Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
The Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Jennings, Elizabeth. "Reed, Henry." In Contemporary Poets, 3rd ed., edited by James Vinson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

REED, Henry. British. Born in Birmingham, Warwickshire, 22 February 1914. Educated at the King Edward VI School, Birmingham; University of Birmingham, M.A. Served in the British Army, 1941-42. Teacher and free-lance journalist, 1937-41; Staff Member, Foreign Office, London, 1942-45. Since 1945, broadcaster, journalist, and radio writer. Address: c/o Jonathan Cape Ltd., 30 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3EL, England.



A Map of Verona. London, Cape, 1946; New York, Reynal, 1947.
Lessons of the War. New York, Chilmark Press, 1970.


Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (broadcast, 1947). London, Cape, 1947.


The Queen and the Rebels, adaptation of a play by Ugo Betti (broadcast, 1954; produced London, 1955). Included in Three Plays, 1956.
The Burnt Flower-Bed, adaptation of a play by Ugo Betti (produced London, 1955; New York, 1974). Included in Three Plays, 1956.
Summertime, adaptation of a play by Ugo Betti (produced London, 1955). Included in Three Plays, 1956.
Island of Goats, adaptation of a play by Ugo Betti (produced New York, 1955). Published as Crime on Goat Island, London, French, 1960; San Francisco, Chandler, 1961.
Three Plays (includes The Queen and the Rebels, The Burnt Flower-Bed, Summertime, adaptations of plays by Ugo Betti). London, Gollancz, 1956; New York, Grove Press, 1958.
Corruption in the Palace of Justice, adaptation of a play by Ugo Betti (broadcast, 1958; produced New York, 1963).
The Advertisement, adaptation of a play by Natalia Ginzburg (produced London, 1968; New York, 1974). London, Faber, 1969.
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (includes Leopardi: The Unblest; The Monument; The Great Desire I Had; Return to Naples; Vincenzo). London, BBC, 1971.
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (includes A Very Great Man Indeed; The Private Life of Hilda Tablet; A Hedge, Backwards; The Primal Scene, As It Were...). London, BBC, 1971.

Radio Plays: Noises On, 1947; Noises — Nasty and Nice, 1947; Moby Dick, 1947; Pytheas, 1947; Leopardi (includes The Unblest, 1949, and The Monument, 1950); A By-Election of the Nineties, 1951; The Dynasts, 1951; Malatesta, 1952; The Streets of Pompeii, 1952; The Great Desire I Had, 1952; Return to Naples, 1953; All for the Best, 1953; A Very Great Man Indeed, 1953; The Private Life of Hilda Tablet, 1954; Hamlet; or, The Consequences of Filial Piety, 1954; The Battle of the Masks, 1954; The Queen and the Rebels, 1954; Emily Butter, 1954; The Burnt Flower-Bed, 1955; Vincenzo, 1955; Crime on Goat Island, 1956; A Hedge, Backwards, 1956; Don Juan in Love, 1956; Alarica, 1956; Irene, 1957; Corruption in the Palace of Justice, 1958; The Primal Scene, As It Were..., 1958; The Auction Sale, 1958; The Island Where the King Is a Child, 1959; One Flesh, 1959; Not a Drum Was Heard, 1959; Musique Discréte, with Donald Swann, 1959; The House on the Water, 1961; A Hospital Case, 1961; The America Prize, 1964; Zone 36, 1965; Summertime, 1969; The Two Mrs. Morlis, 1971; The Wig, from a play by Natalia Ginzburg, 1976; Sorrows of Love, from a play by Giuseppe Giacosa, 1978.


The Novel since 1939. London, Longman, 1946.
Translator, Perdu and His Father, by Paride Rombi. London, Hart Davis, 1954.
Translator, Larger Than Life, by Dino Buzzati. London, Secker and Warburg, 1962.
Translator, Eugénie Grandet, by Balzac. New York, New American Library, 1964.

Henry Reed, although he has published only one collection of poems, A Map of Verona, is a much underrated writer. He is better known for the highly amusing dramatic pieces he has written for radio than for his poems.

A Map of Verona divides itself fairly simply into four sections — poems written about the last World War, personal poems, dramatic monologues, and a sequence entitled "Tintagel." Reed is also a comic poet, and he is certainly the only writer of importance who has (in


"Chard Whitlow") parodied T. S. Eliot with complete success. This too must be taken into account.

Henry Reed is a poet with a fine ear, a strongly disciplined sense of form, and passionate feelings. The personal poems, which will be considered first, are all the more effective because emotion is never allowed to get out of hand; Reed always eschews chaos. The title poem of his book is a good example of all his finest qualities. Here are its first two stanzas.

The flutes are warm: in to-morrow's cave the music
Trembles and forms inside the musician's mind,
The lights begin, and the shifting lights in the causeways
Are discerned through the dusk, and the rolling river behind

And in what hour of beauty, in what good arms,
Shall I those regions and that city attain
From whence my dreams and slightest movements rise?
And what good Arms shall take them away again?

Here is nostalgia without a trace of sentimentality. Every word is carefully chosen and placed. All this can be found in other personal poems where, by sheer artistry, the poet can communicate and, at the same time, keep the distance which all very good poems of human feeling must have if they are not to fall into bathos or formlessness. "Morning," "The Return," "Outside and In," and "The Door and the Window" all fall into this group of personal poems. The last named has the beautiful opening stanza:

My love, you are timely come, let me lie by your heart,
For waking in the dark this morning, I woke to that mystery,
Which we can all wake to, at some dark time or another:
Waking to find the room not as I thought it was,
But the window further away, and the door in another direction.

The sensibility which informs such poems as these is evident in a rather different way in the poems about the Army written during the 1939 war. Here, Reed displays irony as well as observation. There is a section entitled "Lessons of the War" which is composed of three parts, "Naming of Parts," "Judging Distances," and "Unarmed Combat." In the first of these poems, the training of soldiers and the arrival of Spring are most dexterously and tellingly blended. The second stanza runs:

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent eloquent gestures,
                                           Which in our case we have not got.

All the futility of war is rendered in these lines.


Nature goes on while men train in order to kill their enemy across the English Channel. The last lines of "Naming of Parts" complete what is, in its own very individual way, a most remarkable poem about war: "and the almond-blossom/Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,/ For to-day we have naming of parts."

Henry Reed always writes with a skill which conceals itself. This becomes more and more clear in the sequence called "The Desert" (also much concerned with war) and "Tintagel." In the latter, this poet's descriptive gifts are shown at their most intense. Part One, "Tristram" contains these lines:

The ruin leads your thoughts
Past the moment of darkness when silence fell over the hall,
And the only sound rising was the sound of frightened breathing...
To the perpetually recurring story,
The doorway open, either in the soft green weather,
The gulls seen over the purple-threaded sea, the cliffs,
                                                                 Or open in mist....

"Tintagel " also demonstrates Reed's ability to enter into the characters of others, which we find in the two monologues, "Chrysothemis" and "Philoctetes." In these poems, his highly-developed dramatic gift is clearly evident, especially in the matter of dialogue. Reed really brings Philoctetes to life in lines such as the following:

To my companions become unbearable,
I was put on this island. But the story
As you have heard it is with time distorted,
And passion and pity have done their best for it...
...They seized me and forced me ashore,
And wept.

The poet is completely identified with Philoctetes and his plight.

Finally we must glance at "Chard Whitlow (Mr. Eliot's Sunday Evening Postscript)," Henry Reed's brilliant parody of the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets. Here we have just two passages from what is not a long piece:

Seasons return, and to-day I am fifty-five
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
                                                                 I think you will find this put,
Far better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: "It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Can extinguish hell."

This is true parody, both uproariously funny and shrewdly ironic. Eliot's tone is perfectly caught, and Reed's mockery is not unkind but illustrates the ownership of a fine ear and a mastery of language.

Why such a good poet has written so little poetry is strange. The BBC has a way of inadvertently making its poet-employees either "dry-up" altogether or else produce a poem only now and then (Terence Tiller is another case in point). But Henry Reed has written a handful of poems that may well last; these are probably the war poems. His command over verse-forms and language is flawless. Perhaps, in old age, he will return to poetry again. It would be a loss to English literature if he did not.

—Elizabeth Jennings




Page last modified: 01 October 2016