Only work can save me

John Berryman
Photo by Pete Hohn/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman was just eleven when his father took his own life, a trauma that profoundly affected Berryman and resulted in a lifelong struggle with mental illness and alcoholism. At thirty-two, while teaching at Princeton University and five years into the first of three marriages, Berryman began an affair with the wife of a colleague—a liaison so pivotal that it inspired a sequence of more than a hundred sonnets, all of which remained unpublished for twenty years. It was at the time of the affair in 1947, amidst the guilt, that Berryman wrote the following diary entry. Sadly, Berryman eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, leaping to his death from a bridge in Minneapolis at the age of fifty-seven.

The Diary Entry

Drink and mistakes and debauchery have left me dry. Only work can save me.

Further Reading

John Berryman’s diaries are yet to be published, but some entries are quoted in The Life of John Berryman by John Haffenden, a biography first published in 1982. It is from that book that this entry comes, reprinted by kind permission of the Estate of John Berryman.


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