The Dream Songs
is a sequence of 385 poems grouped into seven numbered but untitled sections. Each poem is eighteen lines in length and divided into three six-line stanzas, variously rhymed. The title of the sequence suggests much about the methods and tensions of the poems. Originating in the primal and unrestrained associations of the unconscious mind, in dreams, they struggle to find conscious and communicable forms in the shapes of song. To compose his furiously contemporary sequence, John Berryman reached back to what is perhaps the oldest source of poetic inspiration: the desire to translate dreams into waking speech, to recapture the imagery that escapes the dreamer upon waking. It would be impossible to summarize the manic progress of The Dream Songs
, not only because of its length, but also because the poems are individually so dense with meanings and emotion that none of them could be contained by a phrase or sentence. Nevertheless, there are several organizing principles and narrative motifs that can be of much use to readers in shaping the whole of The Dream Songs
in their minds. Despite his many protests to the contrary, Berryman himself is very much the model for his book’s protagonist, Henry. Henry suffers what Berryman had suffered, reads what he had read, travels where he had traveled. Thus the character at the center of each Dream Song is also the source of the song, and 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. What happens to Henry is the story of these poems, and his interpretations and reactions are their theme. The story tells of the ecstasies and vicissitudes of the poet’s life in the contemporary world, both at home and abroad, and the themes explore the ways in which poetry itself both disfigures and redeems that chaotic, marginal life. The songs are sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic and cautionary, as the figure of Henry never seeks anything less than the absolute extremity of any feeling or idea. Henry’s life is a chronicle of losses, and the songs detail these losses in the order of their occurrence. Henry’s original and perhaps most devastating loss—that of his father to a suicide that young Henry accidentally witnessed—provides the initial impetus for The Dream Songs
, one to which Henry will frequently hearken back in the midst of subsequent deprivations. Indeed, the plot of The Dream Songs
may be described as the history of Henry’s attempts to understand his father’s sorrow and death from the perspective of all the tragedies that follow it. Many tragedies do follow. Henry loses Bhain Campbell, the best friend of his youth, to cancer. Henry rages and grieves as Bhain withers away to a yellow extinction and as Henry’s own youth dies into a bleak adulthood. In adult life, Henry looks on and grows angrier at the "god who has wrecked this generation" of poets with untimely deaths, many of them suicides. These losses—among which are counted R. P. Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath—carry the bitter theme of the father’s suicide into Henry’s maturity, expanding Henry’s grief into a devastated and devastating worldview. Most damaging, however, is the loss of Delmore Schwartz. The poet, to whom Henry had transferred all the love he had felt for his father and for Campbell, died alone and mad in a seedy Manhattan hotel. Berryman devotes eleven Dream Songs (147–157) to Schwartz’s death, and they form the dark center of the entire book. Not only friends are lost. Henry, by his own confession, wrecks his three marriages with alcohol, infidelity, and the other excesses he finds necessary to his poetic calling. Thus he loses his opportunities for a stable domestic life and loses the chance to be a real parent to his children. Having first lost a father, he loses the better part of fatherhood itself. As Henry the poet becomes more and more successful, Henry theman fails at everything else except the art of self-destruction, an art that he equates with that of poetry. The story of The Dream Songs
is not, however, a continuously downward spiral. Berryman invests the adventures of Henry with something like the shape of an epic’s heroic journey. Even when Henry falls into death itself (as in the songs labeled "Opus Posthumous," numbers 78 through 91), he somehow rises again, just as Odysseus and Aeneas managed to return to the world after their instructive sojourns among the dead in Hades.
Each of the book’s seven sections unravels the facts and significances of a mortal disaster, and then, having touched the foundation of his sorrow and outrage, Henry, from terror or restlessness or sheer boredom, finds that "he’s making ready to move on." Losing a father, he becomes a father. Losing a marriage and a child, he remarries and fathers a new baby. Losing the freedoms of his youth, he embraces, often excessively, the freedoms of poetry. In the many Dream Songs with political themes, Henry, losing his naïvely patriotic love of America, finds a more realistic and durable love for his strong but clumsy country. 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 ends on such a homecoming. Henry finds himself in a house "made of wood and it’s made well." It is Thanksgiving, and he is with his new daughter. For all its autumnal melancholy, this particular November comes to Henry "as a prize/ to rouse us toward our fate." The reader is by no means certain that Henry has faced the last of his catastrophes, but one has, at the end of 385 poems, something very much like faith that Henry will survive, that he will find a song in every disaster and also find the strength to sing it. Forms and Devices
A work of such size and frantic energy as The Dream Songs
consumes the devices of poetry as though they were a kind of fuel, in order to maintain its momentum and originality. Since these qualities reside in the book’s protagonist, Henry, one might say that he himself is the central, perhaps the only real, metaphor of The Dream Songs
. It is Henry that the reader follows. It is Henry that the poems teach the reader to understand, to believe, to forgive, and to love. Henry’s disasters represent the fate of an imaginative, uncompromising man in the midst of America’s thoughtless conformity in the middle of the twentieth century. Henry’s survival represents the almost miraculous power of the imagination to adapt to grief without recourse to banal or illusory consolations, and, most important, Henry’s relentless self-examination is a metaphor of the simultaneously vital and mortifying necessity of self-knowledge in a world chock-full of temptations to escape self-knowledge: through adulteries, through alcohol, through suicide. Henry’s metaphorical role being established, one may see the forms and devices of Henry’s madcap, heartbreaking speech as those intended by Berryman to carry the meanings of his book. Time and again, Henry returns to three crucial images, images that, by virtue of repetition and critical variation, acquire the status of symbols. The first of these is the sea. Henry’s father commits suicide "close by a smothering southern sea," and from that moment on, the sea becomes to Henry a totemic image of death in all its guises. Storm-tossed, the sea is an image of the turbulence wreaked by death upon life. Tranquil, the sea is an image of the peace of annihilation, the respite from struggle and identity that death seductively offers to life. Immeasurable and mutable, the sea is an image of death’s absolute mystery, death’s silent reply to the questions of the living. The second key image/symbol is a singing bird in a tree.