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
Mellers, W.H. "Some Recent Poetry." New English Review 13, no. 1 (July 1946): 104, 106 (.pdf).


A Map of Verona. Poems by Henry Reed. Constable. 3s. 6d.
The Isles of Scilly and Other Poems. By Geoffrey Grigson. Routledge. 5s.

We all know that tradition is a good thing and that the absence of traditions—both of poetical idiom and of civilised values—is the central problem for the poet today. At the same time we are apt to blame contemporary poets for being "derivative", and we can, I suppose, justify this apparent contradiction only through particular judgments of sensibility. If we say that a modern poet is derivative we mean precisely that the conventions he derives from someone else are not sanctioned by social values and traditional beliefs; and clearly in an age in which values and beliefs are not clearly defined it is going to be more than usually difficult for the technical discoveries of a genuinely new and integral sensibility to be assimilated by other poets unless their own authentic spiritual evolution happens broadly to coincide with his

Now, while I do not think that W. H. Auden has ever succeeded in defining his own criterion of values maturely, at least he at one time had a fresh vision of the contemporary world which he communicated through appropriate rhythms and metaphors. These metaphors and rhythms, if they have not been absorbed by many less talented men, have become one part of the stock "poetic diction" of our time, and Mr. Grigson is one of the many verse-writers who exploit them. He is clearly an intelligent man who observes keenly, and in the conveyance of unrelated moments of experience he uses Mr. Auden's methods with considerable acumen (see, for instance, "O in the Hollow Station"). Where he fails is in the ability to organise these fragments of experience into a pattern which is both personal (because he made it) and impersonal (because the fragments are objectified in the making of a pattern, in the perception of the relations between them). His work is impersonal in another sense, in that it might have been written by anyone with a sufficiently agile mind and with the appropriate kind of cultivation. This is a volume of modern poetry; we are mentally and emotionally livelier for reading it, but I doubt if we are any wiser.

Mr. Reed's poetry "derives" from an influence which is even more ubiquitous in modern verse than that of Auden. The fact that Mr. Eliot is so much greater a poet than Auden doesn't necessarily mean that he is a better model; but it is


significant that Mr. Reed's volume includes one of the funniest parodies I have ever read, and that such parodistic brilliance could have been achieved, in this "Chard Witlow" [sic], only by someone to whom Eliot's later poetry had meant much. It points to a self-awareness which is confirmed as soon as one looks closely into the "serious" poems.

One sees, then, that, though Mr. Reed's peculiarly subdued, restrained movement has obviously been moulded under the influence of late Eliot—one catches the echo in such lines as

                                                            "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"

—yet the movement has become indubitably a personal attitude, the result not perhaps of an "influence" but of a natural consanguinity of mind; If one compares the reverberation attained on the word "deep" through the rhyme and enjambement of this passage—

". . . Who year after year shall creep, forgotten lover and bride,
To your door and knock, and knock, at every Christmastide,
Who lost and ever-rejected, turn from your door and weep,
And retrace our steps to the harbour, where it lies silent and deep
In a slumber of snow and starlight"

with Grigson's

                "and the two who walk by,
On the grass, and the train slows

one sees the difference between a functional use of rhythm that comes "from within" and one that is, cleverly enough, applied. And in all Reed's successful poems we can observe that the precise evocation of a nervous experience is introduced not, as in Grigson, for its own sake, but in order that it may be related to other experiences and acquire a significance that we can crudely call allegorical.

"The Return" is one of the finest examples; but "The Wall" uses a witty, almost playful tone in its octosyllablic couplets which can reconcile levity with a theme profoundly solemn—and "universally" valid. Similarly, "Hiding in the Furze" [sic] uses the characteristically flat rhythms and reiterations to induce a condition of hysteria, but turns out to be much more than a piece of nervous transcription; and even the puns and monotonous rhythms in the ostensibly ironic poems about army life are revealed as part of an attempt to achieve the integration of apparently irreconcilable experiences (cf. the changing significance of the phrase "the ever-important question of human balance").

It is this search for formalisation, whether in slight or more difficult work that I find impressive in Reed's poetry. It is true that so far there is a certain limitation of emotional range about his characteristic movement, that the short poems are the more successful, and that the longer free-verse monologues evoke a comparison with Mr. Eliot's mature economy in this manner which no contemporary verse could live up to (even such sober and dignified verse as the vision of the dancers in "The Place and the Person" appears almost garrulous in so far as it suggests a relation to the "Dantesque" passage in "Little Gidding"). But Mr. Reed is none the less a poet and not a verse-maker; one awaits his next volume with lively anticipation.

W. H. Mellers




Page last modified: 01 October 2016