Dream Song 14
by John Berryman
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
- Hold up y'all. Where did this Henry guy come from? If you really want to unlock all the mysteries behind Henry, check out the Speaker section. For now, you need to know this: he bores the speaker. It turns out to be a little more complex than that, but we'll save it for later. You're welcome.
- There are some specific things about Henry that the speaker finds boring. Henry's difficulties and complaints bore the speaker. Berryman uses a simile here to quantify Henry's "plights & gripes." Henry is "as bad as achilles" when it comes to his complaining. (Ouch, that darn heel! Um. For more on what Achilles had to gripe about, check out our awesome mythology section).
- You might have noticed that "achilles" is missing his capital "A." You thought you caught Shmoop in a typo, right? Not this time. Like all of e.e. cummings' work, Berryman intentionally didn't use a capital letter here, for this demigod's name. Why? Certainly, this could be taken as a sign of disrespect. Imagine writing to a nun about how "jesus christ died for our sins." Remember, this speaker is bored by everything. He doesn't even find one of the greatest warriors in Greek mythology interesting enough to give him the same credit as any other Proper Noun.
- In line 13, the speaker tells us just what it is about Achilles that he finds boring. Turns out, Achilles was a people person and an art lover. People and art: two things we already know our speaker hates (see lines 9 and 10). People and art: two things you already know we love. But still, we're guessing the speaker and Achilles won't be hanging out anytime soon.
- Our speaker is starting to sound a little like a broken record, don't you think? Here he goes, repeating himself again. He told us in lines 9 and 10 that people and art bore him. Then he tells us again at the end of line 13. Hey speaker, take it from us: maybe you're the boring one.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
- Line 14 kind of recalls the sky and sea from the poem's first stanza. The speaker once again turns his (bored, dull) attention to the landscape. This time, it's the "tranquil hills." And boy, do they look like "a drag."
- Even booze is a real snooze for the speaker. Maybe there's just no hope for this guy. Maybe he wants to be bored. He's not even trying! (Unlike Berryman, who seemed to lean on the old sauce a little too much. Poor guy.)
- Okay, it's time to address those ampersands and parentheses that have been floating around. We think they give the poem an air of informality. It's as if whatever the speaker is saying is totally unrehearsed. And, like, maybe this poem hasn't even been edited.
- These punctuation marks also give the poem a sense of immediacy and urgency; they're both expressive and kind of shorthand-y. So they make us feel like Berryman was trying to get the words down on the page the moment they popped into his head, like he was scribbling notes in a dream journal right after waking up.
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
- And now for something completely different. This poem takes a totally surreal turn in the last 4 lines. But hang in there. We're gonna help you sort this out. Yes, even the part about the dog.
- Let's start with Fido. A dog, in general, is a very familiar, very common housepet. Dogs often represent loyalty and companionship; you know, man's best friend and all that. (Lassie, no!)
- This particular dog has left the scene. Presumably, he's run off some considerable distance, out of sight, into the "mountains" (sure, why not!), the "sea" (hm, maybe?), or the "sky" (what?).
- This great disappearing act might not make much sense, but there is something familiar here. The "mountains" (or "hills") are from line 14, and the "sea" and "sky" showed up way back in line 2. Earth, sea, and sky. The gang's all here.
- But this is the trippy, not very literal part of the poem, right? So let's think of this dog as maybe representing something else. It could be a symbol of friendship, companionship, art, and culture. Like the mysterious vanishing dog, these elements have ceased to really be present in the speaker's life. They've vanished into the hills or the sea or the sky, because he's so darn bored of it all. So the speaker is left all sad and alone in his boring, boring boredom.
- But shouldn't being on his own, without the plethora of crap that makes him bored, make our speaker happy? You don't just sit around pining to be back at four o'clock dinner with your Canasta-playing Great-Granddad, do you?
- Well, here's the catch. Even though the dog is now gone, the motion of the dog, its very liveliness—the "wag"—is still there. So the dog's spirit or essence or whatever you wanna call it has gotten lodged in the speaker's memory. Thus, the wag represents the speaker's growing loneliness; he knows he's missing out on something by being so bored by people, literature, and everything.
- The speaker knows all this great stuff has a lot of bright, shiny life in it. He just can't find the chutzpah to enjoy what's going on around him. And since he knows he's not supposed to talk about his boredom, either, he feels extra isolated in it. This speaker is starting to sound a bit like someone who's suffering from a deep depression, don't you think? Not that Mr. Berryman would know anything about that, eh?
- Also, it's a little bit funny to end this poem with the word, wag. The last line only has three words, and the final two, "me, wag," are separated from the first word by a colon. So the "me" and the "wag" are stuck together.
- This juxtaposition between the "me"and the "wag" really drives home the point that the speaker is just as insignificant as all the boring stuff he trashes throughout the poem. This speaker, including all of his actions and thoughts and dreams and desires, is just simple and involuntary, like the wag of a dog's tail. This final line shows us a little more of that Berryman humor—that kind of humor where you're not quite sure if you're amused or just plain confused.
- By the end of this poem, we see that Henry isn't actually bored with the world, he's bored by his reaction to it. The crux is that Henry is bored of himself. Which we think is a pretty rough fate indeed.