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
Brownjohn, Alan. "Collected Lifelines." Reviews of Collected Poems, by Henry Reed; Selected Poems, by E.J. Scovell; and Poems, 1963-1983, by Michael Longley. Sunday Times Books (London), 20 October 1991, 14 (.pdf).

Excerpt from Collected lifelines

For most people in the 1950s Henry Reed was the author of hilariously accurate radio satires on the literary life and, incidentally, the name underneath the most famous poem of the second world war, Naming of Parts. For some he was also known as the perpetrator of Chard Whitlow, a wicked, spot-on parody of a T S Eliot Quartet:

"This time last year I was fifty-four.
And this lime next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should care (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again — if you can call it time,
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair.
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube."

Only for tenacious Third Programme poetry listeners who picked up Philoctetes or The Auction Sale, and then perhaps sought out Reed's sole book, A Map of Verona (1946), was he pre-eminently a poet. His readers had to search hard for his poems. or just wait patiently for them, because he was sadly, unproductive: but he seemed the equal, at his rare best, of any of his contemporaries except for his masters: Eliot, Auden, Louis MacNeice.

Not many people knew Reed himself very well. Jon Stallworthy's introduction to this absorbing Collected Poems (OUP £20) goes some way towards filling in the personal record. First there was the kindly, reprobate father, the illiterate, storytelling mother, the rebellious days at primary school. Then came the brilliant classics degree, the establishment of his homosexuality, the first poems (slowly), then the teaching and freelancing, the penurious travels, the biography of Thomas Hardy toiled over and never finished. He was always a little mysterious, and retiring (a recluse in his last years). And in poetry he was a perfectionist, deeply reluctant to let perfectly good work out of hiding. But then came the BBC. Those radio extravaganzas (one rueful running gag concerned the mishaps of a naive biographer) were easier tasks altogether. Did they, in Reed's case as in certain others, represent cunning enemies of genuine promise?

His Collected is impressive enough to leave the question intriguingly open. Reed was drawn, early on, to write the longer poem; a pity, because his excursions into extended allegory (The Desert) or myth (Tintagel) compel attention only in certain isolated passages where he manages a surprisingly grand and stately manner. The shorter lyric pieces of the same period (the early 1940s) are more coherent and approachable, carefully shaped, both tender and sinister in mood.

But his writing comes splendidly to life with the army poems in Lessons of the War: not only Naming of Parts, but the admirable Judging of Distances [sic] and Returning of Issue — the last of these completing the sequence as late as 1970. And among the unpublished poems Stallworthy prints a fine, bawdy extra, Psychological Warfare; which Reed worked on for 20 years.

With some excellent translations (Leopardi, Theocritus), radio play extracts, uncollected poems and early writings. the volume assembles a body of work, substantial enough to suggest considerable talents denied fulfilment by circumstances. But if so, what circumstances? The war, the sexual dilemma, the failure to find anywhere to be happy in, certainly.

But in The Chateau, an unfinished draft from the 1950s, the poet gazes at a huge, deathly mansion and reflects that:

"Surely beyond that great façade my life is being lived?
Lived, loved and filled with gaiety and ardour,
As though my life were endowed with a perpetual splendour
And radiance fell on it."

Stallworthy interprets this, and he is surely right, as a vision of contentment rather than disappointment. Reed felt blessed and fortunate to have written and achieved as much as he had: and would not have wanted to have done more, or done it differently.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016