Before their 1969 publication The Dream Songs appeared separately in book form as 77 Dream Songs in 1964, and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968, although some songs published separately did not appear in any of the three volumes. Berryman's achievement was recognized by the first volume being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the second the National Book Award. The whole sequence is divided into seven books, of which the first three appeared in the 1964 volume. There is some critical debate about the organizing and unifying principles behind the 385 songs. The events they describe are not arranged chronologically, and the central speaker, "Henry," as Berryman pointed out in an introductory note, "talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second." But the character of Henry gives a coherence to the sequence while not confining it, just as the events of Berryman's life and many of Berryman's attitudes and concerns are versions to a greater or lesser degree of Henry's.
Berryman's introductory note characterizes the poem's speaker as "an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss." Berryman's distance from Henry allows him to extend the range of the poem's social and political opinions beyond those Berryman held at any particular time; nevertheless the issues that Henry returns to again and again, including his ambivalence about the United States and about fame, his criticism of academia, his fascination with and fear of death, his uncertain religious belief, his isolation amidst friends and family, his failed marriages and sometimes nostalgic recall of sexual adventures, his journeys - which correspond to the travels Berryman took on fellowships and speaking tours - and a sense of "an irreversible loss" are all part of Berryman's own life and are feelings and opinions also expressed in his non-Dream Songs poems.
With only nine exceptions, each song consists of three six-line stanzas, variously rhymed. Within this form Berryman constructs a poem whose language veers from the formal to slang, from despairing to comic, and incorporates not only the speech of Henry but also his friend, "never named," as Berryman points out, "who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof." The name "Mr. Bones" and some of the repartee between Henry and his friend is based upon two characters from nineteenth-century minstrel shows, "Tambo" and "Bones," played by white men in black face. The second song is dedicated to "Daddy" Rice, who originated the format in the 1820s.
The Dream Songs are all the more powerful for their inclusion of a broad sociopolitical context as well as their concern with the obsessions and struggles of their central speaker. The poem expresses contempt for President Eisenhower and ambivalence about President Kennedy, and is critical of the war in Vietnam. The lack of progress in achieving racial equality is condemned, and the poem scorns the country's smug sense of superiority and self-satisfaction. Henry's sojourn in Ireland, corresponding to Berryman's 1967 sabbatical leave from the University of Minnesota which he spent in that country and where he wrote many of the final songs, allows him a distanced perspective upon the United States as well as a culture against which to contrast it.
Henry is critical of what he sees as the petty politics, pedantry, and unoriginality of academia and of much scholarship, although Berryman himself began a career in 1939 as a scholar, critic, and teacher that continued until his death. From 1955 he was based at the University of Minnesota, and he published a number of scholarly articles and books on a range of topics. Songs 35-8 begin at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Henry calls on professors of all ranks to "forget your footnotes" on the dying Robert Frost, and their various moral arguments, and to "dance around Mary," a professor's wife, the name Mary a reminder that the convention always takes place just after Christmas. In Song 373, one of a number in which Henry imagines his death (and is deeply concerned about the difficult situation it would put his family in), he wonders about being a source for academic promotions - "will assistant professors become associates / by working on his works?"
Death is a central theme in The Dream Songs. The whole of book IV, Songs 78-91, is imagined by Henry as a series of posthumous lyrics written after his death, and elsewhere Henry thinks about suicide, and envies those who have died. He is surrounded by death through the loss of fellow poets, some of whom were close friends, while others shared more generally Henry's serious interest in writing, but all through their deaths contribute further to Henry's sense of isolation and exile. Among the many writers whose deaths he recalls are Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, and R. P. Blackmur - Hemingway and Plath being suicides. But among writers the greatest losses for Henry are the deaths of Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz - particularly the latter. Berryman's friendship with Schwartz began in 1938-9 and lasted until Schwartz's lonely death in a run-down New York City hotel in July 1966. In Songs 146-58 Henry records his sorrow at the evaporation of Schwartz's early promising talent, and at the paranoia that drove Schwartz to lose so many friends, as well as his guilt at not being on hand when Schwartz suffered his fatal heart attack. One of the two dedications of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest is "to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz." The death of Schwartz haunts Henry in later songs too, as does the death of poet and critic Jarrell in 1965, a suspected suicide, who unlike Schwartz died, Song 121 asserts, at the peak of his powers: "His last book was his best." These deaths, Song 153 laments, along with those of Roethke, Blackmur, and Plath, have "wrecked this generation," making a "first rate haul" for a god who has "left alive / fools I could number like a kitchen knife." More than once in these songs Henry wonders why he does not join these figures in death.
The greatest loss for Henry in The Dream Songs, as it was for Berryman himself, is the suicide of his father. Berryman's father had shot himself when the boy was 11, having earlier threatened to swim out to sea to drown both himself and his child. In the penultimate song of 77 Dream Songs Henry tells his friend: "in a modesty of death I join my father / who dared so long agone leave me," and, as noted above, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest opens with a series of songs supposedly written following Henry's own death. Henry's ambivalent feelings about the suicide end book V (Song 145):
Also I love him: me he's done no wrong for going on forty years - forgiveness time -I touch now his despair . . .
I'm trying to forgive whose frantic passage, when he could not live an instant longer, in the summer dawn left Henry to live on.
The penultimate song (384) of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, like the penultimate song (76) of 77 Dream Songs, concerns Henry's father. At his father's grave in Song 384, Henry's actions suggest not only the fruitless grappling with loss, fighting with a dead man, but also the way that his fury will lead him to the same fate, even to the same grave - his own death directly related to his battle with his father:
I'd like to scrabble till I got right down away down under the grass and ax the casket open ha to see just how he's taking it, which he sought so hard we'll tear apart the mouldering grave clothes ha and then Henry will heft the ax once more, his final card, and fell it on the start.
Henry's anticipated suicide is not carried out in The Dream Songs, although his creator ended his own life on January 7, 1972, at the age of 57 by jumping from a bridge in Minneapolis onto a frozen river bank of the Mississippi.
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