Stood the Ancestors, Relaxed & Hard

John Berryman with his classmates in the fall of his senior year at South Kent School in 1931. Berryman is seated in first row far left.

Offering Dragons quarter is no good. They regrow all their parts and come on again. They have to be killed.

John Berryman

Dream Song 78

by John Berryman

Darkened his eye, his wild smile disappeared,
inapprehensible his studies grew,
nourished he less & less
his subject body with good food & rest,
something bizarre about Henry, slowly sheared
off, unlike you and & you,

smaller & smaller, till in question stood
his eyeteeth and one block of memories
These were enough for him
implying commands from upstairs & from down,
Walt’s ‘orbic flex,’ triads of Hegel would
incorporate, if you please,

into the know-how of the American bard
embarrassed Henry heard himself-a-being,
and the younger Stephen Crane
of a powerful memory, of pain,
these stood the ancestors, relaxed & hard,
whilst Henry’s parts were fleeing.


Within weeks of Berryman’s biological father’s death his mother and John Angus Berryman would be married.  The family of four moved to Jackson Heights, New York.  John Jr. would take Angus’ last name Berryman for the rest of his life as the first line of defense of creating separation from himself and his father.  John Angus had managed to time his exit from the Florida real estate business at the high and although he gave a significant portion to his first wife in exchange for a divorce in order to marry Martha, there was a solid stake to get the family started in their new life.  

In the summer of 1929, John Berryman applied to the South Kent School, an Episcopalian foundation whose reputation was a focus on academics and moral rigor.  It was a boarding school that kept costs low by allowing students to earn part of their tuition through work, like washing dishes, snow shoveling and other chores on the school grounds.   Despite the spartan quarters and reduced costs, the tuition proved almost too much to bear as time went along and John Angus worked less and less. 

Berryman was small for his age, eccentric, quiet and a world class clutz, the perfect target in an all boys school for bullying.  Despite no interest nor talent in sports, Berryman felt obligated by both his mother and the school culture to engage in sports.  He did so with the kind of forced and faked sincerity that I remember in my school days of boys with similar attributes that can only be explained by a kind of ruthless zeal that is intended to do only one thing, gain a modicum of respect among his peers for his tolerance of pain, pain dished out both during practice and during games.  He played right guard on the football team in the fall of 1929, lacking the athleticism for the skilled positions requiring speed or coordination.  He suffered enough injuries and humiliation to gain some respect and a respite when the injuries generated sufficient blood as to send him to the bench.  He preferred tennis in the spring and worked hard at it, as a means to satisfy the politics of the sport culture at the school and expectations of his mother.  But in the end, neither protected him from the being at the bottom of the pecking order among his classmates.   His small stature and odd looks meant he endured the worst that young men can dish out.   

By his third year, the constant bullying weighed on him to the point that he became estranged from his classmates, depressed and truly suicidal.  There was a dramatic attempts at suicide, where in front of classmates, following a fight near the rail road tracks, he threw himself in front of an on-coming train, forcing the very tormentors who had been beating him moments earlier to drag him to safety.   This reckless disregard for his life scared his classmates enough to realize Berryman was serious about his own self destruction.  They understood the consequences if Berryman killed himself as a result of their bullying was beyond their intentions and it gave him a little breathing room but also a reputation for being seriously unhinged.  

Berryman thrived academically to a point at South Kent.   He excelled in some areas and rebelled in others.   He never completely fit in, but he was pushed by his own intelligence and his mother’s expectations to set himself apart in preparation for the next step in his academics.   

He spent 5 years at South Kent and was confident his application to Columbia College in spring of 1932 would be accepted.  By this time the economic fallout of the depression had eaten away at the families financial resources.   His step-father had been laid off at his stock exchange position and his mother was now supporting the family on 1/4 of what his father had been making just two years prior.  Berryman earned a scholarship to Columbia to cover most of his tuition and lived at home his freshman year to save money.  Berryman did not thrive his first year at Columbia and through laziness or his reoccurring challenges with mental illness, he briefly lost his scholarship and dropped out.  However he identified a talent in his freshman year that would that would provide an entry into a new world of women and self respect.  It turns out, despite his otherwise lack of physicality, he was an excellent dancer.   From that point on he embraced the social opportunities that college life provided, attending several dances a week and with them the opportunity to carouse and flirt with girls and drink with his friends afterwards.   

Berryman was forced to reapply for his scholarship in the summer between his first and second year at Colombia.   It caused him to reassess his goals.  He approached Mark Van Doren for support and improved his study habits.  He got involved in journalism at the college, expanded his network with other literature students and writers and generally began to thrive academically.   He would build over the next three years an impressive body of work, with success at publishing poems, critical analysis and literary criticism.  His intelligence and drive stood out.   However his constant late nights, smoking and tendency for self abuse, took its tool and by mid way through his senior year it resulted in exhaustion nearly to the point of collapse.  Although he had become the star pupil in the literature department at Columbia and was under consideration for a fellowship to Cambridge, the effort took a toll on his mental and physical well being.  But. in what would become a reoccurring theme for the rest of his life, he endured,  graduating Phi Beta Kappa in the spring of 1936, primed to study abroad that fall on a prestigious scholarship at Cambridge that he had been awarded. 


Dream Song 93

by John Berryman

General Fatigue stalked in, & a Major-General,
Captain Fatigue, and at the base of all
pale Corporal Fatigue,
and curious microbes came, came viruses:
and the Court conferred on Henry, and conferred on Henry
the rare Order of the Weak.

-How come dims one these wholesome elsers oh?
Old polymaths, old trackers, far from home,
say how thro’ auburn hair     titbits of youth’s grey climb.
I have heard of rose-cheekt but the rose is here!
I bell: when pops her phiz in      a good crow,
My beauty is off duty!-

Henry relives a lady, how down vain,
spruce in her succinct parts, spruce everywhere.
They fed like muscles and lunched
after, between, before.  He tracks her, hunched
(propped on red table elbows) at her telephone,
white rear bare in the air. 

Published by

A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

One thought on “Stood the Ancestors, Relaxed & Hard”

  1. Love this series, and this post’s passing reference to Berryman as an American football player brings a personal memory to the fore.

    In my side of the mid-20th century, I roomed with a pretty good Chicago high school Right Guard who played on my lower-division college’s team. He was not overly big, certainly so by current football standards, but his considered opinion was that linemen needed to be among the smartest players on the football team — in their way and constrained world, approaching the intellectual challenge of the quarterback. Their observation was that unlike the running and catching players, figuring out the rock/paper/scissors matchup on who they needed to block, and determining the weaknesses of their lineman-opponents (and when to exploit them) was as much intellectual as physical.

    As to speed, the Right Guards of mid-century American football also had to have enough speed to not slow up a running back when pulling out on a sweep.

    Your description of Berryman’s recklessness, deceptiveness, and skills in observation might have made him more fit to that football position than one’s first though might have it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s