Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings, edited by John Haffenden. Published by Farrar, Strauss, And Giroux. 512 pages. $35.
John Berryman was one of America’s greatest poets. His Homage to Miss Bradstreet was hailed as “the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land.” And the two volumes 77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Bollingen Award, and the National Book Award.
Berryman studied under the great Shakespearean scholar Mark Van Doren at Columbia University. Next he won the Charles Oldman Shakespeare Scholarship at Cambridge University. His best efforts at understanding the Bard’s career in ensuing years can be read in Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings–a collection of his best short writings on the subject of the immortal Bard. In enticing titles like “Shakespeare at Thirty,” “Shakespeare’s Poor Relation: 2 Henry IV,” “Conceiving of King Lear,” “The Tragic Substance,” “The World of Action,” “Pathos and Dream,” “William Houghton, William Haughton, The Shrew, and the Sonnets” (which intriguingly traces some inspirations for the playwright’s work), and “Shakespeare’s Last Word,” Berryman explored the complex power of England’s greatest dramatist and how knowledge of his work could be enlarged.
When Berryman drafted an outline in 1970 for a history of English poetry, for Chapter Five he simply put: “Shakespeare!!! ALMIGHTY!” In fact, to many lovers of the English language, Shakespeare is next to God in Paradise. Berryman admitted, the year before he died, that “Shakespeare is incomprehensible” (as are parts of Berryman’s book to the uninitiated, given its intimate, intricate views of the master’s work). However, plays such as Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Tempest have no parallels in the English language. In all Shakespeare’s work, reference is made to the sheer majesty coupled with the debilitating profanity of life. Usually majesty triumphs, and for that, most readers and viewers remain exceedingly grateful.
This collection of Berryman’s works reveals much useful information on Shakespeare’s life. Perhaps the best essay is “Shakespeare’s Last Word,” in which Berryman tells how the Bard had thought to retire two years before penning The Tempest. First produced at court on 1st November, 1611, the play is Shakespeare’s most didactic work because he was dwelling on the need for his second daughter, Judith, to marry before he died. She eventually did take a husband, just two months before her father’s death in 1616. Shakespeare foresaw his own end, and in his last play, he has Prospero invoke the idea of a desire to sleep: “. . . and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleepe. . . .”
Unfortunately, Berryman struggled for many years with alcoholism and ultimately lost the fight, taking his own life. If sleep rounded his life, it–like Shakespeare’s–was not little. But a touch of incomprehensibility remains. Was it true, as critic Donald Davie wrote, that Berryman was “not only one of the most gifted and intelligent Americans of his time, but also one of the most honorable and responsible”? Perhaps Berryman’s Shakespeare suggests the answer; but that requires a book in itself.