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
Gross, Harvey. "William Empson, Vernon Watkins, and Henry Reed." Pt. 4 of "The Generation of Auden," chap. 9 in Sound and Form in Modern Poetry: A Study of Prosody from Thomas Hardy to Robert Lowell. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1964. 271-301 [271, 275-279, 325n].

Excerpt from 4 William Empson, Vernon Watkins, and Henry Reed.

A number of fine English poets came to maturity with Auden and Thomas. No single figure has exerted Auden's influence or achieved Thomas' status; it is nearly impossible to single out a representative poet or even group of poets. I content myself with the examination of poems selected from William Empson, Vernon Watkins, and Henry Reed. These men scarcely make up a "school." Empson has something of the early Eliot's hard-boiled intellectualism but is largely his own man. Watkins, though older than Dylan Thomas, sometimes reminds us of him. However, what we recognize as Thomas in Watkins' verse is, perhaps, only their common bardic and Welsh ancestry. Henry Reed, who has published sparingly, seems to me the most considerable poet of the three; he has worked out his own individual romantic-ironic style, and he has something to say. The prosodical fashion of close stanzas and controlled meters holds with most of these poets; Watkins and Reed also favor a long line, something between Websterian blank verse and English hexameter.


Henry Reed's A Map of Verona (1946) is among the slimmest of slim volumes, yet its pieces have been widely anthologized; two poems, "Naming of Parts" and "Chard Whitlow," have the status of modern classics. "Chard Whitlow" parodies Eliot's Quartets and the limp, hesitating line of Eliot's bemused and woolly moments:

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and to-day I am fifty-five.
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

Like all good parodies Reed's little spoof renders criticism and offers appreciation. "Chard Whitlow" might be taken as an expression of gratitude as well; Reed has learned from Eliot the secret of the free blank-verse line and the delicate balance which keeps the line from either decaying into prose or from stiffening into regular metrical cadences. The following lines, from Reed's "Philoctetes," could be included in "Chard Whitlow" without seriously disturbing the metrical texture and, perhaps, without gravely affecting the sense:

I can only point to one time and speak of it,
And point to another which is different.
One is the buildings of hell, when over a crime
We plaster darkness on darkness, and pray for silence,
While the light grows louder above the disordered days,
The bells with their loud ringing pull down the tower,
And the walled-up entry of death lies exposed and broken.

An exemplary handling of the Eliotic blank verse is displayed in Reed's dramatic monologue "Chrysothemis." The tone is both


tense and subdued; the line modulates between a dignified hexameter and a sharper, terser five-stress unit:

I cannot follow them into their world of death,
Or their hunted world of life, though through the house,
Death and the hunted bird sing at every nightfall.
I am Chrysothemis: I sailed with dipping sails,
Suffered the winds I would not strive against,
Entered the whirlpools and was flung outside them.
Survived the murders, triumphs and revenges.

The rhythm is extraordinarily steady, though without the nervous energy of "Gerontion." Chrysothemis must hold precariously to her sanity as the lines she speaks clutch metrical bedrock. Reed uses the trisyllabic foot, that enemy of "firmness," very cautiously; the norms are the syllable-stress hexameter,

      /                /                  /              /                   /                  /
I can | not fol | low them | in to | their world | of death . . .
/                        /                /             /                      /                 /
I am | Chry so | the mis: | I sailed | with dip | ing sails ...

and the normal iambic pentameter:

    /                            /                  /                     /              /
Suf fered | the winds | I would | not strive | a gainst . . .

When Chrysothemis remembers the murder of Agamemnon, an anapestic foot quickens the pace of each line:

This was the yawn of time while a murder
Awaited another murder. I did not see
My father's murder, but I see it now always around me,
And I see it shapeless: as when we are sometimes told
Of the heroes who walk out into the snow and blizzard
To spare their comrades' care, we always see
A white direction in which the figure goes,
And a vague ravine in which he stumbles and falls.
My father rises thus from a bath of blood,
Groping from table to chair in a dusky room
Through doorways into darkening corridors,
Falling at last in the howling vestibule.

The stumbling rhythm of two anapests unsteadies the dying Agamemnon:


      /                          /                     /                   /              /
Gro ping | from ta | ble to chair | in a dus | ky room . . .

The suggestion here is subtle enough, but hardly can be missed. Whether instinct or deliberate craft prompted Reed to use consecutive anapests does not matter; the technical fact has its aesthetic consequences.

The three poems included under the title "Lessons of the War" are written in formal six-line stanzas. These poems explore, with keen metaphysical wit, the ironic implications which arise when the artificialities of war clash with the natural order. "Naming of Parts" maintains a double discourse; the brisk instructions of the gunnery instructor mingle with the wandering thoughts of a new recruit. In the fourth line below, the mind of the spring-infatuated recruit makes comically obscene metaphorical connections:

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
           They call it easing the Spring.

The lines are deftly metered in anapests and dactyls; the long lines have a norm of five stresses, the shorter sixth line, only three:

                 /                           /                      /
For to day | we have nam | ing of parts . . .

In appropriate lines the prevailing anapests back up to dactyls:

    /                   /                                /                             /
Rap id ly | back wards and | for wards: we | call this
   /                           /                       /                   /                                /
Eas ing the | spring.  And | rap id ly | back wards and | forwards ...

Only the very innocent can miss how the slight shift in rhythm so delightfully helps to ease the Spring!

Reed has published in Encounter15 "The Auction Sale," a splendid narrative poem of some three hundred lines. The poem tells, with irony and pathos, of a rural auction and the bidding for an unsigned Renaissance painting—a Titian-like "Venus and


Mars." "The Auction Sale" is composed of irregularly rhymed octosyllables; the opening lines swing along in catchy tetrameter singsong:

Within the great grey flapping tent
The damp crowd stood or stamped about;
And some came in, and some went out
To drink the moist November air;
None fainted, though a few looked spent
And eyed some empty unbought chair.

The lines glow with Elizabethan ardor when Reed describes the warmly erotic picture set before the rural crowd:

Effulgent in the Paduan air
Ardent to yield the Venus lay
Naked upon the sunwarmed earth.
Bronze and bright and crisp her hair,
By the right hand of Mars caressed,
Who sunk beside her on his knee,
His mouth towards her mouth inclined,
His left hand near her silken breast.

Reed plays off the ironic discrepancies between the mythical, amorous subject of the painting, and the tense, restrained atmosphere of the auction tent. The behavior of Mars and Venus is uninhibited and stands in humorous contrast to the decorous conduct and strongly suppressed emotions of the three men bidding for the painting. The rhythms artfully control the shifts of feeling; in the narrative sections the lines progress dryly with the stresses predictable. Many lines relax into folksy doggerel and fit the meter with deliberate carelessness:

It is a picture which though unsigned
Is thought to be of the Superior kind,
So I am sure you gentlemen will not mind
If I tell you at once before we start
That what I have been asked to say
Is, as I have said, to say:
There's a reserve upon this number . . .

But in the descriptive passages (set by Reed in italics for aesthetic distance, a "framing" device) the meter is fluid and suave:

In ritual, amorous delay,
Venus deposed her sheltering hand
Where her bright belly's aureate day
Melted to dusk about her groin;
And, as from words that Mars had said
Into that hidden, subtle ear,
She turned away her shining head.

This rarely beautiful poem owes much of its success to its carrying meter. Reed can make his octosyllabics behave with Shakespearean sweetness of melody, with Wordsworthian naiveté, or with Hudibrastic colloquial roughness. None of the shifts in rhythm and tone, however, disrupts the narrative progression eased steadily forward by seemingly limited but actually enormously abundant prosodic resources.


15 Encounter, XI, 4 (October 1958), 49-55. My friend Mr. William B. Goodman brought this poem to my attention.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016