Study Guide

Dream Song 29 Themes

By John Berryman

  • Sadness

    In "Dream Song 29," the very first stanza tells us that Henry is sad (you'd be sad too if you had something heavy sitting on your heart). It's the kind of sadness that a lollipop or even a whole box of doughnuts can't fix. In fact, Henry is sooo sad, that even that age old remedy time isn't going to help. Henry's sadness seems to be coming from someplace deeper—an internal, psychological sadness, rather that an external "I'm sad because Breaking Bad ended" kind of sad.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. The poem's first stanza is definitely dealing with sadness. How does Berryman convey sadness so clearly without ever using the word "sad"?
    2. What do you imagine is making Henry so sad? Do you imagine it is something concrete (specific) like a breakup or a lost puppy, or is it something more mysterious, a kind of general, aching sadness that has no real knowable origin? Try to explain why you think it's one or the other.
    3. Henry's sadness always returns: "It starts again always in Henry's ears." Why did Berryman choose to describe the return of Henry's sadness this way? Did John just have a bad earache when he was writing this one or is there some other explanation?
    4. Why does it "start again" with a "cough" or an "odour" or a "chime"? Are these things inherently sad, or is their sadness specific to Henry's experience? (And yes, this is a wicked-long question.)

    Chew on This

    Berryman's description of Henry's sadness goes way beyond your average, garden variety, "my favorite pair of pants is in the wash and I really wanted to wear them today" kind of sadness. This sadness is the extra-strength, clinical variety.

    Come on. Henry's sadness is the least of his problems. If he could deal with that crushing guilt described in stanza two, Henry would probably be a little less gloomy.

  • Guilt and Blame

    That "reproachful" face in the poem's second stanza really stands out. It seems that feelings of guilt are connected to Henry's sadness. And like the sadness in the first stanza, these guilty feelings show no sign of fading. Bad times all around. Still, if time isn't going to make the guilty feelings fade, what's Henry to do? Think about it…

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. What words or phrases from stanza two convey a sense of guilt or blame? What is it about these examples that scream guilty?
    2. Berryman uses a "grave Sienese face" to represent the guilt Henry feels. Once you understood what Berryman was referring to, how did you respond to this image? Did it help you identify with Henry's feelings or was it just confusing? Why? 
    3. Shmoop bets you've felt guilty once or twice. What image would you use to represent the guilt that you felt? Henry tries to think his way out of feeling guilty. In your experience, does that work?

    Chew on This

    Henry's sadness is a result of his guilty feelings. Henry can't be happy until he deals with his guilt. So get dealing, Henry.

    The fact that Henry understands it is "too late" to change anything and that crying won't help demonstrates a step toward resolving his feelings of guilt and the associated sadness. Yay?

  • Violence

    "Dream Song 29" takes kind of an ugly turn in the third and final stanza. The imagery goes from gloomy to pretty gruesome in the space of a single stanza break. What gives, John? Why all the "hacking" and "hiding"? It turns out that the previously unnamed reasons for Henry's feelings of guilt and sadness have something to do with some violent thoughts he's been having. The real problem is the difficulty Henry is having separating, in his mind, real and imagined violence.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Does the violent imagery in the poem's third stanza change how you read stanzas one and two? Why or why not?
    2. Henry didn't "end anyone." He didn't commit any murders or violent acts. So, why does he still have all that guilt and sadness?
    3. Who are the people that Henry "reckons up" in the early morning hours to be sure he hasn't killed any of them? How do you imagine they are associated with Henry: Friends? Lovers? Waiters? Do you think they know about Henry's violent thoughts?
    4. Imagine you are sitting next to Henry on the train. Do you think you could tell he's the kind of guy that has these kinds of murderous, thoughts? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Henry isn't a violent freak. He is simply an exaggeration—a character created by Berryman to embody the violent feelings, guilt, and sadness that we all experience at times. Henry's extreme examples of these emotions are just a tool of perspective. By comparison, we don't feel like freaks for feeling what we feel. Thanks, John.

    Henry feels intense sadness in stanza one and intense guilt in stanza two. The poem's diction and irregular rhyme scheme suggest a kind of instability in the speaker. The speaker is, therefore, an unreliable source. Despite the fact that we are told Henry never killed anyone, he most likely did. He wouldn't feel those intense feelings of sadness and guilt if he hadn't committed some kind of violent act. Think about it: would you want to sit next to Henry on the bus?

  • Versions of Reality

    "Dream Song 29" is kind of a freaky poem—which makes sense. Dreams are freaky. Sometimes they seem so real you wake up certain that what you just dreamt really happened. Other times, they are so off the wall you wonder how your brain came up with it at all. Either way, the dream world and reality exist on different planes, and while the two might overlap in terms of themes and emotions, what happens in dreams and what happens in reality don't overlap. (Or does it? Remember Nightmare on Elm Street? Google the trailer at your own risk.) That said, Henry seems to be having some trouble keeping his dream world and reality separated, and it's causing him some serious anxiety.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. In what ways does "Dream Song 29" feel dream-like and in what ways does it seem like reality? 
    2. In the poem's last stanza, the end words "up" and "missing" are repeated. How does this repetition affect the reading of the poem? How does it make you feel as a reader? Does this repetition reflect the idea of different versions of reality? If so, how?
    3. If you dreamt something was sitting on your heart and making you sad, what would the thing look like? What would it be? What do you think Henry's thing looked like? Why?

    Chew on This

    "Dream Song 29" is simply an exaggeration of the feelings we have during and after a nightmare—no big whoop. The life of a dream can feel like an eternity and even when we wake up, it can seem like "a thousand years would fail to blur" the feelings and images from the dream. But we finally come back to the real world and realize, like Henry, that everything is okay.

    The speaker's confused syntax and the poem's irregular rhyming reflect Henry's struggle. He is losing his grasp on reality. He is becoming unable to tell the difference between his dreams and reality. Yiiipe.