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
Pascoe, David. "The Hollow Men." Oxford Poetry 6, no. 2 (Winter/Spring 1992): 73-77 [76-77] (.pdf).

Excerpt from The Hollow Men

Henry Reed, ed. Jon Stallworthy: Collected Poems. Oxford University Press, 186 pp. £20.00.

It was not much fun in the end for Henry Reed, either. Jon Stallworthy's excellent introduction to the Collected Poems shows the poet's last years characterised by failing eyesight, alcoholism, and a staple diet of Complan. Reed's poetry reflects a life played safely in the quest for perfection, and the lessons for survival instilled during a basic training stay and shape his work. It is the subject of his sequence, Lessons of the War, whose most famous poem, "The Naming of Parts", indicates 'the safety-catch, which is always released / With an easy flick of the thumb'. His poetry, although full of ease, never dares to take that catch off; indeed, it is happiest when taking off its betters, as one might with the lads in the Naafi. To this extent, Eliot was his R.S.M. In 1941, his famous parody, "Chard Whitlow", captured the nervousness of the later "Quartets". But once he had mastered it, he continued to recall the Possum's voice at just the wrong times: 'We cannot learn to forget as sometimes we learn to remember'. Indeed, for Reed this was the problem. The final line of "The Place and the Person" staunchly affirms that 'These are my images' but the affirmation turns into a plea, for the preceding 166 lines belong unmistakeably to Eliot's wartime sequence. Similarly, the hesitancy of 'Well that, for an answer, is what we might call / Moderately satisfactory' ("Judging Distances") is lifted directly from "Journey of the Magi": 'it was (you may say) satisfactory'; or, then again, it might be a way of re-putting and refuting a line in "East Coker II". Either way, the echo is, in the words of Eliot, 'not very satisfactory'. If Eliot directly hampered Bunting, then the indirections resulting from his influence wrote off Reed's chances as an original writer.

The best poem in this finely edited volume is "The Auction Sale" (broadcast on The Third Programme), which shows the young man persona of "The Naming of Parts" living dangerously, bidding for the


sake of an objet d'art. But he fails miserably, the final lines showing him in tears, as the picture is carried away by someone else. The interest of the poem lies in the collision between the Italianate description of the artwork, and the flatness of the narration. As in the case of Pound, only Italy allowed him to live, or at least, to see the possibilities of letting his own visual imagination go. His translations of Giacomo Leopardi will stand as his finest work, but even here there is a need to call on others, and Hardy in particular. (For most of his life, Reed planned a biography of the writer). At least one writer was, in turn, seduced by Reed's Italophilia: Day-Lewis, ever impressionable, dedicated his derivative collection An Italian Visit (1943) to him.

Reed was all too glumly aware of his pathological cautiousness and wrote in 1940:

the only words of mine that I know could be believed
Need a future way of utterance which could only be achieved

If another language were mine, or another idiom or art
Would form in my mouth and stifle my used-up words at the start,

If I could seize from the future a sentence in which I was free
From the falsified recollection, the remembered falsity.

Falsification was a danger that Bunting's unbelievably impacted lines never faced, since his language allowed him to live through his memories; whereas Reed's inability to give voice to his recollections, to stabilize them and make them his own, was the result of a temperamental incapacity to be wary of imitations.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016