Dream Songs by John Berryman: Summary and Critical Analysis

The post-modernist epic Dream Songs is a vast mosaic of the mental life of a typical mid twentieth century American character, also based on the author’s own life and experience. The poem presents, in an expressionistic manner, the 'dreams' of a character named Henry, who claims to have suffered many and heavy losses in his life; now he is frantically trying to cure himself by a kind of artistic psychotherapy by writing (or spurting out) in the language of dream and neurosis about all kinds of troubles, releasing all his repressed energies, and indulging in his dream.

John Berryman (1914-1972)

The different 'songs' of the poem are supposed to be read as separate stages of a journey; Berryman suggested that the reader should not 'find a structure or pattern'. Paul Mariani, his biographer, tells us the backgrounds to the evolution of these poems. Berryman was more than ever tortured by alcoholism, subject to fits of depression, haunted by the ghost of his father and the nightmares he had been having for seven years. His mother had told him in his childhood that his father had 'gone forever' and always talked negatively of him: this gave the boy an unexpressed pain as well as a vague and almost mysteriously fear of his dead father.

The poem is a blend of many things; there are disparately different things like Christian allegory (of course parodies), punning, baby talk, tongue slips, dream language, the blather of a neurotic. And whatever is not accountable in rational and ‘waking’ terms can be accounted for as things of the dream (or rather nightmare). The poem can also be taken as an attempt to regress into childhood and innocence. The style is also remarkable; the poet said, “I want to make it rough and brilliant, coarse and demotic in language. Each poem will be with a damned serious humor and a gravity of matter with the gaiety of manner”. The poet wanted to break away from the over intellectualized background of English poetry. Some critics have remarked that the poem is supposed to be like the Ryoyan-ji garden of Japan, which looks entirely different when it is seen from fifteen different possible perspectives around it. The poem is also psychologically significant: it is art used for healing. Implicit in the idea of the lyric is the single voice. From poem to poem the paradigm varies; minstrel shows, schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, but always one persona taking over for another, taking the stage; these are noisy poems-shattered, voluble, fragmented, desperate, dramatic, futile. The intense purpose characteristic of the lyric becomes, in Berryman, intense purpose.

One of the best ways, though not the best, is to read the poem as the expression of the mentality of the mid twentieth century American youth, and also to regard the poet himself as the model, if not the character in literal terms, the character is after all a fictional construct, and the poem is a work of art; so our connection of the work with the writer’s personal life must not blind us to this fact. But, despite the admonishments of the most influential critics of the century, the New Critics, this particular poem can be seen clearly as the reflection of the author’s own pangs and desperate attempts to survive. Though Berryman strongly refused to identify himself with the main character of Dream Songs, the life of the character evokes the daily inner life of Berryman himself as he struggles through the routines of teaching, drying out from chronic alcoholism, being haunted by the memories of his father’s death, his terrible nightmares, and writing poems. Berryman’s deepest dilemma is with his own identity; he is in the middle of every extreme in life: he is middle aged, of the middle class, and of middling talent. Against all theses middling he struggles to find an edge, by drinking heavily, and by working hard, but every time falls back into the slough of his idleness, depressed and exhausted, Thus Berryman himself is very much the model for his book’s protagonist, Henry. Henry suffers what Berryman had suffered, reads what he had read, and travels where he had traveled. The entire book may be read as a series of improvisations based upon the unfolding life of the poet as it is recounted by and through Henry.

As the title the Dream Songs suggests, the poems are extremely private, subject, and personal, but as songs they are also by design public, objective, and communal. Many are introspective, confessional, self-incriminating reports, from the edge of madness. Others are elegies for Berryman’s contemporaries; others read like barstool editorials on political events of the day; still others come off as bitter lectures on the ironies of history. Time after time, these dream songs narrowly escape despair to strive once again after the elusive goal of heroic Henry’s homecoming; that is, his reconciliation with the terrible facts of his life. The book end on a homecoming: in the last of 385 songs. Henry finds himself in a house “made of wood, and it’s made well.”

The whole work amounts to a vast mosaic of the sketches of Henry’s life and character; and one might not transform all the jumbled pieces into a unified whole, except as things that happened to and occurred to the mind of a single character. It is essentially a long and a despairing examination of poet’s alienation from the post war world, in which his cultural inheritance appears to have no peace or value. The Dream Songs is a sequence of 385 poems. Originating in the primal and unrestrained associations of the unconscious mind, in dreams, they suggest the poet’s struggle to find conscious and communicable forms in the shape of songs. To compose these furiously contemporary sequences, Berryman reached back to what is perhaps the oldest source of poetic inspiration; the desire to translate dreams into waking speech. The poems are individually dense with meaning and emotion. Nevertheless, we can devise our own organizing principles and narrative motifs to give some shape to the jumble of the dream-songs. In the need to discover the root of his failure in an impossible dream of transcendence, the speaker of the poem becomes a tragic rebel’, resenting his freedom as much as he craves it.

As in the classical epics the hero (Henry) must reach the furthest extremes of helplessness, uncontrollable delirium and blank despair, before he can accomplish the rescue of himself. This rescue takes place as an inward drama. No external force or figure arrives to rescue Henry from the spiritual pitfall to which grief has led him. Instead, it is an inward adjustment that saves him.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Dream Songs by John Berryman: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/dream-songs.html.

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