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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 entire life.

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Henry Reed, ca. 1960


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Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

23.4.2014


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 in Naples.

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:

Festa
PIEDIGROTTA

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.
Henry Reed.

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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.'


In his 1991 autobiography, Swann's Way, the composer Donald Swann takes the time to say a few kind words about collaborating with Henry Reed. Swann composed and conducted the music for all the radio plays in Reed's (in)famous Hilda Tablet saga, beginning with A Very Great Man Indeed in 1953, through Musique Discrète in 1959, seven plays in all. Swann and his musical partner, Michael Flanders, even had on-air cameos as a Russian interrogators in Not a Drum Was Heard: The War Memoirs of General Gland.

Swann's Way

It's time I mentioned my work with Henry Reed. He's known to many as a poet, particularly a very fine war poet — many will remember 'Naming Of Parts' , and 'Unarmed Combat', I'm sure. As well as being a fine poet, he had a true gift for radio. He was commissioned by Douglas Cleverdon in the mid fifties to write a series of features for the Third Programme.

It is important to say something about Douglas, a gentlemanly, witty and extremely literate book publisher and radio producer, to whom respects and tributes have recently been pouring in after his death. Having published David Jones, and commissioned Dylan Thomas to write Under Milk Wood for radio, he had a similar galvanising effect on the poet Henry Reed and on all of us who worked for him. For many, he enshrined the very epitome of the Third Programme, now Radio 3.

The series of seven features Henry and Douglas collaborated on arose from a putative biography of a man called Richard Shewin, which included a cast of some fifteen characters connected with his life. Each feature presented a new development of this satirical and often very erudite story. One of the characters was a 'composeress' called Hilda Tablet. She was a bit of a send-up of Elizabeth Lutyens and, although a female character, of Benjamin Britten. Mary O'Farrell played Hilda Tablet and I was given the chance of 'realising' Hilda's music. Eventually, she nearly hijacked the whole series. She was an eccentric character who always wore tails for her main concerts. Henry got very keen on her and wrote another feature called The Private Life of Hilda Tablet.

I wrote and played songs and piano music for the radio series, but when Hilda Tablet composed an all-woman opera at Covent Garden called Emily Butter, I actually chalked up about twenty minutes of an operatic score. I did have a few problems with the music: Hilda Tablet wrote largely twelve-tone music, and I experienced some difficulty writing an atonal and twelve-tone score. Henry was most obliging and altered the story so that in the middle of this purported Covent Garden opera, the Consolidated Musicians' Union goes on strike, therefore leaving nothing but one piano. This suited me fine and the actors began to sing very melodic music because they couldn't stand Hilda Tablet anyway. He arranged it so that I could get back to my comfortable middlebrow style. This was a very fruitful episode for me and it has been a lasting experience. We were treated with the greatest respect by the BBC and there were constant repeats of the series. Humphrey Carpenter has revived it at a recent Cheltenham Literary Festival.

I used to beseech Henry to stop writing for radio and write a really good libretto for a musical. If anyone could do it, it would be him. But he loved broadcasting and I can understand this because there is something about radio which is quite different from the theatre. I'm just incredibly pleased that I had such a good collaboration. As well as the pleasure of working with such an outstanding cast of actors, it brought me through to the point where I had explored all that I could do with that imitative style.
[pp. 120-121]

That, my dear friends, is class. To get a taste of what Swann had to work with, here's his piece from the aforementioned Not a Drum Was Heard, "Rangoon March," featuring Deryck Guyler as General Gland, Mary O'Farrell as Hilda Tablet, and Marjorie Westbury as Elsa Strauss. Impatient Swann fans should note there's about four minutes, thirty of introduction before the piece begins:




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.


Today I am dredging up a review from The Listener from November 28, 1946. In the "New Novels" column, Henry Reed considers two books which are distinctly post-war: Arthur Koestler's Thieves in the Night, based on Koestler's experiences setting up a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine; and Henry Green's Back, regarding a wounded British soldier returning from a German POW camp. Reed also has a few favorable words for Tom Hopkinson's Mist in the Tagus, "a story of two heterosexual girls in love with two non-heterosexual young men."

Reed is disappointed in both Koestler and Green (though he gives Green's prose high marks), whose preceding works were so much more enjoyable and filled with promise, but surprisingly his biggest complaint about Hopkinson's novel is that it is too brief:

Book cover

New Novels

Thieves in the Night. By Arthur Koestler. Macmillan. 10s. 6d.
Back. By Henry Green. Hogarth Press. 8s. 6d.
Mist in the Tagus. By Tom Hopkinson. Hogarth Press. 7s. 6d.
In almost every way, Mr. Arthur Koestler's new novel is profoundly depressing. It depresses one on his behalf because he has suffered what he describes; on behalf of the Jews he writes about because a solution to their problems seems almost unimaginable; and on behalf of the readers who normally admire his work because Thieves in the Night is a poor book. Mr. Koestler seems indeed to be not very interested in making it any better, and I felt while reading it that the contempt he appears to feel for most groups of people had somehow invaded his attitude towards novel-writing, and — less pardonably — his attitude towards his readers.

Thieves in the Night could doubtless have been a worthy successor to Darkness at Noon; one could forgive it for being less objective, since Mr. Koestler has himself been more deeply involved in what he describes. It is a story about a group of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. They arrive on a night in 1937; the book tells about their building of a settlement; it carries us through their days of achievement, setback, and hardship, up to the time of the 1939 White Paper. It ends with another small batch of immigrants arriving in Palestine in the same year. Threaded through this chronicle of events is the personal story of Joseph, a half-Jew who has joined the Zionists; the girl he loves is murdered by Arabs, and this turns the scale for him so that he throws in his lot with the terrorists. I do no think we are to assume an identity between Joseph's views and Mr. Koestler's, though I see that this has been promptly taken for granted in some quarters. What he shows us is an example of how 'those to whom evil is done do evil in return'; and he convinces us that a sober and dignified effort towards a good life has become transformed by frustration and betrayal into lawless violence. The plight of the Jews is described thus:
    We are homesick for a Canaan which was never truly ours. . . . Defeated and bruised, we turn back towards the point in space from which the hunt started. It is the return from delirium to normality and its limitations. A country is the shadow which a nation throws, and for two thousand years we were a nation without a shadow.
Mr. Koestler has summed up the tragedy in that unforgettable last image; and it is obvious that his subject is a great one. It is here that one's cause for depression rises: rarely can such a subject have been so dully and so mechanically treated. We are given many illuminating facts; but during scarcely more than a dozen pages does the book come alive as an original story; these are page after page of discussion, of would-be satirical portraiture which I feel any novelist anxious to do a good job would have seen to be commonplace and flat. No readers enjoy more than do English readers satire about themselves abroad; but A Passage to India, to say nothing of other books, has set a standard in this sort of writing which one cannot ignore.

And, alas, Mr. Koestler tends more and more to become a publicist. He is perhaps not to be blamed. It is an easy line, and doubtless it is justifiable. I can imagine that tolling in his ears is the death-knell of civilisation. Art seems increasingly crowded on to a narrowing littoral and facing an incoming sea. I think a critic is called upon to understand and sympathise with this point of view; he is also called upon to say that straight polemical writing is more readable than the casual dramatisation found in Thieves in the Night. It seems idle to suggest that, with his gifts, Mr. Koestler could have developed his characters to a point where they become interesting, and cease to be merely a set of wooden objects asking the reader for pity. We know that if Mr. Koestler cared to try, he could force the pity from us. We know that he could also make us laugh, but here, as in his play, 'Twilight Bar', he prefers facetiousness. The solemn importance of the subject prevents one from ignoring the book; but it is a great disappointment.

So many intelligent novelists in recent years have eschewed the use of plot and substituted what may be charitably called 'theme' that the sight of sort of plot emerging from a novel goes to a reviewer's head. The position is much the same with wines. Years of tormenting abstinence deaden one's judgment. Plots and wines return, and at first it seems in both cases that any blessed thing will do. The excitement of wanting to know what will happen next leads one to murmur preliminary words of extravagant praise. Then the plot falters, the wine doesn't turn out as well as you expect, and your words of praise have to be withdrawn. Thus with Mr. Henry Green's new novel, Back. It starts an attractive story about a man named Charles Summers returning with a peg leg from a prison camp; Rose, his former mistress, the wife of a friend, has died. By a curious contrivance Charley is introduced to her illegitimate half-sister, Nancy; he cannot believe she is not Rose herself with her hair dyed. It is part of the nightmare quality of being 'back'. I do not object to an improbable plot. But Mr. Green's plot totters; it too is peg-legged and has to have a long rest in the middle. Its end is convincing and beautiful, but by the time it comes we have slightly lost interest.

If you know Mr. Green's other novels, its curt title will suggest to you at once that he has chosen a good 'theme' for himself; there is the intensity of feeling found in Caught and Loving. The ideas that he implies in his titles are for him poetic ideas, as summer or winter might be to a poet. It is this that makes Mr. Green one of the most striking and original of modern novelists. To me he seems also one of the best. He does something new and good. I can see that his curious style may be an irritation to some readers; me it normally charms. Adaptations of highly mannered authors are always dangerous; but Mr. Green seems to find genuine kinship with the sad, wistful mood of the earlier Bloom chapters in Ulysses. His echoing poetic images, recurring and transformed like musical phrases, are to him a natural and not an artificial way of seeing and feeling; and they reproduce something real in our own sensitivity. His new novel contains ay fine passages; its comedy is excellent. If it is less of a success than its two immediate predecessors, it is nevertheless something one will keep with Mr. Green's other books and take down from time to time.

Mr. Tom Hopkinson's second novel, Mist in the Tagus, has a fault staggeringly unusual in contemporary novels: it ought to have been longer. The people and emotion he deals with demand greater space for their proper emergence than he has allotted them, so that relationships which should have been dramatised are often merely described: there is a felling that some of them have been unduly potted. It is a story of two heterosexual girls in love with two non-heterosexual young men. It occupies the week or fortnight of an English girl's holiday intrusion into a leisured small group of people who have drifted down from Europe into Portugal. The feeling of rapidly shortening time as the girls attempt to accomplish their desires is excellently achieved; so is the sense of inevitable failure which pervades their efforts. Everything in the book is well conceived and well ordered; the actual succession of events and disclosures shows a most intelligent and perceptive writer at work. But the final feeling one is left with is that one has seen it all through the wrong end of a telescope. Today this seems like being given an ounce of best butter in place of a pound of common marge. One hardly knows whether to be grateful or not; it is another aspect on the plot and wine situation referred to above.

Henry Reed
[p. 766]
You can read the original New York Times review for Thieves in the Night on their website.



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.


The University of Arizona Poetry Center has a terrific exhibition of vintage posters for poetry readings sponsored in the 1960s and 70s, for such acclaimed poets as Marvin Bell, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, John Ciardi, C. Day-Lewis, W.S. Merwin, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, and James Tate. The silkscreen posters were created by art students at the university, the results of a competition vying for the best design, and they are wonderfully inventive and vibrant.

In the spring of 1966, Henry Reed was visiting from London as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. While there, he apparently accepted an invitation to give a reading at Arizona's Poetry Center (then the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center) on April 27, 1966, and in the exhibit we find a marvelous publicity poster for "the noted British poet" made specially for the event:

Publicity poster

The "PMM AUD" mentioned in the poster was the auditorium in the old Physics, Mathematics, and Meteorology building at the university. I e-mailed the Poetry Center with a question about the date of the reading, and to my dismay they informed me that Reed cancelled at the last minute. Typical Henry. There are hints that he had to take on Elizabeth Bishop's classes in Seattle when she came down with the flu, and his drinking habit was getting the better of him.

You can also view the University of Arizona's vintage Poetry Center posters (and many, many more goodies!) in the Arizona State Library's online repository, the Arizona Memory Project.



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.


I'm happy to be able to share this excellent caricature of Henry Reed drawn by the artist Rod MacGregor, a self-described "mover of pens":
Reed caricature

Rod's other work can be found on The Pen Mover Flickr and Instagram pages, including these great renderings of Robert Frost and William Burroughs.

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1501. Reed, Henry. Interview with Peter Orr. The Poet Speaks. British Council recording, no. 1638. 11 June 1970. Co-sponsored by the British Council and the Woodberry Poetry Room in the Lamont Library of Harvard University. TAPE ARCHIVE PR6035.E32 Z5 1970x, Woodberry Poetry Room, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Henry Reed speaks with Peter Orr of the British Council, as part of the series The Poet Speaks.


In 1970, Henry Reed was recorded reading eight of his poems, as part of a series co-sponsored by the British Council and the Woodberry Poetry Room in the Lamont Library of Harvard University. The series was The Poet Speaks, created by Peter Orr, then the head of the Recorded Sound Department at the British Council.

Not only were contemporary British and American poets invited to record their work, but they were interviewed by Orr, Hilary Morrish, John Press, and Ian Scott-Kilvert: talking about poetry, the craft of writing, and being a poet (notably among the interviewees, Sylvia Plath). Many of these recordings were released on LP records by Argo Records, starting in 1965.

Some of the recordings for The Poet Speaks, however, were never commercially released, including those of Henry Reed. But they still exist on reel-to-reel tapes, thanks to the preservation efforts of the Houghton Library at Harvard University (TAPE ARCHIVE PR6035.E32 A6 1970x). Here's just a sample in honor of National Poetry Day in the UK, Henry Reed's "The River":


"The River" was published in The Listener on March 26, 1970, along with another of Reed's poems, "Three Words."

This recording is reproduced with the generous permission of the British Council, the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University, and the Royal Literary Fund. And there's more. Much more, coming soon!

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1499. Times (London), "Broadcasting Programmes," 18 June 1964, 6.
Reed's translation of Buzzati's play, "The American Prize," premieres tonight on the Third Programme.


I was recently led by a database — and ultimately disappointed — to an issue of Vogue in 1948 containing reference to Reed. It was in an article on the Sitwell dynasty: Edith, Sacheverell, and Osbert Sitwell. The article, which appeared in the November 15 issue, "The Importance of Being the Sitwells," has a layout of paintings and photographs, while the text consists of pullquotes and anecdotes concerning the trio (mostly Dame Edith, let's be honest) from a myriad of sources. Reed's paragraphs (on the last page), are sourced as being from Denys Val Baker's 1946 anthology Writers of Today; but ultimately that's just a reprint of his 1944 article from Penguin New Writing, "The Poetry of Edith Sitwell."

Renishaw

Osbert Sitwell was a huge influence on Reed's development as a poet and writer: he brought Reed under his wing introduced the young poet to what must have previously seemed like an unreachable circle of writers and musicians, actors and artists. Sitwell was chairman of the Society of Authors when Reed was given a bursary to support his writing in 1945: 200 per year for three years. Reed lunched with Edith Sitwell in London at Osbert's urging; Osbert sent Reed to visit Violet Gordon-Woodhouse during the Blitz.

Reed reviewed the second volume of Osbert's autobiography, The Scarlet Tree, for The New Statesman and Nation on August 31, 1946. A self-proclaimed Kleinian, the memoir probably helped cinch Reed's views on the influence of childhood on the authors and novels of the mid-twentieth century. Reed devotes a full page to Sitwell:

Book cover

BOOKS IN GENERAL
The Scarlet Tree, by Osbert Sitwell (Macmillan, 15s.) has an advantage over many autobiographies: it is written by an experienced novelist, who is here turning into art a richer material than he has used elsewhere, and who is partly employing the novelist's craft in shaping it. Who else but a novelist could contrive the checks upon racing Time which we find in this book, the disposition of a heavy emphasis here, a light one there, the holding back of an explanation till "later," the anticipations, the use of suspense, and above all the carefully-timed entrances and re-entrances of the characters? In biography Sir Osbert Sitwell's contrivances would be intolerable; in autobiography they are a blessing: There is something else which strikes one as one compares this book with a novel: because this is life, and not fiction, certain characters with traits which would in a novel be unacceptable outside the broadest farce are acceptable here. Where, in a novel, after our acquaintance with a character, has extended over several hundred pages, could we believe the, statement that he had "invented a musical toothbrush The Scarlet Tree which played 'Annie Laurie' as you brushed your teeth, and a small revolver for shooting wasps?" Sir George Sitwell, the author's father, is said to have invented both of these; perhaps they worked; but we should be rather incensed by the idea in a novel. So that, throughout, The Scarlet Tree has all the virtues of a large-scale discursive roman fleuve, with none of the restrictions of probability that a serious novelist has to impose on himself.

There is plenty to make the reader laugh in this autobiography; there are many exquisite comic miniatures where absurdities are highly packed into a small space, as in the account of two of the author's elder cousins:
But, in fact, they got on well together, in spite of their differing so often in the opinions they put forward. In the past, however, certain disputes had taken place occasionally, so that each sister has pasted somewhere on every article of furniture belonging to her — whether it were an oak chair, a table, a bronze, a chased-silver photograph-frame, or merely a Japanese vase full of last year's pampas-grass — a label, which bore on it in clear, black, decisive letters, admitting of no question, the name FLORA or FREDERICA. Thus, if either of them decided of a sudden to quit, she could accomplish it immediately, departing with her own belongings and without the possibility of further discord.
But in its major intention The Scarlet Tree is a tragic, not a comic, book. Things which were treated comically, or hinted at in a non-committal tone neither of comedy nor of tragedy, in Left Hand, Right Hand, begin to develop more darkly here. And yet it is part of the novelist's art that the most lingering impression of the book is a quality not of darkness but of light. Indeed, descriptions of light are part of its scheme: Were is along Proustian meditation by the author while, as a child, he lies in bed at daybreak and feels the day increasing behind the shutters; there is another, a little later in life under the title of A Brief Escape into the Early Morning. Yet bathed in light though the book is — and one wishes that Mr. Piper's pictures had turned occasionally aside from their excruciating melodramatic gloom to try and recapture a little of this — the book is principally a picture of tragic childhood, of infant vitality, exuberance and perspicaciousness flickering against deepening shadows of older futility. If, in fact, one or other of this distinguished family of writers has sometimes seemed, in print, a little too easily indignant or provoked; if they have had less difference to the censure which all writers of genius sometimes evoke than their admirers would like to see in them: then perhaps we find the reasons in The Scarlet Tree. But while the author employs much candour in speaking of his upbringing, he leaves it to his readers to make, if they choose, explicit comment on it. A critic may perhaps be allowed to describe it as horrible and appalling. No one can contemplate without misgiving those pathetically awful small children who are allowed a wholly uninhibited expression of their impulses, and who early realise with the natural cunning of children that there are no limits to how far they can go. But the opposite of this is scarcely better: the children rigorously subjected to the sort of well-meant cruelty — a complete divorce of ends and means — which permitted Sir George Sitwell always to insist that his children should do the exact opposite of anything they showed pleasurable inclination towards.

Yet it is not to be imagined that Sir Osbert presents his father in the familiar guise of an Edward Moulton-Barrett [father of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning]. The most subtle and original thing in this book is the suggestion it gives that all early development is haphazardly circumstanced: it is a crawl through a garden wilderness where the cruellest briars and the largest fallen branches which impede the way pave also once had their struggles for existence and growth. It is a wise sense of this that persuades, Sir Osbert in talking of his own upbringing to open out for us a remoter vista: the childhood of his father.
Here, having watched the development of a character, as seen by a child, a son, the reader may ask why my father so continually insisted on being in the right, to the extent that if events proved to him that he had been wrong, and he could no longer avoid such a conclusion, he had to fall ill... The reason, I deduce, must be sought a long way back, in the 'sixties of the previous century when he was a small child... I used to think that his disposition and his whims, sometimes so delightful and removed from reality, at others so harsh, and, indeed, hateful, were the result of his having been brought up entirely by women since the age of two, when, as we have seen, he succeeded his father; were rooted in the circumstance that he had never been controlled or disciplined or contradicted, and that, further, he had inherited an ample fortune at the age of twenty-one, finding himself, in fact, one of those local princes of whom Meredith tells us in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. But my father had always maintained that his mother, though, by the time I knew her, gentle and on occasion almost indulgent, had not — for she was one of a family of five daughters — understood how a boy should be managed, and had treated him — of course without meaning to do so, for she was utterly devoted to him — with severity, and sometimes almost with cruelty.... And I have come to believe that this was true since I found in 1938 in the library at Renishaw a forbidding-looking account-book, short and thick, with an ecclesiastical clasp of brass. I opened this volume at random, and my eye lit on a page, not devoted to figures, on which were written, in a round, childish hand, very different from that which I knew, and yet even then recognisable, the words "George naughty again Jan. 20th." From the character of the letters, he plainly could not have been more than six or seven when obliged to enter that sentence. Underneath was inscribed in my grandmother's beautiful, flowing hand, "George naughty a second time Jan. 20th."
There are many variations in the book on the theme of semi-conscious paternal bullying; and there is a good deal of its painful counterpart, semi-conscious maternal indifference. Lady Ida Sitwell could also be cruel — and in a perhaps more despicable way — but a part of her was all on the side of kindness, and it seems to have been easily played on by the unscrupulous; but the actions of her life, according to the testimony of a son whose completely affectionate attitude to her cannot be questioned, were principally dedicated to the pursuit of "fun"; and to such a temperament as hers, children provide little. Where it was most craved, therefore, her kindness was something least forthcoming. Yet there is an element of "attack" in Sir Osbert's account of his upbringing, though some things — among them his mother's attitude to his sister — cannot be treated with complete equanimity; but about his own injuries he has come to that state of comparative calm (it is nothing so smug as forgiveness, which: is always rather an indecent gesture on the part of a human being) the attainment of which is part of every artist's task.

This volume covers ten years of the young Osbert's life. It includes the deepening of certain threatening shadows at home, the whole of his school life, accounts of London and Scarborough, and his first glimpses of Italy. On its more sombre side it includes, too painfully for isolated quotation, a brief, horrifying scene with an unscrupulous private tutor, one of those dramatic moments of suspense and foreboding which are again, a hint of the art of the novelist — points of significant detail which crystallise a whole phase of life. The accounts of the schools — a day, school at Scarborough, two private boarding-schools, and Eton — are written not without ferocity. But there is more than that: we are used to people writing satirical, indignant or regretful accounts of their schooldays; with rare exceptions, there seems to be little reason for them to write otherwise. Sir Osbert employs satire and indignation — Bloodsworth in particular, appears not to have been far short of a torture-chamber — but he sees deeper than, these instruments by themselves will allow a man to see: he uncovers a process of malformation, permanent or temporary. Esce di man di Lui l'anima semplicetta; but, the simple little soul returns from his second world severely misshapen:
The school restored to my parents a different boy, unrecognisable, with no pride in his appearance, no ability to concentrate, with health impaired for many years, if not for life, secretive, with no love of books, and an impartial hatred for both work and games, with few qualities left and none acquired, save a love of solitude and a cynical disbelief, firmly established, in any sense of fair play or prevailing standard, of human conduct.
He has no hesitation — why should he have? — in making clear who or what helped to undo this mischief. Principally, himself; but some things in addition which were denied to many of his companions. There was the calm beauty of Renishaw; there were his own growing apprehensions of the things man has formed out of the mess of life; there was Italy. It is a tempting preciosity to say that the Englishman's education and sensibility are incomplete without Mediterranean experience. It is also a palpable falsity; they are equally incomplete without experience of the South Seas, China, Russia and India. But to the English artist (to say nothing of anyone else) Italy has a strange power of benediction — more potent and residual perhaps when no attempt is made by the Englishman to externalise, its beauty into art; Sir Osbert is not, of course, the Englishman Italianate who incurred and deserved Elizabethan censure; but now that the centre of diabolism seems temporarily to have moved to Paris, it is delicious to find the magic of Italy restored in pages that are among the best in the book.

The remarkable achievement of The Scarlet Tree is its avoidance of an episodic character. No writer of our time — unless perhaps Mr. William Plomer in his own autobiography — has shown greater delight in the unusual and absurd sideshows of human behaviour, or more tenacity in storing them up, for future reference. But in The Scarlet Tree anecdotes are used only as occasional illustration to the general succession of the "movements" of life. It is not a book which over-emphasises detail at the expense of form: the whole work, of which this is said to be a quarter (though one prefers to hope that it will be but an eighth or a twelfth) promises to be a masterpiece of controlled expansiveness; it has already a quality of humorous and urbane magnificence, and a romantic lyricism rare in contemporary prose. It is worth while remembering that this is achieved in spite of rather than because of the author's native background. Our times provide us with a new opportunity for snobbism which we eagerly grasp at; with a gracious smile we accept socialism, and with a wider one we indicate how much we are giving up. The author of The Scarlet Tree knows all this; and he is at pains to show in these Edwardian chapters what sterile dramas could enact themselves, what futile games be played, against the background of Renishaw. He insists that the notable qualities of himself, and of his brother and sister, are qualities of mind. These they brought with them; they did not find them there.
Henry Reed
Who could read all that and not put both Left Hand, Right Hand and The Scarlet Tree on their wishlist?



1495. Reed, Henry. "Proust's Way." Reviews of Marcel Proust: A Selection from His Miscellaneous Writings translated by Gerard Hopkins, and The Two Worlds of Marcel Proust by Harold March. Observer, 16 January 1949, 4.
Reed says, 'Proust, like Shakespeare, should be read as early in life as possible, and should be read entire.'



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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