Study Guide

Dream Song 14 Analysis

By John Berryman

  • Sound Check

    Despite the title, "Dream Song 14" doesn't sound very song-like to us. It lacks a regular rhyme scheme and alliteration, both of which can give poems a sing-song-y feel. But the voice of the piece is very conversational. The contrast between the speaker's informality and the sonic awesomeness we'd normally expect from a song further orients us to Berryman's dreamscape. You know how dreams can be: something is always a little off. You might be eating a plate of spinach, but it tastes like chocolate cake. (We wish.)

    If you read this poem aloud, you'll probably notice the repetition of certain words and phrases. Berryman ends lines 2 and 3 with "yearn." He begins lines 7 and 8 with "inner resources." And there are seven different variations on "bored"—four in the second stanza alone.

    These repetitions are doing a lot of work for the poem. First, they emphasize its central theme: boredom. Because who wants to hear the same few words over and over again? They also give us that sound sense of a skipping record, which can really grate on you. Like other stuff that is boring or annoying. And, finally, Berryman's repetitions mimic those odd, repeated moments we all have in our dreams. (Or, those odd, repeated moments that tell you there's a glitch in the matrix!)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    On the surface, "Dream Song 14" seems like a pretty simple little title. And, in some sense, it is. But since we're all about digging deeper, let's break it down and see if we can't uncover something more.

    The "dream" in the title indicates that this poem deals with something other than reality. Like, the stuff that happens when you go to sleep and start flying over the city of San Francisco in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume looking for some old-fashioned Evil to vanquish. (What? No one ever dreamed about that. Nuh-uh. Not us.) And though Berryman is placing us squarely in Dreamland with this title, how do we really know we're awake right now? Dun dun dun! Anyway, this part of the title prepares us for what's to come. It lets us know that we should expect the unexpected—like that dog that shows up and then disappears all in the last stanza.

    A "song" is something sung. Right. But this part of the title also tells us that sound is important to this poem, because that's why people sing instead of just talking, right? Because they like to make melodies! So, uncoincidentally, do poets. Most poems are as much about sound, rhythm, and makin' music as they are about content. And this poem is no exception.

    "14" is, well, the number fourteen. This number lets us know that there are others of these "Dream Songs" floating around. (In fact, Berryman wrote nearly four hundred "Dream Songs." Wowza.)

    All in all, the title prepares us to enter a world that is at once pretty wacky—even illogical—and familiar to us. (Everyone dreams, right?) "Dream Song 14" definitely delivers on both those promises, bringing us a whole lotta wackiness and a whole lotta odd familiarity.

  • Setting

    We don't get much of a sense of place from "Dream Song 14." For the first two stanzas, the speaker is just talking to us. He mentions the sky and the sea, but we don't necessarily think those elements are in front of the speaker at this very moment. He seems to just be recalling the sky and the sea as examples of things that bore him.

    In fact, the poem's opening words, "Life, friends, is boring," make us feel like the speaker is sitting with us, holding court. You know, the way that one friend of yours does every day at the cafeteria table during lunch. She talks, and everyone else listens. It's not so much a conversation as it is a one-woman show.

    But, in the third stanza, the "tranquil hills" and "gin" do seem to be in front of the speaker. And then there's the arrival of the dog, so we must all be outside, right? But this outdoor setting isn't quite real to us. We're presented with three different natural elements at once: "mountains or sea or sky." So we get the sense that the speaker is kinda experiencing all of nature at the same time. Obviously that isn't possible, so the setting must be changeable here.

    The repetition of "or" only adds to this feeling that the setting is fluid. It's almost like we're watching all of the elements of a watercolor painting melt together in the rain. Or, you know, like we're in a dream and we keep realizing we're in the middle of doing something in the backyard and then, suddenly, we're in our neighbor's kitchen eating a pizza and we have no idea how we got there. Mr. Berryman, dude, where's my car

  • Speaker

    When you read "Dream Song 14," you might think these lines sound more like a conversation with a friend who's griping about being bored than a poem. Like, it gets a little poem-y at the end with the vanishing dog, but most of the speaker's language is conversational. His vocabulary and the fact that he is acquainted with great literature and figures from mythology give us the impression that he's literate. Well-educated, even.

    Boring Ol' Berryman?

    But, overall, the speaker sounds like a regular Joe Shmoe. His mom hassles him about stuff. He's bored by literary classics. All in all, a pretty standard dude. But there's more to this speaker than his general dislike of art, culture, and his fellow human beings.

    Remember, "Dream Song 14" is just one of the nearly four hundred "Dream Songs" Berryman wrote. These poems tell the story of a central character, Henry. And, in "Dream Song 14," he's also the first person narrator of the poem; Henry is the "I" we see in Berryman's lines.

    Of course, it is always important not to confuse the speaker of the poem with the poet, and Berryman was particularly concerned with separating himself from Henry. He insisted over and over again that, despite similarities between himself and Henry, Henry was just an imaginary character.

    That said, Berryman had a hard time convincing people that he was not Henry. He was quoted in interviews saying things like, "Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me." Still, there is always some of the artist in the art. So, Shmoop sides with D.H. Lawrence on this one: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."

    Who's Talking Now?

    At this point, you might be thinking: Hey! What about that part where the speaker says, "Henry bores me?" The "I" in the poem can't be Henry. Right?

    Good eye, Shmoopers. You picked up on an important detail. But here's the thing. If you read more of Berryman's "Dream Songs," you'll find that Henry has the annoying habit of talking about himself in the third person. Why? Well, Mr. Berryman breaks it down for ya in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd Edition:

    [The Dream Songs are] essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age […] who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.

    So, when Henry refers to himself in the third person, it's an important moment in the poem. If Henry is the speaker and he's saying, "Henry bores me," he's really emphasizing how bored he is with himself. By referring to himself with his first name, Henry makes himself seem just like any other thing, in a long list of things the speaker is bored with. And, since Berryman is the writer and Henry is his creation, we wonder if Berryman is saying here that even his own art—like, "Dream Song 14"—bores him. We're sorry to hear that, Mr. Berryman, because we think this poem is pretty spiffy.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    "Dream Song 14" is a pretty pleasant hike for the first two stanzas, but the air starts to get a little thin in the third. Watch out for light-headedness and perhaps a mild headache; this one's no cakewalk.

  • Calling Card

    Songs! Henry! (And some other stuff too…)

    Berryman poems, especially his "Dream Songs," are pretty easy to spot. Those six-line stanzas we discussed back in the Form section tend to stand out. And that Henry guy, who loves to refer to himself in the third person, is also hard to miss. Plus, Berryman isn't afraid of using ampersands, exclamation points, and even a well-placed set of parentheses here and there. While some other poets have been known to use these informal symbols in their work (e.g., e.e. cummings), they're still fairly unique.

    The use of an exaggerated African-American dialect, common in minstrel shows from the days of vaudeville, is also pretty common in the "Dream Songs." So, if you find a poem with some of these characteristics, you can wow your friends and tell them it's probably a Berryman poem. If they still aren't impressed, send us some mail. We'll think you're cool.

    Check out "Dream Song 16," "Dream Song 76,"  and "A Professor's Song" to see Berryman up to some of his favorite tricks!

  • Form and Meter

    Reading "Dream Song 14" for the first time, you might have had moments where you thought there was some kind of form or pattern at work—and then the feeling faded and you were left with an invisible dog. Well, in the words of the great Jedi master, "Trust your feelings."

    The Long and Short of a Sestet

    Berryman is certainly working with a form in this one, and it's the same form he uses for pretty much all of his "Dream Songs." But it isn't a traditional form that's easy to smack a label on. The first thing you'll notice is that the eighteen lines of the poem are broken into three, six-line stanzas, known as "sestets."

    Now can you see a pattern in the line lengths within each stanza? The long lines and short lines alternate in a particular way: long, long, short, long, long, short. Way to trust your form-findin' instincts, poetry killah! But what effect does this alternation of long and short lines have on our experience of this piece?

    Well, the contrast between the long and short lines seems to draw the reader's attention to important moments in the poem. The short lines stand out from the longer lines around them. And there's all that white space at the end of 'em to leave the reader alone with the words for a moment longer.

    So, Berryman wanted to emphasize lines like, "we ourselves flash and yearn," and "Peoples bore me." These are, indeed, crucial moments for developing the poem's central themes; they relate the speaker's boredom with his (visually striking) environment to how tedious he finds people, including himself—'cause it's all the same when you're suffering from a serious case of ennui (if you're not familiar with this word, it's a lovely French-derived term for world-weariness).

    Stressed Out and Bored

    But what about this poem's use of meter and rhyme?

    As in the other "Dream Songs," Berryman uses the following metrical pattern here: the long lines are in pentameter and the short lines are in trimeter. This means that the long lines have five stressed syllables, while the short lines have three stressed syllables. Stressed syllables are the foot-thwappin' soul of metrical feet —the DUM in your dadaDUM.

    Keep in mind, though, that metrical "rules" are meant to be broken. While the first five lines of this poem stick to the pattern (five feet, five feet, three feet, five feet, five feet), line 6 has only two feet: "means you have no." So what's up with the missing foot?

    We think the metrical irregularity here—and elsewhere in the poem (e.g., line 14)—heightens the reader's sense that things are kinda off, you know? Just a little not quite right, the way you often feel about your surroundings and what's happening to you in your dreams. (Like, one minute you're wearing a clown suit, the next minute you're in your birthday suit, and you're like, "Hey, wha happened?")

    Now, on to the rhyme scheme. There are a few straight-up rhymes in the poem, such as "so"/"no" and "drag"/"wag." There are also some imperfect or slant rhymes, including "me"/"achilles." So, like Berryman's metrical play, his use of rhyme in this piece further contributes to the poem's dream-like shiftiness. Sometimes you find yourself expecting a rhyme, but you don't get one. Sometimes you find yourself expecting dogs not to just up and disappear into the sky or whatever, but then—BAM! This is Berryman's Dreamland, and he'll do what he wants.

  • Land, Sea, and Sky: Nature Imagery

    References to the land, sea, and sky show up six times in this poem's eighteen little lines, so you've probably already realized that nature is important in this piece. The potency of nature imagery here is also a little weird because, on the surface, the poem really isn't about nature at all. It's not some bizzare-o, bardic pagan song. In fact, the poem seems to have far more to do with Henry's psychological landscape than actual mountains or oceans. So, what gives, Mr. Berryman?

    Line 2

    You don't have to read very far into this poem before some nature imagery smacks you over the head. Line 2 has flashing skies and yearning seas. But, um, last time Shmoop checked, seas can't yearn. At least not in the literal sense. They can slosh and splash and capsize boats, but… yearn? Here, Berryman is personifying the sea; he's giving it some of the snazzy qualities us human folk get to enjoy. And this poetic device allows Berryman to make a strong connection between the physical, natural world and the internal world of the speaker: his human emotions and human psyche.

    Line 3

    Hey, remember that connection between nature and the human mind? Well, line 3 pretty much drives that point home. We "flash and yearn" just like the sky and sea "flash and yearn." Sweet.

    Line 14

    Nature pops up yet again in the last stanza. We have "tranquil hills" which, to the speaker, "look like a drag." Now, let's consider how natural elements have been described in this poem so far; they "flash," "yearn," and are "tranquil." These descriptors all beautify the natural world. They're all, in a way, romanticizing nature by portraying it through a very human lens. Sound familiar? This is how nature is usually talked about in classic poetry and bad love songs, right? So, we think the way the speaker describes his surroundings reinforces his boredom not only with nature itself, but also with people's more general tendency to personify nature. And, since great literature is all about personification, dude's reinforcing his hatred for all that poetry and prose stuff too. It's all such a drag, man.

    Lines 15-18

    We'll get into Fido's significance later. For now, let's just consider the fact that this dog vanishes into the same three natural elements that have come up previously in the poem: the land, the sea, and the sky. The speaker is left behind to consider his surroundings, but, for some reason, some part of the dog remains with him. Even though the dog itself is no longer visible, there is something of its doggie-ness that remains with the speaker: its "wag."

  • Woof. What's Up With That Dog?

    Sure, Shmoop likes dogs. They come in all shapes and sizes (some are even "teacup"-sized, OMG, cute attack), they fetch, they keep us company. What's not to like? That said, we're not sure how we feel about the pooch in this poem. First of all, this dog seems to have run off. Bummer. Secondly, the speaker thinks this dog has fled to some pretty unlikely places. The sky? Really? What's going on here? Read on to find out.

    Line 15

    The dog doesn't even appear in the poem until halfway through the last stanza. When he does, it seems to take the speaker (and, likely, the reader) by surprise. And the speaker calls it "a dog," not the dog or my dog; so, Berryman is presenting the dog in the most general, unattached way possible. He seems to want the reader to have as much connection to the dog as the speaker does; this dog is just a dog like any other.

    Lines 16-18

    The dog runs off, "into mountains or sea or sky," leaving the speaker behind. It is in these lines that we get the sense this dog is more than just a four-legged friend. Since what the dog is doing is literally impossible, we know he's gotta be some kind of symbol.

    While dogs can represent everything from fidelity to depravity, we think Berryman was using this dog to represent something more. A lot more. Everything, in fact. Berryman's dog represents all the things we come into contact with in our daily lives. Even when these things are no longer with us, right there in front of our little faces, our accrued memories of those things shape who we are. In a sense, how we experience the stuff of the world makes us who we are.

    Think of it like this. When the dog leaves, the speaker is left with the essence of the dog, its happy doggy "wag." When we finish a great book, we still feel the presence of its characters in our lives. (Come on, Harry Potter fans, you know what we're talkin' about.) Incredible songs can be stuck in our heads on repeat, even though the actual notes of these songs have long since disappeared into thin "sky." Er, thin air. See, these experiences of our physical worlds are what mold our emotional lives; they make us who we are.

    Now let's consider what elemnts of the physical world bore the speaker of this poem. They are all tangible things, like art and music and people. And, like we've just said, it's these things that shape who we are. So, what is the speaker really bored with? Not "great literature" or "valiant art." He's bored with the person these things have made him into; he's bored with himself.

  • Steaminess Rating


    Despite the "flashing and yearning" in the first stanza, this one rates a G.

  • Allusions

    Mythology References

    Achilles (12)

    Check out Shmoop's mythology section for more about this nearly invincible warrior's "plights and gripes."