Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

‘…in that the Soul standeth’: Randall Jarrell’s 90 North and John Berryman’s A Prayer for the Self

Toby Martinez de las Rivas

The quote in the title of this short article is taken from Of Heaven and Hell by Jakob Boehme, a German shoemaker, mystic and theologian who lived in the latter part of the sixteenth and first part of the seventeenth centuries. Here is the extract in which it appears:


What not! said the inquisitive Junius:
          Must not the Soul leave the Body at Death, and go either to Heaven or Hell?


It needs no going forth, replied the venerable Theophorus:
         Only the outward mortal Life with the Body shall separate themselves from the Soul. 
         The Soul hath Heaven and Hell within itself before, according as it is written, 
         The Kingdom of God cometh not with Observation, neither shall they say, Lo here! 
         Or Lo there! For behold the Kingdom of God is within you. And whichsoever of the two, 
         that is, either Heaven or Hell is manifested in it, in that the Soul standeth.  

It was (and still is) a rather unusual view for a Lutheran to hold – that Hell and Heaven are not external to man, but are within him, waiting to be ‘manifested,’ or chosen. It goes against the doctrine of Sola Fide in which Grace is granted or withheld without any reference to good works and places a burden of very great responsibility on the individual, recognising choice as being at the very heart of the human dilemma. In this it is undoubtedly close to what we now know as Existentialism, and although Boehme writes in a religious context one can, if one prefers, substitute Despair for Hell, and Hope for Heaven. It is hardly a precise analogy, but it works plausibly enough for our purposes. Whichever you prefer, I wish to look at two of my favourite poems of the second half of the twentieth century – Randall Jarrell’s ’90 North’ and John Berryman’s ‘A Prayer for the Self,’ and think about them within the context of existential choice and the implications of this for both the individual and society.

First, a question. Do you remember reading 1984 for the first time? Right until the very last page – the very last paragraph – were you also waiting for some act of selflessness or sacrifice or even minor kindness to redeem Orwell’s bleakly pessimistic vision? Didn’t the end, when it came, feel like an iron door being shut on a windowless room? No need to even question when the dawn was coming. It never would. The horror of Randall Jarrell’s ‘90 North’ is located in that same room where hopelessness in its fullest sense lies not in the necessarily flawed expression of natural human behaviour but stands as the very condition of human existence – to live fundamentally means to be without hope. Life and despair are, essentially, synonyms. What I think I finally find so disturbing about it is that I have always been rather wedded to Keats’ dictum, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” And ‘90 North’ is both beautiful (as a formal, aesthetic object) and true – or true insofar as one has faith in its existential position, if that doesn’t sound like a cavil. Perhaps it would be best to say that it has the potential to be cosmically true. Further, I have no doubt that Jarrell felt it to be true – the poem strikes with all the force of someone reaching a point of realisation, and a major part of its achievement lies in the slow but sure process of perfectly sound reasoning which leads to the awful denouement of the last line:


I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness – that the darkness flung me –
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain. 


But, at the same time, the last line is qualitatively different from any that came before as it embodies a sudden and profound moment of choice. Though, as we have said, the reasoning which leads to that choice is, in its way, as flawless as the idea of North, the purity of the pole, the ‘berg of death,’ mentioned earlier in the poem, it is never inexorable. It does not have to lead where it leads. It need only lead, in fact, to the penultimate sentence: ‘Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom.’ We know that to be true – it is an evidence-based proposition. So much so that we have a cliché for it: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Though it would have been a far lesser poem, Jarrell could have left it there. Or he could have mitigated or altered his final assertion that pain is simply pain, that the condition of human life is irredeemable despair – useless, empty, all-consuming and terrible. No, it is in the proposition of an unprovable (but not unreasonable) ontological or existential truth that the poem derives its all-embracing horror. Why ‘all-embracing’? There is a passage in Sartre from Existentialism and Human Emotions which bears on this, and which is worth quoting from extensively:
‘And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men…If I am a workingman and choose to join a Christian trade-union rather than be a communist, and if by being a member I want to show that the best thing for man is resignation, that the kingdom of man is not of this world, I am not only involving my own case – I want to be resigned for everyone. As a result, my action has involved all humanity. To take a more individual matter, if I want to marry, to have children; even if this marriage depends solely on my own circumstances or passion or wish, I am involving all humanity in monogamy and not merely myself. Therefore, I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man’ [my italics].
In departing from the logical, ordered reasoning of the propositions that lead up to his final assertion, therefore, Jarrell is making a profound existential statement that involves all of humanity. In his moment of personal despair, in the acuity of his vision, in his insight to himself, he is choosing a vision for mankind. Seeing his own life with all its autobiographical history stretching back to his childhood ‘At home, in my flannel gown…’ suddenly re-conceived in the light of a total despair and hopelessness, we realize that we are all implicated in it. Jarrell’s despair is our despair, is our despair for our children and lovers and friends. We are right to be affected and terrified by it, and his unwavering faithfulness to the revelation he finds there is to be profoundly admired, despite the truth it unveils being an awful truth.

How strange, then, to find its reproach in a poet as frequently, as bitterly –& as comically – bleak as John Berryman. Take this wonderful passage from Dream Song 123:


Colossal in the dawn comes the second light

we do all die, in the floor, in the morgue
and we must die forever, c’est la mort
a heady brilliance
the ultimate gloire
post-mach, probably in underwear
as we met each other once  


Although it has other concerns than ‘90 North’ – it honours and remembers another, for a start, and is passionately focussed on the physical body, moving from a sensual awareness of the poet lying on the sun-dappled floor of his apartment in the first verse, to the bodies of men lying in the morgue (‘There is always the morgue’) in the second, then the vision of the couple simultaneously dead and about to make love in the third – it comes from the same place ontologically.

But then, at the end of his more neglected final book, Love & Fame, Berryman shifts his ontological position radically and unexpectedly with his ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord,’ a series of ferociously taut and clear-eyed prayers which make no attempt to disguise the struggles and difficulties with which the poet wrestles as he explores the possibility of both personal and cosmic hope. I want to look, in particular, at A Prayer for the Self (interestingly, the only poem in the series that has a title) which begins ‘Who am I worthless that You spent such pains / and take may pains again? / I do not understand; but I believe.’ I don’t think we need waste any words on who the ‘persona’ of the poem is: something we must often do elsewhere in Berryman’s work – the ‘I’ throughout this poem and the sequence of which it is a part means: me, John Berryman, an individual identity confronting hope in God, Thou, an ‘ingenious and beneficial Father.’ These are, fundamentally, serious poems of faith, and, as such, are inevitably beset by doubt. In the first Address, for example, we find these lines: ‘I have no idea whether we live again. / It doesn’t seem likely / from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view…’ and there are others full of the subtle cynicism, biting sarcasm and unsparing wit which are typical Berryman: ‘Now, brooding thro’ a history of the early Church, / I identify with everyone, even the heresiarchs’ (6); and this from 2:


I say ‘Thy kingdom come,’ it means nothing to me.
Hast Thou prepared astonishments for man?
One sudden coming? Many so believe.
So not, without knowing anything, do I. 


Or how about the extraordinarily delicate and barbed zeugma which wraps up the final verse of 9?


Bear in mind me, Who have forgotten nothing,
& Who continues. I may not foreknow
& fail much to remember. You sustain
imperial desuetudes, at the kerb a widow.


Notice also the attentiveness to doctrine in the first two lines, where God is initially plural and active, expressing the economic Trinity, and then singular and static (‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)), outside of time and change. The erudition, the range of tone and feeling, the delicacy of expression, the self’s exposure without self-exculpation, the personal investment in the poems – the Addresses are Berryman at the absolute peak of his extraordinary powers.

But what do we mean by ‘personal investment’? It seems a rather nebulous and unproveable claim. Only this: that for Berryman, the stakes are high – as they are for Jarrell in ‘90 North’. This is not poetry as ‘game’ or ‘play’ (though there are elements of a mind that loves to play clearly at work throughout the sequence), or something which is of a lesser order of importance to the great struggles and questions of life. This is Berryman’s struggle – his struggle not only for meaning in existence, but for existence itself; for a whole, healed personhood. And, as we suggested earlier, it is the struggle he has chosen for us, too. Berryman is writing the same poem that Jarrell writes, but directing the will in precisely the opposite direction. Where Jarrell sees only darkness begetting darkness and unrelievable mental and physical pain as the basic condition of life, Berryman sees something quite different. Though he doubts, deeply and honestly, he is able, at the end of A Prayer for the Self to implore:


Ease in their passing my beloved friends,
all others too I have cared for in a travelling life,
anyone anywhere indeed. Lift up
sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.


Lift up / sober toward truth a scared self-estimate. It is an extraordinary line. To me, it has that same ring of authentic realisation and acceptance as Jarrell’s ‘Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. It is pain.’ To have faith in another, to have perfect trust – whether in a lover, a friend, God, an idea – is no easy thing. And that is clearly the case for both Jarrell and Berryman. The former finds terror in his acceptance of despair, the latter in his acceptance of hope. Both promise an extinction of sorts. For Jarrell it is the extinction of a brief and ultimately meaningless life in pain and darkness. For Berryman it is the extinction of a false but cherished and familiar self. Notice how what is lifted up towards truth (the means of extinction) is not the self qua self (in 3 he says, ‘Unite my various soul’), but ‘a scared self-estimate,’ a rough approximation of the self made in fear and divorced from the promise of wholeness and deliverance which Berryman finds in his God, the ‘sole watchman of the wide and single stars.’

So what is it, finally, that binds these two poems together, whose outcomes are so different? The answer, surely, is choice. And not a minor choice. Not a choice in the order of the choices most of us make every day, but a choice that, encompassing the self, encompasses all mankind, encompasses the whole universe. On one side is despair, on the other, hope. Hell, Heaven. The despair may prove to be a false despair, the hope may be cheated – we cannot know. Both are valid; both poets see the full potentiality of truth. And there is the conundrum, and the great beauty and terror and importance of certain poems. That they reach out of their own beings and into the self that confronts them, into the reader; they embody a potential, as-yet-unactualised truth to each individual who encounters them – and you have to choose.