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On "Dream Song 384"

J. M. Linebarger

The emotions that Henry expresses toward his father are as we would expect, ambivalent. Thrice he explicitly states his continuing love for his father (143, 145). But rage and despair dominate the last reference to the father, in the penultimate Dream Song. Henry stands before his father's grave, longing not to be darkly moved by the thought of hiS father’s suicide. Unable to feel indifference he spits on the grave; and he ends the poem in a vicious and mad wish to re-kilI 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 . . .
                                                            & then Henry
will heft the ax once more, his final card,
and fell it on the start.

Henry's presence at the gravesite is only an imagined scene if William J. Martz is correct in saying that Berryman never returned to it. The angry wish to kill the father is a result of the emotions that Henry has suffered because of his father's death—fear, angst resentment, a sense of desertion. These are the emotions that Berryman finds dominant in the first two of Stephen Crane's "Sullivan County Sketches." Like Berryman, Crane was only a boy when his father died. Berryman feels that the sketches are based upon that loss and present a "world . . . of perfect aloneness, in which relations are possible only through rage and fear" (37-40). Henry's fear and aloneness are clear in other Dream Songs; his rage is fully expressed in the scene of axing his already-dead father. That Berryman had the "Sullivan County Sketches" in mind as he wrote Song 384 is suggested by the phrase "his final card"; the first sketch presents a mysterious old recluse who plays cards with a younger man and "cleans the little man out and howls ‘GO.’" ". . . We have here," Berryman says, "a fantasy on Crane's father and the child's sense of abandonment (impoverishment) as his resented death . . ." (Stephen Crane, 39)

from John Berryman. Copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Jeffrey Alan Triggs

Ultimately, however Berryman cannot forgive his father. The second to last poem of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (#384), where he visits his father's grave, is one of unleavened bitterness. The "Henry" in this poem is the thinnest of disguises for Berryman himself, stripped of his irony, boastfulness, and self-mockery:

[quotes "Dream Song #384"]

This is a very powerful and very sad poem, and one of Berryman's most brilliant, but it embodies, in the fullest form he could give it, the obsession that tore apart his life and work, The balance between anguished confession and objective statement that Berryman established with the character of Henry in 77 Dream Songs is completely destroyed. Their style, the mad comic jumble of voices that performed a strange and wonderful colloquy of the damned, has thinned to a single voice, overtly confessional, tragic, and helpless in the face of experience. As Wendell Berry has noted of these later poems, "brilliant as they sometimes are," they represent "the mortifications of a splendid intelligence helpless before its salient occasions" (19).

from "Dream Songs and Nightmare Songs: The Balance of Style in the Later Poems of John Berryman." South Dakota Review 26:2 (Summer 1988).

Lea Baechler (1993)

In 384, composed in the late sixties a few years before Berryman’s suicide, the poet’s inability to comprehend John Allyn [his father]’s action and forgive it translates into an anger so violent that it results in an imagined assault on the father’s corpse. Open to rather intensive Freudian interpretation, the poem is stripped of all the hopeful figurations of light and usual funerary offerings – "The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done." The poet announces, "I stand above my father’s grave with rage," revealing that he has made this imagined "awful pilgrimage" more than once "to one / who cannot visit me, who tore this page / out." … The last line articulates a desire to destroy the starting point, that is, both the father himself and the fact of his suicide. As progenitor, the father is thus Berryman’s "start"; the father’s suicide is the "start" of the poet’s lifelong misery and the beginning of his residence in "the country of the dead" (Song #279). The irony in that desire to fell too late "the start" that is, the corpse of the father who has lived, begat, and willfully ended his life – compounds the rage and impotently the poet experiences in response to what is irreversible.

From Lea Baechler, "Berryman, Roethke and the Elegy" in Jay Parini, Ed. The Columbia History of American Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1993), 620-621. Copyright 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Helen Vendler (1993)

The aesthetic problem Berryman sets himself when he decides to write actions and discourse for his unmanageable Id has been solved here, as elsewhere, by relying on broad cartoon-like strokes. The Id is represented in several ways: by incoherence of affect ("O ho alas alas / When will indifference come"); by childish regression of action and words ("I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down")’ by interspersed melodramatic nonsense-syllables of revenge ("open ha to see," "grave clothes he & then"); and by a temporary abandon (between the sixteenth and seventeenth line) of end-punctuation of any sort. The final tableau – as Henry in self-pluralizing wish ("we") takes an ax to his father’s casket, rips the decayed wrappings of the corpse, and then drives the ax into his father’s body – resembles in its components an episode out of Poe, but it forgoes Poe’s ghastly ceremoniousness of action and diction: this is why the Dream Songs deserve the name of "cartoon." The reductiveness and garishness and violence we associate with cartoons – and do not normally associate with our "sensitive" therapeutically-presented selves – are Berryman’s startling comic means toward representation of his irrepressible Id. Cartoon-strokes enable him to render his life-donnée in literary terms, at the considerable cost of an occluded and alienated authorial self, concealed behind its puppets.

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 51-52.

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