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
Tolley, A. T. The Poetry of the Forties. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1985. 48-49, 209-210.


The way in which the pervasive influence of early modernist poetry could be at once liberating and distortive is seen in the careers of Henry Reed and Terence Tiller. Both gave the impression of brilliant and cultivated talents with their first books. They were among the few poets that John Lehmann encouraged by steady publication in his periodicals throughout the decade. Yet the work of each of them gives the impression of a talent in some ways led astray.

Reed produced only one book of poetry, A Map of Verona (1946): it contained the celebrated "Lessons of War"; and the telling parody of Four Quartets, "Chard Whitlow". A number of the poems from the forties are the Arthurian suite, "Tintagel", and the classical monologues, "Chrysothemis" and "Philoctetes". A third monologue, "Antigone" later appeared in Penguin New Writing.

These poems attempt an exploration of the inner life through the use of myth: in "Tintagel" the protagonists become exemplars of states of mind; while in "Antigone" there is a probing of the myth for its psychological meaning. Like Reed's earlier poems, they are stylish, evocative and controlled. Their notable achievement is the skilfully modulated tone of voice, recognisably Reed's, even though the diction and movement of the poems are derivative from Eliot. There is a gift for the evocation of particular detail, with sensitivity of observation and discrimination.

Somewhere beyond, and held in a dream of summer,
Lies the familiar place, familiar,
And desperately unknown. And high or low,
Under that sky, through every branch and bracken,
In every fibre of the sunflower-hedge, in every ripple
Of air among the grasses, silent glint
Of light and leaf, the sense of prearrangement,
And the sense of a new death. Forever and forever,
This place has waited for you, created leaf and flower,
Has shaped the stream in its course for you to remember,
Forever waiting.
("Tintagel III—King Mark")

Yet the effect of this delicacy of delineation is sometimes to overwhelm the poems, rather than to bring feeling into focus. Indeed, the


tentative questionings and characterisations become the mannerisms of a sensativity at times seemingly factitious, because it has no object. The parody of "Chard Whitlow" shows an acute recognition of the mannerisms of Four Quartets, but these same mannerisms become a staple of Reed's poetry without the firm resonance of inner meaning that redeems them in Eliot's poems "I have changed my mind; or my mind is changed in me" ("Philoctetes"): the play on words through the correction of the customary phrase does not alert the reader in any important way. Characteristic is the puzzled cultivation of local sensitivity in the attractive title poem, "A Map of Verona", in which the speaker lingers over a map of the city he has never visited:

But I remember, once your map lay open,
As now Verona's under the still lamp-light.
I thought, are these the streets to walk in in the mornings,
Are these the gardens to linger in at night?

Reed's poems show a serious attempt to cultivate an individual talent of considerable potentiality. Their over-insistence on sensitivity is symptomatic of the high valuation placed on that quality in the forties. Yet the failure of some poems can also be seen as symptomatic of the modernist preoccupation with style—a concern that leaves Reed very much at the mercy of his chief admiration, Eliot. It is hard to imagine what Reed's poetry would have been without the example of Eliot; but Eliot becomes (in the phrase he used of Milton) a "Chinese wall" ["Christopher Marlowe" in Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber, 1951) 118] for Reed's Poetry. The very accomplishment of Reed's cultivation of the Eliotean manner seems to hinder the development of a personal voice, heard authentically and enduringly in congenial but minor poems like "A Map of Verona" or "Lessons of War".



"Lessons of War" by Henry Reed, perhaps the most anthologised poems of the war, express this bored alienation. The three poems take


their titles from topics of infantry training, "Naming of Parts", "Judging Distances" and "Unarmed Combat". (Reed was much later to add two more sections.) They work by the ironic contrast between the voice of the instructor and the inner voice of the poet, whose mind, bored, wanders off into an aesthetic contemplation of his surroundings. As in all of Reed's poetry, there is a deftness in the handling of verse movement, and there is a virtuosity in projecting the voice of the instructor. The ironies of the poetry are enhanced, in the best of the poems, "Naming of Parts", by the sexual suggestion that underlies the lessons on the parts of the rifle.

And this as you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the Spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
     They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
     For today we have naming of parts.

The ironies are paraded before the reader; but, as in much of Reed's poetry, one senses a certain emptiness behind the vituosity. The life of the poems is in the imitation of the instructor, while the counter-poised poetic response seems, in contrast, a little precious.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016