Berryman and Schwartz

Judging from his book’s dedication to Delmore Schwartz and from the sheer number of poems where he’s mentioned, Delmore’s death must have been devastating to Berryman. Perhaps that’s merely because Schwartz was once his teacher. If so, Schwartz must have had a powerful influence on him.

Interestingly, a Berryman interview from the the Paris Review touches both on Berryman’s view of fame, another major theme, and his relationship to Schwartz — not to mention a million other things.

As the interviewer points out, this one sounds a little Shakesperian:


Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore.
Delmore, Delmore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught,
‘All that is foul smell and blood in a bag.’

He lookt on the world like the leavings of a hag.
Almost his love died from him, any more.
His mother & William
were vivid in the same mail Delmore died.
The world is lunatic. This is the last ride.
Delmore, Delmore.

High in the summer branches the poet sang.
His throat ached, and he could sing no more.
All ears closed
across the heights where Delmore and Gertrude sprang
so long ago, in the goodness of which it was composed.
Delmore, Delmore!

There’s certainly a point at which thinking becomes counterproductive, where one needs to just experience life directly if one is to function, as most of us have probably experienced at one point or another. Which is not to say that it is possible to quit thinking once you’ve reached that point.

The Marcus Aurelius quotation comes from this section of his meditations:

“Does Panthea or Pergamus now sit by the tomb of Verus? Does Chaurias or Diotimus sit by the tomb of Hadrianus? That would be ridiculous. Well, suppose they did sit there, would the dead be conscious of it? and if the dead were conscious, would they be pleased? and if they were pleased, would that make them immortal? Was it not in the order of destiny that these persons too should first become old women and old men and then die? What then would those do after these were dead? All this is foul smell and blood in a bag.”

I wonder if Berryman purposely drew a quotation from a section that begins:

THIS reflection also tends to the removal of the desire of empty fame, that it is no longer in thy power to have lived the whole of thy life, or at least thy life from thy youth upwards, like a philosopher; but both to many others and to thyself it is plain that thou art far from philosophy. Thou hast fallen into disorder then, so that it is no longer easy for thee to get the reputation of a philosopher; and thy plan of life also opposes it

Some have argued that tragedy is no longer possible in the 20th Century, but it certainly seems tragic to me when a poet with a beautiful voice descends into madness, “flung to pieces and they hit the floor.”

This poems suggests that Schwartz played a much more powerful role than merely teacher for Berryman, Henry:


This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.

I really don’t know why Schwartz was so important to him, but it’s clear that his loss affected “Henry” in the same way that the father’s suicide haunts these poems.

Perhaps it’s the “miserably” and “alone,” despite his fame and talent, that so terrifies Henry.

7 thoughts on “Berryman and Schwartz”

  1. Schwartz was a powerful figure, and if you’ve ever heard recordings of him reading he could really bellow. I’ve never thought of him quite the same after I heard of his viscious attacks on Patchen’s anti-war masterpiece, Journal of Albion Moonlight.

  2. Thank you, Loren, for the link to the interview with John Berryman. The 33 pages are well worth reading.

    If I understand correctly, THE DREAM SONGS was written in 1969, when Berryman was drinking heavily and experiencing the unbearable edginess and despair that tend to accompany heavy drinking and alcoholism.

    At the time of that fall 1970 interview, he was no longer drinking and was beginning to write about his experience in the spring of 1970 of being rescued by God as he came to understand God, not the God he had been raised to understand. He had had what William James, in THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, called a conversion experience. In the interview, Berryman remarks about the religious tone in some of his last poems, which he predicted was not going to be popular with many of his readers and contemporaries.

    His interview voice is not that of a man tormented by active alcoholism. A sensitive man, yes, but a man who has gone through the wringer and survived, a man who does not expect his future to be easy but who is willing to face whatever comes. I wonder what happened between the hard-won hopefulness at the time of the interview and his death by suicide on January 7, 1972. After reading the interview, I see him as a courageous man.

    1. I haven’t read anyplace else that he killed himself, directly anyway.

  3. The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations” is about Berryman, and imho is very much in his spirit, interesting how he still resonates in popular culture

    Youtube video

  4. Schwartz was Berryman’s best friend. Whenever Berryman despaired about his writing, it was always Schwartz who bolstered his spirits and gave him the courage to carry on. Berryman would have probably never stayed the course with his writing if not for Schwartz. Unfortunately, Schwartz was mentally unstable and their relationship was strained now and again. There was a huge sadness in Berryman about what happened to Schwartz, Schwartz’s slow deterioration into madness. Schwartz’s illness was paralleled by Lowell’s, who was hospitalized several times for manic episodes. Berryman always felt he, too, was hounded by madness.

  5. These Dream Song threads are terrific Loren, some do not find Berryman difficult, they find that he speaks clearly to a broken mind. I am hopeful that at some time in the future you will be able to give your insights to his LOVE & FAME and DELUSIONS collections. I think that in “Scherzo” and “He Resigns” and the prayer poems from DELUSIONS it is clear for all to see.

  6. To Loren and “RB”–this is such a great exploration. Thanks for the YouTube reference! That is so interesting!

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