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
Stonier, G.W. "A Rare Poet." New Statesman and Nation 31, no. 793 (4 May 1946): 321 (.pdf).


A Map of Verona. By Henry Reed. Cape. 3s. 6d.

Mr. Henry Reed is a rare poet, in more senses than one. He writes very little; that little is highly finished and exactly chosen. The first poem of his that hooked my attention was a parody sent in for a New Statesman and Nation competition during the blitz. “As we get older we do not get any younger . . .” Sentence followed sentence with a shining aptitude. No doubt the reader will remember Chard Whitlow or will have encountered it since in anthologies: here was the latter-day Eliot in person, with surprised eyebrows, caught, let us say, by the mild torture of the barber's chair. Such parody startles and enhances. It displaced in my mind several poems I was trying to carry round—more serious poems, but then the fun of Chard Whitlow was never a shade out. Obviously Mr. Reed, or “H.R.” as he was on that occasion, had forgotten more than we had ever learnt from Eliot, and if there was another side to this mockery, his work should turn out remarkably.

It did. The next poem that came my way was the first of three pieces collected now under the title Lessons of the War. They weren't at all the kind of lessons one is supposed to learn; not rhetorical, not even bored; ironically protesting rather, for the inattention of the conscript listening to his instructor picked its way easily out from the reiterated official phrases. Naming of Parts transfers the intonation of the drill-hall to the Spring flowering beyond the window.

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
   And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
   Which in our case we have not got . . .

So, by ambiguities that in later verses raise the double entendre to the plane of metaphysical wit, the Small Arms Manual—deadly to human beings long before they reach the battlefield—is made to yield its lyric of sex and Spring. The same situation inspires two companion pieces, Judging Distances and Unarmed Combat which except for the slumping last verse of all juggle feelingly as does no English poetry I can think of since Marvell's. Circumstances, one imagines, developed in Mr. Reed this curious high balance (what a poor soldier he must have made!) but the earlier and later poems in A Map of Verona show the attitude as ingrained. Oblique and candid, divulging yet holding back, he offers us the landscapes, emotions, situations we know while keeping perhaps a final interpretation in reserve. (The world has proffered a war, a Small Arms Manual.) Verona, “whence my dreams and slightest movements rise,” pored over in maps and one day to be visited; the lovers, lying forehead to forehead, abstracted from time like the Eastern landscape, without shadow or reflection, hung overhead; the lately discovered wall round which two gardens, two lives, intertwine; the fugitive from nightmare in the autumn of 1939; the harbour towns where sailors loiter, separate, and grow restless for the coming voyage that shall justify all others; the shadow of King Mark rising in sunlit ruins at Tintagel; Philoctetes nursing his wound, stretching out for his bow—these are the situations, some more immediate than others, upon which Mr. Reed lays his stress and pattern. It is a very particular pattern, finely articulated in a phrase—

But you can cage the wood.
You can throw up fences, as round a recalcitrant heart
Spring up remonstrances . . .

The hesitation before a memory,
The stumbling thought by which we recognize
That pain is already here, but it is still beyond our feeling. . . .

          The blackened sand
Cracks into arid chasms and fissures, crumbles,
The vegetation shrivels, seeds from the chattering pod
Fall in the dust.

—and the longer passage, the whole poem, rises to a calm eloquence. Tintagel:

Tristram's tower
Rises and falls and rises.

The ruin leads your thoughts
Past the moments of darkness when silence fell over the hall,
And the only sound rising was the sound of frightened breathing,
Past the lies and pursuits, the arraignments and accusations,
To the perpetually recurring story,
The doorway open, either in the soft green weather,
The gulls seen over the purple-headed sea, the cliffs,
Or open in mist,
The gulls heard over and under you in the greyness—
This time or that, but always the doorway open,
And through the broken stones the forbidden courtyard,
And under the archway, ever, ever,
Bold in clear weather or halting through the mist,
The eternal reappearance of Iseult . . .

Even a casual reader will distinguish there—in the measured beauty of diction, the lapping rhythms, the pivotal clauses (as elsewhere in a certain secrecy and primness)—not the imitator indeed, but the inheritor from T. S. Eliot. The difference between them is that the younger poet, hardly less mature and assured in his beginning, has turned the corner of satire sooner: one parody, the equivocal war poems, and he's off. Where he will go to one can't tell, but all the hints seem to be here of larger work. Already Mr. Reed has a mastery of the blank-verse line as extended by Eliot. He is drawn to legend (his Philoctetes is as beautifully distinct as his Tristram). He slips the handcuffs of the present with the ease of a Houdini. Well then! . . . In the meantime, buy, borrow, read, read again this remarkable first volume.

G. W. Stonier




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