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Have you ever had a weird, emotionally perplexing dream, and when you woke up the world just felt wrong? That is exactly what reading John Berryman's (1914-1972) poetry collection 77 Dream Songs (1964) is supposed to feel like. Purposefully written to portray a kind of dream world that hovers outside of reality, Berryman's collection examines themes like depression, loneliness, and self-destruction. Keep on reading for an analysis of 77 Dream Songs.
77 Dream Songs was John Berryman's first majorly successful collection of poetry. Published in 1964, the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1965. Berryman was not a new poet at the time of publication, but the book's instant success was a surprise to many critics.
Berryman had published his first mature collection of poetry, The Dispossessed, in 1948 to overwhelmingly negative reviews. His book-length poem, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, (1956) was successful, but it was 77 Dream Songs that established Berryman's literary reputation.
Much of the content of 77 Dream Songs was inspired by Berryman's own life. He was born in Oklahoma in 1914, and had a troubled childhood. As Berryman's parents were finalizing their divorce, his father committed suicide. Berryman's mother remarried within months and frequently criticized his dead father, causing Berryman further pain.
At the time 77 Dream Songs was published, the adult Berryman was struggling with alcoholism and depression. The protagonist of the collection, Henry, serves as Berryman's alter-ego, as he struggles with much of the same challenges that Berryman faced. Henry experiences depression and alcoholism and contemplates suicide in more than one poem.
Four years after 77 Dream Songs, Berryman continued Henry's story with His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). This collection was also a major success, and in 1969, Berryman combined the two books into The Dream Songs, which contained 385 individual poems.
Berryman took his own life in 1972 by jumping off of a bridge.
77 Dream Songs is in the genre of poetry and can be more specifically listed as lyric poetry. The collection follows the narrator, Henry, while he navigates a dream world that hovers between reality and imagination. The odd syntax and vague imagery used throughout 77 Dream Songs highlights that things are not quite as they should be.
Henry strongly resembles Berryman himself: a white, middle-aged American who attempts to cope with both his desire and despair. The collection functions as a dream diary as Henry struggles with his trauma and the loss from his past. Henry is plagued by depression and is disillusioned by his life. He yearns to make a connection with others but is restricted by his mental state. His only friend, who calls Henry "Mr. Bones," is hostile and deeply problematic.
Mr. Bones is a controversial figure. Henry's alter ego, he dresses in blackface and speaks in an exaggerated Southern, Black dialect. As a liberal writer, many scholars have wondered why Berryman appears to be reverting to crude, racist stereotypes. While some say he is poking fun at minstrelsy in America's dark past, others argue that his use of Black dialect is inherently wrong and harmful. What is your interpretation?
Each of the 77 poems can be read independently, but Berryman intended them to be read as part of a sequence. By the end of the 77 dream songs, Henry has not overcome his demons and is still struggling with loneliness, sadness, and guilt. Henry's dream world is continued in Berryman's following collection, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968).
In order to analyze the collection as a whole, let's look at some of the individual poems and analyze what they reveal about Henry.
Devoid of any world-building or scene-setting, "Dream Song 1" dives immediately into Henry's mental state:
Huffy Henry hid the day,unappeasable Henry sulked." (1-2)
Readers are immediately tuned into Henry's character and the problems he faces. The poem states that the entire world seemed to be on his side at one point. It was like a "wool lover" (7)—warm and comforting but also scratchy and imperfect. After the "departure" (9) from this happiness, "nothing fell out as it might or ought" (10). Henry has experienced a deep betrayal that has caused lingering trauma. His poor attitude is directly linked to his shaken mental state and the despair that he faces every day. The speaker states that he doesn't know how Henry survived. Henry isn't simply an unlikeable villain, he is a complex, hurting human being whose happiness was lost to his trauma.
"Dream Song 4" is important in showing how Henry relates to other people. Instead of being able to connect with others on an emotional, human level, Henry has no feelings of empathy. He views people like they are objects and oddities. When he sees an attractive woman, he notes,
...I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her" (4-6)
While this quote speaks to Henry's feelings of intense desire and longing, it also shows that sees himself as separate from "other people." He is unable to consider either the woman or the people she's with as humans with agency, but he sees them as objects of desire or obstacles in his way. His lack of empathy is likely intricately tied to his inability to connect with his own emotions and heal from his trauma. This perpetuates a cycle of loneliness where Henry can't get close to anyone. The second to last line in the poem reads, "Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry" (17).
"Dream Song 14" reveals how Henry's pain has changed the way he views the world as a whole. The poem famously begins, "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so" (1). Henry states that nothing in life excites him anymore. Although he knows people shouldn't say they're bored of living, he is. He can't find any enjoyment in art, literature, other people, or even himself. At the end of the poem, Henry reveals why he is bored: his companion has left him and he is now lonely and numb. He says,
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag." (15-18)
The betrayal that he has faced hasn't just made Henry sad and hopeless. It has caused the world itself to lose all meaning to him. Henry feels guilty because he has been conditioned to believe that life is a gift and we should never be bored of it. At the same time, though, his loneliness and isolation has made living seem like a boring, impossible chore.
"Dream Song 29" shows how deeply Henry's trauma has altered his reality. The poem begins by stating that no matter how much time he has, Henry will not be able to recover from what has happened to him. He is haunted by another thing that follows him around too. But he is unable to see what it is exactly is affecting him, so he has no control over it.
Henry then states that he didn't kill anyone, although he thought that he did. He can imagine hacking a woman up and hiding her body for someone to find. He almost wants the body to be found, perhaps so that he can make that connection with another human. Regardless, he realizes in the morning that he didn't murder anyone:
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing." (16-18)
His trauma affects him so badly that he isn't sure of the world around him or even of his own actions. He thinks he might be capable of murder and might enjoy it like a game. But he often wakes up and realizes that the violence is a figment of his imagination.
All of these poems work in tandem to develop Henry's character. He is often considered an anti-hero because he is selfish, manic, and volatile. The more we examine Henry's character, though, the more it becomes apparent that he is merely attempting to survive his trauma. His distance from the world, others, and himself is a coping mechanism that he uses to protect himself from further pain.
The numbness and altered reality that Henry experiences is due to his unresolved trauma. This doesn't mean that Henry is unproblematic or completely innocent, but it does reveal the deep impact that his trauma and subsequent depression has had on all areas of his life.
Anti-hero: a main character/protagonist who lacks the qualities (such as morality and honor) that are typically associated with a hero.
The main themes in 77 Dream Songs Collection are depression, loneliness, and self-destruction.
Throughout the entire collection, Henry struggles with feelings of depression. He becomes numb to the world and the people around him as he swims in his own grief. Consider this passage from "Dream Song 29":
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good." (1-4)
His depression makes him feel completely helpless and out of control, which in turn makes him lash out. In between the poems where Henry is subdued and just wants to hide, are instances of violence and manic energy. His ability to connect with others is hampered by the overwhelming feeling of depression.
Because his depression makes him feel alone and takes control of his entire life, Henry suffers from extreme loneliness. This is directly shown in "Dream Song 40" when Henry says,
I'm scared a lonely. Never see my son,easy be not to see anyone," (1-2)
Not only does Henry isolate himself physically, but when he does encounter other people he isolates himself emotionally as well. This is apparent in "Dream Song 4," when he craves the woman physically but has no interest in her emotionally. His depression has isolated him from others and led to physical and emotional loneliness.
Because Henry feels numb to the world and the people around him, he becomes quite self-destructive. Firstly, he stays in a friendship with a man who wants to see him fail simply because he has no one else. He allows the toxic relationship with the man who calls him Mr. Bones to continue. He also actively contemplates suicide when his depression is at its peak. In "Dream Song 40," he says,
Got a little poison, got a little gun" (5).
Although Henry does not commit suicide, he considers the idea. He also is self-destructive in many of his social interactions, where he positions himself as the villain.
Berryman was very adamant that 77 Dream Songs was not autobiographical. In several interviews, lectures, and introductions he stated that he and Henry were not the same person. In fact, according to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry,
When the first volume, 77 Dream Songs, was misinterpreted as simple autobiography, Berryman wrote in a prefatory note to the sequel, 'The poem then, whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about 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 and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof."1
Although not a purely autobiographical collection, 77 Dream Songs did help Berryman work through aspects of his own depression and childhood trauma. He reflects on his father's suicide and the betrayal that he felt growing up without a father. He also discusses drinking, feelings of guilt, and the potential for violence.
Because 77 Dream Songs was influenced in part by Berryman's own trauma and childhood experiences, he is often grouped with the Confessional poets. Berryman resented that association, though he was friends with famous Confessional poets like Robert Lowell. Other confessional poets include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
Confessional poetry is influenced by the poet's own trauma and experiences. Confessional poets use writing as an outlet to work through their feelings and mental health issues, which are often dramatized in poetry for the effect. The work often closely mirrors the poet's life and personal experiences. Although readers get a glimpse into the author's psyche, it is important to note that the speaker and the poet are not one in the same.
On more than a personal level, 77 Dream Songs depicts how depression and other mental illnesses can impact every aspect of a person's life. More than just a feeling of sadness, it can make those who suffer from it feel numb, hostile, isolated, and even hopeless. The dream-like qualities contribute to the eerie feeling of the poem, where things aren't quite right. 77 Dream Songs presents a more extreme case of depression, but it depicts the reality of the illness without romanticizing it.
Henry is Berryman's literary alter ego. He is the narrator and anti-hero in 77 Dream Songs.
One of the main themes in 77 Dream Songs is depression.
77 Dream Songs was written by John Berryman.
The collection was published in 1964.
77 Dream Songs is in the genre of poetry and can be more specifically listed as lyric poetry.
Who wrote 77 Dream Songs?
It was written by John Berryman.
When was 77 Dream Songs published?
It was published in 1964 and was the collection that established Berryman's literary reputation.
Who is the protagonist in 77 Dream Songs?
Where is 77 Dream Songs set?
It is set in a dream world that hovers between the imaginary and reality.
What is revealed about Henry in the first dream song?
He is hiding because the world is no longer on his side
What mental illness does Henry suffer from?
Henry suffers from severe depression
To what extent is Berryman himself included in this collection?
Although he drew inspiration from his personal life and used this collection to work through some of his trauma, 77 Dream Songs is not autobiographical. He has stated several times that he and Henry are not the same.
Who is Mr. Bones?
Mr. Bones is the name that Henry's "friend" calls him. Mr. Bones is problematic because he uses blackface and talks in a stereotypical Black accent.
What are the themes in 77 Dream Songs?
The major themes are depression, loneliness, and self destruction.
Why is 77 Dream Songs meaningful?
It presents depression as a complex, life-altering mental illness. Instead of just being sad, Henry experiences intense feelings of guilt, isolation, numbness, hostility, and hopelessness. Depression also effects how he relates to other people, himself, and reality.
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