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This report is taken from PN Review 209, Volume 39 Number 3, January - February 2013.

77 Dream Songs: Henry Agonistes Tony Roberts

I am obliged to perform in complete darkness
operations of great delicacy
on my self.

                                            (Dream Song 67)

John Berryman (1914-72) gave the lie to that belated wisdom of F. Scott Fitz­gerald's, 'There are no second acts in American lives'. Such was the inchmeal trudge to overnight success that his first act was all frustration. In the Paris Review interview he gave in October 1970, Berryman acknowledged: 'I overestimated myself, as it turned out, and felt bitter, bitterly neglected'. The bitterness he savoured in his verse. By the time he strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, securing his reputation with Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and 77 Dream Songs (1964), his personal life was an unholy mess and his poetic career riddled by obsessions that reflected his destruction of it. Berryman's duet with the agonising Mistress Bradstreet ('I decided to tempt her') led to the three six-line stanzas with varying line lengths and rhyme schemes that comprise 77 Dream Songs. Berryman was a Shakespearean scholar and both books came out of his life's tussle with the period, especially his wry syntax and energetic vocabulary. Yet even by today's diversified standards the collection is innovative, an intellectual circus. In 1965 it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Berryman emphatically, repeatedly, distanced himself from his neurotic protagonist, who was

essentially [...] an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes ...


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