In Berryman’s poem “29,” from The Dream Songs, is an interesting piece. It speaks to the guilt of regrettable acts and the scorn of those admired who realize it. The first stanza of the poem details the persona of Henry, whose heart is heavy and nights sleepless, overwhelmed and haunted by a deed committed. A deed which comes back to him in random ways: a “cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.”
On the other side of this guilt is the scorn of people who Henry respects, detailed in stanza two. His guilt in the matter so fresh still that the stern looks on their faces will be burned in his memory forever. In dealing with his guilt, though, he understands that tears are meaningless and that regret and guilt cannot undo what has been done.
Finally, in the last stanza, Henry ponders the nature of his trespass and the severity of it. He never murdered anybody, after all. But then, why must he count everyone up? Is it perhaps the fear of murdering someone that he is pondering? This brings us to the ultimate question of the poem: what has Henry done?
Personally, I don’t believe that Henry has committed any inhospitable acts in this poem, I believe that this poem is an ethical dilemma in a young man as to whether he has the temerity and personality that could lead to murder. I know that when I was young and foolish, I read those Time-Life serial killer books and watched frightening murder movies and read horrific novels of death and dismemberment. I know that many people did these things and continue to today, as there is such a large market for them. What is so frightening about these things, though, is the idea that someone out there is capable of thinking or doing these things; and this drives the mind to wander into the question of whether you yourself have that in you. Could I kill someone? Would I be overwhelmed by the guilt? And how guilty and exposed do I feel already, admitting that this is even something I’ve allowed myself to ponder? Let’s say that the guilt wouldn’t drive me mad, then would I be able to live a scorned life, ostracized by everyone and everything I’ve ever known? The only way to find out would be to do it, but then it would be too late to decide that it was a poor decision. Ultimately, I know that I could never hurt anyone remotely violently, so why should I feel guilty about questioning my trespasses?
I’m really not a scary person, but this is a thought process most every young boy goes through. I think that this was what Berryman was going through as he wrote this.