Berryman & Shakespeare

Reviewed: Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman. Edited by John Haffenden. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999. 416 pages.

In the introduction to Berryman’s Shakespeare, John Haffenden, the book’s editor and an early biographer of Berryman, admits: “No one who reads this volume will be looking for permanent scholarship: they will be looking for the poet’s reflections on another artist, and for the poet’s critical insights….” While Shakespearean text specialists might ignore Berryman’s scholarly work, lovers of Berryman’s poetry will pore over these pages, simply moved to be back in the presence of Berryman’s brilliant mind with fresh material at hand. Collected here are selected writings, some unfinished and some never before published, dating from the early 1940’s up until a year before Berryman’s suicide in 1972. Haffenden brings together various lectures first delivered at Princeton in the 50’s (and later “cannibalized” for subsequent teaching engagements), essays on the Sonnets and various plays, letters between Berryman, Mark Van Doren, and the Shakespeare scholar W.W. Greg, and large portions of two book projects Berryman had planned to write: a critical biography of Shakespeare and a critical edition of King Lear “complete with introduction, commentary, and critical apparatus.”

[private]Berryman’s capacity for concentration and detailed scholarly work was immense. Haffenden’s fifty-eight page introduction tells us that Berryman read all the primary and secondary writings on Shakespeare, most of the works Shakespeare is known to have read, as well as “every non-Shakespearen dramatic work published up to 1611.” In 1954, for example, he delivered 34 lectures covering 22 of Shakespeare’s plays during the Harvard Summer School term. He thought of himself as a scholar as much as a poet, and, at times, had more faith in his scholarship than he did in his poetry. In a letter to an editor at an English press he describes his Olympian plans for the Lear book: “Mine wishes to be, though not a variorum, much more minutely critical than any edition of a Shakespeare play has been hitherto.”

Readers may be put off by the technical scholarly language used to discuss, for example, the textural problems posed by the Quarto vs. the Folio versions of Lear. It can sometimes read like an uncrackable secret code. Here’s an example:

“I never got him,” which follows “Letter” in the Quarto, is omitted in F, which mistook the transposition mark for deletion. “Strange” (which at once guarantees and is guaranteed by “I neuer got him”) was misread “strong” (how plausible!) in Q, which also omits “O” & “said he.”

But not all the writing is densely academic. In fact, these essays are peppered throughout with observations and opinions written in language rarely heard in scholarly works. Berryman has no trouble trouncing previous scholars or injecting passionate subjective opinions as evidence of empirical truths. When making a case for the quality of the seldom performed Henry VI, Part 2, Berryman assures us: “… I took a friend, the poet and playwright Louis MacNeice, to a production at the Old Vic in 1953, and he agreed with me afterwards that it is a damned good play.” And Berryman is hilarious, very much the brash and pompous genius reeling at the lecture podium, daring anyone listening to disagree. While dealing with Hamlet, Berryman writes: “To the fundamental question about Hamlet’s delay in prosecuting his revenge, it [an established school of thought] answers wisely: No delay, no play. I am at a loss to account for the prestige of this stupefying explanation, unless we imagine many of Professor Stoll’s readers for thirty-five years as little able to bear the effort of reflection as he is.” Or, in this footnote, Berryman puts a few unnamed persons in their place: “I expect some highly organized readers will despise or hate the word ‘spiritual’ & indeed the subject (they should: it’s a threat to their comfortable ignorance of who they are.)”

When Berryman addresses questions of “interanimation”-the reading of Shakespeare’s life into Shakespeare’s work-Haffenden’s insight into why readers will value this volume seems right. In a piece called “The Crisis”-intended for his full-length critical biography of Shakespeare-Berryman wrote: “It seems likely that Shakespeare in middle life underwent at least two nervous crises that shook his work to its heart.” How, he asks, did the man who had just written As You Like It andTwelfth Night come to write the tragedy of Hamlet? Why did the playwright who had “never before having taken up a lunatic, for years [to come] send his heroes and heroines mad-“? It is difficult to believe that Berryman did not have his own crises and obsessions (and their ultimate animation of his own work) in mind when he wondered how the loss of Shakespeare’s father-and the earlier loss of his son-might have forged Shakespeare’s tragic vision. Berryman, who never recovered from the suicide of his own father, writes: “The death of a man’s father removes the barrier that always heretofore stood between infantile fantasy and its achievement.”

Berryman’s The Dream Songs are an especially powerful refutation of T. S. Eliot’s call for the “impersonality of the poet,” and Berryman seems driven to master the connection between Shakespeare’s biography and his art. Shakespeare did not glean his understanding of experience by seeing a production of Ralph Roister Doister or dreaming up scenarios of love and loss. Berryman is insistent on this point; it has everything to do with his conception of the artist. In his introduction, Haffenden recounts that once, on a scrap of paper, Berryman wrote a kind of “statement of faith” after first writing out Marivaux’s famous statement: “L’art est religieux.” Berryman wrote that the artist’s experience does not amount to “…self-acceptance; a psychological & practical concept.” Instead, he explains, “What I have in mind is first more active and second more philosophical: self-discovery (a process) leading to self-recognition (an ultimate state).”

Readers of Berryman’s poetry already know the influence of Shakespeare on Berryman’s own work: the enjambed lines, the tortured syntax, the soliloquy-like form the lyrics take. The Elizabethan dramatist-poets and their audiences were familiar with the concept of a character discovering his self through acts of speech and dramatic performance. This paradigm is central to Berryman’s poetics. Psychological insight is hit upon through linguistic richness and a willingness to try on many hats. Berryman’s supreme creation, Henry of The Dream Songs (“not the poet,” he famously insisted, “not me”), is both Dogsberry and Hamlet, lover and betrayer-at once a white professor and a minstrel in blackface. Berryman as Henry “dressed up & up” and “his costumes varied” just as Shakespeare as an actor and poet excised his “psychological inwardness” through his dramas.

Many contemporary scholars will ignore this book since Berryman doesn’t ask of literature the kinds of questions favored by Marxists, deconstructionists, and cultural materialists. Berryman is not concerned with the failure of Utopian thinking, nor is he confused by the belief that a piece of art is inherently flawed or separable from conventional conceptions of meaning and expression. He writes out of the last grand days of classical humanist criticism when “literary intention” and a belief in the “ideal coherence” of works of art were where one started. In notes dating from 1970, Berryman writes that Prof. Erikson “sees Identity as, both a persistent sameness (self-sameness) & a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others.” Berryman adds:

It is true that Prof. Erikson does not have in mind here works of art, but I do, and I find true for some of the most important of them what he finds true of human life in general.… There is nothing grandiose about this, though there is something serious enough to aim at salvation (“In la sua volunta e nostra pace”), and I locate here William Shakespeare’s permanent obsession.

Contemporary critics might find this academic perspective naive or passé, and that is a shame.
The book concludes dramatically with a draft of an essay called “Shakespeare’s Reality,” written in March 1971, less than one year before Berryman’s death. In it he returns to a line from Richard III that had occupied him twenty years earlier: “Richard loues Richard, that is, I am I.” The King in mortal crisis, having betrayed and been betrayed, having steeped himself in sin, seeks solace in self-love. Berryman, walking towards his most desperate hour, seems to be writing about himself: “what is in question here is an unmasterable identity crisis.” Richard’s utterance, that “rocking, unstable, unconvincing, double self-assertion” fails him and “suddenly reverses the process and he goes to pieces.” Mark Van Doren once wrote Berryman: “You will never finish the Shakespeare book. There will always be metal more attractive: poems, novels, a memoir, a collection of pensees-God knows what else….Scholarship is for those with shovels, whereas you’re a man of the pen, the wing, the flying horse, the shining angel…You’re for the masterpieces…” The metal “more attractive” was writing Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs,among other poetic creations. Now, 32 years after his death, we also haveBerryman’s Shakespeare.[/private]

About RGood

Regan Good is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was a 2001-2002 poetry fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Her poems and essays have appeared in Fence, Tin House, New Letters, Field, the Antioch Review and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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