A Diversion: On Berryman

Berryman’s “Despair,” Matins,” “Sext,” and “Compline”: Explications

The task of beginning to understand John Berryman, as with any poet, allows for a multitude of possibilities, of directions in which understanding might be taken. But certain poems point to particular things: “Despair,” “Matins,” “Sext,” and “Compline,” as a small selection, direct me (at least, I see similarities in subject and tone) toward, in general, the Christian existentialists and the 17th century metaphysical poets. Specifically, many of the “Meditation” sections of John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death inform my reading of the four poems I choose to explicate here.

Berryman’s “Despair” begins with a stanza of disjointed, sparse imagery, but each line does connect to the next. “It seems to be D A R K all the time” follows directly from the title, and tangentially from, or directs tangentially back toward, what Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death,” which is despair. Kierkegaard offers this useful explanation:

. . . the torment of despair is precisely the inability to die. In this it has much in common with the condition of the mortally ill person who is in the throes of death but cannot die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as though there were hope of life. No, the hopelessness that is even the last hope, death, is gone. (48)

Berryman’s first line of “Despair” encapsulates what Kierkegaard defines as despair. “It,” whether the poet’s psyche, physical environment, personal imaginings, or whatever else may fall into the category of an appropriate subject–despair itself, even–is not, but “seems”–the poet questions his ability to define–not dark but “D A R K,” a visual essence of an emotion. The dark of “Despair” is not a friendly, calming, or simply indifferent dark. The dark is “all the time,” omnipresent. But what room is left for anything else, if any? Does the dark keep company with other nouns? The capitalization of it indicates all others are superseded. So the “difficulty walking” follows naturally. Not that the poet wanders aimlessly in a dark room and bumps his shins into the corners of coffee tables, but that simply to walk as a means of getting from one place to another requires either an active or passive guiding entity, which could be someone’s hand directing the ambler, or light illuminating a path. In dark, there are no paths and no guiding entities reveal themselves. The earnestness of “I have difficulty walking” lays upon the first line another stratum of tragic sentiment. Within two lines, Berryman establishes well the poem’s relationship to its title.

The next two lines explore a delicate idea: doubt. Kierkegaard takes an interesting position on dread, a facet of doubt:

All immediacy, in spite of its illusory security and peace, is dread; and, quite consistently therefore, it is most in dread of nothing. In immediacy the most terrifying description of the most horrifying and definite something cannot inspire so much dread as a shrewd half-word almost casually let slip but surely and calculatingly aimed by reflection, about something indeterminate. Yes, one inspires immediacy with the greatest dread of all by subtly letting it believe that it knows what one is talking about. For although immediacy surely doesn’t know, reflection never traps its prey more surely than when it makes its snare out of nothing, and reflection is never more itself that when it is–nothing. It requires an eminent reflection, or rather a great faith, to sustain a reflection on nothing, which is to say an infinite reflection. (56)

This passage speaks not only to “I can remember what to say to my seminar/but I don’t know that I want to”, but also to the remainder of the poem. The first two sentences of the Kierkegaard quoted above define “immediacy” as “dread.” I think it is important to say that I don’t think what Kierkegaard means by immediacy is the same as urgency, or a need to do something right now, such as write a poem, in order to maintain an urgent, necessary quality. What Kierkegaard means by immediacy is not simply dread, but a fear of not being satiated, and that his idea of the immediate consists of temporary things present only in physical realms, and these things lack what makes things eternal (though I’m not sure what does make a thing eternal). Dread appears in line 4 of “Despair,” and by the time the second “I” of the line appears, the dread clearly lives within self-doubt. The doubt does not indicate the poet is unsure of himself as one who would say things to a seminar, but that he doubts the necessity of his ability to accomplish the task at all. The poet has staked the clarity of his existence on the necessity of it. This is truly terrifying.

The indeterminate to which Kierkegaard refers lives and thrives on all the doubt of the remaining five stanzas. And these last five stanzas also seem to resist immediacy as Kierkegaard defines it without exiling it. “I said in a Song once: I am unusually tired” initiates the process of reflection, because it is a memory, a past event that the poet must call back into being. And so he does: “I’ll repeat that & increase it.” Simultaneous to the reflection runs the physical, the immediate: “I’m vomiting.” Berryman does not, as Kierkegaard does, separate an immediate existence from a reflective one. This does not lessen his dread; it fortifies it, if dread is capable of fortification, which leads to “I certainly don’t think I’ll last much longer.”

The fourth stanza gets to a kernel of despair. Hope is introduced as dark was: “Crackles! in darkness H O P E; & disappears./Lost arts./Vanishings.” If “reflection never traps its prey more surely than when it makes a snare out of nothing,” then Berryman has set an altogether keen trap as much for himself as for the reader. He describes what abstractly either emerges from darkness or illuminates what must be a very small circle within the vastness, which then “disappears.” Arts are lost and there are vanishings. What is vaguely defined becomes more vague and impossible to define. Hope is an opposite of, but also a close relative to dark because not only do the two define each other, but can one exist without the other and hold meaning as they do in this poem? In the line “Vanishings”, the poet questions not only meaning, but being. The participle of the verb vanish becomes a noun, a thing that exists, and is made plural. It lacks the ability to do, to be a verb, as it appears in the poem. Things are not vanishing, they are getting vanished, becoming gone, presumably by or because of something. Here, reflection borders on the infinite, but does not quite engage. The poet’s voice does not hold only dread and doubt, but also longing. To give “Lost arts” and “Vanishings” each their own lines indicates a slowing of time, a reverence for the ideas inherent in the words, and a desire to be as the ideas inherent in the words–a negation of self.

The fifth and sixth stanzas culminate in a return to the crackling of hope, the despair of negation, the despair stemming from the inability to negate the self, and come to a plea. At the end of “There are no matches” there is no punctuation. The line break and the stanza break serve to give a more eloquent pause after the line without clearly defining the connection, or disconnect, between it and “Utter, His Father, one word,” which also lacks a final punctuation mark. Hope crackles again in “matches”; the strike of a match precedes a crackling spark of flame. But “There are no matches.” The possibility of hope dissolves before becoming fully realized. No line of these stanzas in particular indicates a specific attempt at negating the self, but the despair of the inability to do so surfaces in the plea “Utter, His Father, one word”. The poet still speaks, still asks to be spoken to, which tells a reader that the poet’s existence persists, that the poet’s attempt at negating the self fails to become manifest. The relationship of the plea to the preceding line confounds me. No punctuation guides me, though I am not sure that the presence of a punctuating mark would be much help. The matches could perhaps be matches in the sense of pairings or couplings. Whether as such or as matches struck to produce fire, I do not think that “utter” is a verb applied to them in any way, or an adjective. “Utter” really doesn’t seem to work as an adjective when read as related solely to what comes after it. The plea is a prayer or a command of some kind, one from which the poet excludes himself from its possible consequences. It is to “His Father,” not Our or My. Even the plea seems one final attempt at quelling despair through ceasing to exist.

Despair continues to color the next three poems, but the poems reach further into the nature of being and how one’s spirituality or lack of it and the nature of it affects one’s being. “Matins”–a daybreak prayer–appropriately deals with the sun before and as it rises. One of Louise Glück’s “Matins” (3) from The Wild Iris helps to glean meaning from Berryman’s “Matins.” Glück’s opens with “Unreachable father.” Berryman’s, with:

Thou hard. I will be blunt: Like widening

blossoms again glad toward Your soothe of sun

& solar drawing forth, I find meself

little this bitter morning, Lord, tonight.

Berryman uses 29 words for what Glück says in two. But Berryman positions himself explicitly; Glück does not. Berryman provides a sense of place and self and need. The sun is or has “soothe”, or the ability to do so–a placating entity. So the place the poet is in is somewhere the sun reaches, or will reach. The self is “little”–lessened or insignificant, which fits if the self compares itself with the sun. But the self also benefits from the sun: “Like widening/blossoms” and “glad toward.” The need is not described but implicit, as the desire to negate the self was implicit in the final stanzas of “Despair.” What is implicit is the need to be heard, hopefully by the “Thou,” the “Lord.” Kierkegaard helps to discern the significance of the need: “The standard for the self is always: that directly in the face of which it is a self” (111). He precedes this with, “And what an infinite reality this self acquires by being conscious of being before God, by being a human self that has God as its standard!” (111). I’m not sure how much or what kind of a standard God is for Berryman, because he at times seems more envious of the deity he addresses than reverent of him. But his kind of relationship is not so unusual. Glück’s “Matins” (3) addresses a deity in a bitingly honest, even cruel voice:

We never though of you

whom we were learning to worship.

We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love

only what returns love.

These lines echo Berryman’s, “Less were you tranquil to me in my dark/just now than tyrannous.” Though the “you” is not capitalized, Berryman still may be addressing the deity, but also, possibly, a haunting plurality. So this deity before which the poet places him or herself appears a rather daunting measure and one that occasionally inspires bitterness and spite. Another of Glück’s “Matins” (12) serves to complicate and to question the practicality of Kierkegaard’s assertions about the standard of the self. The entire poem is worth quoting here, for its antithetical nature to what Kierkegaard asserts, and for how well it matches Berryman’s “Matins”:

Forgive me if I say I love you: the powerful

are always lied to since the weak are always

driven by panic. I cannot love what I can’t conceive, and you disclose

virtually nothing: are you like the hawthorn tree,

always the same thing in the same place,

or are you more the foxglove, inconsistent, first springing up

a pink spike on the slope behind the daisies,

and the next year, purple in the rose garden? You must see

it is useless to us, this silence that promotes belief

you must be all things, the foxglove and the hawthorn tree,

the vulnerable rose and the tough daisy–we are left to think

you couldn’t possibly exist. Is this

what you mean us to think, does this explain

the silence of the morning,

the crickets not yet rubbing their wings, the cats

not fighting in the yard?

According to this, the self has nothing, really, to work with, as far as a standard can be reached when ascertaining a deity. A deity is not ascertainable. It is instead a number of possibilities, and exists, interestingly, in a number of things that are not–“the crickets not yet rubbing,” “the cats/not fighting”–including what the poet cannot do–“love” and “conceive.” Now the self is not attempting to negate itself directly. The self is defining itself by what it negates–the deity, the standard for the self. The negation takes an indirect path to its fruition. This happens in the Berryman:

However, lo, across what wilderness

in vincible ignorance past forty years

lost to (as now I see) Your sorrowing

I strayed abhorrent, blazing with my Self.

The self takes a rather treacherous step beyond negating the deity: it admits to superseding, for “forty years,” the deity. “Blazing” even more brightly than the deity! But the self knows its abhorrence and its ignorance and the deity’s distaste for such things, which is a humble gesture beyond the reach of the Glück “Matins” (12). The final five stanzas hold the self before the mirror of the deity, the deity before the mirror of the self:

poor scotographer, far here from Court,

humming over goodnatured Handel’s Te Deum.

I waxed, upon surrender, strenuous

ah almost able service to devise.

I am like your sun, Dear, in a state of shear–

parts of my surface are continually slipping past others,

not You, not You. O I may, even, wave

in crisis like a skew Wolf-Rayet star.

Seas and hills, the high lakes, Superior,

accomplish your blue or emerald donations–

manifest too your soft forbearance, hard

& flint for fierce man hardly to take in.

I take that in. Yes. Just now. I read that.

Hop foot to foot, hurl the white pillows about,

jubilant brothers: He is our overlord,

holding up yet with crimson flags the sun

whom He’ll embark soon mounting fluent day!

(A scotographer, it is helpful to know, is one who writes in the dark. I had to look it up.) The poet praises the sun, the world it illuminates, the deity which created it and now controls it. Penitence becomes a possibility for the poet–“almost able service to devise”–but whether this is because the poet recognizes himself in the deity or fails to do so is obscured by his likening of himself to the sun. And then the sun is what the deity supports above the world bestowing its light. But the crisis of self comes in the seventh stanza of the poem: “parts of my surface are continually slipping past others,/not You, not You.” The poet cannot elude the deity, he realizes, cannot at his surface deceive it. But what about what exists below the surface? I do not think the poet explores that in this poem. I cannot find an answer to the question; any implicit hints fail to discover themselves to me. The surface, the visible, the discernable self, and also the discernable deity–the sun–constitute the matter of this poem. Even the surface that the self cannot maintain, as with the “Wolf-Rayet star”– a kind of massive star with stellar winds strong enough to carry away the star’s stellar matter, its surface (“Big Old . . .”)–, prevails over the internal and psychic worlds.

A more interior, contemplative poem is “Sext” (noon of the canonical hours). Perhaps the direct sunlight serves to illuminate even what is most obscure.

High noon has me pitchblack, so in hope out,

slipping thro’ stasis, my heart skeps a beat


reflecting on the subtler menace of decline.

With the first stanza, the poet engages in “reflecting,” an internal activity, “on the subtler menace of decline.” Decline of the self, of the state, the church, the faith–all are possibilities, but none more likely or more frightening than the decline of the self, because the self ultimately determines the remaining arrangements. State, church, and faith tend to lose meaning when no self can give them their significance. “Sext” delves into the origin of the preeminence of “Self-Preservation.” “We do not know, deep now the dire age on,/if it’s so, or mere a nightmare of one dark one”–what is not known? The poet asks, how real is this decline? Or is the decline merely a fantasy of “one dark one,” an obscure philosopher, “disciple,” idol, false god. Does this poem really ask what is THE answer? If the decline is of the self, then perhaps it’s time to bring in John Donne. In Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Donne of course does not question the existence of a deity, but does offer “Meditation” on, among many things, the orientation of the self in relation to the deity, which is a primary pursuit of “Sext.” Donne, in sickness:

Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself. Mere vacuity, the first agent, God, the first instrument of God, nature, will not admit; nothing can be utterly empty, but so near a degree toward vacuity as solitude, to be but one, they [the physicians] love not. When I am dead, and my body might infect, they have a remedy, they may bury me; but when I am but sick, and might infect, they have no remedy but their absence, and my solitude. (26)

Though Donne speaks of a physical sickness, how conveniently his words fit a spiritual sickness, that is, Kierkegaard’s concept of despair, or simply a near-emptiness, a state of spiritual exhaustion. And solitude is this state’s primary attribute, because solitude allows for reflection, how Berryman opened the poem. And the writing of poetry is as solitary an activity as reflection. The hope in Donne is not simply the certainty of the existence of a deity, but that “nothing can be utterly empty.” One in solitude may be spiritually replete and no one can truly be a spiritual void. So the final stanza of “Sext” comes as a rather hopeful prayer, however dire the content of it. The poet ends with

so of rare Heart repair my fracturing heart

obedient to disobedience

minutely, wholesale, that come midnight neither

my mortal sin nor thought upon it lose me.

The deity is addressed by a part of it, part of the whole, as the life-sustaining organ, life-sustaining because of its relationship to blood, as blood’s engine. The “Heart” becomes the deity because it is named as such and because of its perpetuity. It is unlike the “fracturing heart” of the poet. But the poet’s heart is an acting heart, “fracturing,” in the act of fracturing itself, perhaps others, and not fractured, not acted upon unless repaired in the future by the heart of the deity. The poet pleas to be not lost from the possibility of repair by the deity’s heart. The self begins to recognize itself in the things it shares with its conception of the deity–such as a heart–, a conception not possible for the voice of Glück’s “Matins” (12), but wholly possible for Berryman throughout “Opus Dei.”

“Compline,” the last prayer of the day, said after sundown, creates a portrait of a poet either surrendering to or accepting into himself the deity. “Not that I’m not attending,/only I kneel here spelled/under a mystery of one midnight,” presents the poet in a posture of supplication and humility. More importantly, the poet implicitly admits supplication of the self through the diction: “kneel here spelled/under a mystery” indicates an awe and even some reverence for the power which holds him in thrall. The poet’s conscious realization of the thrall carries over into the urgency of the next stanza: “I’ve got to get as little as possible wrong.” The next six lines have no punctuation, but the recurring consonance of the “t” sound–as in “squat,” “unfit,” “inherit,” “left,” and “feet”–at the ends of words, though it does not cause the same pause as punctuation, serves to replace it. Consequently, these six lines move very fast, their urgency apparent in the physicality of the imagery. “Skull & feet/& bloody among their dogs the palms of my hands” transforms the living poet to an amalgamation of body parts, possibly not quite alive, though not yet dead, because the poem continues.

The speed only increases in the sixth and seventh stanzas; the poem propels itself with dashes and, in the first two lines of the sixth stanza, trades consonance for assonance, giving the impression of a speed at which pieces of the poet shear away, as in “Matins.” “Lord,” “long,” and “done”; “lapse” and “straps”; “oaths” and “toads”: what remains counters the sounds without slowing down–“phantasmagoria prolix,” exhaustion caused by sensory overload. The exhaustion causes a turn from the outward to the inward, the core, “a rapture, though, of the Kingdom here here now/in the heart of a child.”

What follows confuses. Does the poet write earnestly, or mockingly? In bitterness, or in contentment? Or even in hope, knowing that what he writes is too hard to believe?

If He for me as I feel for my daughter,

being His son, I’ll sweat no more tonight

but happy snore & drowse. I have got it made,

and so have all we of contrition, for

If He loves me He must love everybody

I believe Berryman writes earnestly here, but also that he writes, as he writes in “Despair,” in doubt. This prayer functions as prayers do. It is a comfort, however difficult to believe, to say to oneself over and over that one is loved and will be forgiven, and also that one is capable of love because of forgiveness. To say “I have got it made” is not to mock or to jest, but to comfort oneself with a familiar phrase in a moment, or a lifetime, of doubt. Just to be able to say or to write such a thing lets an individual, if only for a moment, feel the possibility of it.

The final stanza slows down to about the speed of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though so much of the poem before this stanza had been the speed of the third movement.

Heard sapphire flutings. The winter will end. I remember You.

The sky was red. My pillow’s cold & blanched.

There are no fair bells in this city. This fireless house

lies down at Your disposal as usual! Amen!

The sentences consist primarily of subjects, verbs, and small predicates. The tense shifts cause moments of poetic fugue (in the psychiatric sense). The first line moves from past to future to present, but what carries a reader across the cavernous silences between the period and the next capital letter? From “flutings” to “winter” to “You” the method of travel does not reveal itself. The next few sentences place the self more clearly in a particular environment, without increasing the speed of the line. Here the poem maintains the validity of the title. “The sky was red,” as at dusk, as though the poet remembers the evening in winter before he came to this canonical hour. And his pillow is “cold & blanched” so he is in or near, or feeling close to, his bedroom and his bed, though his bed is empty–a cold pillow, untouched.

About the last lines of “Compline” I can say that they are true to the poem and to “Opus Dei” and that the poet’s doubt remains unresolved. The beauty and pain in them speak more succinctly than anything I might say about them. They are incredibly powerful. For a city to have no bells, no church bells ringing, or clock towers chiming, means a city where time and humanity have lost each other. The poet has no place to situate himself among other beings. Donne offers: “As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness” (102), which I apply to Berryman’s final lines of “Opus Dei.” If there is nothing calling to the poet, do his words answer anything, engage anything in dialectic, imagination, discourse, or conversation? So the “house,” the body of the poet, the psyche of the poet, is “fireless”; what doubt and despair have done to the voice of the poet.

The voice of “Despair,” “Matins,” “Sext,” and “Compline” consistently pulses in the realm of prayer, sometimes ripping through ideas so quickly the poet loses pieces of himself before he can stop them from tearing away, sometimes slowing to a nearly halting heartbeat. Berryman is “so near the door.” The door is faith, and the door is death. I don’t know if to resolve doubt would be to walk through the door, or to close it.


Works Cited

Berryman, John. “Compline.” “Despair.” “Matins.” “Sext.” John Berryman Collected Poems 1937-1971. Ed. Charles Thornbury. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.

“Big Old Stars Don’t Die Alone.” Goddard Space Flight Center Top Story Page. 5 Jan. 2004

Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel. Eds. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1999. 1-152.

Glück, Louise. “ Matins.” “Matins.” The Wild Iris. New York: The Ecco Press, 1992. 3, 12.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin, 1989.

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