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
Allen, Walter. "Poetry." Time & Tide 27, no. 21 (25 May 1946): 498-499 (.pdf).

Excerpt from POETRY

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

ultimately, there is only one way to review poetry—by quotation, for, as Mallarmé reminded Degas on the famous occasion, poetry is written not with ideas but with words. No matter what theories may be fashionable, the test of a poet is still how he uses words. This is how Mr Reed uses them:

Day breaks: the isle is silent, under the sun,
Which ponders it as though to interpret its silence.
I have changed my mind; or my mind is changed in me.
Unalterable of cliff and water,
The vast ravines are violet, revealing sea.
Here they are close together, the singing fragments
Which gods and men arrange, a chorus of birds and gardens.
The god departs, the men remain, day breaks,
And the bow is ready and burnished.
The arrows are newly fledged with the sun's first feathers.
It is the last still stillness of the morning
Before the first gull screams.
I lie on the rock, the wound is quiet, its death
Is dead within me, and treachery is powerless here.
Under the caves, in the hollows of sheltered beaches
Slowly the sailors wake.
The bushes twitch in the wind on the glowing cliff-sides;
The ghosts dislimn and vanish; the god departs;
My life begins; and a man plants a tree at daybreak.

These, the closing lines of his poem "Philoctetes", are, it seems to me, self-evidently the fruit of long study of metrics and the use of words and set the poet firmly in a main tradition of our poetry, that tradition which includes Milton, Tennyson and Eliot, the master-craftsmen.

Like them, he rarely speaks in his own person; there is no naked display of emotion; rather, he seeks always to express himself through what Mr Eliot has called the "objective correlatives'" to his emotions, finding them in the characters of Tristram, Iseult Blaunchesmains, Mark and Iseult La Belle, in Chrysothemis, the sister of Orestes and Electra, and Philoctetes, and in the images of ocean voyages and exploration that make up the remarkable sequence "The Desert". The result is not an absence of feeling, but a much greater intensification of feeling, and a heightened utterance:

The sun has gone, and the hunted bird demands:
"Can the liar guard the truth, the deceiver seek it,
The murderer preserve, the harlot chasten, or the guilty
Shelter the innocent? And shall you protect?"

When Mr Reed does speak in his own person, he is generally light in tone, witty, wryly, ironically deprecating, as in the brilliant "Lessons of the War". So, at any rate, one thought when one first read these poems in magazines. Now one realizes that they are also poignant and most moving. Here, for example, is Mr Reed putting small arms drill into poetry:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica

Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens,
   And today 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 . . . .

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
   For today we have naming of parts.

It is as though Jules Laforgue had suddenly appeared in a conscript army.

Limitations of space alone prevent one from indulging in the pleasure of writing about A Map of Verona at length. No better first book of poetry has appeared or many years and it would be foolish to expect another comparable for as long. It may be pointed out that the price puts it in the reach of everyone who has a regard for writing that combines profound imagination with beauty of expression.

After Mr Reed it must be admitted that The Isles of Scilly seems pretty thin.

walter allen




Page last modified: 01 October 2016