Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Wakeman, John, ed. "Reed, Henry." World Authors 1950-
. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1975. 1198-1199.
Wakeman, John, ed. "Reed, Henry." In World Authors 1950-1970. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1975. 1198-1199.

REED, HENRY (February 22, 1914-        ), English poet, translator, and radio dramatist, was born in Birmingham, the son of Henry and Mary Ann (Bell) Reed. He was educated at King Edward VI School in Birmingham, and at Birmingham University, where he became one of a circle of writers and artists that included W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Walter Allen, the painter John Melville, and the sculptor Gordon Herrick.

Reed had begun to write at school, and when he left the university in 1937 he began his career as a freelance writer and journalist, eking out his income with a little teaching. His early poetry, like that of his friends, was deeply involved with the political events of the time, the war in Spain, the refugees and freedom fighters. Simple and conversational in diction, gentle in tone, it achieved an elegiac quality by the use of murmured refrains and subtly controlled vowel sounds. The effect can be very moving, as in "Hiding Beneath the Furze," where the refrain "And this can never happen, ever again," referring to the horrors of war, takes its sad irony from the fact that the poem was written in the autumn of 1939, as World War II began.

In 1942, after a year in the army, Reed was released to work in the Foreign Office. This period of intense emotional strain produced some of his best verse, collected in his only volume of poetry, A Map of Verona. The book demonstrates Reed's skill in a great variety of modes, from the stately formality of "Philoctetes" and "Tintagel" to "Chard Whitlow," which Kenneth Allott described as "the wickedest and funniest parody of Mr. Eliot known to me." Reed will no doubt be best remembered for "Naming of Parts," "Judging Distances," and the other poems which make up "The Lessons of War."

The sequence is based on Reed's army training as an officer cadet in the spring and summer of 1941. The tragic absurdity of training for war and death in the midst of the beauty and fecundity of an English pastoral scene is brilliantly pointed in these poems, with an effect that is sometimes ruefully funny, sometimes sharply poignant, and sometimes both together. In "Judging Distances" the dehumanized instructor, completing his lecture, addresses his cadets: "I am sure that's quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example, / The one at the end, asleep, endeavours to tell us / What he sees over there to the west, and how far away, / After first having come to attention. There to the west, / On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow / Vestments of purple and gold. // The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat, / And under the swaying elms a man and a woman / Lie gently together. / Which is, perhaps, only to say / That there is a row of houses to the left of arc, / And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans / Appear to be loving." Kenneth Allott thought these "among the best and most intelligent poems produced during the war."

Since the war Henry Reed has devoted himself


principally to radio writing. His much-admired adaptation of Moby Dick, broadcast by the BBC in 1946 and published in 1947, compresses the story line but retains the emotional and philosophical range of the story, as well as Melville's naturally dramatic rhetoric. It was Reed also who introduced to English-speaking theatre and radio audiences the work of the Italian dramatist Ugo Betti.

Reed's original work for radio includes such notable verse plays as the autobiographical Return to Naples and the impressionistic Streets of Pompeii. His "Hilda Tablet" series, produced by Douglas Cleverdon for the BBC's Third Programme, affectionately satirizes English upper-class and intellectual life between the wars—the earnest Socialists, the Blimpish soldiers, Herbert Read, Virginia Woolf, and Edith Sitwell, and all the eccentrics and dilettantes in which the 1930s were so rich. These amiable parodies sustained a level of real wit and knowledge seldom equaled in the more abrasive satires that were such a feature of British broadcasting in the 1960s.

Henry Reed has also been active as a reviewer, though none of his criticism has appeared in book form except his useful British Council pamphlet The Novel Since 1939. He has published a number of prose translations, notably of Flaubert.

PRINCIPAL WORKS: A Map of Verona, 1946; Moby Dick: A Radio Play, 1947; The Novel Since 1939, 1947; The Streets of Pompeii (six plays set in Italy), 1971; Hilda Tablet and Others (four plays), 1971.
ABOUT: Allott, K. (ed.) Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, 1960; Taylor, J. R. Anger and After, 1962; Who's Who, 1973. PeriodicalsCommonweal January 16, 1948; New York Times December 28, 1947; Times Literary Supplement May 11, 1946; November 1, 1947; December 6, 1947.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016