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
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Simpson, Roger. "King Arthur in World War Two Poetry: His Finest Hour?" Arthuriana 13, no. 1 (2003): 77-78, 89.

Excerpt from "King Arthur in World War Two Poetry: His Finest Hour?"

Roger Simpson

for ivor laughlin (1944)

This article surveys the many diverse forms taken by the Arthurian legends in English poetry during the Second World War. (RS)


The literature that celebrated a reborn Arthur was very public: in theme, in form and in audience. Not only was it produced by a widely known novelist (Young) and by a BBC radio dramatist with an extensive following (Dane), it had close links with mass newspaper readership: Mee was one of the leading popular journalists of the age; Cammell's poem appeared in the Scotsman, Shanks's in the Sunday Times; other patriotic sonnets by Dunsany were regularly printed in the Daily Sketch and Sunday Times. These public qualities are in marked contrast to much that was written by younger poets of the day, in whose work privacy is a dominant concept. This is seen at its most acute in those poems involved with the Tristram theme, which has always been, of all Arthurian stories, the most personal, the most antisocial, in defending intensely private feelings against an exterior threat posed by the family, the court, the whole of society, even existence itself. Expectedly enough, then, two short poems by Oxford students, John Heath-Stubbs (b.1918) and David Luke, operate conventionally within this literary tradition. A hostile marine world divides Heath-Stubbs's Tristan from the sweet landscape of his lost heart, Isolde. 34 In Luke's sonnet Tristan, who hates 'the day's cold fabric,' drifts westward towards a union with his lost queen in the 'enchanted castle' of death. 35 In contrast to these clear-cut vignettes, Henry


Reed (1914-86) displays a far more complex handling. Reed wrote some verse that was intimately concerned with the minutiae of daily military experience — his 'Naming of Parts' about the boredom of weapons training probably being the War's best-known poem — and his 'Tintagel' too seems to have stemmed from an actual event, a leave-time visit he made to the Cornish castle with his lover, Michael Ramsbotham, in 1943. 36 But the creation and interpretation of this subtly shifting poem (of some 200 lines) cannot be tied down so neatly. It consists of four sections written 'at periods long separated from each other' (p. 158n), each section focusing on a key figure: Tristram, Iseult Blaunchesmains, Mark, and Iseult La Belle. 37 There is a broadly common location — the ruins of Tintagel and environs (weather, sea, rocks, flora) are all specifically realized — but space here is intricately linked with time: the scenery belongs to the modern topographical dimension of Reed's visit but the protagonists move also in a mythopoeic zone. This time is sometimes frozen into eternally fixed moments of anguish, as when both Iseult Blaunchesmains and Mark finally realize that they are forever excluded from the central love story of Tristram and Iseult La Belle, or when time is occasionally widened in scope to bond both modern reader and legendary actor in a continuing temporal cycle of recurrence, at the centre of which remains the figure of Iseult La Belle, archetypal lover and beloved, charitably disposed but ultimately powerless to alleviate the universal human tragedy:

Oh you, who will never be other than children,
Do you think, if I could, I would not reach my hand,
Through the choking mist and the echoing night of blackness,
To bless you, soothe you, and guide you through your hell?



34 John Heath-Stubbs, 'The Lament of Tristan,' in Beauty and the Beast (London: Routledge, 1943), p. 29.
35 David Luke, 'Tristan,' in Poetry From Oxford in Wartime, ed. William Bell (London: Fortune Press, 1945), p. 82.
36 Henry Reed, Collected Poems, ed. Jon Stallworthy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. xiv.
37 'Tintagel' [later renamed 'Tristram'] appeared in More Poems from the Forces, ed. Keidrych Rhys (London: Routledge, 1943), pp. 228-30; 'Iseult Blaunchesmains,' Listener (30 December 1943), 756; 'King Mark,' Orion, 1 (1945), 103-04; and 'Iseult La Belle,' Penguin New Writing, 23 (1945), 104-05. The whole poem was then published as 'Tintagel,' in Henry Reed, A Map of Verona (London: Cape, 1946), pp. 44-51.


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