315. (John Berryman)

The fifth section of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, song 92, “Room 231: the fourth week”, opens with Henry in a psych ward, where he remains until (I think) song 104:

Something black somewhere in the vistas of his heart.

Tulips from Tates teased Henry in the mood
to be a tulip and desire no more
but water, but light, but air.
Yet his nerves rattled blackly, unsubdued
& suffocation called, dream-whiskey’d pour
sirening. Rosy there

too fly my Phil & Ellen roses, pal.
Flesh-coloured men & women come & punt
under my windows. I rave
or grunt against it, from a flowerless land.
For timeless hours wind most, or not at all. I wind
my clock before I shave.

Soon it will fall dark. Soon you’ll see stars
you fevered after, child, man, & did nothing,–
compass live to the pencil-torch!
As still as his cadaver, Henry mars
this surface of an earth or other, feet south
eyes bleared west, waking to march.

It matters to what the poem is about that it ends on an intensely allusive pitch, with Hopkins Wordsworth, and Donne, at least, all present in the final three lines. It matters also which companions he finds, for in this, and the dozen poems that open the fifth section, Berryman balances the self-exalting self-debasement of Hopkins’ terrible sonnets with the exquisite possibilities of Elizabethan lyrics, truer to the tradition of the Cavalier poets through Waller than to Donne’s metaphysical followers (though Berryman would have known Donne’s powers of metrical musicianship, and its relation to the Cavaliers), and that balance is set on the fulcrum of Wordsworth’s plain lyric strength (“Soon it will fall dark”). It feels nonetheless entirely new, and in its adoption of others, less mannered than the broken articulation of Henry’s self can sometimes feel.

The poem is greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are greater than a composite memory of Elizabethan lyric, Wordsworth, and Hopkins, but those three sources of its power can nonetheless be described for what they afford. The Elizabethan freedom of syntax (For instance; “For timeless hours wind most, or not at all”, with “wind” being the “wind” of Milton’s “what time the grey-fly winds her sultry horn” in “Lycidas”) in Berryman becomes a dislocation of Henry’s mind revealed as possessing a harmony distinct to itself, often emerging as the language on the page dramatizes his uncertain grasping for his self: “and desire no more| but water, but light, but air.”

Wordsworth is felt in the declarations of landscape—declarations and not descriptions—be they physical and natural (“Soon it will fall dark”) or else internal (“vistas of his heart”): such phrases share the mystery of Wordsworth’s simplicity, but that mystery is in part the mystery of immediacy presumed as common to writer and reader. The effect is isolated in Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” where the scene is presented with such unmediated directness as to feel brazenly intimate; but the effect is elsewhere too. It is a sort of faith in poetry’s capacity to say what is and to say what seems to be, however uneasy the relation between seeming and being might be, however alien what is might come to seem. Henry’s illness might seem to disturb or enervate his powers to see, but the Wordsworthian directness is deployed to reveal the blankness he feels and see in tender, pathetic clarity; it counters what might be an obscurity were the presence of Hopkins stronger.

Nonetheless, Hopkins is needed: he provides Berryman with the self-scrutiny that discerns and registers the violent impotence of the compromised self: “I rave | or grunt against it, from a flowerless land” and “Henry mars” (set in rhyme with “stars”). The Hopkins that Berryman invokes is not the sprung or sudden rhythm of the abrupt self; it is the counter-theme, and counter-measure, of a dragging, weighted plodding burden of what the self cannot overcome. The poem is exquisite and as good as any I know in The Dream Songs. To call it a confessional poem feels entirely inadequate and inaccurate, since it situates itself so strongly in the tradition of seeking pilgrim (Donne’s “Riding Westward” and Wordsworth), forlorn lover (Waller, the Cavaliers, and Henry’s flowers), and broken self (Hopkins, but also Wordsworth and Donne, and the entire tradition of lyric poetry, perhaps).

As with other great lyric poems, what does the breaking is less the stuff of the poem than what the breakage is like, and what might exist, or not, to heal it; the variety of wounds is the variety of lyric, and also the variety of lyric possibilities.


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