Study Guide

Dream Song 14 Themes

  • Dissatisfaction

    You don't have to dig very deep into "Dream Song 14" to realize that Henry doesn't feel satisfied with life. He's bored. Really, really, painfully bored. And he lets us know it. But as he lists all of the external sources of his boredom, we start to feel like the true source of his dissatisfaction is internal. Like, it's all in his head.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How do Berryman's choices of end words and line lengths reflect the poem's theme of dissatisfaction? 
    2. The speaker says he is "heavy bored" (8). Why do you think Berryman chose to describe the speaker's boredom as "heavy"? Did the description give you a clearer sense of the speaker's boredom? Why?
    3. We know the speaker says he's bored, but what about this poem makes him sound bored to you?
    4. The speaker says he is bored by great literature. But what about the poem implies this particular boredom?
    5. When you feel dissatisfied with your life, are the reasons for your dissatisfaction more often internal or external? (Bonus points for honesty!)

    Chew on This

    When you're unhappy with yourself, nothing in the world will bring you happiness… unless you change your attitude.

    Romanticizing nature is, like, so classic poetry, and Berryman is over it.

  • Man and the Natural World

    While "Dream Song 14" certainly doesn't qualify as a nature poem, the natural world does play an important role in it. In fact, the connection between man and nature becomes one of the poem's central themes. Let's take a look at what Berryman is after with his "flashing" skies and "yearning" seas.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What was your initial reaction to the nature images in "Dream Song 14?" Did you picture familiar hills and seascapes, or did you picture something more unusual, something more dream-like or surreal? Why?
    2. Nature imagery only shows up in the first and last stanzas. Why do you think Berryman chose to begin and end the poem with nature imagery?
    3. What would happen to "Dream Song 14" if we took out all the nature references? Would it dramatically change how we read and understand the poem or would it simply make the poem less, well, nature-y?

    Chew on This

    Without the nature imagery, the speaker's sense of boredom in this poem would seem less far-reaching and all-consuming.

    Berryman uses nature imagery to balance out the speaker's incessant (and, let's admit it: kind of unreadable) griping.

  • Art and Culture

    Remember that class on literary classics you couldn't stay awake in? Of course you don't. Well, the speaker of "Dream Song 14" shares your lack of enthusiasm for great literature and art (even if it makes us cry a little). He seems to know quite a bit about the stuff, but he finds it all boring. Literally all of it. Which seems impossible, right? Almost everyone knows of some books and paintings that they like. So let's take a closer look at this speaker's complete and utter distaste for all of the arts to figure out what's up here.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why does the speaker have such a negative reaction to art and culture? Is there anything about the way he expresses his boredom with literature and art that strikes you as strange?
    2. If the speaker is bored by all art and all culture, is there anything left to be interested in? Can you think of anything that isn't associated with art and culture in some way?
    3. Do you get the impression that the speaker is telling the truth when he says he's bored by "great literature" (10) and "valiant art" (13)? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Obviously the speaker can't really hate all art, because he's voicing his boredom for the stuff in a poem.

    If boredom can't be cured by experiencing a lot of great art, and having some really wacky dreams, then we're all screwed.

  • Versions of Reality

    Whenever you're reading this poem and thinking, "Hey, what the heck is going on here?" just remember the title: "Dream Song 14." That's right, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. Or New Jersey. Or wherever you are. We're in Berryman's Dreamland. And you know how it is when you're dreaming. Things can be going along in a nice, linear, logical way, then, BAM! All of a sudden, you're someplace else. Or, someone or something appears with no warning—a dog, perhaps? All this disorienting appearing, disappearing, and flying around can be fun, but sometimes, it's downright disturbing.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Would you understand this poem differently if "Dream" wasn't in the title? If so, what would be different about your reading of the poem?
    2. Which lines or stanzas seem most dream-like? Why?
    3. What kinds of connections can you make between the repetition of words and phrases in the poem and the theme of altered reality? It might help to think about conversations and images from your own dreams. (If your dreams are usually scary, you can skip this one.)

    Chew on This

    If you don't accept that this poem is set in the land of dream logic, then it's unintelligible gibberish.

    Berryman relies on repetition to lull us into a dreamy state.