All poets’ wives have rotten lives, their husbands look at them like knives.
Dream Song 181
by John Berryman
Because I am not able to forget,
Henry is dreaming of society,
one where the gifted & hard-working
young poet is cherished, kissed as a king
to come, a prized comer. Ah but see
them baleful ignorant
justicer & witnesses, corrupt by purity,
lacking all sense of others, lacking sense,
but liars too, pal.
I snuff the proper vomit of a State
where every tree is adjudged equal tall,
in faith without debate.
I beg to place in evidence, vicious mother:
That in the west of my land tower Douglas firs,
taller than others.
If then a judge grides to one of them ‘You are sick,
lazy: Siberia’ what gross metaphors
shall we invent for this judge?
(The sentence: forced labour for five years in a ‘distant locality.’)
Berryman should have had every reason to improve his disposition in the fall of 1940. Harvard offered much of the advantages he was left wanting after his experience at Wayne State; higher pay, more gifted and dedicated students, incredibly talented counterparts and an opportunity to connect with his younger brother. Unfortunately, Berryman always had a glass half empty mindset and quickly settled into his same bad habits of nervous exhaustion, self pity and grumbling aloofness and ill health. The English department at Harvard in 1940 had what would prove to be some heavy weights of American poetry including, Delmore Schwartz, Wallace Stegner, Harry Levin, Mark Schrorer and of course Berryman. Other than a strong friendship with Schwartz, Berryman carried around his every heavier life long chip on his shoulder and managed to alienate most of his colleagues. However, Berryman was honing his skills as a professor, and by and large his students loved him and with the positive feedback of his pupils came a muted respect of his colleagues.
Berryman was weary of the grind of teaching, the prep, the grading, the reading of students papers and providing feedback. He worked hard it. He felt it robbed him of his creative energy and kept him treading water as a writer. However, during his Harvard years, he was able to muster sufficient time and energy to produce some poems that were not only published but were gaining some attention by important critics and publishers.
Berryman and his younger brother, Robert Jefferson, had taken up residence together when he moved to Boston to teach at Harvard. It was a rattle trap apartment, with holes in the walls, but it was an opportunity for the two of them to reconnect. Unfortunately, Berryman interacted with his brother the same way he interacted with everyone else, which pretty much was what seemed like indifference as he went about in his own self induced haze of annoyance. Despite it not being the reunion that Robert Jefferson had hoped, it worked well enough. The two of them lived peaceably under one roof for better part of two years. His brother would marry his first wife in the fall of 1941 and the three of them lived together, despite modest tensions, for the next year.
Berryman’s own romantic pursuits were more complicated. He was still undertaking an on again/off again letter writing romance with Beatrice, his fiance, living in England, while dating Eileen Mulligan, a friend of Jean Bennett’s, his girl friend from his college days. Eileen was an orphan and a devout Catholic. I mention both because the first was likely an entry into emotional bonding between the two and the latter a cause of exasperation for Berryman, who by this time was a loud and opinionated atheist. Eileen was kind, emotional, grateful and insecure as to where her future lay when they met. Berryman created an emotional obstacle few women would have dared to cross, still professing his love of his fiance, even though it was shear fantasy and farce by this point, neither he nor Beatrice had the will to call it off.
Berryman’s mother took a liking to Eileen and was genuinely kind and generous towards her emotionally, encouraging the relationship. It wasn’t until July of 1941, England in the grips of war, that Beatrice wrote him a letter and renounced her acceptance of his marriage proposal. Within a week he proposed to Eileen and she accepted. It wasn’t until October that Berryman got around to giving her a ring, inscribed ‘J.B. to E.M – NOW AND THEN ONE – 24, October, 1942.’ And in doing so set the date of their marriage one year hence.
Berryman’s and Delmore’s academic and personal friendship flourished during this time, but it was almost like Berryman’s melancholy was contagious, because by winter of the next year, Schwartz had slid into a serious depression, which contributed to the break down of his marriage. Eileen was a gentle source of encouragement and support to both. She competently set out to plan a proper Catholic wedding and had to plan the entirety of the event because of Berryman’s feckless ways.
During the lead up to the wedding, Berryman was desperate to both publish and find a more lucrative position. He was in debt from back rent and owed friends money. He was angry and despondent that he could never seem to get ahead financially. He applied to more than fifty schools and did not land a position to his suiting. He had to take a job selling Encyclopedia Britannica that summer, tramping the streets of New York’s East Side just to make a few bucks. Feeling hopeless and despondent he declared to Eileen that he hated life, to which she replied, “if you feel that way we shouldn’t get married.” But get married they did. He landed a position at the Iona School in New Rochelle for the salary of 2,400 for that fall, but lasted only three weeks as he felt over worked and stressed at the expectations. Fate would intervene, as in October, the month he would be married, he received a letter from Richard Blackmur that he had been advocating on his behalf at Princeton and had convinced the head of the English department to offer Berryman a job. Blackmur had been introduced to Berryman’s work through Alan Tate and had become interested in the young writer. The position at Princeton would pay $225 a month with the opportunity for additional summer income at a stipend of $500, sufficient funds that Berryman could dig himself out of debt and start married life on firmer financial ground.