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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.

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«  Posts from 01 February 2009  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

11.12.2017


Today we have something truly special: Henry Reed's review of Eliot's Four Quartets, from the December 9, 1944 issue of Time & Tide. The article is unsigned, but Reed is identified as the author the following month, in Notes & Queries ("Memorablia," 13 January 1945, p. 1).

Reed draws his title from the dedication of The Wasteland, in which Eliot calls Ezra Pound il migglio fabbro, "the better craftsman". Eliot lifted the phrase from Canto 26 of Dante's Purgatorio, wherein the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel is named the best craftsman of the mother tongue.

Such high regard for Eliot's craftsmanship could almost be considered ironic, given that Reed won a 1941 New Statesman contest with "Chard Whitlow: Mr. Eliot's Sunday Evening Postscript," a parody which manages to blend the styles and mock the sentiment of both Burnt Norton and East Coker. (When East Coker was published in 1940, the first thing Reed did was post a copy to his former professor, Helen Gardner.) But Reed's skill for imitation only belies a deeper admiration, even worship. In fact, many of the reviewers of Reed's first volume of poetry, in 1946, would accuse him of being too indebted to Eliot.

Book cover

Il Miglior Fabbro
Four Quartets: T.S. Eliot. Faber. 6s.

it does not disquiet me that there are passages in these four poems that I still do not understand, for whenever I read them, as I do often, the wonderful varied power of the language they employ holds me completely a victim, and I do not mind the uncertainties. Nor does it distress me that the particular religious inflection which their author intends the poems to have comes from a religion which I no longer find myself trying to believe in; for even if the things which Eliot says were not also "true in a different sense", I think that the alternating gentleness and forcefulness of the voice that is speaking would completely suspend my disbelief. Perhaps it is the gentleness of the voice that is the real magic; the agonized gentleness which we do not hear since Tennyson, whom Eliot calls the saddest of English poets:
Calm is the morn without a sound,
      Calm as to suit a calmer grief;
      And only through the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground.
That, somehow, is a voice one can trust. So is this voice:
The brief sun flames the ice on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or
      brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit.
After the exquisite language of these poems, whatever one tries to say by way of criticism or analysis sounds uncouth. One has also the feeling that one is slightly off the point, because they are poems which can be communicated only in their own words. But since they are difficult and elusive, it is necessary for a critic to say what he thinks they are about. Time is their theme. (That is not quite true, but it is as near as one will get.) They aim at discovering a means of facing time; at discovering an attitude towards time which shall be something different from a subservience to the passing of the years; at discovering a capacity for thinking of the present moment not as a bridge between past and future, but as a point in an eternal pattern. To conquer time we have only one weapon given us—time. And at this point one wonders if one would not do better to say the poems are about life rather than about time.

Eliot's examination, or quest, begins simply (so far as he is ever simple) and hesitantly in Burnt Norton with one particular "aspect" of time; the highest complexity and difficulty are reached in the second and third movements of The Dry Salvages; the problem is solved in Little Gidding. The over-all drama of the quest is stressed by the sequence of the four symbols, air, earth, water and fire, which the four poems suggest. The intensity of the poem increases from the quiet of Burnt Norton, through the disturbances of East Coker to the tumult of The Dry Salvages, and relaxes to a final tranquillity at the end of Little Gidding. In each of the separate poems (which all follow the same structural design) there is a separate drama of crescendo and diminuendo.

In Burnt Norton we are given a fairly easy exercise in perception: Eliot recalls to us that not uncommon moment when the common sequence of minute after minute seems suspended, when two kinds of consciousness seem to cross. This may happen in a variety of ways; perhaps Proust encountered the same thing when he tasted the madeleine; for Eliot, in this first poem, it is the coincidence of a vision of what is, and a vision of what might have been. What is, is a deserted garden and a drained pool; what might have been, is the shrubberies full of children's voices, and the pool filled with water. Both moments seem equally actual: the double moment of "actuality" is reality, a state we cannot bear for long; it is a moment quickly to be seized and quickly gone, a "hint" of a greater experience. That experience, we are told later, is the intersection of eternity and time at the Incarnation.

The opening of this first poem presents a way into the problem of time; the core of the rest of it is the effort to break free from—
       the enchainment of and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body.
East Coker is a study of the onset of age, and of the discovery that age, contrary to all the promises, brings neither wisdom nor the solution to our tragedies:
            We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm
                         .    .    .    .
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
In this poem the pattern as distinct from the sequence of life is once more emphasized; and in this pattern the dead also are involved. This is an advance from the moment in the garden in Burnt Norton. The poet desires:
              Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
In The Dry Salvages, the themes of eternity and death are announced. The climax of this poem is an echo, one gathers, of Krishna's words to Arjuna in the Gita; but it reminds us also of "Make perfect your will", and of "Take no thought for the harvest, but only of proper sowing." It is an admonishment—significant only to the religious man, perhaps, but not beyond the appreciation of others—to live each moment, regardless of past and future, as if it were the moment before death.
             O voyagers, O seamen,
You who come to port, and you whom bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.
The movement towards the faith of Christianity is already clear; and it becomes clearer still in Little Gidding. At the end of The Dry Salvages, we are told where our duty lies: in "prayer, observance, discipline, thought, and action." In Little Gidding we go to a place where "prayer has been valid", where the Holy Ghost has once descended to flame in men's hearts. In this poem the themes of the earlier poems are resumed and rounded off. We are left with the Christian choice: to be redeemed from the fire of hell by the flame of Pentecost. The fifth movement of this poem is a masterpiece of concentration; in it the poet reminds us, in a way that usually only the allusions of music can, of all he has had to say. Above all, he tells us that what he has to say is not anything new. He has already said in East Coker that all he can do in his poetry is to rediscover what has been found and lost before. That is all one will do in life itself, however, one goes about it.

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What is Henry Reed's first name?

1513. Hodge, Alan. "Thunder on the Right." Tribune (London), 14 June 1946, 15.
Hodge finds 'dry charm as well as quiet wit' in "Judging Distances," but overall feels Reed is 'diffuse and not sufficiently accomplished.'



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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