Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.John Berryman
Dream Song 147
by John Berryman
Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of a aged whore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught,
‘All that is foul smell & blood in a bag.’
He lookt on the world like the leavings of a hag.
Almost his love died from him, any more.
His mother & William
were vivid in the same mail Delmore died.
The world is lunatic. This is the last ride.
High in the summer branches the poet sang.
His throat ached, and he could sing no more.
All ears closed
across the heights were Delmore & Gertrude sprang
so long ago, in the goodness of which it was composed.
Berryman beginnings at Cambridge were weighed down by loneliness and lack of direction. He did not at first enjoy the academics of Cambridge and he was struggling to make friends. He wrote to his mentor Van Doren for advice. Van Doren wrote back that many of the previous Cambridge scholars had taken a little time to settle in and to not be alarmed. Van Doren’s advice was spot on. Within several months Berryman would meet or hear them speak at Cambridge a list of poets that looking back is remarkable. Berryman would come across either by chance or through lectures at Cambridge the following: Auden, T. S. Eliott, Yeats and Dylan Thomas. In the case of Yeats after several months at Cambridge he wrote to him, included a poem and to his surprise Yeats wrote back. Berryman eventually worked up his courage to buy a night ferry passage to Dublin and went and visited Yeats spur of the moment. The two spent an afternoon together at Yeat’s home where Berryman was inspired in the presence of one of the great living poets of his time.
Berryman also maintained friendships from his Columbia days with Alan Tate and Bhain Campbell. Campbell would die at age 29 of cancer shortly after Berryman returned from Cambridge, a blow that would unbalance Berryman. He would help to edit and publish a small volume of Campbell’s completed work early in his career. Berryman would befriend Schwartz in New York when he returned from Cambridge. It is a remarkable circle of literary friendships that Berryman developed, many of whose own work far overshadowed his own, then and now. However, those connections would inspire him to work harder towards his goal of eventual success as a poet. Berryman had a vision and a literary passion that rubbed off on others who were equally passionate about poetry.
Berryman of course fell in love while he was in Cambridge. I am not going to go into detail because if I chronicled every time he fell in love that is all I would write about. Most of his sexual conquests were short lived and its complicated enough covering all eventual nuptials, but in reading multiple biographies I got the impression that Beatrice/Beryl was the first of his real true loves. Even though it did not translate into a long term relationship, it set the stage for a more nuanced and tortured experience of love for the rest of his life.
Auden wrote the following poem in 1936, the same year that Berryman met him in Cambridge. It was written as a song in a play and set to music, eventually performed in Cabaret. The stage was set for war in Europe and Berryman was experiencing all of the build up to the conflict between Germany and England while at Cambridge. It also was winding the tension strings of the poets he met living in Europe, heightening the sense of purpose of bringing a poetic resonance to counter the horrors that were to come.
Stop All The Clocks
By W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;