Study Guide

Dream Song 29 Violence

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"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?

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