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
Lomas, Herbert. "Old Soldiers." London Magazine n.s. 32, nos. 1&2 (April/May 1992): 122-126 [122-123] (.pdf).


Excerpt from Old Soldiers

Collected Poems by Henry Reed (O.U.P. £20)

I wish I liked Reed's poems more than I do. During World War II I rejoiced like everyone at 'Naming of Parts' — that diagram of the tedium of soldiering. I loved the impersonation of Eliot in 'Chard Whitlow', and later the toxic apotheosis of Elizabeth Lutyens as a difficult Tablet to swallow in the radio plays.

This fun stands up. In his 'Introduction', however, Stallworthy attempts to compare Reed at his solemn best to 'Little Gidding'. The argument is sometimes persuasive enough to make me ready to reconsider my 1946 impression that A Map of Verona was boringly written. But no: Reed is simply not interesting enough linguistically.

E.M. Forster was inspired to write to Reed after hearing his Christmas Eve poem, 'The Return', on the BBC in 1944. He saw in the poem 'the idea that the only reality in human civilization is the unbroken sequence of people caring for one another'. The sentiment must have made him overlook the clichés and doggerel:

We have been off on a long voyage, have we not?
Have done and seen much in that time, but have got

Little that you will prize, who are dancing now
In the silent town whose lights gleam back from our prow.

Reed simply and surprisingly doesn't write well. Every noun must have its adjective, sometimes two, and the adjectives and adverbs are not even interesting. In passages chosen for praise we find 'the reluctant leaden air', 'a mature unsullied grace', 'dim in the dusk and high, / His mansion is proudly set', or 'the sun and the shadows bestow / Vestments of purple and gold'. Sub-Auden these are, perhaps, but they'd be unacceptable even in prose: no sentiments can redeem such defunctness. At his best, Reed writes like this:

And surely (and almost now) it will happen, and tell me


That now I must rise and with firm footsteps tread
Across the enormous flagstones, reach, find and know
My own and vertibable door;
I shall open it, enter, and learn
That in all this hungry time I have never wanted,
But have, elsewhere, on honey and milk been fed,
Have in green pastures somewhere lain, and in the mornings,
Somewhere beside still waters have
Mysteriously, ecstatically, been led.

In spite of 'firm footsteps', 'veritable door', the inversion (for the sake of the rhyme) of 'on honey and milk been fed' and the excessive reliance on the twenty-third psalm, Reed has a plangent cadence, syntactical rhythms, a climactic long trail, and there is potential sublimity in the notion.

A poem like 'The Changeling' has a careful structure, and the trimeters are neatly handled, if too reminiscent of Auden. Again the adjectives proliferate — 'sudden bloom', 'darkening room', 'bright sky', and so on; but the poem moves from a reading child, feeling he is a changeling — 'I am I, / And never was never born for you' — through lifelessness as lover and soldier — to the Great Good Place 'where his sweet young wife / Waits in his ancient bed'. Characteristically — for this is Reed's major theme — when he gets there he says, and more memorably: 'All this is false. And I / Am an interloper here'.

This is one of the best poems of sad exile: in living Reed used a Sitwellian impersonation to disguise — a surprise to me — his working-class background, and the middle-class togs have got into his verse: homosexual at a bad time, extremely intelligent and gifted, no doubt charming, he was nevertheless, in spite of his delicate metre, unable to discover often enough the indispensible memorable words, except when funny — and, therefore, perhaps, more 'himself', more in touch with his plebian roots. If only some outspoken friend had jerked him out of his 'sensi-tivity' and encouraged him to deploy his native humour and wit in the 'serious' poems...? He'd look better in a tiny selection from his small output, but no doubt many people will overlook, probably even take to, the dim language.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016