Documenting the quest to track down everything written by
(and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio
dramatist, Henry Reed.
An obsessive, armchair attempt to assemble a comprehensive
bibliography, not just for the work of a poet, but for his
Read "Naming of Parts
The Heat of the Day: In wartime London, a woman finds herself caught between two men.
Cold Comfort Farm: Sensible Flora Poste moves in with her eccentric country relatives.
The Dog Stars: A man, his dog, and an airplane survive an apocalyptic flu.
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.
Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog
In the Spring, 1972 issue
of the journal of the Society of Teachers of Speech and Drama
there appears an argument for the release of recordings of Henry Reed's radio plays. Jane Gregg reviews two collections of Reed's plays produced for the BBC Third Programme, published in 1971 by BBC Publications: Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio
, and The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio
Gregg calls the Hilda Tablet plays "the funniest and most sustained piece of social comedy written for radio," and expresses concern over the ephemeral medium of "aural" art such as radio, arguing that Reed's plays should get the same treatment as Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood,
and be released as recordings.
Hilda Tablet and Others — four pieces for radio
by HENRY REED. BBC: £2.10.
The Streets of Pompeii and other plays for Radio
by HENRY REED. BBC: £3.15.
All Third Programme listeners please note that the plays of Henry Reed you so enjoyed between 1949 and 1958 are now in print—a permanent memorial of the radio drama which otherwise has no permanent life.
As Reed says in a most interesting foreword to The Streets of Pompeii, 'They were not for the most part written with any idea that they might appear in print. When it was suggested that they should, I was naturally delighted: it seemed to imply that they had not entirely gone in one ear and out of the other'.
I have just taken up knitting and when reading the pattern I have tried to visualise the finished article. Possibly knit two together through back loops creates a picture for the experienced knitter but even so it remains for most of us simply a code. In the same way the printed word is a poor substitute for radio drama. 'Cross-fade rapidly' needs a great deal of aural imagination.
Hilda Tablet and Others consists of four pieces from what many regard as the funniest and most sustained piece of social comedy written for radio. They are A Very Great Man Indeed, The Private Life of Hilda Tablet, A Hedge, Backwards, and The Primal Scene, as it were. The productions were all by Douglas Cleverdon, with music by Donald Swann and the casts include most of the great BBC repertory names: Hugh Burden, Carleton Hobbs, Gwen Cherrell, Mary O'Farrell, Marjorie Westbury . . . (dear Marjorie Westbury as Steve in Paul Temple — there's nostalgia for you) . . . the list is endless and very well-loved. The plays arise out of the research by Reed's alter-ego Reeve into the life of Richard Shewin, novelist.
The Streets of Pompeii on the other hand contains those plays which have Italian themes and settings. They are Leopardi in two parts: The Unblest and The Monument; The Streets of Pompeii, Return to Naples, The Great Desire I Had, and Vincenzo. Again the productions were by Douglas Cleverdon with a cast which sounds like Who's Who in Radio.
The BBC are of course quite right and to be commended for publishing Henry Reed's radio plays but now, before they disappear aurally altogether, may we have them recorded? After listening to the record of Under Milk Wood recorded by Argo with the cooperation of the BBC, I am convinced that there is a market for radio plays on record.
I note with some dismay that a quick search of the British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue
reveals no recordings of A By-Election in the 'Nineties
(1951), The Great Desire I Had
(1952), A Hedge, Backwards
(1956), The Primal Scene, As It Were
(1958), or Musique Discrète
(1959). Perhaps, however, the current Save of Sounds
project might turn a few up.
1508. Birmingham Post, Obituary for Henry Reed. 10 December 1986.
Reed's obituary in the Birmingham Post.
On the inaugural International Dylan Thomas Day
, Twitter turns up treasure! @DylanThomasNews
posted a programme for a May 14, 1946 poetry recital performed for the Queen (and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) at Wigmore Hall
, organized by the Society of Authors and featuring everyone who was anyone in mid-century poetry and theater:
Poems were introduced by David Lloyd James, with readings by John Masefield (Poet Laureate at the time), Edith Evans, John Gielgud, John Laurie, Flora Robson, Edith Evans, Dylan Thomas, Valentine Dyall, C. Day Lewis, Walter de la Mare, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, and Louis MacNeice.
The organizing committee consisted of George Barker, Walter de la Mare, John Lehmann, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, none other than Henry Reed
, Denys Kilham Roberts (Chairman), Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas, and Lawrence Whistler.
Previously, we posted about how this particular poetry reading impacted the career of Vita Sackville-West
1507. Daily Telegraph, Obituary for Henry Reed. 10 December 1986.
Reed's obituary in the Telegraph.
Henry Reed was for many years a member of the Savile Club
, Mayfair, London, where he spent much of his idle time drinking, playing bridge, drinking, and occasionally dining with friends (or the occasional boyfriend
). Reed was probably introduced to the Savile by one of his more-established peers — Walter Allen or Louis MacNeice — but the attraction of the Savile surely resided in the fact that it had been the club of Reed's hero, Thomas Hardy.
A history of the club by Garrett Anderson, Hang Your Halo in the Hall: The Savile Club from 1868
(London: Savile Club, 1993), contains a section devoted to poets who were members of the club. Anderson relates a delightful anecdote concerning Reed having to appear in court to explain his inability to pay his council tax:
For his eightieth birthday in 1989 the Savile organized one of its more Lucullan Soirées to celebrate Sir Stephen's [Spender] years of membership and, as Patric Dickinson observed on the other occasion, nobody stopped talking for long. It is a pity that one of Spender's old friends, one of the more brilliant talkers in recent times, another Savile poet, Henry Reed, could not have been present.
Like several of his lyrical colleagues at the Savile, Henry brought translations of his classical predecessors as well as his own distinctive verse to a wider public through the medium of radio, and like Spender and Pudney he had been much influenced in his youth by Auden; like Pudney too he had served in Intelligence during the war and had produced one of the most famous poems in English to come out of it — "Naming of Parts". In 1946 his fellow Savilian Edward Sackville-West persuaded him to write a dramatization for radio of Moby Dick which was produced a year later featuring two other Savile members, Ralph Richardson and Bernard Miles. It won the Premio della Radio Italiana and established Henry with the critics as a radio dramatist with a rare poetic gift.
In 1970 a collection of his poems, The Lessons of War, was published to wide acclaim and in 1971 the texts of his poetic dramas for radio were published as The Streets of Pompeii. A Very Great Man and its sequels Hilda Tablet and Others also appeared, between them revealing much of the man himself, a master of comedy with a deeply sombre interior. In manner and appearance he resembled a classically educated Tony Hancock, presenting a lugubrious exterior from which emanated surprising flashes of wit. Many contemporary members will retain happy memories of evenings spent in his company. On one occasion when he was suffering one of his regular bouts of financial starvation he regaled the long table with an account of his appearance that morning before the magistrates to explain his inability to pay the rates: "And what, Mr Reed, is your profession?" asked the magistrate. Diffidently, Henry admitted that he was a poet. "Yes, yes," said the magistrate testily, "but what do you do for a living?"
It should be pointed out that it was Reed's The Streets of Pompeii
(1952) which won the Radio Italiana prize, for 1953.
1506. MacGregor-Hastie, Roy. "The Poet in His Workshop: No 4—The Great Unclassified." Arena 48 (March 1958): 10-13 [12-13].
MacGregor-Hastie shows great respect for Reed in this series on the state of poetry (but little regard for the poets of the 'Thirties).
An antipodean appearance of Henry Reed, in the Wellington, New Zealand literary magazine Arena
(Noel Farr Hoggard, ed.), from March, 1958, where Roy MacGregor-Hastie
wrote a contentious, four-part series of articles on the state of poetry, titled "The Poet in His Workshop."
MacGregor-Hastie first mentions Reed in Part 2 of his series, "The Vertical Men" (from the Auden poem, "Let us honour if we can / The vertical man, / Though we value none / But the horizontal one"):
There is little of the morbid, though a great deal of the introspective in the writing of Henry Reed, who I should have liked to have included in this article as a vertical man. However, he is at an angle of ninety degrees to himself, so I shall leave him for the Miscellaneous section of this series, and deal with Alexander Tvardovsky, a contemporary Soviet poet.
Arena, no. 46 (March 1957): 18.
The promised Reed finally arrives in Part 4, "The Great Unclassified," where MacGregor-Hastie places Reed in a European miscellany, after Alfredo Panzini
, Giuseppe Ungaretti
, and Joaquín de Entrambasaguas (I can only guess: MacGregor-Hastie has written "Juan de Estrembasagua"), but only after thoroughly bashing the old guard—Auden, Eliot, Stephen Spender, and C. Day-Lewis—for their complacency and selling-out:
In England the work of any poet who is unfortunate enough to be under thirty is ignored completely, anyway by the larger publishers; if in the nineteenth century poets had to be both famous and dead before they were owned by their families, in the twentieth century, after the pre-war flood of slim volumes of garnered fancies, publication of verse has dried up. Only the little magazines can guarantee to the dedicated poet any frequency of publication, and their solvency is not always as great as one would wish; the Listener, the New Statesman and Nation, the Times Literary Supplement—these are the major media now and only publish the sort of verse you would expect....
There is probably only one man who remains cheerful through it all and unperturbed by the commercialism and disinterest he finds in the world of the Arts. His name is Henry Reed and he is sui generis, unclassified and unclassifiable. He published a collection of poems in 1946 called the 'Map of Verona', which established him in English Literature as perhaps the only living poet who could have written Lawrence's 'Innocent England' and write more; he published in this collection a series of poems about the war itself and the duality of experience of the sensitive soldier, his preoccupation more with the trivial detail of Army life than with the consequences to some other person's family of his firing the rifle—he is at such pains to be clean in the regulation way. In one of these poems, 'Naming of Parts' he shows his extreme sensitivity and ability to approach the emotional through the every day experiences of the world of trivia. He is being taught the names of the parts of his rifle, and the beauty of his surroundings intrudes into the lesson:
. . . . rapidly backwards and forwardsAnd that is my epilogue. The most valid commentary on this our civilisation so-called, which tries to live without the Arts, which are its flowers—
the early bees are assaulting the flowers;
They call it easing the Spring.
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 of the gardens, and the bees going backwards and forwards
For today we have naming of parts.
the point of balance
which in our case we have not got.
Arena, no. 48 (March 1958): 12-13.
MacGregor-Hastie's respect and appreciation for Reed is laudable, if a bit idealized: Reed, even as early as the late 1950s, was hardly remaining 'cheerful' and 'unperturbed', and he probably would have taken more than some offense at the author's rough-handling of his friends, Spender and Day-Lewis—not to mention his idols and authorities, Auden and Eliot.
1505. Orwell, George. "Young Writers." Review of New Writing and Daylight (Summer 1943), edited by John Lehmann. Spectator (30 July 1943): 110.
Orwell says of "The End of an Impulse," Reed's criticism of the Auden-Spender school of poetry, 'Henry Reed's essay contains some valuable remarks on the dangers of group literature.'
Online since October 2014, the BBC Genome
project contains the text of program listings in the Radio Times
from 1923 through 2009.
The search function at the top of the page allows keyword (and advanced) searching, as well as browsing by service, year, and issues
in pull-down menus.
The search result for "Henry Reed
" yields 1,013 results (many belonging to a popular band leader of the same name), but setting limits in the advanced options for "Radio only" brings us to Reed's possible first billing, for "New Poems
" on August 3, 1944: 'The ninth of a monthly selection of very recent or unpublished poems : "The Jungle," by Alun Lewis , and "Philoctetes," by Henry Reed.'
The listings are OCR text which contain many errors, and there are no images from the original magazines — but the project does allow users to submit corrections (or notice of changes to the original schedule).
Read about the BBC's Genome at the About the BBC blog
1504. Ludwig, Jennifer. "Lessons of the War: Henry Reed." In vol. 2, Literature of War: Experiences, edited by Thomas Riggs. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 2012. 359-361.
A relatively lengthy assessment of Reed's influences, position, and the impact resulting from his famous sequence of poems, Lessons of the War.
The Cadbury Research Library
at the University of Birmingham, for Henry Reed's centenary, has very thoughtfully made available some selections from the Reed's papers on their Flickr page: Henry Reed: Behind the Scenes
. There are scans of some of Reed's early writings from the University magazine, The Mermaid
, photographs, and letters (slideshow
One of the more important items (or, at least, important to me), is a letter Reed wrote to his sister Gladys (affectionately called "Babbis," married to Joe; Henry, is of course, Prince "Hal" to his family). This letter was quoted by Professor Jon Stallworthy for his Introduction to Reed's Collected Poems
(Oxford University Press, 1991; Carcanet, 2007), and was written at nearly the same time as another (similar) letter to John Lehmann
: during the summer of 1941, during the Birmingham Blitz and close on the heels Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, whilst Reed is in the midst of his basic training, expecting to be sent into combat and doubtful of his effectiveness:
Address etc. as beforeMy dear Babbis,
July 10th, I think
Thank you for writing; you have no idea how much one longs for letter here, even brief ones; and I should be very glad if you would always drop me a note, or get Jane to, every morning after a raid. We always know when there has been one — among our other duties is fire-watching — and it is worrying of it has been over Birmingham.
We have begun departmental training — which means that army training has to be concentrated into 5/8 of the day, and is therefor increasing in savagery. This blitztraining is, to my mind, absurd. The R.A.O.C. lost 10% of its personnel in Belgium, through being noncombatant. They aim, therefore, at making us combatant, in 9 weeks; at the end of that time we are expected to be able to shoot accurately, to manage a bren gun, an anti-tank gun and various other kinds, to use a bayonet, to throw hand-grenades and
whatnot and to fire at aircraft. I do not think the management of a tank is included in the course, but pretty well everything else is.
Our departmental training, some of which is an official secret, known only to the British and German armies, has consisted mainly of learning the strategic disposition of the R.A.O.C. in the field: this is based, not, as I feared, on the Boer War, but on the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. It is taught by the lecturers who rarely manage to conceal their dubiety at what they are teaching. But it is restful after the other things, and we are allowed to attend in P.T. 'kit'. This is nicely balanced by the fact that we attend P.T. wearing all our 'kit', except blankets. (I will never call a child of mine Christopher.)
Please let mother have the £1, as I know how much greater her need is than mine; I do assure you that I have, so far, all the money I need. I get £1 every Friday, and should get more, were it not for some compulsory
voluntary deduction which they make; and I don't seem to spend even £1. I am still too tired to go out much at night, the beer here is undrinkable and I am having to give up smoking, as my lungs will not stand the strain of smoking and the other things they are called upon to do. So, I am comparatively well off; I should be glad of some more cheques: as this will be my last chance of paying much to my debtors I thought I'd better pay them all a little bit. This, I'm afraid involves a lot of cheques, and if you could let me have another half dozen, it would greatly help me.
I should be glad to have the New Statesman, if that is possible; it comes out on Friday, and if I got it by Saturday that would be marvelous.
I hope a good deal from Russia, of course, but rather joylessly: the scale of it all is beyond my grasp, and it is terrible to see a country
which, with all its faults, has been alone in working to give the fruits of labour to the people who have earned them, thus attacked; I think you should think about Russia very seriously, and try to learn something about her, and try to find why she can perhaps do things that we cannot — things that France, for example, could not. Stalin and Molotoff may be bureaucratic villains: I don't know. But if they are, they are only the passing evil which cannot wipe out what the period of Lenin gave. While we — we are only beginning to turn up a little doubtful virtue in our rulers, after decades of Chamberlain big business. And big business still can stifle the efforts at wise government here, as any workman you meet on a train will tell you. The British people are fighting a battle on two fronts, at home and against Germany: so far we have only been able to hurt Italy, who is fighting a battle on three: against us, against the banker-princes,
and against Germany also; Russia has fought, and largely won, her battle against capitalism. She is only fighting Germany now. That is why she may win; without that earlier victory, her enormous size would avail her nothing in these days. And when she is secure against fascism (which isn't confined to Germany and Italy) perhaps the horrible side of Russia will fade away more rapidly than now seems possible.
I don't know what to say about Joe. It is clear that an officers' mess is a decadent place, even if there are in it people as gallant and intelligent as Joe and a few of my own friends who have recently got commissions; I gather that an officers' mess is boring and dull, and therefore easy to set up expensive forms of distraction in; and I suppose most of Joe's companions were regular commissions officers, who are usually stupid and illiterate (our Lieut-Col. told us we were now fighting alone, last
week, since France failed us; I suppose he hadn't heard about Russia) and they may lead him astray, which could happen very easily, I think, knowing Joe. If you think telling him about the O.D. would shock him into remorse, do so; I think this would be the best way. It means great inconvenience to you, always to shoulder Joe's burdens like this, but eventually it ought to aruse his conscience. The time for a general settlement will be after the war is over; everybody will be so shatteringly poor then, that things will probably settle themselves, even overdrafts.
The enclosed is a present (not a repayment — not yet) from me; I am keen on its being divided thus, and thus only: 5/- for mother (for her birthday), 1/6 for Jane (because why should she have any more than that) and 13/6 for you (to be spent as "pocket-money"
on oddments, meals and so on, because by now you ought to be learning what it feels like to have 13/6). Please do this arrangement for me, as faithfully as if it were a will.
And write again soon.
All my fondest love to you all.
I hope to find time to transcribe more of these letters from Henry. Click here to see the University of Birmingham Special Collections' catalog record
for Henry Reed's letters to his family.
1503. King, Francis. Yesterday Came Suddenly: An Autobiography. London: Constable, 1993. 79-80.
Mentions Henry Reed and Angus Wilson making fun of the Bletchley Park Writers' Circle.
My efforts to track the poet Henry Reed through his early decades of the 1930s and 40s are often frustrated by the constant manifestations of another semi-famous "Henry Reed": a popular British band leader who seems to have made nearly daily appearances on the radio during that time. This doppelgänger's career only begins to fade out in the mid- to late-1940s, just as our poet's begins to rise.
It was probably owing to the overwhelming multitude of the Pretender's radio appearances which led me to overlook this article from the Manchester Guardian, in September, 1937
: a first-person report—narrative, really—from the annual Piedigrotta music festival
For a brief moment I feared it had been written by the musician, but before I even finished the first paragraph I realized it must be the Literary Reed: the ghost of Leopardi materializes; a paraphrase of Baedeker's Italy
is inserted; there is a struggle with Italian dialect; Pompeii; and lastly—the clincher—there is a repetition of "to-morrow. To-morrow. To-morrow...".
Reed sounds very close to his subject here. So very close, the music is still ringing in his ears; so I think we shall have to update his timeline/map
to include a visit to Naples in the first week of September, 1937:
The Piazza di Piedigrotta in Naples is never properly to be called quiet, except occasionally between two and four in the morning. In the first week of September, while people are restlessly waiting for the Popular Song Festival, even this intermission is ignored. On the night of the festival itself one is not especially conscious of enormous noise, for it seems by this time that one has never known silence. Not far away from the radiant tunnel of lights in which the musical competitions take place Virgil lies in his mythical tomb, and in another direction, Leopardi lies in his real one. Do they ever turn in them on this night, one wonders?
The festa once had a ceremony, a ritualistic splendour, but it is not to be supposed that its participants today know that, or bother much about it, though they are happily conscious that their revels are tolerantly presided over by Santa Maria di Piedigrotta in the near-by church. The cook at the pizzeria has never heard of Charles III. The old man who even at this time tries to sell you bootlaces cares nothing for Charles's victory at Velletri in 1744. The tenor who sings the new songs might perhaps be interested to hear that Charles commemorated Velletri by instituting the festival at which he earns whatever he eats instead of bread and butter, but more probably he would merely smile and murmur during the introduction of the second verse that it would have happened anyway. And the information that "this huge fair was held every year with considerable magnificence till the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1859" would be greeted with huge derision. Considerable magnificence? Has not M------, the singer, introduced a perfectly splendid and gratuitous high D into the song of the year, a note it was thought would not be heard from a man in our lifetime? Are not the fireworks louder and brighter and longer and cheaper than ever before? Have not more new combinations of instruments been evolved this year than it was ever believed possible? Did you ever think to hear a trumpet and harp duet before? Magnificence?
Every one of us has a Chinese lantern or an impossible nose or a paper hat. We all have those things that you blow out in other people's faces, or those things that you shake round in other people's ears. If you have unlimited money there is unlimited food. Over certain gelaterie there are still old-fashioned flaming gas-jets, but their noise cannot be separately heard as we feverishly lick huge slabs of ice-cream under them. For three singers are I passing in a cart, accompanied by a string octet. To me the words are unintelligible, though I am glad to hear the dialect word "Scetà," which comes in every Neapolitan song, I should think, and means "Wake up." I am deeply impressed and unnecessarily give the waiter a tip. As we hurry away I am severely rebuked for this extravagance by young Neapolitan friends. Arguing furiously, we all step with care over a happily sleeping tramp. I explain that I am not entirely penniless and that it is a season if not of peace on earth at least of goodwill to men. This is considered a silly remark, and after another debate shouted over the noise of bagpipes (bagpipes!) we go on. But the youngest of our party has disappeared. He comes panting up three minutes later, having, by what miracle of cajolery or menace I cannot find out, recovered my penny from the waiter. He gives it to his eldest brother to keep for me.
The tunnel cut through the hill of Posilipo is brightly lit, and one can dance in it, since no automobile will be allowed to pass through it until to-morrow. The wise will have, learned the words and tunes of the songs from the leaflets that have been going about for the last few weeks. Anyone would have taught you the tunes on the violin or the guitar (there is, it appears, no piano in Naples). Then you can join in when the carts containing their little bands come round to catch your approbation.
There is no doubt about which is the best song. Surely a finer librettist than Di Giacomo has arisen in—what is his name, did you say?—the poet who has been so inspired as to mention all the islands in the bay in the same song, and the ghosts of dead lovers at Pompeii as well. And even Tagliaferri could not produce phrases more yielding to the individual choice of vocal ornament than those that M------ is embellishing with his brilliant "mordenti" at the moment. (They say he really comes from Baia, but that is only just round the corner, and it is more than likely that his grandmother came from Naples.)
One must, of course, discriminate with care. The song of the year may be one of those that will not just circle the bay and die after a short excursion to Rome. It may be another "Funiculi, funicula," and go round the world for years and years. But even if nothing historic emerges the individual conscience need not worry. For it will all be a good racket while it lasts. The night will grow louder and louder, and we shall meet more and more new people, who Will remember you because you are English and odd, though you cut them to-morrow.
To-morrow. To-morrow everyone is a bit hoarse. The lights are kept up the next night, for there is a natural attempt to make a good party last as long as it can. But it is rather a hopeless one, and the piazza next day has rather the aspect of an untalking film. In the reaction from the unspeakable recklessness that has led you the night before to embark upon ices, melons of all kinds, lemonade, several "veri vini," and great late figs you have become cowardly, and sit with your companions under the tawny lights of the fountain chewing monkey-nuts. They have forgotten the festa and are reverting to a game of more permanent exhilaration, that of trying to teach you to say "Vedi Napoli e poi muori" in the dialect. "Vega Nabul' u puo' muo'" it sounds like. The last two words are especially hard, and you create much amusement by them.
1502. Reed, Henry. Poetry Reading. The Poet Speaks. British Council recording, no. 1636. 12 March 1970. Co-sponsored by the British Council and the Woodberry Poetry Room in the Lamont Library of Harvard University. TAPE ARCHIVE PR6035.E32 A6 1970x, Woodberry Poetry Room, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Henry Reed reads a selection of his poems for the British Council series, The Poet Speaks.
(1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8
Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC
, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945.
Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.
A Map of Verona: Poems
The Novel Since 1939
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel
Lessons of the War
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio
The Auction Sale
Posts of note: