A key to understanding John Berryman's "Dream Song No. 9" 1 lies in its close, nearly parallel, relationship to the Raoul Walsh-Humphrey Bogart film, High Sierra, released in 1941. Not only does Berryman refer to Bogart in the poem's last three lines, but he offers his own personalized account of the film's meaning, as filtered through the consciousness of his "hero," Henry House.
It is easy to see why Berryman, whose protagonist embodies a kind of psychic history of the 1950's and 1960's, is fascinated by Bogart, the man whose films made him a cultural hero during the same period. Yet there are differences between the two characters. In spite of the social and personal maiming he has suffered, Bogart's typical protagonist continues to battle against impossible odds. In the end he may lose the girl he loves, or his life, or both, as in High Sierra. But despite the Naturalistic inevitability of his fate, he retains both his courage and his integrity, even in the face of death, and he dies as he has lived, with honor. This is an ideal toward which Henry aspires. But the honor versus corruption theme which pervades the classic Bogart film cannot be so easily dichotomized in The Dream Songs. Henry is not just a rebel against his age. He is also a part of that age. Thus he feels both respect for the Bogart character because the latter retains his integrity, but also scorn and contempt for a hero (if he ever did exist) whose values can be so simplistically defined and affirmed. Henry admires "Bogie's" bravery, but he finds that bravery lackingin terms of actual experience. His life is not the life depicted by the movies.
The poem begins when the film ends, with "horrible Henry," half-crazed and "foaming" (Bogart's nickname in the film is "Mad Dog"), "shrugged to a standstill," prebably outside an urban movie theater. Henry's almost insane anger is directed toward "his enemy," who at the poem's beginning seems to be the rapacious society symbolized by the police and the media, which pursues the escaped convict-hotel robber, Roy Earle, as Earle makes a last-ditch stand on Mt. Whitney, the nation's tallest peak and the symbolic center of the film, as well as the object of the film's title. But that "enemy" may also be Bogart himself who, when he finishes the film, has his "duds truck[ed] back to wardrobe." After Roy Earle dies an heroic death, Humphrey Bogart rises from the mountain snow to play another role. Such "resurrections" are not possible for Henry, who, though he appears to "shrug" Bogie off, is nevertheless immobilized "to a standstill" by his own inability to commit himself to a course of action.
Roy Earle (both of his names imply noble sentiments) is a victim of the Great Depression and of an iniquitous society as a whole. Evicted from his family's farm by a bank foreclosure, he commits a crime which lands him in prison. But Roy is also a romantic, who longs for perfect love and perfect freedom, the opposites of the oppression he has continuously experienced, though ultimately it is the perfection of death that he achieves. When Roy describes his prison experience to the crippled girl, Velma, with whom he falls in love, but who does not love him, he sees it as "crashing out." Others who have attempted flight and failed have committed suicide by leaping off the top of the prison tower. They will do anything to avoid imprisonment. Director Walsh establishes the connection between aspiration toward escape and actual escape, both through the tower and later through Mt. Whitney. But more than just physical freedom, these two high points represent release from man's intolerable condition, both inside and outside of prison. The romantic Roy tells Velma one night to gaze at the heavens, to "look at the stars, feel the earth shaking." She replies, "Sounds like poetry, Roy." But all the beautiful Velma really wants is to cure her club foot, to marry her country rube boyfriend and to dance again. Roy is not a part of her future. …