Satanic pride: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame

J. T. Welsch

On Tuesday, April 25, 1939, Delmore Schwartz stopped by the Park Avenue apartment where John Berryman was staying with his mother. She and Berryman’s stepfather had recently separated, and his own fiancée had sailed home to England earlier that month. At age 24, his poems were beginning to appear in major magazines, but a full-length book was still a decade away. Schwartz had published In Dreams Begin Responsibilities the year before. The praise heaped on that debut, a book combining short stories, poems, and a verse play, still seems inconceivable. Allen Tate called it ‘beyond any doubt the first real innovation that we’ve had since Eliot and Pound.’ John Crowe Ransom, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and countless others added their endorsement. The title story, written when Schwartz was 21, would be singled out by Nabokov as one of “half a dozen favorites in modern literature.” Schwartz wrote to his publisher, James Laughlin at New Directions: “All these fine reviews are accumulating to the point where I am going to be terrified. It can’t last.”

The usual way of telling this story is to follow through with that premonition, tracing the fall from that summit to a dingy New York hotel, where Schwartz in 1966, having long alienated all friends and champions, would wander in a daze of drug and alcohol-fuelled paranoia into the corridor one early morning, and be freed at last by heart attack, aged 52. But we might linger a moment in 1939, back with those two kids meeting in that apartment: If Schwartz’s own fame terrified him, how must Berryman have felt, ambitious as he was, and as possessive of Schwartz as he would prove to be over their long friendship? A few days later, he wrote to Mark Van Doren, a mentor since his undergraduate days at Columbia, gushing that he had never liked “anyone better at first sight”. Berryman and Schwartz had narrowly missed each other at Columbia, where Schwartz took prep courses before transferring to Wisconsin, but by 1939, Van Doren knew him through the Partisan Review crowd and helped set up the meeting. Whatever Berryman took from that first conversation with Schwartz, who was there to solicit work as new poetry editor of the Partisan, the impact on his writing was immediate. Although we risk reading too much into the new poem enclosed in that same letter to Van Doren, written from the point of view of one of Christ’s disciples, “amazed at what that man could do”, another called “The Statue,” drafted a few days later, was characteristic enough in its envious meditations on fame to have inspired the link between that statue of the philosopher Humboldt and the tragic poet of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, plainly modelled on Schwartz.

There’s plenty of important work still to be done, scouring Berryman’s work for this sort of speculative influence or spectral influence of Schwartz’s “new ghost” (as the Dream Songs preserve him). But the opposite may be as true and useful. Out of this passionate and formative rivalry, Schwartz’s impact on Berryman’s work is equal perhaps in its contrary influence, or in the extent to which that work develops in measurable counterpoint. Love & Fame (1970), the last book Berryman published in his lifetime, is a case in point. Read alongside Schwartz’s autobiographical epic, Genesis (1943), Berryman’s most baldly autobiographical book is marked everywhere by Schwartz’s conspicuous absence – both in the timeline covered, and by Berryman’s contrasting approach to the telling of his origin tale. The first two parts of Love & Fame cover Berryman’s undergraduate years at Columbia and the start of his postgraduate fellowship at Cambridge, followed by a long Part III set in the present, and Part IV’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”. Not only does this skip over the nearly thirty years he knew Schwartz, but its emphasis on the careful project of study and hard graft by which the poet honed his craft stands in contrast to Berryman’s own sense of Schwartz’s precocious “gifts,” as well as Genesis’s two-hundred pages taking the protagonist only to age 7. What remains for Love & Fame is a very calculated portrait of the self-made artist. Despite the uncharacteristic plainness of exposition – which Berryman thought, proudly, “didn’t resemble any verse I had ever written” – play with time and tense, gaps in memory, and lots of what comic book fans call “retroactive continuity,” all work to establish the poet’s authoritative interventions over his kunstlerroman. Where the Freudian prerogatives of Genesis or stories like “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” put Schwartz at the mercy of a past he mines for meaning, Love & Fame imposes its retrospective constructions no less forcefully than The Dream Songs upon what only happens to be biographical material. The Wordsworthian aim, implied in the Brockport Writers Forum interview given just after the book’s completion, is to trace a rise to eminence with an emphasis on the “apprenticeship” by which the artist arrives as an “advanced man”. The fact that Love & Fame undertakes this grand task with such irony and self-deprecation, from the title and throughout, only underscores the pose of mastery.

* * *

Schwartz’s single, brief cameo in the book is typical of Love & Fame’s contrivances. The poem “Monkhood” in Part II, follows our hero’s apprenticeship, now in “the other Cambridge” – a phrase which performs another of those retroactive inversions, since it’s really only “other” in relation to Berryman’s later stint at Harvard. The suggestion that his lonely monkhood meant surrendering all pride and “wish for comradeship” suddenly launches the poem a few years forward, to when, now presumably ordained, Berryman and Schwartz “were preaching at Harvard”, and Schwartz accused him of “Satanic pride”. Yet it’s a fond memory, and the remark was “to my pleasure”, Berryman insists, since Schwartz was “far superior then to me”, at any rate. I can’t help read “far superior then” as another of those quietly jostling tributes, like those lines from the elegies for Schwartz in Part IV of the Dream Songs: “I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so.” Neither is so far from Arnold’s Thyrsis, lamenting Arthur Clough’s tired throat, in the great tradition of backhanded elegies. The “Ten Songs, one solid block of agony” in Dream Songs also cling to that apparently idyllic period “thro’ all our Harvard years / when both of us were just becoming known” (Dream Song 149) or

meeting on the walk to Warren House
so long ago we were almost anonymous
waiting for fame to descend
with a scarlet mantle & tell us who we were.
                                                                      (Dream Song 152)

These poignant scenes serve a neat narrative purpose within the structure of this part of Dream Songs or for that moment of Love & Fame, where the memory of Schwartz’s remark prompts a key dramatic crisis, bursting as if spontaneously, out of the book’s past: “Will I ever write properly, with passion & exactness, / of the damned strange demeanours of my flagrant heart?” Such pathos, the great human struggle to speak one’s soul… Of course, it’s as manufactured as those scenes at Harvard. Schwartz was hardly “just becoming known’ or still ‘waiting for fame to descend” by then, given the sensation around his early work. It’s left for Berryman to re-imagine an equal footing, when all evidence from the time suggests how intimidated he was by Schwartz’s success. James Atlas notes Berryman’s possessiveness (which he says irritated Schwartz), recording “Delmore’s every word” in his journals, or studying him with “a novelist’s eye”, recording details like Schwartz’s unmatched socks (a detail he transposes to Auden in Love & Fame). As Atlas has it, “Berryman’s Boswellian zeal complemented Delmore’s Johnsonian wit.” And after all, it was Schwartz who had gotten Berryman the English instructor post at Harvard in 1940, and pushed James Laughlin to include Berryman in the Five Young American Poets anthology that year. In 1943, when both of their teaching contracts were ending, the poets commiserated together, and Schwartz told Berryman, “I feel like a tragic hero.” The latter recorded the solidarity in his journal: “As always, Harvard is too much for us.” When Schwartz’s contract was renewed after all, Berryman left Boston bereft.

A series of rejections and the struggle to find work make this period unsuitable for the teleological myth of Love & Fame. The two great disasters of Part I, by contrast, see undergrad Berryman put on a semester’s academic suspension, before the “Prodigal Son” is welcomed back “with crimson joy”, then pitted against a professor of nineteenth-century literature who “had come to hate me personally” and would foil his hard work towards graduation with an “implausible” C. That poem “Crisis”, can only conceivably be followed by “Recovery”, at the end of Part I, where the faculty Dean, Van Doren, and “the whole senior staff of the English Department” fret and agree to set a further trial for our hero in the form of a second exam: “I took it—it was fair, hard—& I killed it.” Saving the department from “disgrace”, he is free to take up the 2major Fellowship / for two years in England” and fulfil his destiny. It is, perhaps, another place where a contrary influence asserts itself on Love & Fame, here in contrast with Schwartz bitter earlier departure from postgraduate studies at Harvard, without taking a degree after missing out on a fellowship he had been promised.

A more pointed contrast emerges in the emphasis placed on mentors and heroes throughout this apprentice stage, whose dropped names confer all the cachet of association without undermining the narrative of self-actualization, as more credit to helpful peers might do. Among these, Auden is a recurring figure, with whom admiring encounters in Parts II & III are foreshadowed in the second poem of Part I, where the besotted undergraduate vows

I poured more thought that Fall into Auden
than into Shirley C
the preternatural dancer from Johnson Hall.
                                                                      (“Shirley & Auden”)

Another poem in Part I fantasizes about taking either Yeats or Auden as father to his motherly longing to give birth to “big fat fresh original & characteristic poems.” Given Berryman’s tendency to “outrageously hero worship living and dead,” as Lowell later recalled, we might hurry to repeat one of Schwartz’s favorite anecdotes, about Berryman’s jealousy at his first meeting Auden in 1940. A mutual acquaintance had been in touch to tell Schwartz the English poet, freshly arrived in New York, was eager to meet him. Schwartz had published his critical but admiring essay “The Two Audens” in the Kenyon Review the previous month, and the two spent most of the afternoon together, before Schwartz finally met Berryman, two hours late, at the Museum of Modern Art. When Schwartz told him where he had been, Berryman promptly fainted, or “staged a faint,” as Schwartz saw it. Never mind that Berryman had been unwell throughout the winter, in and out of care, and recently diagnosed with petit mal epilepsy. Schwartz would profess to their mutual mentor Van Doren that

My own impression, whatever it is worth, is that the only thing wrong with John is some kind of hysteria. The fainting fits … I don’t think they’re sheer frauds, but if they spring from his secret disease, the disease is an open secret, and besides the fainting, there is no sign of anything wrong with him. (Atlas, 211)

Never mind as well, the fact – corrected for the record by Love & Fame – that Berryman had already encountered Auden years before in England, then been in correspondence with, and seen him separately in New York before Schwartz.

* * *

Ultimately, the most immediate historical contrast between Genesis and Love & Fame might be in their making. Berryman finished most of his book in a furious seven weeks of early 1970. Schwartz, on the other hand, had worked since at least 1931on early versions of the great myth of self-origin finally published in 1943. As an undergraduate at Wisconsin, he began laboring over the structure of what he then planned on an earnest philosophical schema, moving through what he called epistemological “grades of permanence”. James Laughlin expressed deep reservations while preparing Genesis (“Book One”) for publication, but these doubts merely provoked greater self-assurance in Schwartz, who would only concede: “I read some more of Genesis and now fear that it is so good that no one will believe that I, mere I, am author, but rather a team of inspired poets.” The standard narrative of Schwartz’s long downfall sets his outrageous confidence that the book would be hailed as a masterpiece, a “giant work” which “will last as long as the Pyramids”, against the lackluster reality of its reception. But six months before publication, the manuscript had its most articulate challenge – or, in Schwartz’s case, occasion for belligerent defiance – from Auden himself. He begins a long, detailed letter:

I have been trying to get clear in my mind just how to explain to myself and you why I feel you would be wise not to publish a poem on which you have spent so much time and thought. (qtd. Atlas, 217)

In short, Auden thinks Schwartz lacks conviction. The metaphysical and psychoanalytic frameworks upon which the poem is built have brought Schwartz to a “precipice” from which he appears unable or unwilling to make the final leap of faith. This needn’t be regarded as a strictly religious faith, however; and Auden compares Genesis to Wordsworth’s conviction in The Prelude “that the poetic imagination and the religious revelation are one”. Of course Auden disagrees, but the point that “Wordsworth really managed to believe this, while you are trying to, but are too advanced to succeed.” He concludes:

The central fault in your poem is, in my opinion, just this false hope that if you only look up and remember enough, significance and value and belief will appear of themselves. (Atlas, 220)

Whether or not we agree about the implications for Genesis’ final merits, Auden’s critique cuts to the book’s solipsistic heart, which indeed, beats with from Schwartz’s philosophical preoccupations. In notes for the work-in-progress, he bemoans the self’s essential isolation: “Do I love only my sense-impressions, enacting the sin of Narcissus?” Even the chorus, which might have saved the subject from isolation, is conceived in earlier versions as “the ego’s image of what the world would think (psychologically speaking) of [the protagonist’s] long confession.” Without diagnosing Berryman as any less or differently narcissistic, we can wonder if Auden’s critique extends to a book like Love & Fame, or if it circles the same self-conscious premise.

I don’t think so; and not only because the book name-checks Wordsworth one time too many. A bit contrarily, perhaps, I think the most striking evidence for Berryman’s more objective (as opposed to subjective) convictions lies in the artifice of Part IV’s dramatic religious conversion. Whether, like his counsellors in St. Mary’s rehabilitation center, we remain unconvinced by his change of heart is beside the point. The fact that, unlike the Harvard episode above, we have no way of proving or disproving the reality of Berryman’s religious faith, either inside or outside the text, is the great coup of its contrivance. The dropping of masks in the rest of book – putting “John Berryman! … John Berryman!” into Part I, or his home address in Part III – can already be read as a perverse response to the charge of “confessionalism,” which he elsewhere answers in interviews “with rage and contempt!” By closing the gap on all speculative correspondence between biographical and textual subjects, the poems submit to more radical ambiguities. As Louise Glück reads it in her searing essay “Against Sincerity”, by posing as “straight gossip, straight from the source,” the poems amplify their classically Berrymanic discontinuities. The poem “Message” in Part III calls us out: “I am not writing an autobiography-in-verse, my friends. … It’s not my life. / That’s occluded and lost.”

“I do not understand; but I believe,” avows the speaker of the eighth Address, “A Prayer for the Self.” Beneath the performative ritual of belief which makes the invocations of “Eleven Addresses” as real and staged as anything else in the book, Berryman’s New Critical agnosticism, in contrast with Schwartz’s Freudianism, draws an equivalence between the I and Thou of these poems, or the lyric address which is, at any rate, analogous as a device to the “you” of his Sonnets or Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The question posed in No. 4 of the Addresses, “If I say Thy name, art Thou there?” pertains as much to the poet “there”, beyond the poem; and the rhetorical answer is precise in its equivocation: “It may be so.”

In this way, the devised uncertainty of the “Eleven Addresses” fulfils the negative capability of this Keatsian-titled book. To my own ends, I could hardly have contrived a better illustration of this last point about the objective self than a beautiful moment in Berryman’s Paris Review interview, conducted in St. Mary’s a few months after finishing Love & Fame. Discussing the formal breakthrough he had with Homage to Bradstreet, a poem which moves towards a similar collapse of address, Berryman explains: “It did not occur to me to have a dialogue between them—to insert bodily Henry into the poem…” He quickly corrects himself: “Me, to insert me, in my own person, John Berryman, I, into the poem…” The interviewer asks, “Was that a Freudian slip?” And of course, the poet is obliged to answer: “I don’t know.”

J. T. WELSCH has published six chapbooks of poetry, including Hell Creek Anthology (Sidekick) and The Ruin (Annexe), both in 2015. Previous short collections include Waterloo (Like This Press, 2012) and Orchids (Salt, 2010). His poetry has appeared in 3AM, Blackbox Manifold, Boston Review, Manchester Review, Poetry Wales, and PN Review, among other places. He lives in York, UK, where he is Head of Creative Writing at York St. John University.