In the Beginning, Such a Happy Couplet

By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, October 16, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Eileen Simpson, a little-known but thoughtful and graceful writer, drew upon William Wordsworth's autobiographical poem "Resolution and Independence" for the epigraph and title of her third book: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Her book, published in 1982 as "Poets in Their Youth," illustrates Wordsworth's point with clarity, sympathy and an utter lack of sentimentality. It is as powerful and knowing an account of the literary muse and its effects as one could hope to read, and the neglect into which it seems to be sliding is a genuine injustice.

On New Year's Day 1941, Simpson, then in her early twenties and living and working in New York, met a young lecturer at Harvard who had a quick mind and an "irresistible grin." He went by the name of John Berryman, though he had been born John Allyn Smith; his father had committed suicide when he was a boy, and he readily permitted his new stepfather to adopt him and give him his own surname, a decision he subsequently -- and obsessively -- came to regard as rank and contemptible disloyalty. He was, in any event, a young man of great charm and she, having been orphaned at the age of 7, probably yearned for what she must have believed to be the stability and security of marriage.

So in October 1942, in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, Eileen Mulligan and John Berryman were married, with his former teacher and mentor Mark Van Doren as best man, and they moved after the briefest of honeymoons into a chilly apartment on Beacon Hill, in which there was little except their love to keep them warm. It was the beginning of just over a decade of marriage, of much happiness punctuated by her ever more frequent awareness of her husband's "need to live in turbulence -- if it wasn't drinking and women, it was the way he worked." The marriage ended with her decision, in 1953, to leave him, not for someone else but for herself and, in a way, for him:

"John's life had become a high-wire act. He was flirting with his subtle foe [suicide] in the certainty that there was an invisible net, held by me, which would catch him should he lose his footing. The job of net-holder had exhausted me. More important, I realized that by making myself available in this way I had been encouraging him to be more and more incautious, less vigilant against the current that was threatening to suck him under."

Simpson knew that leaving him would cause "anguish" for both of them, though she was surprised after it happened that "the emotions I had expected to feel on separation, the predictable anger and bitterness at the failure of a marriage, were smothered under a blanket of grief." She recovered, though, moving along to a successful career as psychotherapist and a happy second marriage to Robert Simpson, a diplomat and authority on the Middle East; she published a couple more books before her death in 2002. Berryman recovered, too, in his fashion, publishing poetry to ever greater acclaim, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, marrying twice more -- but then, perhaps inevitably, killing himself in Minneapolis in 1972 by doing "what he had been rehearsing at least as far back as the night of our engagement party: He jumped from a railing, this time of a bridge, with no net and the frozen Mississippi River below." He was 57 years old.

But that is the end of the story. What Simpson tells in "Poets in Their Youth" is its beginning, those days of promise and excitement before its heartbreaking end made itself clear. They were days of intense friendships with Delmore Schwartz, R.P. Blackmur, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Theodore Roethke -- the successors to Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot (who makes an engaging cameo appearance in this book), E.E. Cummings, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, and perhaps the last generation of American poets whose voices could be heard outside the narrow circle in which they themselves moved.

From almost the moment they met, Berryman talked to Simpson of little else except poetry, "the writing of which, he said, quoting Delmore, was 'a vocation.' It demanded, and should have, a poet's whole attention. . . . He must be engaged in it with his whole being. But how could he, John, be so engaged when he had to earn a living?" The dilemma haunted him throughout his marriage to Simpson and was never really resolved until the publication of his long poem "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" in 1956 brought modestly remunerative opportunities for readings and lectures, and his Pulitzer a decade later for "Dream Songs" established him as a major literary figure.

The early years, though, were unremittingly hard. He lectured for a while at Harvard, then at Princeton, but such assignments came irregularly, paid poorly and were distracting: "He liked teaching, was good at it, also liked the boys. But the important thing, the real thing, the only thing was to write poetry. All else was wasted time." Marriage was a distraction, too: "Responsibility toward marriage vs. responsibility toward art became a serious conflict for one who was almost as ambitious to be a good husband as a good poet." Simpson loved her husband deeply, and almost three decades after leaving him, as she wrote this book, that love still colored her view of him and his work, but his "psychological instability," often manifested as threats of suicide, taught her that "no amount of love and care could protect him from external circumstances, and that these could bring him to the edge of madness."

Whether Berryman was manic-depressive is not clear -- his beloved friend Delmore Schwartz most certainly was, and there were plenty of signs of it elsewhere in their tight poetic circle -- but his moods swung swiftly and sometimes violently. When he was happy he was irresistible, and surely it was the memory of such times that kept Simpson by his side even as it became ever more apparent that she had to leave him, but when he was unhappy he dragged as many people down with him as he could. One year during the war -- he was rejected by the armed services because of poor vision -- he was happy, and admitted it to his wife: "He was touched to hear me say what he already knew, that I too had never been happier. 'What the hell is happiness?' he asked with a happy laugh. And, more uneasily, 'Should a poet seek it?' " This, Simpson subsequently realized, was their last prolonged period of happiness. One short-lived academic post or literary chore followed another, putting a bit of food on the table -- the various jobs that Simpson found for herself supplied the rest of their support -- but leaving Berryman to wonder: "What price did one pay for teaching creative writing?" Eventually he decided that "he did not want to climb the academic ladder," and stayed as far outside the system as he could, but in the postwar years the system was changing, drawing poets and other writers onto the campuses and turning literary writing into a hothouse flower. The academic circuit paid Berryman's bills for most of his adult life, as it did for his friends and fellow poets.

They were a remarkable group, and one of the great strengths of "Poets in Their Youth" is the group portrait that Simpson paints. She loved and cared about them all, and their wives -- among whom were Jean Stafford and Caroline Gordon -- and delighted in their company. A long chapter about two weeks in Maine with Lowell and Stafford gives us that notable couple in all the joy and misery they inflicted on each other; Simpson's picture of the sublimely gifted but tormented Schwartz is especially loving and, in the end, despairing. Many of them had come from unhappy childhoods with quarreling parents. They seemed to seek in their poems and their friendship the warmth they had not known as boys, and the orphaned Simpson was drawn to this, as well as to their loyalty to each other:

"One hears so much talk about the competitiveness of poets that I've often wondered: Are they any more competitive than astronauts, art collectors, assistant professors, jockeys, hostesses, ballet dancers, professional beauties? I doubt it. In the years during which John and his contemporaries were making their reputations, what impressed me was the generosity with which they offered one another advice, praise and encouragement. . . . As those of their generation neared the finish line and saw how few there were left in the race, they kept a close eye on one another's positions, of course, and rivalry undoubtedly became as keen with them as with any other finalists. With only a few prizes worth having, how could it not be so?"

The cleareyed compassion of that passage is characteristic of "Poets in Their Youth," which never sensationalizes these brilliant but wildly erratic young men, only seeks to understand them. So, too, is Simpson's final judgment on her former husband's death: "The litany of suicides among poets is long. After a while I began to feel that I'd missed the obvious. It was the poetry that had kept him alive." Only when he felt there were no more poems in him did he succumb to the urge that had haunted him all his life. This struck me as uncommonly wise when first I read the book in 1982, inspired to do so by a review I no longer remember, and it strikes me as even more so now. "Poets in Their Youth" has more to tell us about the minds and lives of poets than anything else I've read -- except, of course, the poems themselves.

"Poets in Their Youth" is out of print but available in libraries and used bookstores.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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