This Dream Song is an outright expression of grief. The first line sets it up: “Green grieves the Prince over his girl foregone.” The speaker makes allusions to tragic theatrical personae: Prince, Rabbi, Celt, which dramatize the statement of regret over ruined relationships. “old men fail to follow either the pain— / Why did he leave her?— / or the fascinated blood that led to an end”. He finishes up with a description of a relationship left “cold as a toad,” and an image of a door not closed but never again to open enough to go back through, and that final question, one more time, “Why did he leave her?”
Why indeed? Relationships oscillate between fascination and love-making at one extreme, and boredom, irritation, and preoccupation elsewhere (and more) at the other. The latter can sometimes drain the fascinated blood from relationship till it’s cold as a toad, but when the oscillation continues, and if the lover has been chased off during the emotional pendulum’s previous extremes, there arrives this kind of moment of grief and regret. Why did I leave her? I need her now and she’s gone. Woe. Perhaps later he’ll remember, she bored me, or her carping at me grew tiresome, or I couldn’t stand the sounds she makes when she eats, or look, she was wonderful but I really was more interested in drinking and picking up strange women anyway. But that’s later. For now, the emotional moment has been captured.
Othello ruins his relationship with Desdemona, at Iago’s prodding, and in his jealous fury he smothers her in bed. When the truth comes out that Iago was the villain setting it all up, Othello reaches this very same emotional moment, except it’s even worse because “Why did I leave her?” has transformed into the even more difficult “Why did I kill her?” He can’t live with it and kills himself. Paul Simon claims there are fifty ways to leave your lover, and asphyxiating her with a pillow turns out to be one of them. But unless she’s psychopathically dangerous and insufferable, Shakespeare is hinting that it’s not the best option. “Slip out the back, Jack” is probably better.
The thing about slipping out the back, Jack, is that you need to keep moving once you’re gone. When you stop and look over your shoulder, that cold toad-ghost can catch up and then you have to suffer through a moment of regret and grief like this poem records. I know we all do it, if only because we need to slow down and rest now and then. I still carry around traces of this childish notion that accomplished people become accomplished because they’re strong, active, progressive, and committed, and consequently don’t ever stop long enough to let regrets like this catch them. I ran into a mention yesterday that Berryman was rated by somebody at #138 in the ranking of the top 500 poets who have written in English, which is a silly notion, but it speaks to the man’s artistic accomplishment—which by the way, was largely built out of his emotional wreckage. This poem is one well-kilned brick in that edifice.