Dream Song 29 is not an obviously optimistic poem. How could it be, when it begins, “There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart / só heavy”—and immediately, any reader whose heart has ever been burdened, brought low (and it is hard to imagine a Berryman reader whose heart has not), knows: this bodes ill. And it does, you know. There are some things it is indeed “too late” for; things for which “tears; / thinking” are no good. But Berryman offers his reader, in the end, a kind of grim solace, too, a reminder that things could always be worse—but, well, I won’t spoil it for you.
Dream Song 29
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
John Berryman (1914–1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, a continuation of the Dream Songs, in 1969.
Miranda Popkey has been published in, among other venues, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Observer, and The Oyster Review.