entertainers—Irving Berlin, Lord Buckley and Bob Dylan—all working in the same period in which Berryman wrote 77 Dream Songs, the decade between 1954 and 1964. The oppressed gain power over their oppression by internalizing the structure that oppresses them. They mock themselves for their abject state by exaggerating the signs of it. I recognize my own abjection and can manipulate the signs that mark me as abject. I can thus speak the language of oppression and gain power over it. In the dream songs, Henry gains a kind of power over his own oppression under God by mocking himself in blackface. Ironically, the interlocutor is more liberated than Henry, because he has already surrendered power to God—he is at peace with his mortality. While Henry struggles to see life as anything but “a handkerchief sandwich” (DS 76)—that is, sadness sandwiched between birth and death—the interlocutor easily sees the divine presence in the natural world, symbolized by his observations of sunsets: “honey dusk do sprawl” (DS 2); “the roses of dawns & pearls of dusks” (DS 50).

     The Dream Songs breathe like the seasons. They are structured in a cyclical pattern of growth and death. The structure is similar to Macbeth in its inhalations and exhalations: all characters descend on Inverness—everybody “comes” in the first act, and then all flee from the castle in the second act, only to descend once more disguised as the Birnam Wood at the end of the play. Likewise, the seven books of The Dream Songs are made up of inhalations and exhalations. The first collection, 77 Dream Songs, contains books one through three. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest continues the sequence with books four through seven. Each of the first three books begins with an image of the world’s endurance, symbolized for example at the beginning of the second book when “the green of the Ganges delta foliate” (DS 27). With the beginning of each book, the world renews itself despite the suffering inherent in life. Each of these renewals contains a premonition of Henry’s death as a prerequisite for the world’s survival—“My friends…I’ll die; / live you, in the most wild, kindly green / partly forgiving wood” (DS 27). The world’s regeneration requires the reclamation of the stuff that makes Henry.

     The first two books end with Henry’s death. At the end of the first book death is situated as a grand metaphysical gesture to the eternally reborn world. His psychological development is described in terms of an Edenic childhood—“the glories of the world made me aria, once”—followed by a corruption of that world by a pubescent interest in “women’s bodies.” Henry falls “back into the original crime,” which in Genesis is the source of human mortality. Thus at the end of the poem Henry sees death metaphysically, as a “most marvelous piece of luck”, because it reunites what the corruption of the flesh has torn asunder, a union with God. At the end of book two, however, Henry fails to see a metaphysical dimension to death. He struggles with the relative smallness of his “wounds” in relation to “the times of galaxies,” leaving him to plead that God spare him, “cagey John” who used to be formless dust and molecules, “a whilom bits that whip” (DS 51). That he points God to his physical substance rather than to his soul here is revealing of his attitude toward life: matter being finite, the birth of new things requires death of the old. Henry does not mourn death: he mourns new life.

     By contrast, he is revived by the Fall, both as autumn and as Edenic lapse. Sexual corruption, though the source of a split with God, is a source of life energy for him, as we have seen in “A Stimulant for an Old Beast.” The end of the third book takes place in autumn, with Henry swinging barbells, “duded up,” and “ready to move on” (DS 77). The entire collection ends with him heading home during autumn to find a strange and human comfort in his own role as father. As where in other autumn poems when he feels “his heart full” (DS 77) and “tense with love,” here he can put aside for a moment his suspicions that nothing of any great meaning lies between birth and death, while he feels the “grievy & brisk” fall breeze on his face; watches the brown leaves fall; and welcomes the opportunity to go home to his wooden house, “well made, unlike us,” and to “scold” his “heavy daughter” (DS 385).

     The first three books, then, reveal an almost medieval understanding of human flesh as part of a penetrable and regenerating world. The body opens and closes as it devours and defecates, killing to sustain itself and dying to sustain the world. Connaroe has noted in the songs a cycle of a “prying open to a resolution, from an imagery of arrival and spring to that of departure and autumn” (87). Arrival and spring intimates death for Henry, while departure and autumn vivify him. The world dies to sustain Henry and Henry must die to sustain the world, and the central metaphor for this cycle is prying open. Dream Song 1 establishes prying open as destructive to Henry, something that the world did to him and that he had to survive. In the penultimate song, prying open culminates with Henry chopping open his father’s coffin with an ax, an attempt to finally and contemptuously move past that loss. Between these two pryings lies the central book of the collection, Op. posth., a series of fourteen poems that recounts from within the grave Henry’s own death and resurrection. Op. posth. resolves with the prying open of Henry’s casket. It is a perversion of the book’s natural cycle because it is the first image of regeneration in which Henry does not have to die. The “spring/death : autumn/life” structure of the first three books is inverted in Op. posth. Once Henry is dead, prying open becomes an image of resurrection, of vitality.

     The play is over. Prospero has gestured towards the end of “the great [G]lobe itself” (IV.i.153). He and Puck supplicate the audience for applause. Henry stands up. There is a kind of reassurance after the dream, when he can look about dry-eyed and reckon himself up. “Many of these songs, in their wit and high spirits, ward off the horror that is their source. It is, however, because the nightmares are recounted, the terrors revealed, the guilt expressed, that Henry…is able to go on dreaming and muddling through” (Connaroe 95). The dreams and the tragedies are explorations of suffering; fantasies of sadistic and masochistic violence; surrenders to morally and socially destructive temptations; but one can wake up from them relieved to find them still contained, that “never did Henry, as he thought he did, / end anyone and hacks her body up / and hide the pieces, where they may be found. / He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing. / Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up” (DS 29). Henry’s song is a howl into the abyss, a response to the prospect of the emptiness of a world that, after all, is only a collectively enacted dream. At first the howl terrifies the ear, but as it reverberates forever through the emptiness, its endless babbling gossip begins to reassure. If nothing else, in the end it is a comfort against silence.



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End Notes

1 Joel Connaroe credits Dr. Boyd Thomas with the insight that Berryman was reading old Time-Life magazines as he composed this poem. The “old journals” in DS3 almost certainly refers to “The Hunted,” an article in the March 22, 1948, issue of Time, in which Gottwald’s entourage at Masaryk’s funeral is referred to as “Gottwald & Co.” Masaryk as portrayed in the article bears many eerie resemblances to Henry’s character.

2  “Thick chests” is a pun on “Czech”.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Jay Peters "The Dramatic Presentation of Inner Turmoil: Shakespeare and John Berryman’s Dream Songs". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 31, 2007, Published: March 29, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Jay Peters