Books by John Berryman

Released: Feb. 1, 1999

The poet's lifelong study of Shakespeare yields a stimulating centerpiece series of lectures, surrounded by assorted intriguing, maddeningly incomplete projects. Shortly before Berryman's suicide, his old college mentor, noted Shakespearean scholar Mark Van Doren, wrote a teasing letter about how his former student would never finish his latest book on the Bard. Berryman had planned various projects throughout his career: on the identity of the Sonnets dedicatee, Mr. W.H.; Shakespeare's comprehensive worldview; the correct text of King Lear; and Shakespeare's life. Although he steeped himself in Elizabethan studies, firsthand sources, and Shakespeare's canon (in various versions), only his very popular series of lectures reached completion, which he then adapted to undergraduate and popular audiences as needed, and which Berryman biographer John Haffenden has at last collected along with his published essays and other projects' literary remains. At his best in the lectures, Berryman vivified them with his own poetic experience and close academic scrutiny, most successfully in "Shakespeare at Thirty," a brilliant combination of biographical insight and textual scholarship of the poet-playwright at the uncertain outset of his career. Berryman's attention to the problematic composition and apprentice imagination of early plays, from King John to Two Gentlemen of Verona, is likewise revealingly multifold. Later, while convincingly pointing to a deep spiritual crisis on Shakespeare's part, he flounders a bit in the depths, particularly in Hamlet's Oedipal complex and suicidal impulses—familiar problems for Berryman. His essays, by contrast, are mostly meant for an academic audience (i.e. textual critics), with their insights embedded firmly in dense scholarship. To show the human side of this donnish delving, Haffenden also includes Berryman's correspondence while working on Lear, like a restorer trying to clean an Old Master, only to be beaten out by the unexpected publication of a similar, less rigorous work in England. Graded an "I" for incomplete, but comparable in perspicacity with, say, Helen Vendler's and Harold Bloom's recent Bardolatry. Read full book review >