Berryman’s Dream Song 133

As Theresa noted, fame, or at least the need for fame, is a recurring theme in The Dream Songs. I like this one because it looks at fame from a different perspective:


As he grew famous-ah, but what is fame? –
he lost his old obsession with his name,
things seemed to matter less,
including the fame-a television team came
from another country to make a film of him
which did not him distress:

he enjoyed the hard work & he was good at that,
so they all said-the charming Englishmen
among the camera & the lights
mathematically wandered in his pub & livingroom
doing their duty, as too he did it,
but where are the delights

of long-for fame, unless fame makes him feel easy?
am cold & weary, said Henry, fame makes me feel lazy,
yet I must do my best.
t doesn’t matter, truly. It doesn’t matter truly.
It seems to be solely a matter of continuing Henry
voicing & obsessed.

Having gained fame, not surprisingly he finds fame does not bring what he thought it would bring, does not make “him feel easy.”

He may no longer obsess about his lack of fame, but neither does he find what he’s looking for in it.

Fame does not resolve the issues that made him seek fame in the first place for there is still something inside making Henry obsess. This doesn’t come as any great surprise, of course, because we see this in far too many stars who gain fame only to spiral into a meteoric tailspin, perhaps because they realize what they’ve devoted their whole life to attaining isn’t really what they wanted, or need, after all.

5 thoughts on “Berryman’s Dream Song 133”

  1. Yes, I know it’s such a cliche that fame is hollow, but I honestly think all writers go through it. Plus, the new generation really needs to make its mark; to take its place in the scheme of things. In Berryman’s case, as with nearly all the writers of his generation, he was writing in the shadow of the Moderns. In a Freudian sense, the Moderns (Eliot, Pound, Yeats) were these fatherly figures who had to be overthrown by the new generation; it’s practically mythical, isn’t it. Berryman had to rise, like Zeus, to slay the father(s) who threatened to smother (eat or kill) him. Berryman was fascinated with psycho therapy and definitely made use of it in his poems. This is one of my favoriate of Berryman’s poems.

  2. The most interesting line in the poem, to me, is the one conditioning any delight from fame on feeling easy. I suppose that’s where his vantage point is valuable to the non-famous, who see in fame only the allure of public adoration and not the corresponding pressure to perform.

  3. “It doesn’t matter, truly. It doesn’t matter truly.
    It seems to be solely a matter of continuing Henry
    voicing & obsessed.”

    Another way of reading the above words is that because John Berryman was famous for being able to write coherently and wittily about what it is like to be a tormented person, continued fame required him to continue being a tormented person. “Feeling easy” may not have been part of the equation in terms of his particular fame.

    Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, from that same era, were famous for writing eloquent and disturbing poems and, like Berryman, committed suicide. Being famous doesn’t alleviate depression or alcoholism.

    “Dream Song 133” reminded me of James Dean saying over and over in the film, “Rebel Without A Cause,” the words “it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.”

  4. I suspect that too often it’s stars that are “hollow,” not fame, Theresa. They are driven to fulfill some emptiness by gaining the adulation of others, as if that would make them “okay.”

    While I agree that famous people, ala Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party,” feel obligated to continue what they’re doing in order to maintain their fame, there’s every indication that Berryman didn’t need any additional motivation to remain a tormented soul.

  5. Loren, from what I can piece together from my readings, you are right. It wasn’t fame or the pursuit of it that was the main source of his torment. His psychic wound was the suicide death of his father. His rocky relationship with his mother rubbed salt in the wound. But I also think it is true that all writers struggle with their reason for writing and many thirst for recognition and fame. That thirst gets in the way of the initial impetus for writing and a struggle then takes place within the writer. In her book, Simpson does make clear that Berryman was bothered that his work was not being recognized, while, at the same time, Schwartz’s and Lowell’s work was. It wasn’t the main source of his torment but it certainly added to the stress of his daily life. Additionally, in the academic world, publications and fame equals a job; for many years Berryman didn’t have job security. He shuffled from job to job (at one point going door to door as a salesman). His joblessness did bring him to the point of breakdown more than once.

Comments are closed.