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
Klingopulos, G. D. "Eliot's Heir." Scrutiny, 14, no. 2 (December 1946): 141-145 [141-144].


A MAP OF VERONA, by Henry Reed (Cape, 3 /6).

The exceptional unanimity of praise accorded to Mr. Reed's volume sends one back for a second look. The first had not recommended the quality of Mr. Reed's experience. Many of his poems seemed wordy failures, and several unambiguously bad. Yet Mr. Reed did not appear to be a very young man, a beginner, in whom errors of tone, emptiness of gesture, were to be ignored for the occasional successes of verbal talent, or the convincingness of a personal manner, no such signs having revealed themselves to me. I had decided that Mr. Reed's was merely another collection of verses published earlier in different periodicals. It was surprising therefore to find Mr. Reed generally acclaimed in terms suggested by the heading to this review. And now that second impressions have only confirmed the first, there is cause here for reflection on the kind of reading commonly given to Mr. Eliot's poetry, and the quality of that consensus which allows him the title 'great'. For the experience in Mr. Reed's book is of a paltry kind, and much of it innocently faked. The innocence is not only of this wheel-rumbling sort—

I have changed my mind: or my mind is changed in me

but of this (perhaps less innocent) in an apostrophe to the city of Naples:

You were an early chapter, a practice in sorrow,
Your shadows fell, but were only a token of pain,
A sketch in tenderness, lust, and sudden parting,
And I shall not need to trouble with you again.

The same poem, 'A Map of Verona', concludes with the following wordplay:

And in what hour of beauty, and what good arms,
Shall I those regions and that city attain
From whence my dreams and slightest movements rise?

And what good Arms shall take them away again?

Several of the poems have a background of soldiering. Of these, the three poems in the group 'Lessons of the War' were an


indulgence to write. They are trivial in feeling, and abjectly self-regarding. The appropriate reader composes the poetry.

Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens
           And today we have naming of parts.

Here, as elsewhere in the volume, the author is concerned to present himself in a favourable light, as a gallant fellow compromising whimsically with a hostile world.

And in my time I have given them all I had,
Which was never as good as I got, and it got me nowhere.
And the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Somehow or other I always seemed to put
In the wrong place. And as for wars, my wars
           Were global from the start.

It is to the same kind of ingratiating trait that we must ascribe the parody of Eliot which looks like (and is) a prizewinning competition entry. It was possibly included to show the author's independence, for the collection is full of reminiscences, rhythmic and verbal, deliberate or otherwise, of Eliot; such as:

These are my images. The place not worth describing.

And elsewhere of Auden (see the poem 'Morning'), and Sassoon (see 'Outside and In'). That a poet should wish to learn from Mr. Eliot is itself a favourable sign, but the use made here of such borrowings is nowhere justified, and the lack of content is the more painfully audible against the overtones of reminiscence in passage after passage. For example, the conclusion of 'Iseult La Belle':

O you who will never be other than children,
Do you think, if I could, I would not reach my hand,
Through the burning mist and the echoing night of blackness,
To bless you, soothe you, and guide you through your hell?

This passage, and the following, will suggest the facility of Mr. Reed's verse, and full of spurious imagery as of spurious rhythms. It is another quotation from 'Iseult La Belle'.

I am she, the heart and centre of desire,
The well-beloved, the eternally-reappearing
Ghost on the lips of spring.
           And do you expect a face
Calm at the heart of torment? Calmness in me, the fear
Of all the poets who dreaded the passing of beauty,
And called on Time to stay his decaying hand,
And who, in their hearts, dreaded more than beauty's passing,
Its perpetual arrest?
           I am that point of arrest;

Though I drop back into oblivion, though I retreat
Into the soft, hoarse chant of the past, the unsoaring, dull
And songless harmony behind the screen of stone, I do not age.
But I come, in whatever season, like a new year,
In such a vision as the open gates reveal
As you saunter into a courtyard, or enter a city,
And inside the city you carry another city,
Inside delight, delight.
And it seems you have borne me always, the love within you,
Under the ice of winter, hidden in darkness.
Winter on winter, frozen and unrevealing,
To flower in a sudden moment, the bloom held high towards heaven,
Steady in the glowing air the white and gleaming calyx,
Lightness of heart.

Far from recalling the tension in the poetry of Mr. Eliot, this verse suggests a weak sensibility utterly wordy and smothered in its pretensions. Those hearts and that ghost, the decaying hand and the hoary chant, the city, the delight and the calyx, and above all the movement, are plainly unreal. Mr. Reed must be very easily satisfied. In some pages he has attempted the conciseness of symbol. The following is a quotation from one of these, 'The Wall', which has been favourably noticed:

The place where our two gardens meet
Is undivided by a street,
And mingled flower and weed caress
And fill our double wilderness,
Among whose riot undismayed
And unreproached, we idly played,
While unaccompanied by fears,
The months extended into years,
Till we went down one day in June
To pass the usual afternoon
And there discovered, shoulder-tall,
Rise in the wilderness a wall:
The wall which put us out of reach
And into silence split our speech.
We knew, and we had always known
That some dark, unseen hand of stone
Hovered across our days of ease,
And strummed its tunes upon the breeze.
It had not tried us overmuch,
But here it was for us to touch.

The inane movement here is not a stylization, but the best the author can do with octosyllabic couplets—his way of paying tribute to Marvell. Despite the 'double wilderness', it is anything but witty.


The symbol is not made clear but obscured by the 'dark unseen hand of stone' which 'hovers' and 'strums', nor is the function of the alliteration in the fourteenth line apparent. The symbol is obviously meant to have a wide and profound significance, for after ten more couplets the poem concludes:

We need not doubt, for such a wall
Is based in death, and, does not fall.

This pompous clarification is the anti-climax to any intended solemnity; it is clearly a waste of time to search for foundation to that 'wall based in death'. The allegory of 'The Return' is even more facile and unfocussed. The groups of poems 'The Desert' and 'Tintagel' are ambitious but entirely verbal; and both they and the other two long pieces 'Chrysothemis' and 'Philoctetes' contain a great deal of worked-up feeling. For example:

The noiseless chant has begun in the heart of the wound,
The heavy procession of pain along the nerve,
The torture-music, the circling and approval
Of the fiery dancers, the days of initiation,
The surge through the heat to the babbling, sweaty vault
Of muttering, unanswered questions, on,
Through a catechism of ghosts and a toiling litany,
To the ultimate sanctum of delirium, unremembered,
The recapitulation of the bitterly forgotten,
And then forgotten again in the break of day.

Mr. Reed's feelings have no centre, are not controlled. To expect a centre in a first volume is possibly to expect too much; a characteristic tone suggesting a more serious interest in writing poetry than the mere writing of it, would be encouragement enough. There is no such firmness of tone in this volume, but only fluency at low pressure. It is this fluency which is responsible for Mr. Reed's acceptance. But without a more impressive content his verse, despite its variety of forms, must remain a flashy claim for attention, of which it has already received more than it deserves.





Page last modified: 01 October 2016