The Dramatic Presentation of Inner Turmoil: Shakespeare and John Berryman's Dream Songs

Article excerpt

This paper examines John Berryman's Dream Songs from a psychoanalytic perspective. The paper formulates a means of discussing three factors that impinge on Henry's construction of himself: the heteroglossic nature of thought one's relationship to power and one's relationship to the metaphysical. Though other major mid-century "confessional" poets (such as Bishop and Lowell) had developed ways of interiorizing the modernist poetics of Eliot, Williams and Pound, the main lens through which the paper examines the interiorizing poetics of the Dream Songs is Shakespeare's tragic period, which Berryman had studied closely his entire career. Berryman found in Shakespeare's tragedies not only a means of dramatizing one's relationship to power and to God, but also the use of dramatic dialogue to represent an individual mind.

keywords: Shakespeare, Berryman, Dream Songs, suicide, fratricide, tyranny, oppression, heteroglossia, religion

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_peters01.shtml

[Delmore] Schwartz once asked me why it was that all my Shakespearean study had never showed [sic] up anywhere in my poetry, and I couldn't answer the question. . . . I seem to have been sort of untouched by Shakespeare, although I have had him in my mind since I was twenty years old. -John Berryman (Stitt)

Berryman's remarks notwithstanding, the influence of Shakespeare can be found on almost every page of The Dream Songs. In the conceptualization of Henry's world, in the poems' thematic preoccupations, and in the formation of Henry's thought, the song sequence owes as much a debt to Shakespeare's tragic period as to any other poetry whose influence Berryman has acknowledged. Shakespeare understood theater as a kind of dream, and Berryman understood dreaming as a kind of theater. And both poets understood that in dreaming and playing, anything can be represented as long as it is properly contained. Both dreamwork and plays "constitute strategies of psychological defense, defending...against the very fantasies they represent" (Fineman 73). Henry's dreams are very much attempts to represent yet contain unspeakable fantasies. And as Joel Fineman has provocatively pointed out, Elizabethan theatrical conventions-the logistical requirements of producing a play on the Elizabethan stage-correlate with three central procedures of such dreamwork: displacement, repression and condensation (Fineman 72-73).

In writing the two collections of dream songs-77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest-Berryman was faced with the challenge of finding a form and a language that would allow him to dramatize Henry's conflict from within Henry. Throughout the songs Henry, like Hamlet, searches for the solutions to questions about whether the world and his own soul is sacred or corrupt. How could his father have died and left behind his son to this teeming and seedy world? Unable to reconcile the trauma, Henry suffers a disintegration of the self that is partially willed and welcomed by his desire to end his own life. Other poets of the so-called "confessional" school (to which critics have given Berryman an honorary enrollment) might have been describing trauma and loss and commenting on the effects of it, but their poetics were essentially those inherited from the modernists. The content had turned inward, but the poetics had not. To meet this challenge, Berryman turned to Shakespeare, whose work he had studied intimately his entire adult life-his friend Elizabeth Bettman once said that Berryman "identified personally with the period of Shakespeare's tragedies" and that he tried to "recapture" Shakespeare's experience "by trying to relive it" (Berryman Shakespeare xxxv). From Shakespeare, Berryman found a means of dramatizing a character's inner turmoil through interior dialogue-Henry is made up of multiple voices, some in conflict and some in accord. And in Cassius's and Hamlet's conflation of fratricide with suicide, Berryman found a means of containing Henry's central trauma, the suicide of his father, within a cycle of agonistic violence to which Henry would be heir and avenger. …