Berryman's Shakespeare 
edited by John Haffenden.
Farrar, Straus, 396 pp., $35, February 1999, 0 374 11205 3
Show More
John Berryman’s Personal Library: A Catalogue 
by Richard Kelly.
Lang, 433 pp., £39, March 1999, 0 8204 3998 3
Show More
Show More

In one of John Berryman’s more lucid dream songs (No. 364), there is amusing reference to the reading habits of Henry, the song sequence’s screwed up protagonist:

O Henry in his youth read many things
he gutted the Columbia – the Cambridge libraries
– Widener – Princeton
– the British Museum – the Library of Congress
but mostly he bought books to have as his own
cunningly, like extra wings.

he resorted to the Morgan for Keats’ letters
so obscure, so important, one stroke of a pen
deciding his opinion of Milton,
his editors so wrong. Henry corrected his betters
as well as his lessers – would have had to say
much but for his different profession.

Despite the wild-man excesses of his later years – the drinking, the breakdowns, the fame-lust and so on – Berryman to the end liked to present himself as a Housman-style scholar-poet, as one who in a kinder, duller world might easily have achieved straight-arrow academic stardom. As late as 1971, a year before he killed himself, Berryman was still seeking grant-support for the heavily academic book on Shakespeare that he had intermittently toiled on since the Thirties – and this in spite of being told by Mark Van Doren, his one-time professor and lifelong mentor in these matters, that ‘you will never finish the Sh. book ... you have this illusion you are a scholar, but you know damn well that you are nothing of the sort.’

Forty years earlier, Van Doren had taken an altogether different view. As Berryman’s teacher at Columbia from 1932 to 1936, he was greatly impressed by his otherwise none too brilliant student’s appetite for close-up textual scrutiny and helped to wangle him a postgraduate fellowship to Cambridge, where, in 1937, Berryman carried off the Charles Oldham Shakespeare Scholarship, a victory in which both he and Van Doren took enormous pride. At this stage of his career, Berryman’s always sizable hunger for acclaim was directed mainly towards academia. He was already writing the poems which would soon appear in his first book, but he was not happy with them. And neither was anybody else. T.S. Eliot sent them back from the Criterion with a note to the effect that one of them was ‘almost good’ and Berryman was not as dismayed as he might have been when Malcolm Cowley called another batch ‘very skilful exercises, based on the very best models’. Berryman’s first poems were, in short, too academic. And so, too, it seems, were the plays he was also busily writing at this time.

All the same, his academic career did not take off as he had planned. Returning to America in the early Forties without the first-class degree from Cambridge that had been predicted (he got an upper second), he found it impossible to secure a tenured academic post. Short-term appointments were on offer – he served time as an instructor at Harvard, and, somewhat more lengthily, at Princeton – and so too were grants and scholarships. In 1944, for instance, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship to help him prepare a new edition of King Lear, a task at which he worked ferociously at first but never managed to complete. In the main, though, the Forties were for Berryman a decade of money struggles and career setbacks. These were also the years in which he began to manifest symptoms of the paranoia that would eventually engulf him. In her memoir, Poets in their Youth, his first wife, Eileen Simpson, has recorded many hair-raising episodes from this period, and told of her own gradual realisation that ‘no amount of love and care could protect him from external circumstances, and that these could bring him to the edge of madness’.

On the one hand, as Simpson describes it, Berryman saw himself as a victimised creative genius, forced to set aside his own, ‘real’ work in order to construct a career in academia. ‘To write is hard,’ he used to say, ‘and takes the whole mind and wants one’s whole time: a university is the perfect place not to write ... Repetition of books and courses numbs ... The writers I know outside universities read more on the whole, more that counts, than those inside.’ On the other hand, he took great pride in being more learned than these literary friends and often feared that his academic work, especially his work on Lear, would always be imperilled by his subversively ‘poetic’ temperament. We know from Berryman’s correspondence with his adoring mother (published in We Dream of Honour) that he was always readying himself for the fulfilment of some altitudinous vocation but in the Forties he seems to have been burdened by the need to choose between two aspirations – and his burden was presumably not lightened by the adulterous liaison he writes about (somewhat theoretically, it should be said) in Berryman’s Sonnets. As Eileen Simpson put it,

tormented by doubts, tortured by guilt, John began to behave so alarmingly that the anguish I felt at what I suspected was happening was soon smothered by the fear that he would have a breakdown. He was alternately hysterical and depressed, couldn’t sleep, had violent nightmares when he did and, most disturbing of all, was drinking in a frighteningly uncharacteristic way.

This was also the period in which Berryman began to spend most of his off-campus time in the company of mad or near-mad poets like Delmore Schwartz and Robert Lowell. Even the professors he saw most of – Van Doren, Richard Blackmur – published poems and were reckoned to be mildly cranky. Van Doren, for instance, would later advise Berryman that ‘scholarship’ was fit only ‘for those with shovels, whereas you’re a man of the pen, the wind, the flying horse, the shining angel, the glittering fiend – anything but the manure where scholars have buried the masterpieces of the world’.

Berryman was easily seduced by this kind of gaseous rhetoric, and went in for it himself from time to time, but there was also something about it that repelled him. Why couldn’t a great poet also be an expert textual scholar – especially when the texts in question were by Shakespeare? Berryman the super-swot was never wholly expunged by Berryman the airborne poet. Indeed, it is often rather moving, especially towards the end, to find him clutching at his scholarly bona fides, as if he felt that some sane refuge might yet be found among the groves of academe. When Van Doren lectured him on flying horses and manure, his response was touchingly indignant: ‘You couldn’t be more wrong ... Mark, I am it, Dr Dryasdust in person ... pedantic and remorseless.’ Not many months later, in January 1972, Berryman committed suicide.

Berryman, of course, is now himself the object of much academic scrutiny, some of which could scarcely be more dryasdust. What, I wonder, would he have made of ardent Berrymanes like Richard Kelly – editor ten years ago of Berryman’s letters to his mother (and of hers to him) and now the dogged itemiser of the poet’s book-hoard, or ‘personal library’, as it is rather grandly called here. Berryman the mad poet would presumably have allowed himself a scornful laugh; the nose-down textual scrutiniser would maybe have detected one or two small errors and omissions. But both Berrymans, I like to think, would have failed to see the point of Kelly’s labours.

For Kelly, the point seems to have been that a man’s bookshelves are usefully revealing of the man. Well, yes, they tell us something, but not much. For one thing, readers don’t always keep copies of the books they like. Sometimes they lend them to friends and never get them back; sometimes they leave them on a train. Re Berryman, we learn here (from the poet’s widow) that John ‘had a habit of setting down the book he was currently reading on the waste-basket near his chair. I used to warn him about this, and sure enough, his Oxford Bible fell in the wastebasket and ended up in the incinerator, where I next saw it in a powdered state.’

Kelly here catalogues three thousand books found in the poet’s Minnesota home ‘almost exactly as they were organised at the time of his death’. Code letters indicate, room by room, bookcase by bookcase, the precise whereabouts of each title. Thus we learn that Berryman kept his Kiplings in the attic, his Lowells in the dining-room, and his two-hundred-volume Shakespeare collection in one of his ‘studies’ (there are three of these). His Kafkas were in the living-room. His Freuds were scattered. His Hemingways (of which he owned but few) were to be found in the ‘spare room’. What are we supposed to make of this, knowing as we do that Berryman in his last months was, well, somewhat disorganised? I mean, right now, I’m housing my Eliots and Arnolds in the bathroom and at my right hand, should you care to check, you’d find Peter Schmeichel’s autobiography and an anthology of golfing anecdotes. So what?

Kelly’s directory deploys another code-system that indicates which books carry annotations. Tides marked with a ‘C’ bear ‘direct commentary by Berryman on the book’s content’; books marked ‘W’ have ‘written comments by Berryman on his own life and work’; an ‘I’ signifies underlinings, marginal squiggles and checkmarks, endpapers bearing page references, and so on. If a Berryman book has been ‘extensively’ annotated, an asterisk tells us so. What ‘extensive’ means we have to guess.

These annotations, I suppose, do have a certain interest but, again, not much. Except in one or two instances, we are told nothing of what Berryman’s markings said, or meant. Sometimes he marked books because he was reviewing them; sometimes because they were set books on a course that he was teaching; sometimes because they were by or to do with Shakespeare. Now and then, presumably, his annotations were merely fidgety. Berryman used to advise his students to keep a pencil to hand when they were reading. The process of annotation, he urged, ‘helps you get involved with what you are reading and gives you something to refer back to’. There is no evidence here that Berryman had any feeling for the book as precious object. Like Henry in the poem, ‘he bought books to have as his own/cunningly, like extra wings.’

Now and then – Eureka! – Professor Kelly comes across a half-poem of Berryman’s scrawled on a book’s endpaper. Or – triumph of triumphs – he discovers an ‘insertion’: a newspaper cutting maybe, or (and this really happened) a photograph of Hitler. In Berryman’s copy of Mark Van Doren’s Liberal Education, Kelly found an uncashed cheque for 50 cents, used as a bookmark. The cheque was payment for sales of Berryman’s 1942 Poems.

Such tellingly symbolic moments are few and far between. Biographers, though, may well get something out of Berryman’s early struggles to decide what he should call himself. Many of the books listed here were acquired in the Thirties, and it was Berryman’s habit then to sign the books he owned or to paste into them a bookplate. Hence we find ‘J.A.M. Berryman’, ‘J.McA. Berryman’; ‘J.A.McA. Berryman’; ‘John McAlpin Berryman’; ‘John Angus McAlpin Berryman’; ‘John Allyn McAlpin Berryman’ and so on. There is a poignancy in these youthful tryouts. Berryman was born John Smith, son of John Allyn Smith, who committed suicide in 1926, when Berryman was 12. His mother in that same year married John Angus McAlpin Berryman, who formally adopted John and gave him his name. Berryman liked his stepfather and for years knew little about his real father, beyond the bare facts of his demise. Whenever he asked his mother for more information, she used to change the subject. Over the years, and especially when his own instability began to show itself, Berryman’s curiosity grew into an obsession: had he inherited his father’s disposition? He could not, however, bring himself to press his mother on the matter, fearing that, if he knew the facts, he’d have to blame her. Some of this turbulence is captured by his bookplate variants, I’d say. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Berryman never thought to call himself John Smith.

Berryman’s Shakespeare offers more substantial relics, piously but expertly assembled by John Haffenden, Berryman’s first biographer. The book is made up entirely of fragments but it does serve to confirm the intensity of Berryman’s involvement with his Shakespeare studies. We are given essays on individual plays (many of them on Lear) together with extracts from Berryman’s correspondence with Van Doren and with the Shakespearean scholar W.W. Greg. The Greg letters in particular persuade us that the poet’s edition of Lear would have been worth having. Less seductive are his ruminations on the identity of ‘Mr W.H.’. Berryman names the mystery dedicatee as a playwright called William Houghton, or Haughton (‘I do not say that he was the friend,’ writes Berryman. ‘I only wonder whether anything short of documentary evidence to the contrary can make it seem unlikely that he may have been’).

On the matter of Berryman’s poet/scholar waverings, this Shakespeare compilation could be said to have significance. As Berryman gradually comes to see himself as, first of all, a poet, his Shakespeare scholarship tends more and more towards the biographical. Shakespeare’s textual servant turns into Shakespeare’s heir – or even Shakespeare’s rival. ‘Shakespeare. That multiform and encyclopedic bastard,’ Berryman once exclaimed. He might have been talking about Lowell or Jarrell. Berryman’s interest in Lear was from the start enlivened by his own, albeit youthful, Lear-like insecurities, and in later years, when he was puffed up by Great-Artist megalomania, he may well have felt the need to stage a face-off with the undisputed champ. Hence, maybe, at some level, his 1971 reviving of the ‘Sh. book’ – and hence, too, his failure to complete any of his Shakespeare projects. As Mark Van Doren remarked to Haffenden, Berryman usually managed to finish his own poems.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences