John Berryman’s Flying Horse

John Berryman
John Berryman; drawing by David Levine

“Oh my god!” John Berryman complained in October 1952, “Shakespeare. That multiform & encyclopedic bastard.” Even then, twenty years before he plunged to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Berryman had established an extraordinary and complicated relationship with the man from Stratford. It manifests itself, as John Haffenden’s splendidly researched and edited collection of Berryman’s (hitherto mostly unpublished) Shakespeare lectures, essays, and unfinished drafts for books makes plain, from 1936 to within a few months of his suicide. Haffenden’s anthology tells us some things, certainly, that are persuasive and worth knowing about Shakespeare as he was read by a distinguished twentieth-century poet who also happened to have an appetite for textual scholarship. The book, however, is more important in the end for something rather different: what it reveals about Berryman himself, the tormented and gifted author of Sonnets to Chris, The Dream Songs, Love & Fame, and—above all—Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.

John Berryman, then aged twenty-one, arrived at Cambridge University in September of 1936, on a two-year Kellett fellowship from Columbia. He had already endured what might be described as a rocky childhood and youth: an enforced change of surname after his father, John Allyn Smith, killed himself outside the twelve-year-old boy’s bedroom window and his mother (taking about as long over it as Gertrude in Hamlet) remarried; multiple shiftings from place to place—this was to remain a constant feature of Berryman’s adult life; the misery of a New England prep school where athletics, in which Berryman did not excel, were valued far above intellectual achievement; then febrile years of dancing, drinking, and womanizing in New York. These last culminated in an undergraduate career that (thanks to Columbia’s Mark Van Doren, who remained Berryman’s staunch ally and friend through life) narrowly avoided disaster. In a move that, in today’s university climate, would be regarded as deeply reprehensible, Van Doren arranged for Berryman to re-sit, solus, an examination in which he had received a grade of C, had the original mark altered, and by doing this enabled him to receive the Kellett fellowship and go to Cambridge. The consequences were far-reaching.

Berryman arrived at Cambridge’s Clare College some five years after William Empson had unexpectedly relinquished his Magdalene College fellowship and gone to teach in Tokyo. Empson’s personal supply of condoms, something that today would not seem reprehensible at all, had fatally been discovered, and reported on, by a college servant. Seven Types of Ambiguity, the ground-breaking book of literary criticism he began to write while still a Cambridge undergraduate working under I.A. Richards, had appeared in 1930. Berryman, who clearly read it, but always remained curiously reluctant to acknowledge Empson’s work on Shakespeare, was to admit two years before his death that in general his own critical practice had been “influenced in its inception” by Empson, as well as by T.S. Eliot, R.P. Blackmur, and Ezra Pound. But…

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