Hard on the land wears the strong sea

There really are 77 Dream Songs. Each one is 18 lines long and divided into 3 stanzas.

The songs trace the life of Henry as told by himself, from several different points of view, and by his unnamed friend who calls him Mr. Bones.

John Berryman has said that he is not Henry, although most people don't believe him. Berryman lost his father to suicide and Henry's life seems forever burdened by "a departure" that's mentioned in Dream Song #1.

One important thing to remember is that Henry often speaks in the first and third person, even within the same line:  "I don't see how Henry, pried / open for all the world to see, survived." Henry is observing himself.

In Dream Song #1 we are introduced to a sad but surviving Henry, himself surprised that he's still alive.


  1. I am not someone who grew up reading poetry. So perhaps I don’t have the sense of appreciation that others may have.

    I have read through the poems once. Many are inscrutable. I felt bad until I read a bit where Berryman said that readers should not try to “understand” much of what he wrote, but should enjoy the language and form.

    I did get a feeling from much of it. I know people like this who have that sense of tiredness and sadness tinged with humor regarding their lives. In that sense, and including the alcoholism and depression issues Berryman had, reminded me a bit of Hemmingway’s life.

    Not sure about his attempts at black street language. I will give it another look in my second read.

    1. Hi Will - Thanks for your thoughts. Inscrutable is a nice way of putting it, ha. I agree, it's hard to be comfortable with not understanding each line but it can be fun to struggle with.

      Here's one quote I found online that helped me understand the black voice that one of the characters uses. It wasn't an attempt at accurately capturing the voice, it was a deliberate exaggeration -- still, it can be offensive.

      "...The fiction of The Dream Songs is that its two protagonists are "end men" in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two "end men," one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, who told jokes in an exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting the taciturn "straight man" to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as "Tambo" or "Mr. Bones" (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as "Mr. Bones" or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric "I" of the songs: he never addresses his "straight man" by name."


  2. Thanks for the response.

    I didn’t know about the vaudeville aspect of the black voice. That gives it more context.

    As I mentioned, poetry was not a big part of my childhood but the language of racism was a part of my growing up. My family relatives were pretty typical white working class and often rural Midwesterner of the period (1950s). So when Berryman has his imagined friend say, “free, black and forty-one” I hear my childhood relatives saying, “Free, white and twenty-one.” This phrase expressed their ability to do what they wanted unhindered, but also was a put down of those who were not white and whom they assumed should not have the same freedoms. So, again, not quite sure what to make of this. (See 40)

    I think the most profound lines were in 29. Here it said:

    There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s
    so heavy, if he had a hundred years
    &more, &weeping, sleepless, in all them
    Henry could not make it good…

    Sounds to me like a really profound description of depression.