Authors: John Berryman
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To Robert Giroux
by April Bernard
Why sonnets? Why on earth, in the middle of the twentieth century, a sonnet sequence?
In the case of John Berryman, the turning to sonnets, and more specifically,
sonnets, is completely of a piece with the nature of the personal crisis that prompted them. He was in his thirties; he had been contentedly married for several years; he was happily—and for him, luckily—teaching literature at Princeton. And then, out of the blue, inconveniently—and almost from the first, evidently
luckily—he fell in love with a young woman who was the wife of a colleague.
To a writer as self-scrutinizing as Berryman, this was a wonderful, terrifying, and guilty predicament. It was also a familiar one, at least literarily. The history of lyric poetry is, among other things, a history of passionate folly; and the best chronicles of this folly are to be found in sonnets. From the original fourteenth-century
of Petrarch, to Petrarch’s Elizabethan translators and emulators, to nineteenth-century writers as diverse as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Meredith, poets have told their tales of joy and pain, longing and doubt, praise and blame, in the story form of multiple sonnets. Functioning as a stanza in the long poem that is the sequence, each sonnet in itself, a powerfully knit, compact fourteen lines, is also designed to stand alone. Over the course of many such sonnets, a story about love unfolds along with a story about poetry as the sonnets converse with one another by repeating tropes, repeating rhymes, returning to themes with variations.
When Berryman embarked on these sonnets, he was already in the midst of his affair. Many of the early poems are explicitly addressed to the beloved, to “Lise,” as he would later rename her for public eyes. In these first private envoys he writes to dazzle, to praise, and to persuade.
This morning groping your hand moaning your name
I heard distinctly drip . . somewhere . . and see
Coiled in our joys flicker a tongue again,
The fall of your hair a cascade of white flame. (#3)
Great citadels whereon the gold sun falls
Miss you O Lise sequestered to the West
Which wears you Mayday lily at its breast [ … ] (#9)
But to be writing sonnets, and discovering that he was writing more than just a few, must also have disquieted the poet. It is a given of the love sonnet sequence that it
, and not happily—if not in the death of the beloved, in any case in severed or unsatisfied love. Petrarch’s “Laura” dies; Sidney’s “Stella” rejects him; Shakespeare’s two loves, the “fair young man” and the “dark lady,” betray and disappoint; and even Browning’s
Sonnets from the Portuguese
ends pro forma with the dismissal of the lover as the speaker embraces death—although, as everyone knows, in “real life” the poet found her happier ending. (The only prominent exception to this rule is Spenser’s
, which culminates in marriage.) We can feel Berryman’s tense relationship with his own enterprise in some of the later poems here:
How can we know with whom we ride, or soon
Or later, ever? You . . what are yóu like?
A topic’s occupied me months, month’s mind. (#91)
Berryman seems willfully to be prolonging the production of these sonnets, as if the next one—like the next rendezvous with the beloved—might turn the tide of the narrative.
In 1967, some twenty years after these poems were first written, Berryman gathered them together, ordered them, and wrote a few additional poems to fill out the sequence. He called them
The title offers the winking suggestion that “Berryman” is a character, both the poet and not the poet (as Henry in the
is, and is not, Berryman). By naming himself as a character, Berryman also offers in his title the first linkage of his sequence with the one he most closely models it on—Sidney’s
Astrophil and Stella.
Berryman’s verse is filled with allusions to his literary ancestors—directly and indirectly, in his sonnets he also invokes Petrarch, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Sophocles, Villon, the Psalmists, and many others, including Eliot and Pound. But it is with Sidney—and through Sidney to their common ancestor, Petrarch—that he is most closely and consciously allied. The “plot” of
s follows that of Sidney’s sequence: passion sought; passion requited; passion delayed; and, finally, passion utterly thwarted. Borrowing one of Petrarch’s many tropes, that the beloved is a shining star, Sidney casts himself as “Astrophil,” the “star-lover” of “Stella,” his beloved “star”; in his turn, “Berryman” loves “Lise,” who also often appears to be blondly shining. In the joyful poems, she is the “unlikely sun,” (#57), a “Mayday lily,” on the sky’s breast (#9); her face is “sun-incomparable” (#77). “You shining—where?—rays my wide room with gold” (#2). She is also a star of the night: “Astronomies and slangs to find you, dear, / Star, art-breath, crowner, conscience!” (#66). In a late poem, he longs for “[t]he pallor of your face lost like a star” (#90). In Sonnet 14, the poet figures himself as a moth fluttering about “the porchlight” that is the beloved, in a similar, more homely, but still starry guise.
Sidney permits himself to tell the reader about the difficulties he experiences in writing his poems; Berryman does this as well. Sidney’s opening sonnet recounts his hopes that by writing he can change his beloved’s mind, “I sought fit words … [b]ut words came halting forth,” he complains. That sonnet ends with the ringing line: “‘Fool,’ said my muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart and write!’” Later he claims, in a subdued and wistful line, “Love did hold my hand and make me write.”
Berryman, in Sonnet 23, struggles with the too obvious, too well-worn word “love” before his final capitulation:
They may suppose, because I would not cloy your ear—
If ever these songs by other ears are heard—
With ‘love’ and ‘love,’ I loved you not, but blurred
Lust with strange images [ … ]
Also I fox ‘heart’, striking a modern breast
Hollow as a drum, and ‘beauty’ I taboo;
I want a verse fresh as a bubble breaks,
As little false … Blood of my sweet unrest
Runs all the same—I am in love with you—
Trapped in my rib-cage something throes and aches!
Later, he writes, “I prod our English: cough me up a word, / Slip me an epithet” when he is searching for words to describe the beloved. In the resulting epithet, she appears, again starlike, as “cadmium shine” (#66).
Like Sidney, who upon his dismissal from his beloved’s favor prowls, “exiled,” beneath her window at night, Berryman in Sonnet 10, and again in Sonnet 98, alludes to climbing a sycamore tree outside Lise’s house so he can look in at her. There are also numerous places in these poems where the poet has walked or bicycled somewhere for a tryst, only to be disappointed; in another, he jealously recalls hearing Lise sing one of her children to sleep. This sense of helpless exile from the life and home of the beloved colors these poems with some of their darkest, saddest shadows; Berryman here is as much an exiled son, a lost boy, as he is a lover. Indeed, he knows this, comparing his agony to that of Oedipus: “… only
ἰού ἰού /
Wells from his dreadful mouth, the love he led…” (#96).
Double consciousness—the knowing ambiguity of claiming that one’s passion is uniquely wonderful, uniquely painful, while at the same time acknowledging that love is also, always, the same old thing—drives both Sidney and Berryman. To some extent, this ambiguity is built into the structure of the sonnet itself, here in the meditative, circular shape of the so-called Italian form. After the
, or turn, that marks the break between octave and sestet, the poem modulates into an alternative attitude, which tends then to circle back around to an inconclusive conclusion, or stalemate, between the two parts of the poem. (The English, or Shakespearean, sonnet is structured more dialectically; it argues its way to a concluding couplet designed to resolve or synthesize the ambiguity set in motion by the
.) It is not surprising, in Petrarch or Sidney or Berryman, for a sonnet to say, in the octave: “My suffering is unique to me, unique to our love.” Then, in the sestet: “On the other hand, love has been ever thus. How about that.”
The comic possibilities of the double consciousness are not unrelated, in Berryman’s case, to his additional twentieth-century burden of psychoanalytic self-interpretation. Obsession, of the kind that is revealed and perhaps even fostered by the writing of these sonnets, can seem more than merely neurotic; it can seem completely mad. So if Berryman’s characteristic tonal mixture of bravado and lacerating shamefacedness seems especially high-pitched in these poems, we can guess that it might be because he anticipates the judgment of the beloved and the judgment of his readers to agree with his own: that the poet is a genius, certainly, but also a nut case.