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 It manifests itself, as John Haffenden’s splendidly researched and edited collection of Berryman’s (hitherto mostly unpublished) Shakespeare lectures, essays, and unfinished drafts for books makes plain, from 1936 to within a few months of his suicide.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 there were other and equally potent influences at work in Berryman’s Cambridge.

George (“Dadie”) Rylands, Berryman’s academic supervisor for these two years of unfettered reading, was a celebrated director of professional as well as amateur Shakespeare productions and a stimulating teacher of Renaissance poetry and—especially—drama. Rylands was partly responsible for his pupil’s wholesale immersion in Shakespeare (by February 1937, Berryman was declaring breathlessly that “it’s awfully silly, I think, ever to do anything but read Shakespeare—particularly when we’ve only one lifetime”), and also for what was to become his long-term addiction to the theater. By April of that year, another powerful force had been brought to bear, in the person of Beryl Eeman, a talented and beautiful young Cambridge actress to whom he later became engaged, and for whom he wrote Cleopatra, a one-act “dance play” that might claim both Yeats and Shakespeare as godparents: “Shakespeare was magnificent (and wrong),” the young Berryman announced majestically. “I hope to be interesting as well as right.”

Never either published or performed in his lifetime—even Berryman could see that the university proctors in 1937 were unlikely to allow Miss Eeman to appear, as he wished, in the nude—Cleopatra was nonetheless important as the first of a large number of plays (most still unpublished, almost all incomplete) that he would doggedly go on attempting to write well into the 1950s: Architect, then Dictator, followed by a verse play about the eighteenth-century adulteress and murderer Katharine Nairn, then by others about the biblical Job, about a man “like” Stefan George, about Mirabeau (a protagonist, Berryman felt, “of Shakespearean proportions”), about the Easter rising of 1916 in Ireland, and about the Irish patriot James Connolly. An ambition born and first articulated in Cambridge, it died hard. “TO HELL WITH LOVE. UP PLAYS!” Berryman was writing as late as November 1947, after he had already chronicled, in a sonnet sequence left unpublished for almost twenty years, his tortured, clandestine summer affair at Princeton with the married woman he camouflaged either as “Lise” or “Chris.” The extraordinary thing, of course, was that what Berryman really wanted at the time to create (and publish), as a secret expression and also a means of coming to terms with his guilt-ridden extramarital relationship, was the play about Katharine Nairn—alias, as he recognized, “Lise”/”Chris.”


“And I am missing!” he noted ecstatically in his journal of October 16, 1947. “What excites me in this is an absolutely personal subject, even Lise, but not myself, and a perfectly objective form….” But that very objectivity of dramatic form as normally understood was the problem. Berryman’s play came to nothing. His intensely subjective sonnet sequence, on the other hand, controlled throughout by an anguished “I,” continued in private to unfurl, almost against his will. It is said that “Lise”/”Chris,” in real life, did not particularly care for poetry, even when addressed to her.

Neither this fact, however, nor very much else about her, emerges from the sonnets themselves: mainly, it comes down to blond hair, a deceived husband, intermittent periods of absence, vigorous sexual desire (frequently gratified out of doors), a stone house with sycamore tree, a harpsichord. Berryman may have intended, as he wrote in his journal, to do something quite new in his sequence: create the beloved as an individual. He was no more successful than Petrarch had been with Laura, Sir Philip Sidney with Stella, or Shakespeare with either the Dark Lady or the lovely boy. (Years later, “Lise” was to say that her affair with Berryman ended because it was not herself he finally became involved with, but “some spectral ME that he was daily re-inventing; that I’d become a vehicle for his energies and problems and inventions….”)

It was in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, its first stanza and a half written in 1948, in the immediate aftermath of the “Lise” sonnets, the remainder in 1952-1953, that Berryman succeeded in doing what neither those sonnets nor his abortive verse play about Katharine Nairn had achieved. Here, in what is probably his greatest poem, he reconstituted the old triangle of married woman, unknowing husband, and passionate would-be seducer—with the significant difference now that Anne Bradstreet and the details of her life in the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony are fully imagined. Her own voice speaks vividly of the bitter New England winter (“bone-sad cold”), the triumphant agony of childbirth (“Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl”), her family, her religious disputes, private dissatisfactions (“I was happy once…/ (Something keeps on not happening;…”), even her own dying. Interwoven throughout is another voice: that of Berryman himself, a fellow poet in dialogue with this long-dead woman, to whom he reaches out not only in sympathy but with frank, if frustrated, eroticism (“—I miss you, Anne,/day or night weak as a child,/ tender & empty, doomed, quick to no tryst”) across the space of some three hundred years. The poem is intensely dramatic in a mode of its own: one that owes little or nothing to Browning’s monologues, a bit to the “Lise” sonnets that set it off, and a great deal to Shakespeare, not only in its occasional verbal echoes from King Lear, but because Homage to Mistress Bradstreet reflects more generally Berryman’s own complicated, sometimes perverse, but infallibly creative response to this other, and most important, of his seventeenth-century poetic ancestors.

The assemblage of papers in Berryman’s Shakespeare, most of them patiently recovered from what is apparently over one thousand pages of Shakespeare essays, lectures, letters to other scholars, and drafts for books, held in the Berryman archives at the University of Minnesota, has been divided by Haffenden into five parts, rounded off by an appendix entitled “Shakespeare’s Reality.” This appendix, dated March 1971, seems to be the last of Berryman’s many failed attempts over a period of some twenty years to complete a monumental “critical biography” aiming to consider Shakespeare from both a literary and historical standpoint: the work, the period, and (with increasing emphasis) the life and nature of the man. “Shakespeare’s Reality” at the end is balanced at the beginning of Haffenden’s collection by the significantly mis-titled essay “Shakespeare’s Early Comedy,” a product of the late 1960s and part of the same project. (In fact, it is mainly about the early histories.) In between, in varying stages of completion, come accounts of individual plays, mainly the histories and tragedies, and of Shakespeare’s Sonnets—including an attempt to identify William Haughton, the dramatist responsible for that very xenophobic late-sixteenth-century comedy, Englishmen For My Money, both as “Mr. W.H.” and Shakespeare’s collaborator on The Taming of the Shrew—together with what might be described as the accumulated debris of Berryman’s other major Shakespeare enterprise: a “definitive” edition, with commentary, of King Lear.


Haffenden has done an admirable job as editor, not only selecting and ordering this chaotic material but providing both a lucid and informative introduction and a commentary that amounts to a digest of recent Shakespeare scholarship—principally textual—on those questions on which Berryman’s theories need most urgently to be amended or else jettisoned entirely in the light of subsequent discoveries. One scarcely likes to think about the labor that must have been involved in assimilating all the past and also the recent (sometimes highly technical) work on the Quarto and Folio texts of King Lear, on the Shakespeare chronology, on questions of attribution, collaboration, and biographical fact. Haffenden is everywhere judicious, obviously respectful of Berryman as a Shakespearean, but alert to hypotheses that are no longer tenable, such as the attempt to identify the William Haughton of Englishmen For My Money with his aristocratic namesake from Lancashire, part of that great northern Catholic family in which the young Shakespeare (as “Shakeshafte”) may or may not have served briefly as schoolmaster and player after leaving Stratford grammar school, or Berryman’s conviction that the 1608 Quarto of Lear must represent a corrupt or “degenerate” report, however arrived at, of lost authorial copy.

As it happens, both Shakespeare’s possible links with the Houghton family and the relation of Quarto to Folio Lear remain heated issues today. A new Shakespeare study center, designed in part to explore the Catholic connections, is currently planned for Houghton Tower in the north of England, and debate continues whether the Folio Lear (as has forcefully been argued since Berryman’s death) might be Shakespeare’s revision of his first, and essentially valid, Quarto version of the play. Although Berryman’s own assumptions and tentative conclusions in both areas have been superseded, the problems he chose to isolate and work hard on remain of major (and contentious) interest. He was a serious and, in his time, a phenomenally well-read Shakespearean. And he can scarcely be blamed for accepting a number of ideas, many of them promulgated by contemporaries of the stature of E.K. Chambers and W.W. Greg, that virtually no one any longer credits: that Titus Andronicus, for instance, is an abysmal play written by someone else and merely touched up by Shakespeare; that the entire ground plan of parts two and three of Henry VI was laid by another dramatist (probably Greene); that The Taming of the Shrew is a collaborative work; that All’s Well That Ends Well is later than King Lear; or that all the Sonnets must be pushed back to the 1580s.

On Berryman, however, as a reader of Shakespeare—though he would have protested against any such separation of scholarly and critical functions—the assessment is likely to be less charitable. Leslie Hotson, that fiery and persuasive American scholar, may have misled him into thinking that the Sonnets were all the work of a very young man. For Berryman’s condescension to most of them (he dismisses those to the Dark Lady, in particular, as “mostly very bad poems indeed, contemptuous, trivial, and obscene”), his artistic temperament and recent experience must be held responsible. The same can be said of his conviction that Shakespeare’s sonnet form, unlike the Petrarchan, was easy to write, yet “most of the couplets are weak” because Shakespeare was culpably indifferent as to “how things wind up.”

Haffenden makes no attempt to date Berryman’s essay “The Sonnets.” It must, however, have been written after 1948, because Hotson’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets Dated first appeared in 1949. And thereby hangs a tale. When he wrote this piece, probably in the early 1950s, Berryman had already completed, in secret, his own agonized sonnet sequence about the adulterous Princeton affair of 1947: one hundred and seventeen poems, in the Petrarchan form, featuring a woman as conspicuously fair as Shakespeare’s was dark, and (although more polite about her) intermittently quite as “obscene.”

Read with this fact in mind, “The Sonnets” becomes interesting in ways that have little to do with its merits as Shakespeare criticism. Berryman believed at this point (he later changed his opinion) that Shakespeare could not have authorized Thorpe’s Quarto edition of 1609, adducing “the improbability of the middle-aged respectable Shakespeare releasing such poems.” But he himself was to do precisely this in 1967, when he finally published Sonnets to Chris after what, according to the Hotson dating, was almost exactly the same gap of time, even if he too suppressed actual names. It is arresting also to encounter Berryman’s pronouncement that “the fundamental emotion” in what he nonetheless regarded as one of Shakespeare’s very best sonnets (“That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold”) is “self-pity. Not an attractive emotion.”

This seems piquant, to say the least, coming from the poet who indulged in a good deal of that emotion in Sonnets to Chris. Not until The Dream Songs, arguably, and the invention of that anonymous friend who occasionally rebukes the Henry Pussy-cat, alias Mr. Bones, who both is and is not Berryman himself, was he really able artistically to control it: “There ought to be a law against Henry./—Mr. Bones: there is.” But The Dream Songs, for all their difference in poetic form, are still to a large extent drawing inspiration from Shakespeare, the dramatist as well as sonneteer, in ways Berryman was to come closest to articulating in “Shakespeare’s Reality” of 1971, with its insistence that the purely lyric poet does not necessarily deal only with “The I and the purely dramatic poet only with The Other” but that they can—supremely in the case of Shakespeare—be related, in what Coleridge called an “ensouling of experience by meditation.”

Most of Berryman’s essay on the Sonnets is taken up with dating questions, speculations about circumstances of publication, the identity of Mr. W.H., the subject matter of the sequence, and some rather highhanded value judgments. It comes, therefore, as a surprise when, in the final paragraphs, Berryman abruptly subjects the sonnet “That time of yeeare” to the kind of close reading hitherto absent from the piece, and rare in Berryman’s work on Shakespeare generally. What might have impelled him in this direction may be inferred from the sudden evocation, near the end of the passage, of “the desolate monasteries strewn over England, sacked in Henry’s reign, where ‘late’—not so long ago!…—the choirs of monks lifted their little and brief voices, in ignorance of what was coming.” This aperçu, offered as a gloss on Shakespeare’s “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” has, of course, been lifted straight from Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, without acknowledgment, and not for the only time either. On two other occasions in this collection of papers, Berryman introduces the idea, attributed both times only to an anonymous “modern critic.” Given the staggering number of Shakespeareans, many of them minor and now quite forgotten, who are scrupulously given their due, the total absence of Empson’s name in these papers seems odd. The suspicion arises that the same kind of competitiveness that made Berryman ask nervously after hearing of Robert Frost’s death in 1963 whether he himself was now America’s number-one poet—or was it Robert Lowell?—also was at work here. If so, the nervousness was justified.

Empson’s Shakespeare criticism, as represented in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), The Structure of Complex Words (1951), and the posthumous collection Essays on Shakespeare (1986), edited by David Pirie, indeed remains alive purely as Shakespeare criticism in a way that most of Berryman’s no longer does. Students can still be directed to Empson on sonnet 94 (“They that have power to hurt and will do none”), on the word “sense” in Measure For Measure, or “honest” in Othello, in the confidence that what they find there will be provocative and rewarding. Indeed, it can teach them a great deal not only about these works in themselves, but about how to read with sensitivity and intelligence. Given a choice between including Empson’s “Macbeth,” originally published in 1952 and reprinted in the Pirie collection, or Berryman’s “On Macbeth” (1960) as part of a Shakespeare reading list, few university teachers would be inclined to prefer the latter. Unlike Empson on Shakespeare, Berryman on Shakespeare registers much of the time as Berryman on Berryman—disguised as something else, but of most value in illuminating his own life and poetry.

A number of factors militated against Berryman’s enduring success as a Shakespeare critic. He seems, in the first place, to have had little sense, for all his love of the theater, of the kinds and flexibility of dramatic structure that might be acceptable and even exciting in plays written for the stage. This may have been one reason why his own creative attempts in this direction all foundered. In his Shakespeare criticism, he continually becomes impatient with “untidy” dramas such as Antony and Cleopatra, or with double plots like the one in Much Ado About Nothing. (It is difficult to imagine Berryman writing anything like Empson’s brilliant justification of the long-reviled subplot in Middleton’s The Changeling.) At moments, indeed, the specter of William Archer’s “well-made play” threatens to hover over his shoulder. Nor, although he dutifully read his way through the dramatic works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (and was proud of the fact), does he seem greatly to have enjoyed the experience. These men were of interest to him—apart from Marlowe and Kyd, and the special case of William Haughton—as foils for Shakespeare, not in their own right.

He was also curiously ill at ease with the comedies, something that may explain why at Cambridge in 1937 he was able to win the Charles Oldham but not the Harness Essay Prize. The Oldham examination included a textual paper, a discipline to which Berryman was already drawn, but the subject set that year for the Harness was “The Character and Role of the Heroine in Shakespearian Comedy.” Only The Tempest, distinctly ambiguous as a representative of that genre, ever fully engaged Berryman’s interest, and that was largely because he saw it both as a play in which Shakespeare’s entire mind—not simply the comedic side—was at work and also as intensely personal: “a searching, a cleansing, a testing, a preparation before the end. At the critics who in Prospero cannot see his creator let us smile.”

Temperamentally all too ready to accept Edward Dowden’s division of Shakespeare’s work into four periods, each dominated by a particular mood, and affected by the circumstances of the dramatist’s life—“In the Depths,” “On the Heights,” etc.—Berryman himself gravitated naturally toward the abyss. In his projected critical biography, and in the many Shakespeare lectures he gave over the years, he would attempt to cover the whole canon. It is indicative, however, of his own bias that he was able to interest himself in Love’s Labour’s Lost only because of the mistaken idea (in the air at the time) that it tells us about Shakespeare’s quarrel with Chapman and Ralegh. To the real issues of the comedy he paid so little attention as blithely to assert that of course all the ladies of France agree to accept their suitors in the end, after the latter have undergone a year of penance for their broken vows, and simply leave it at that.

As a Shakespearean critic, Berryman is at his best when his imagination has been seized by a particular speech—even a single line, like that of Simcox’s poor wife, in 2 Henry VI, when her beggar husband’s blindness is exposed as a fraud: “Alas Sir, we did it for pure need.” Moments like this haunt him, are summoned up more than once in his papers, and Haffenden has been right to let the duplications stand. Richard III’s soliloquy the night before Bosworth is another of these talismanic passages. Berryman has little time for Richard III as a play (“an interminable, tiresome railing by bereft ladies”) apart from Clarence’s dream and the character of Richard himself. But over the years, the line “Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I” came almost to obsess him. So did the French King’s long speech in Act I of All’s Well That Ends Well, beginning “I would I had that corporall soundnesse now.” He was still worrying at both passages in “Shakespeare’s Reality” of 1971, without changing his mind about Richard III in general, or about All’s Well as one of Shakespeare’s worst efforts—a dismissal allowing him to maintain erroneously that the King’s speech contributes “nothing to the play.”

To read the whole comedy attentively is, of course, to see that the passage is central to its beautifully worked out counterpoint of youth and age, time present and time past. It was characteristic of Berryman to see merely a glorious irrelevance: the product of what he believed to be Shakespeare’s own identity crisis as he prepared to take early retirement from the London theatrical world. He was wrong here, on a number of counts, but entirely right nonetheless to draw attention to the passage itself as a “protracted marvel of ungovernable re-creation and mourning.”

In November of 1971, Berryman’s old mentor and friend Mark Van Doren told him sharply,

You will never finish the Sh book. …You have this illusion that you are a scholar, but you know damn well you are nothing of the sort, any more than I am. Scholarship is for those with shovels, whereas you’re a man of the pen, the wind, the flying horse, the shining angel, the glittering fiend….

At the time, Berryman reacted vigorously against this verdict: “I have seldom known you wrong about anything but you couldn’t be more wrong about me as a scholar. Mark, I am it. Dr Dryasdust in person.” His confidence, however, in the Shakespeare work did not survive December. Berryman had already confessed to Saul Bellow, in the preceding July, doubts that he would ever be able to complete Recovery, the semi-autobiographical novel about alcoholic rehabilitation onto which he had displaced his poetic energies: “bitter six-times-over experience had taught me that I cannot write plays, and maybe I can’t write a novel either.” But in December, he was recording in his journal an altogether more unsettling worry: “I thought new disappointments impossible but last night (Thurs.) suddenly doubted if I really have a book ‘Shakespeare’s Reality’ at all, despite all these years.”

For Berryman, that must have been a terrible realization. The work on Shakespeare, in its various forms, was an idea he had clung to stubbornly ever since the 1930s in Cambridge. If that went too, what was left? On the seventh of January, he tried (not for the first time) to kill himself and on this occasion succeeded. Van Doren had been shrewd. As he later remarked to Haffenden, Berryman left most of his Shakespeare projects unfinished, whereas he always finished his own poems.

Van Doren, however, might have added something to this: again and again in the course of Berryman’s life, the Shakespeare projects were what released his creative energies. It was no accident that, after grinding to a halt in 1948 with the initial stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, he should suddenly find it possible to complete that wonderful poem in 1952-1953, after two years of intensive lecturing and writing on Shakespeare. Dream Songs, begun at the end of 1955, also coincides with a period of Shakespearean research—in this case the abortive book Shakespeare’s Friend—as the late collections of poetry, Love & Fame and Delusions etc. of John Berryman, do with renewed work on the critical biography. It sometimes looks as though without “Dr Dryasdust,” there would have been no “flying horse.” That, in the end, is what matters.

This Issue

September 23, 1999