Berryman’s Dream Song 261

I’ve reached the final fourth of the Dream Songs, and I’ll have to admit it’s a good thing because my interest is beginning to wane. I can only take so much confessional poetry before I start wanting something more optimistic to balance it out.

I have learned much about human nature from these writers, insights I would’ve hated to have gained any other way. In the long run, though, I always turn back to poets like Roethke or Whitman who inspire me in deeper ways and appeal to my longings for transcendence.

Thankfully, some of the later poems in the long section VI have turned from self-absorption into a broader view, that is to say, they seem to be saying more about MY life, rather than just poor Henry’s:


You couldn’t bear to grow old, but we grow old.
Our differences accumulate. Our skin
tightens or droops: it alters.
Take courage, things are not what they have been
and they will never again. Hot hearts grow cold,
the rush to the surface falters,

secretive grows the disappearing soul
learned & uncertain, young again
but not in the same way:
Heraclitus had a wise word here to say,
which I forget. We wake & blunder on,
wiser, on the whole,

but not more accurate. Leave that to the young,
grope forward, toward where no one else has been
which is our privilege.
Besides, you gave up early in our age
which is your privilege, from Chatterton
to the bitter & present scene.

Although at first glance this poem appears to be addressed to a particular “You,” perhaps his father who committed suicide at a relatively young age, further reflection suggests it may actually be addressed to people like me, people who are no longer young and start to worry about the effects of aging.

The first and most of the second stanza detail the disadvantages of growing old, though Berryman apparently didn’t live long enough to learn all the disadvantages. By the end of the second stanza, though, there’s a grudging admission that there are some advantages to growing older. One being that we are “wiser, on the whole,” perhaps due to our past blunders.

Perhaps the greatest advantage is that because of our experience — if we are lucky — we are able to “grope forward, toward where no one else has been.

In typical Henry fashion, though, the poem can’t end there, ending with a “dig” at those who have committed suicide, including the English poet Chatterton who served as an icon of unacknowledged genius for the Romantics after committing suicide at 17.

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