Dream Song 29 by John Berryman

‘Dream Song 29’ is one of Berryman’s most popular and anthologized. It was published in his 1964 volume, 77 Dream Songs, which won the Pulitzer Prize. But, this is far from the final count of Berryman’s “Dream Songs”. After publishing the book he wrote more, bringing the tally up to 385.

Dream Song 29 by John Berryman

 

Summary of Dream Song 29

Dream Song 29’ by John Berryman is a reality-bending exploration into the mind of “Henry” a terribly sad and troubled man.

Throughout this short poem, Berryman’s speaker describes Henry’s depression as a weight on his heart that he can’t get rid of. Even when it fades for a moment, it always comes back when Henry hears, sees, or smells something triggering. 

The speaker adds another layer to Henry’s confusion as he describes the man’s perception of himself as a killer. Although he’s wrong, Henry continually has to check to make sure that he hasn’t killed anyone and chopped up their body. 

You can read the full poem Dream Song 29 here.

 

Themes in Dream Song 29

Within ‘Dream Song 29,’ Berryman uses several themes, such as sadness and violence in addition to perceptions of reality. Throughout the poem, the speaker describes the way that Henry is dealing (or not dealing) with his depression. It’s clear that whatever he’s doing it isn’t working. The sadness won’t leave him and has, through some means, distorted his understanding of his world. So much so, that he’s constantly worried that he’s killed someone he knows. 

 

Structure of Dream Song 29 

Dream Song 29’ by John Berryman is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. Some of the lines in this poem are more structured than others, approximately four of the three lines in each stanza match up, maintaining a poetic form. For example, line one of the poem is written in iambic pentameter. 

The same thing can be said about the rhyme scheme. It is far from regular, but there are some examples of half-rhyme throughout. 

 

Literary Devices in Dream Song 29

Berryman makes use of several literary devices in ‘Dream Song 29’. These include but are not limited to personification, alliteration, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important techniques at work in this poem. It can be seen throughout as Berryman uses sights, smells, feelings, and sounds to evoke a certain environment. For example, “the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime”. 

Alliteration is a common device that’s used to increase the rhythm and rhyme of a poem. For example, “Henry’s heart” or “blind” and “bells”. Enjambment is another common device that can be seen in the transition between lines. For example, between line two and line three of the first stanza. 

 

Analysis of Dream Song 29

Stanza One 

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart

só heavy, if he had a hundred years

(…)

the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

‘Dream Song 29’ begins with the speaker introducing “Henry,” a terrible sad man on whom this poem will focus. There is something “heavy” on his heart that’s bothering him. A reader should take note of the word “sat” in this line, and interesting use of personification. As the lines continue, the reader gets more details about Henry’s experience with this “thing” but no real idea about what it is. He could not “make good” no matter what he did.

The weight was still there and even when it seems like it’s gone away it comes back. The syntax is interesting in these lines, making it slightly more difficult to understand what’s being said. For example, the use of “them” in line three. 

As becomes clear as the poem progresses, the thing that’s sitting heavy on Henry’s chest is sadness. It comes, with a “cough” or “odour” or “chime” no matter what Henry does. These words represent the various signals that remind Henry of the facts of his life. They always bring him back to his reality. 

 

Stanza Two

And there is another thing he has in mind

(…)

thinking.

In addition to the heavy depression that’s bothering Henry, there is “another thing”. He has it “in mind”. Berryman uses a simile to describe it as a ‘grave Sienese face”. This is a reference to a type of painted portrait, of someone with a reproachful, worried expression on their face. This school of painting was known for its dream-like qualities, a perfect match for ‘Dream Song 29’. 

Henry knows that the sadness he’s experiencing is always going to be there. Even if 1,000 years passed, the “Grave” face would still be there. His depression is inescapable. Plus, the speaker adds, when Henry tries to get a good look at what’s bothering him, perhaps understand it better and be able to cure himself of it, he is “blind”. The “bells” in the second to the last line speak another example of personification.

They tell Henry that it’s “too late” for anything to change. This is an interesting turn in the poem that a reader should consider carefully. The bells are telling Henry that it’s too late for something, and it’s the related imagery, a reader can make the jump to this being a reference to death or loss of some kind.

 

Stanza Three 

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,

(…)

Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.

Nobody is ever missing.

In the third and final stanza of ‘Dream Song 29’ the speaker says that Henry worries that he might’ve “ended” someone, or killed them. He thought he did but he didn’t really do it. Even after saying this, the speaker explores what it is that Henry didn’t do. This is part of the dream-like quality of the poem. It’s unclear what is real and what is fantasy. 

He thinks he might’ve hacked up someone’s body and hid the pieces where they could be found. But, he knows that he didn’t kill anyone. He “went over everyone” and there’s no one in his life that he’s missing. He’s struggling to remember what happened and trying to determine whether or not it was all a dream or a terrible fantasy. 

He “often,” the fifth line says, takes the time to go other everyone and make sure that no one is missing and no one ever is. This confirms that Henry is not a killer, not yet, but something about his state of mind makes him believe that he’s capable of killing. 

 

Similar Poems 

The dream-like nature of this poem is similar to that which exists in all 384 other “Dream Songs” that Berryman wrote. But, these are not the only poems to use scrambled, confusing images in order to depict a character’s confused understanding of the world. Other equally thought-provoking poems include: ‘A Dream within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘The Wasteland’ by T.S. Eliot as well as The Dreamby Lola Ridge. 

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