Thirty-eight years ago late this afternoon, during a lecture on Robert Browning, I learned of the death by suicide of John Berryman that morning. The professor, whose name I’ve forgotten, injected the news parenthetically, and I remember nothing else of the class. Berryman’s was the first public death that hit me personally. I was reading his work and what I knew of his life obsessively. At age 19, I fancied I was “half in love with easeful Death” but there was nothing easeful about Berryman’s leap from a bridge in Minneapolis onto the frozen bank of the Mississippi River. The poet was 57, the age I am today. A reader in New York City, also 57, wrote Wednesday morning to say he had been reading Montaigne’s “On a Few Verses of Virgil”:
“My guess is it was one of his later ones [1585-88], perhaps written after a couple of glasses of his strongest wine. His choices on how to fight off old age struck me as good prescriptions not yet expired. I don't have the quotes with me here at the office, but in effect, as you'll recall, he argued that at our age we need to fight temperance as much as we needed to seek it at times in our youth.”
At the time of his death, Berryman seemed improbably old to me. Youth is arrogantly myopic. Today, I grieve for Berryman’s early end, for the promise partially fulfilled, for the grace only hinted at in “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” collected in the last book he published during his life, Love & Fame (1970): “Oil all my turbulence as at Thy dictation / I sweat out my wayward works.” In one of his earliest essays, “That our happiness must not be judged until after our death” (1572-74) Montaigne writes:
“In judging the life of another, I always observe how it ended; and one of my principal concerns about my own end is that it shall go well, that is to say quietly and insensibly."
Montaigne died in 1592, six months short of his 60th birthday. The immediate cause of death was quinsy (peritonsillar abcesses), a condition that left him unable to speak. The most despairing poem I know is Berryman’s “He Resigns,” written early in 1971 while the poet was sober but severely depressed. It was published in Delusions etc. after his death:
“Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come & find me empty.
“I don’t feel this will change.
I don’t want any thing
or person, familiar or strange.
I don’t think I will sing
“any more just now;
ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.”