John Berryman Dream Songs

In his poem, Berryman presents the reader with the image of a deeply troubled, sad and lonely man and the half life that he is living. The voice of the poem is that of an outside narrator looking in on the life of Henry, most likely the persona that Berryman created in his ‘Dream Songs’. Through the poem, Berryman explores the themes of life and the inner demons that can hinder. The first line of the poem creates a hook and sets up the subject matter of the poem; that of a man and his ‘nocturnal habits’, his constantly restless nights.

From this opening, we can already see that Henry has many relationships with the opposite sex due the ‘his women’ being plural. Berryman, in fact, was noted for having a series of infidelities during his life, so perhaps this could give evidence for the view that Berryman and his persona Henry were one. The line is further strengthened by the combination of diction and structure; the use of the word ‘terror’ evokes dread in the reader as the connotations are that of an intense and overwhelmingly blinding fear, and the end-stopped line forces the reader to pause and muse on just how Henry invokes terror in his women.

John Berryman Dream Song 29

In this way, Berryman immediately sets the reader up for a fall. Expecting the worst after the word ‘terror’, we are then presented with ‘First it appears he snored’. Such a mundane action almost adds a hint of humour to the melancholy, although Berryman dashes this in the following lines with the images of Henry ‘changing position like a task fleet’.

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As a fleet is a large formation of ships, Berryman gives the impression that Henry’s tossing and turning is not merely trifling but is so forceful as to disrupt everything, as if there was a fleet of Henry’s committing the action and not just one.

Berryman’s diction helps to shape the image of Henry as a ‘lost’ man. The words ‘inhuman’ and ‘death-like’ present Henry as someone who does not appear at all human; he is a ghost of man. This is only emphasised by ‘you’ll admit it was no way to live/ or even keep alive. ’- showing that the persona is barely surviving, keeping himself together with ‘drugs and alcohol’, which present a vicious circle as these would further distort his mind.

Berryman himself was an alcoholic and was hospitalised for exhaustion and nerves many times in his life, further adding weight to the idea that Henry was just an outlet for Berryman’s feelings. Berryman emphasises the dramatic nature of Henry’s sleeping habits through his pairings of strong verbs ‘thrashed & tossed’, ‘sweating & shaking’, the alliteration and the use of the ampersand reflecting the fact that these actions go on and on, continuously terrorising his sleep.

The structure of the poem is just as important as Berryman’s diction in shaping the themes. The poem has seventeen lines and is structured in two stanzas, the line lengths uneven. Berryman’s rhythms are dictated by the pauses he creates, both slowing and quickening the pace. For instance, the rhythms in the centre of the poem are fast, reflecting Berryman’s period of intense action; ‘reading new mail, writing new letters, scribbling excessive Songs. ’ ‘Songs’ here is capitalised, possibly referring to Berryman’s work of poetry about Henry, the Dream Songs.

The rhythm and the themes are also aided by Berryman’s use of images of sound. The alliteration in the poem is harsh sounding, the repetition of consonants such as ‘h’ (Henry’s… habits), ‘w’ (‘women’s wrongs’), the harsh ‘c’ sound (‘couldn’t keep’), ‘t’ (to the old tune) and ‘g’ (gotta… give… good’) further the troubled mood of the poem; for instance, the The poem is rife with sibilance, ‘sweating & shaking: something’s’; the ‘s’ sounds create an almost unsettling air as if they are echoing through the night.

The line ‘back then to bed, to the old tune or get set’ is filled with imagery of sound, the alliteration of the ‘t’ and ‘b’ sound force the reader’s pace to quicken before a sort of climax produced by the internal rhyme of ‘get set’; Berryman using the two words to bring the reader to a sudden pause before presenting us with his most striking image, that of the ‘stercoraceous cough’. Berryman’s diction here is perfect as the ‘c’ sounds running through the two words reflect the sound of a harsh cough, allowing the reader to hear it for themselves.

Berryman’s rhyme scheme is actually a rather traditional pattern of ABCABC DEFDEF GHHGH. However, despite most of the rhymes being full, such as ‘back’ and ‘track’, ‘scribbling’ and ‘quibbling’, the use of enjambment throughout the poem makes the reader stop only when Berryman wants us to, which ensures that the rhyming is extremely subtle. Hence instead of unifying the poem, as the rhyme is not evident immediately to the reader it seems to create an unsettled atmosphere that aids the picture of a tortured soul.

Berryman skilfully utilises a blend of aural imagery and carefully chosen words to paint a melancholy picture of tormented man. The varied rhythms in the poem reflect the tumultuous nature of Henry’s ‘nocturnal habits’; the slow and fast paces coincide with Henry’s intermittent sleep and subsequent frenzied periods of action. The advice of the unnamed outside ‘narrator’, ‘something’s gotta give’, ends the poem; something has to be done in Henry’s life as, if he continues on this path and wakes ‘for good at five’ each morning for normal life, it is evident that he will drive himself to the grave.

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John Berryman Dream Songs. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved from

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