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
Unger, Leonard. "Seven Poets." Sewanee Review 56, no. 1 (January-March, 1948): 157-170 [162-164].

Excerpt from "SEVEN POETS"


A Map of Verona and Other Poems. By Henry Reed. Reynal & Hitchcock. 92 pp. $2.50.

Henry Reed, the English author of A Map of Verona and Other Poems, writes with distinction, but his work is, finally, unsatisfactory. All of his poems have a surface lucidity which is not common in poetry today. The syntax is never startling or unusual. There is balance, period, and variety in the construction of the sentences and they follow each other with a quiet melifluousness. These can be the characteristics of sound, even brilliant, prose, and there is no reason why they should not also be found in poetry, and to the advantage of the poetry. But they can never be enough to make the poetry—which is, after all, different from prose. This is an old story. Yet it is in this respect that Reed fails.

The American publishers quote an English reviewer who says that "Reed has a mastery of the blank-verse line as extended by Eliot." I presume that the reference is to Eliot's plays and to Four Quartets, where there are passages in a blank verse that has been loosened and irregularized by the generous use of dactyls and anapaests. There are also passages in Eliot which, if they are an extension of blank verse, are an extension beyond recognition. Eliot has told us that no verse is free, but neither he nor anyone else has explained how this extension is verse. Well, Reed writes at times in both ways, with the irregular verse and with the extension. An example of the former:

They are here and not here, sometimes all of them here,
And sometimes only an insistent couple,
Who do not go away, but repeat their figure,
And sing again and again their wordless song,
And pray their speechless prayer. The hours pass,
And it is still high noon; they are here and not here,
And a voice without speaking murmurs into the air:
"You have prayed too much, and in mid-prayer have known it
And faltered there. You have sung too much,
And the song has traveled an echoing wall and returned;
Have danced too much and in the entwining figures
Have faltered there; and have too often chosen
The rituals of despair and joy, and faltered.
Have danced, prayed, sung: but have not wept enough."

This passage, more than most others, is reminiscent of Eliot—and it is one of Reed's better passages! Herein lies the secret of his failure. Most of the time—blank verse or extended—he writes at a steady level of energy, too steady: the result is the monotonous sameness of a rhythm that is blurred and quieted by the relaxed meter. At its


worst, such writing is flat and dreary, it drops silently into the chasm between poetry and prose, and the reader does not care to follow. Eliot may at times get dangerously close to the brink, but he always knows the chasm is there. Usually, before he gets too close (especially in his non-dramatic work) he veers away, goes into a more formal measure-pentameter, tetrameter, stanzas. More or less at the right time he makes a new start, moves in an unmistakable rhythm of strophes, so that the reader is kept awake and attentive and is willing to go along. And even within his passages of relaxed meter, or no meter, Eliot provides a rhythm, but not a metrical rhythm. It is the rhythm of Hebrew poetry, in which there is no counting of syllables or watching for accents, but a rhythm of grammatical construction (which survives in translation), of parallelism, series, repetition. It is in this respect, and in the internal air rhyme, that Reed's passage recalls Eliot and is also an improvement on his own more usual style. Strangely enough, the difference between Eliot's manner and Reed's adaptation has its most emphatic illustration in "Chard Whitlow," Reed's parody of the style of Four Quartets. Despite the good clean fun at Eliot's expense, it is Reed who suffers. The parody is there as a shining index to the degree of Reed's failure, for he becomes less nondescript to the extent that he imitates the personality and manners of the master.

A number of Reed's poems are written in traditional meter and stanzaic form. These, too, show Reed's most positive gifts: lucidity of surface and syntactical control. The title poem, "A Map of Verona," is probably the best. I can quote from it but briefly:

My youthful Naples, how I remember you!

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.

But I remember, once your map lay open,
As now Verona's, under the still lamplight,
I thought, are these the streets to walk in in the mornings,
Are these the gardens to linger in at night?

But this poem has in slight degree a weakness that is more pronounced in several of the others. There is a special kind of obscurity,


easily detected because the poems ate otherwise quite clear and even simple. The obscurity results because the subject or motivation behind the poem is not clearly enough revealed. There is dramatic quality but no sure clue to the dramatic context or occasion. Such poetry is called private, and I am not aware that there is any excuse for it. This failing is, in a way, related to the longer "blank verse" poems, which are on themes from Sophocles, Melville, and the Tristan and Iseult legend, and which have their significance in terms of reference to the literary sources. All this bespeaks a lack of integration, a personality that cannot inform the literary ability that belongs to it.




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