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
Cleverdon, Douglas. "Henry Reed." In The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 27, Poets of Great Britain and Ireland 1945-1960, edited by Vincent B. Sherry, Jr. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. 276-282.

Henry Reed
(22 February 1914-    )

Douglas Cleverdon

BOOKS: A Map of Verona (London: Cape, 1946; New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1948);
The Novel Since 1939 (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1946);
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (London: Cape, 1947);
Lessons of the War (New York & London: Clover Hill Editions/Chilmark Press, 1970);
The Streets of Pompeii, and other plays for radio (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1971);
Hilda Tablet and Others: four pieces for radio (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1971).

RADIO SCRIPTS: Moby Dick, BBC, 1947;
Pytheas: A Dramatic Speculation, BBC, 1947;
The Unblest, BBC, 1949;
The Monument, BBC, 1950;
Return to Naples, BBC, 1950;
A By-Election in the Nineties, BBC, 1951;
The Streets of Pompeii, BBC, 1952;
The Great Desire I Had, BBC, 1952;
A Very Great Man Indeed, BBC, 1953;
The Private Life of Hilda Tablet, BBC, 1954;
Vincenzo, BBC, 1955;
Emily Butter, BBC, 1955;
A Hedge, Backwards, BBC, 1956;
The Primal Scene, as it were..., BBC, 1958;
The Auction Sale, BBC, 1958;
Not a Drum Was Heard: The War Memoirs of General Gland, BBC, 1959;
Musique Discrète, BBC, 1959;
The Complete Lessons of War, BBC, 1960;

TRANSLATIONS: Ugo Betti, Three Plays (London: Gollanz, 1951; New York: Grove, 1958);
Betti, Crime on Goat Island (London: French, 1960; San Francisco: Chandler, 1961);
Dino Buzzati, Larger than Life (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962);
Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet (New York: New American Library, 1964).

Henry Reed's reputation was established in 1946 by a single slim book of poems, A Map of Verona, which includes his much-anthologized war poem "Naming of Parts," one of three poems grouped together as Lessons of the War. While he has occasionally had poems published in periodicals and an expanded version of Lessons of the War appeared in 1970, no other volume of his verse has been published; yet he continues to be well known in England because of his works for radio. The twenty years after World War II saw a flowering of creative talent among the younger poets, dramatists, and composers who found in BBC Radio a fulfilling and reasonably profitable outlet for their work. The BBC Drama Department was the first to sponsor productions of plays by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Giles Cooper, and other now highly regarded dramatists.


BBC Features, whose staff producers included such poets as Louis MacNeice, W. R. Rodgers, and Terence Tiller, covered a wide range of programs. In this company Henry Reed was preeminent in the consistently high quality of his radio creations: in the compelling tragic beauty of his two verse plays on Giacomo Leopardi, The Unblest (1949) and The Monument (1950), no less than in the series of plays that depict hilarious satirical delights of Hilda Tablet and her circle—A Very Great Man Indeed (1953), The Private Life of Hilda Tablet (1954), Emily Butter (1955), A Hedge, Backwards (1956), and The Primal Scene, as it were (1958).

Born in Birmingham in 1914 to Henry and Mary Ann Bell Reed, Henry Reed was educated at King Edward VI School and later at the University of Birmingham, where Louis MacNeice, then a young assistant lecturer in classics, was a stimulating influence on a group of intelligent undergraduates, several of whom later became BBC radio writers and producers. Taking a first-class honors degree in languages and literature in 1934 and later an M.A., Reed conceived a profound admiration for Thomas Hardy, and for several years worked on a biography, while occasionally contributing poems and book reviews to literary and other journals—in particular the Listener, whose editor, J. R. Ackerley had a considerable respect for Reed's abilities.

Having taught for a year at his old school, St. Edward VI in Birmingham, he was conscripted in 1941 into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and then transferred to the Foreign Office where he worked with Naval Intelligence. As he later told Vernon Scannell, he developed a capacity for comic impersonations of drill sergeants, a knack he perfected in the sergeant's voice in "Naming of Parts." Equally terse and ironic was his note for Who's Who about his last days of military service: "released VJ day, 1945; recalled to army, 1945; did not go, 1945; matter silently dropped, 1945."

In 1946 Reed produced A Map of Verona, which revealed an unmistakably individual mode of writing. The first group of poems, "Preludes," is largely personal in origin. The title poem, "A Map of Verona," reflects his love of Italy: the enchantments of towns already known, the anticipation of "the small strange city" of Verona, the "cautious questioning/ Of travellers who talk of Juliet's Tomb and fountains/And a shining smile of snowfall, late in Spring." Other poems recall travel with a loved friend. "Naming of Parts" intersperses the ambiguities of the sergeant's instructions to the squad about the manipulation of the rifle with descriptions of goings-on in the neighboring garden: "And rapidly backwards and forwards/The early bees are assaulting the flowers:/They call it easing the Spring.'" "Chard Whitlow" (often solemnly regarded as a serious poem) is a brilliant parody of T. S. Eliot.

In the second group of poems, "The Desert," Henry Reed's imaginative power creates images of distant oceans and lands, where "You, I, or we/Finally, certainly, may,/Skirting the shattered fragments,/Wander and praise." In the third group, "Tintagel," four poems—"Tristram," "Iseult Blaunchesmains," "King Mark," and "Iseult La Belle"—evoke the tragedy that each suffered. Finally, in the last two poems, Chrysothemis and Philoctetes re-enact their lives in the world of Greek mythology.

On its publication in 1946, A Map of Verona aroused considerable admiration. Of "this remarkable first volume" the critic for the New Statesman & Nation wrote: "Mr Henry Reed is a rare poet in more senses than one. He writes very little; that little is


highly finished and exactly chosen.... Already Mr Reed has a mastery of the blank-verse line as extended by Eliot. Where he will go to one can't tell, but all the hints seem to be here of larger work."

In the same year Reed wrote a short but comprehensive monograph, The Novel Since 1939, which was published by Longmans, Green, for the British Council. Thereafter all his major works were written for broadcasting on the BBC Third Programme. The first was a two-hour adaptation of Moby-Dick. As he wrote in his preface to the published text, "it is upon the book's symbolism and tragedy alone that an adaptor must concentrate." To retain all the most dramatic scenes would merely result in a series of roaring climaxes." Thus the script contains a number of reflective poems that concentrate on the experience of whaling, the whiteness of the whale, and the aura of the Pacific. Also, during the final three-days' pursuit of the whale, the second day is described in a verse intermezzo spoken by Ishmael. This radio version was imaginatively produced in 1947 by Stephen Potter, with Ralph Richardson as Ahab, and with music by Anthony Hopkins. In the same year he wrote his first full-length and original play for radio, Pytheas: A Dramatic Speculation, concerning the Greek traveler who sailed from Marseilles into the Atlantic in search of Ultima Thule.

Reed has a profound admiration for the poems of the nineteenth-century Italian poet Count Giacomo Leopardi. In 1949 and 1950 he wrote two verse plays based on Leopardi, using a sprung pentameter throughout. The first, The Unblest, evokes the cloistral atmosphere of the Palazzo Leopardi in the little provincial town of Recanati, where the children's lives are made miserable by the obsessive piety of their bigoted, domineering mother. Giacomo Leopardi, the eldest, a hunchback and half-blind, is never allowed out alone and lives vicariously trough the people he sees from his window:

Innocent passersby, you do not know
How you companion my waking nights, how you are forced
To meet my shut eyes' gaze, when I wake in the morning.
Clod-hopping youth, hold your arms tight round that girl.
In the waning day, draw her into the shadows;
Let the shadows embrace you both as you embrace.
You cannot escape me; while your mouth
Lies upon hers, she has been also mine.
Imagining the sexual passions of all he sees, he also hopes for release from his obsessions:
Help me, incredible God! unmake my fever,
Give me my unhorizoned innocence,
Or send me him who shall restore me to it,
And it to me. Send me Giordani....
The scholar-priest Pietro Giordani comes and takes Leopardi for a few hours to Macerata, and at last, in a deeply moving scene, Giacomo's father, realizing his son's despair, overrules his wife and allows Giacomo to leave Recanati for Rome. In The Monument, Leopardi is in Bologna eight years later, reknowned as a poet, moving in the cultured circles of he city, but suffering the anguish of unrequited love:
                                                                             And now she goes
Between the insensible stone and the heedless fountain,
By the trees that do not see her, as she passes
Where I dare not go with her, where I only follow,
To let the shadows that have fallen upon her path
Fall upon mine a moment after....
At the end of the play, he is drawn back to Recanati by memories of his sister and his brothers.

Return to Naples (1950) is semiautobiographical, a young Englishman's recreating five visits, ver a period of twenty years, to an Italian family in Naples, and reflecting their vicissitudes between 1930 and 1950. The father, a passionate stamp collector, and the mother, ample and warm but perpetually harassed by the domestic cares of bringing up four sons, have marvellously funny discussions in stamp collecting, or on the incomprehensible mores of the English), while they also reveal their anxieties and frustrations as attitudes change over the years. The Italian ambience is brilliantly conveyed by an occasional Italian epithet or a literally translated turn of phrase.

Reed regards his next play for radio, The Streets of Pompeii (1952), as "a sort of dramatic poem," although much of it is written in prose. The play opens with the formal, elegiac verse of the Sibyl of Cumae recalling the destruction of the town, in stanzas based on Leopardi's poem about the yellow broom growing on the slopes of Vesuvius:

Once more, once more, once more:

These plains once more with barren ashes covered,
Once more the lava, once more turned to stone;
The traveller's feet once more clink over it,
Once more, once more.
And the snake nests and coils in the sun's heat,
The rabbit seeks its familiar winding home
Once more.
And to this place,
Let him come bravely now, whose wont it is
To praise man's power and chance; here let him see
How the harsh Nurse covers her children's eyes.
On these bright shores full-painted let him see
Here of the human race
The magnificent, progressive destinies.
A crescendo of music brings a flashback of the Pompeians' panic as the mountain erupted. Silence ensues. A young Italian architectural student encounters a girl from Naples. As the hours pass from morning to dusk, their appreciative exploration of the ruins is often expressed in a loose, graceful pentameter. Their growing love is voiced in two deeply felt sonnets as each sees the other sleeping. The young woman says,
He sleeps, Attilio sleeps, sleeps lightly, sleeps by me.
I must not watch him, and I must, as there he lies.
I must not watch too long, lest when lie wakes, his eyes
Open to mine. I must not. It must not be.
I must watch instead the lizard or the tree,
Or the stones he knows so well: which recognise
The warm bright glance, affectionate and wise,
He turns upon them; so that I may not see
The sunlight fall on his mouth, nor the surrender
To sleep of his dark hair, nor clear and sweet
The curve of his silent cheek, the golden splendour
Of his throat and his arms and his thighs and his sandalled feet.
I will watch the lizard, or the stone, or the sky above him,
Lest he should see, when he wakes, dear Attilio, how dearly I love him.
A traveler contemplates the scene, while archaeologists make their way to the Villa of the Mysteries; four high-spirited young English tourists enjoy themselves; and a lizard basks in the heat. There follows an interchange between the Sibyl and the traveler as they evoke the erotic drama of the frescoes of the Mysteries. As evening falls, an elderly Englishman and his wife, recalling earlier visits to Pompeii, encounter the young Italian couple.

Technically this play is a skillful piece of dramatic writing, with continuing interaction and contrast between one group and another, between Roman Pompeii and the contemporary world, marked by subtle changes of mood and tension, and by smooth transitions from lighthearted badinage to passages of great force and beauty. In its evocative power it is essentially a poet's creation. First broadcast in 1950, it received an award from the Italia Prize jury in Palermo a few months later.

Although The Great Desire I Had (1952) and Vincenzo (1955) are not in verse, most of the narrations and soliloquies in these two radio plays are written in a heightened prose that is purely poetic in feeling and style. In The Great Desire I Had (the title is from The Taming of the Shrew, where Lucentio expresses "the great desire I had/To see faire Padua, nurserie of Arts"), Reed was prompted to imagine the visit that Shakespeare, in his thirtieth year, might have made to Italy. Meeting with a company of Italian players—including, of course, women instead of boys to play the female roles—Shakespeare appreciates their different approach to the art of the theater. Accompanying them to Mantua and the Gonzaga palace, where they are to perform before the well-known late-Renaissance patron Duke Vincenzo I, Shakespeare finds himself alone in the vast salon with Giulio Romano's huge Trojan frescoes sprawling over the walls. As Reed conceives it, Shakespeare has for ten years been planning an epic poem on the siege of Troy, but his work as actor and playwright has prevented its completion. Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga comes into the room, but does not disclose his identity to the Englishman. In their conversation Shakespeare speaks of his ten years' frustration. Vincenzo sensibly advises him to give up the Trojan epic and write something shorter—fifty lines, say, describing Giulio Romano's frescoes, just to satisfy his conscience; the lines might come in useful later. After the initial shock, Shakespeare sees the point, and the eventual outcome is The Rape of Lucrece.

Altogether The Great Desire I Had is a diverting jeu d'esprit, with lovely evocations of sixteenth-century Padua, Verona, Venice, and Mantua, both


in the narrative passages and in Shakespeare's own soliloquies. But it is a minor work in comparison with Vincenzo, which covers the life of Vincenzo Gonzaga from his nineteenth year, as an irresistibly handsome wanton young prince with the beautiful Ippolita, whom he calls Andromeda, as his favorite mistress, through his marriages, first to the fourteen-year-old Margherita Farnese (annulled when she proved childless), and then to Eleanora de Medici, who bore him four children and, at Vincenzo's insistence, brought up with them Silvio, his child by the Marchesa Agnese del Carretto. By this time Vincenzo is middle-aged, self-centered, and pompous, and fancies himself as a military commander, giving instructions to Rubens for paintings that will immortalize his exploits in his forthcoming campaign against the Turks.

The linking narrative is carried forward by the four women in Vincenzo's life, Ippolita, Margherita, Eleanora, and Agnese. Finally Margherita's brother Renuccio, now Duke of Parma, who has always hated Vincenzo, seizes Agnese's young lover and some other Mantuans in a sudden frenzy of suspicion. Fearing for their lives, Agnese persuades Vincenzo to offer remarriage to Margherita, in order to establish good relations between Parma and Mantua. For thirty years Margherita has lived in a convent, resigned to the religious life. In prayer she welcomes God's mercy in allowing her to return to his world and to walk among his fields and woods. But before the papal dispensation can be secured, she learns that Vincenzo has died, leaving her totally bereft.

Vincenzo is a remarkable work. Its understanding of human character, its erotic power, and its deep compassion are conjoined with delicate satire and delicious comedy. The language ranges from enchanting descriptions of the rose gardens of Colorno to witty bantering between lovers or the biting invective of family quarrels or the anguish of love nobly controlled. There are scenes that haunt the memory: Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his mistress Bianca Cappello lying together on their deathbed, unable to reach each other for one last kiss, but never renouncing their love though it condemned them to an eternity of damnation; or Vincenzo and his five-year-old Silvio sharing, entranced, the sufferings depicted in the seventeenth-century composer Monteverdi's "Lament of Ariadne" as she mourns the departure of Theseus. After Vincenzo explains that "in the end you will see that she is rescued and made happy by Bacchus, the god of wine," Silvio asks, "Are unhappy ladies always rescued from their sorrow by the god of wine?," and Vincenzo responds, "Very frequently, yes."

Meanwhile Reed had decided to abandon his unfinished biography of Hardy. He had worked at it intensively at first, and later sporadically, for twenty years, ever since he was at Birmingham University; and it was now a millstone round his neck that had frustrated the development of his true creative gifts. One offshoot of his research, however, was a lighthearted feature, A By-Election in the Nineties (1951), regarding a by-election in Dorchester of which Hardy must have been aware. And, just as Voltaire's jeu d'esprit, Candide, brought him far greater renown than his vast philosophical writings, so from the ashes of the life of Hardy arose that incomparable phoenix of radio, Hilda Tablet: the "composeress" of twelve-tone music, whose personality and achievements so impressed musical circles in London and elsewhere that (through the intermediation of Henry Reed and of Donald Swann who "realised" her compositions) she ultimately received the accolade of a two-column profile in the London Times.

One must regret that Hilda Tablet, diverting though she was, diverted Henry Reed from continuing to exercise his poetic creativity in more substantial radio works of the caliber of Vincenzo or The Streets of Pompeii. His succession of masterpieces for the BBC Features Department had established his reputation as second only, perhaps, to Louis MacNeice, the most distinguished and most consistently successful of the poets who were enlarging the frontiers of radio during the twenty years following the war—MacNeice, David Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, David Jones, Stevie Smith, as well as others less well-known. But the temptation to exploit in radio form his tribulations as a biographer of Thomas Hardy proved irresistible. In September 1953, the BBC Third Programme broadcast A Very Great Man Indeed, in which Henry Reed's other self, Herbert Reeve, an earnest but ingenuous young biographer, strives to collect material for his life of a famous novelist, ten-years dead, named Richard Shewin. Reeve's narrative is a delicious parody of literary-pompous biographese; the people he interviews range from the literary executrix ("The legal documents, Mr Reeve, will certainly be available as from February 22nd, 2017...." "What a charming coincidence. It will be my hundred and third birthday") to the two Miss Burkleys, "so courageously living out their spinsterhood in their little flat in Shepherd Market" (traditionally inhabited by high-class prostitutes). The part of Hilda Tablet was played so magnifi-


cently by Mary O'Farrell that a few months later Henry Reed produced a sequel, The Private Life of Hilda Tablet (1954), in which Hilda browbeats Reeve into making herself, not Shewin, the subject of his biography ("not more than twelve volumes, Bertie, I beg you. It was enough for Gibbon, it was enough for Proust. Let it be enough for you, Bertie"). She first suggests the transference in a hilarious bathroom scene, in which—as Reed later described it—"full frontal nudity was heard on radio for the first time, the writer being quite unaware of what a trail he was blazing."

All features producers for the BBC Features Department were contracted as writers also and worked in close collaboration with their free-lance radio writers, composers, actors, and technical staff. Office hours were largely disregarded, and it was in the BBC studios and, two adjacent taverns (the George and the Stag) that creative radio was nurtured. Reed was never a frequenter of pubs, but he was closely and affectionately involved with the group of brilliant players who regularly took most of the leading roles in his radio pieces. They virtually constituted a permanent company. Consequently in much of his work for radio he wrote with particular players in mind, and their individual abilities often spurred his creative imagination. Certainly without Mary O'Farrell's inspired performance as Hilda Tablet there would have been no sequel to A Very Great Man Indeed; and each of the subsequent programs was prompted by some ingredient in its predecessor. The Private Life of Hilda Tablet led inevitably to a brilliantly satirical evocation of the Covent Garden premiere of Hilda's opera, Emily Butter (1955). In contradistinction to Benjamin Britten's recent all-male opera, Billy Budd, the artistes in Emily Butter (at first provisionally entitled "Milly Mudd") were all female, except for "a plain-clothes police lady," whose role was sung by a basso profundo. Britten's "realisations" of Purcell and other early composers were reflected in the BBC closing announcement that "Hilda Tablet's score was realised by Donald Swann; the production was suddenly realised by Douglas Cleverdon." As a large proportion of the program consisted of operatic performance, Emily Butter was not included in the BBC collection Hilda Tablet and Others (1971). It was followed by A Hedge, Backwards (1956), in which Reeve is perplexed by confusing and contradictory biographical details from members of Richard Shewin's family, including a brother-in-law, General Gland—superbly characterized by an outstanding radio actor, Deryck Guyler.

Meanwhile Reed had conceived the idea of a major dramatic work on Clytemnestra. The BBC accordingly sponsored a visit to Mycenae (in a ship specializing in cultural tours to the Mediterranean). Unfortunately the Clytemnestra project was never completed; instead, Hilda Tablet and her entourage embarked for a Mediterranean voyage in a vessel owned by a Greek millionaire (who had sent back a Henry Moore sculpture because there was a hole in it). The trip was recorded in The Primal Scene, as it were (1958). In this psychoanalytical milieu General Gland's contribution was so outstanding that Reed went off at a tangent with Not a Drum Was Heard: The War Memoirs of General Gland (1959), which had some overtones of General Montgomery. In 1959 the wheel came full circle with Musique Discrète, a request programme of compositions by Dame Hilda Tablet, including her latest explorations into her own brand of "musique concrète renforcée."

In September 1958 the BBC Third Programme broadcast The Auction Sale, a partly rhymed poem of about 300 lines. The narrative describes a humdrum country auction of household furniture and ornaments of no particular interest or value until a large gold-framed painting of Venus and Mars is displayed. Its Renaissance beauty is never stressed, but the mood of the poem changes as the painting is described:

Effulgent in the Paduan air,
Ardent to yield the Venus lay
Naked upon the sunwarmed earth.
Evocative passages describing the picture are interspersed with the narrative, as two dealers from London compete against each other. At £2000 a quiet, inoffensive young man "from over Henstridge way" joins in the bidding:
And still within the Paduan field,
The silent summer scene stood by,
The sails, the hill-tops, and the sky,
And the bright warmth of Venus' glance
That had for centuries caught the eye
Of whosoever looked that way,
And now caught theirs, on this far day.
But after £4025 the young man responds no longer to the bidding; his sweating face is glowing red, with a look almost of pain. An hour later a child sees him striding beneath the sodden trees along the Henstridge Road:
He went on, through the soaking grass,
Crying: that was what she said.


Bitterly, she later added.

Crying bitterly, she said.
In the broadcast, the descriptive passages were spoken by Reed, with another voice carrying the narration. He did the same (with Frank Duncan as the sergeant instructor) when in February 1960 a sequence of five poems was broadcast under the title of The Complete Lessons of War. The sequence contains the three that had been included in A Map of Verona and two later poems, "Movement of Bodies" (added in 1950) and "Returning of Issue" (added in 1960), in the same vein. In "Movement of Bodies" the sergeant displays a model of a characteristic battle-terrain (ambiguously recalling a woman's body): "somewhat hilly by nature/with a fair amount of typical vegetation/disposed at certain parts/ .... /And here is our point of attack." The final poem, "Returning of Issue," marks the ending of the war. A prodigal son seeking his father's home, the soldier returns too late: "father, you could not hear me now,/where now you lie, crumpled in that small grave/like any withering dog." He rejoins the army, with its "military garments, and harlots, and riotous living." He has nowhere else to go.

In 1970 the five poems were published in a limited Clover Hill Edition as Lessons of the War. During the previous two decades a number of Reed's translations were published, including Ugo Betti's Three Plays (1951) and Crime on Goat Island (1960), Dino Buzzati's novel Larger than Life (1962), and Balzac's Eugénie Grandet (1964); many of Reed's translations of works by French and Italian playwrights have been broadcast by the BBC.

From 1964 through 1966, Reed spent some terms as visiting professor of poetry or assistant professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1971 BBC Publications published several of his most successful radio scripts in two volumes: The Streets of Pompeii, and other plays for radio and Hilda Tablet and Others. They bear comparison with Evelyn Waugh's novels in their satirical wit, their compassion, and their impeccable style; and they are no less stimulating to read than Decline and Fall or Brideshead Revisited. Belated recognition of Henry Reed's outstanding radio achievements came in 1979, when he received from the Society of Authors the first of the Pye Golden Awards for Radio. As for The Auction Sale and the other poems that have accumulated over the last thirty years, Reed's long-continuing ill health and his own high standards of perfection have delayed their final revision.

Roger Savage, "The radio plays of Henry Reed," in British radio drama, edited by John Drakakis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) pp. 158-190;
Vernon Scannell, "Henry Reed and Others," in his Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War (London: Woburn, 1976), pp. 134-171.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016