Sunday, November 8, 2015


The “majestic Shade” here is William Butler Yeats. Wordsworth and Whitman are two of the literary forebears of Berryman’s The Dream Songs, in that they both wrote great extended autobiographical poems (The Prelude and Song of Myself) with the poet’s self as hero and central figure. Both of those works, through difficulties, doubts, and twists and turns, wind up asserting the potential for an individual’s spiritual triumph. Berryman—not so much. Henry is a now-classic anti-hero, in the vein of Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop, Heller’s Yossarian, even Camus’s Meursault from The Stranger and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. They don’t possess qualities of moral integrity (Quixote parodies that), resourcefulness, strength, etc., hero stuff. Anti-heroes are confused, anxious losers. This is Henry. But this DS 312 is about Yeats, the biggest influence of all on B., the foil against whom he claims he constantly spars. Here is Yeats on one of B.’s most enduring themes: age, the failure of the body, and the certainty of approaching death. “Sailing to Byzantium.” It’s an amazing poem when read in the context of The Dream Songs in the way it bridges between Wordsworth and Whitman on one hand, the Romantic and the Transcendentalist, and Berryman on the other, the bewildered anti-heroic loser/schmuck. One line really stands out: “gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.” Yep. The poem is a modernist disengagement with the Romantic ideal and also of the religious-based certainty of a persistent heaven-bound soul. But there is an eternity. I don’t think it’s too far off to equate Yeats’s intricately mechanized golden eternity of artifice with what I’ve been calling Berryman’s notion of legacy and reputation. They’re created things. So Yeats’s poem is modern in that the certainty of Romantic heart that so animates and sustains Wordsworth and Whitman is ebbing away, “sick with desire.” The very desire for heart consumes the heart, and it will be gone. In its place waits the glorious artifice of, well, artifice. For B., the postmodern, there is nothing left but need and appetite and addiction. The addict’s needs are empty from the word go. B. clings to something desperately, though. Not the Romantic heart, but the Modern artifice. For Yeats, still with some contact with an ebbing heart, artifice is glorious in its own way, and in fact, Yeats rejects the heart outright. It’s attached to a dying animal, and will also die. The artifice—it’s so perfect—is timeless. It sings of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” That is all that Berryman has left. It’s all he can hope for. But, there is plenty, plenty of anxiety that this won’t be enough. It, also, is fading, overwhelmed by noise, the repetition of bright consumerist nonsense, anti-intellectualism and brutality, ignorance—all the outrages of the money- and power-driven competitive culture of the 20th century. Ultimately, Yeats rejected the Romantics, and B. fears he has to reject Yeats, though he desperately needs to keep clinging. But he knows that once Yeats and what he represents is gone, there is nothing left but need and appetite. B. says to Yeats, “Your high figures float / again across my mind and all your past / fills my walled garden with your honey breath.” Yeats had a sweet voice, all right. And his strange high figures float through B.’s artistic awareness. But they float, they’re really out of reach too. For Berryman, all that’s left is the mote, the insubstantial speck which is all that’s left of the Romantic heart that B, through Yeats’s example, finds too microscopic to cling to. But he can’t reach Yeats’s substitutes either. No substantial, timeless gold enameling for Henry. All he has left is his need.

1 comment:

  1. This one's a winner. There's something tight in the writing, language both modern and old. In a way, this DS embodies--for me--many poets, as if a hundred years of poetry were being exemplified. I also find it a touching ode to a master.