Berryman's Shakespeare

Essay by jav2009A, April 2009

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On January 7, 1972, poet and scholar-adventurer John Berryman jumped off a bridge over the Mississippi River and ended his life at age fifty-eight. The author of the critical biography Stephen Crane (1950) and a posthumously published novel, Recovery (1973), as well as a book of essays and stories, The Freedom of the Poet (1976), Berryman is best known as a premier mid-twentieth century American poet whose thirteen published poetry collections include Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), Berryman’s Sonnets (1967), and Seventy-seven Dream Songs (1964), which, with His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), make up The Dream Songs (1969). In this collection Professor John Haffenden presents the body of Berryman’s writings on Shakespeare—some previously published, some hitherto uncollected—to present a unified vision of a poet engaged with the writings and the mind of one of the world’s most revered poets and playwrights.

Berryman’s mature engagement with Shakespeare and his work likely began in the 1930’s when he studied the Bard under Mark Van Doren, a poet and professor at Columbia.

Under Van Doren’s tutelage, Berryman became a genuine, passionate scholar who would go on to win the prestigious Shakespeare Prize at England’s Cambridge University and spend the remainder of his life pondering the history, contexts, sources, analogues, dates of composition, intellectual milieu, and the very words and their variants of Shakespeare’s creations.

The volume is arranged into five sections, along with a rather lengthy introduction, a brief appendix, and a full forty pages of notes to the text, forming a more impressive critical apparatus than appears in many scholarly works. The work could, however, profit from an index and also from some rearrangement of material, possibly in chronological order to view the growth of the writer and his steady preoccupations with his subject. For example, part 1, which was...