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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.

Read "Naming of Parts."

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Henry Reed, ca. 1960


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Posts from April 2009

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

25.10.2014


Reed Reviews Mervyn Peake

I popped into the university bookstore this afternoon, specifically to pick up a copy of Titus Groan, which I've never read. I looked in Fiction & Literature: alas, no Groan. Science Fiction & Fantasy? None there, either. The bookstore, which is actually a Barnes & Noble branch, frequently disappoints, so. I even looked under "Groan," in case some hapless clerk had reversed title and author. They did have several fancy copies of Danielewski's House of Leaves, but after flipping through it I knew it wasn't going to be an appropriate substitute. So I ended up making another trip this evening, to the library, where I had several editions of Peake to choose from. At least until I can order a paperback online.

Henry Reed reviewed Titus Groan for his "New Novels" column in the May 4, 1946 issue of the New Statesman. This review is frequently quoted, because Reed says, "I do not think I have ever so much enjoyed a novel sent to me for review."

He is less enthusiastic—though still finds good things to say—about stories by William Sansom and Rosamond Lehmann, and Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Roger Savage, incidentally, cites Nabokov's book as a possible influence for Reed's radio play, A Very Great Man Indeed (1953), since both works relate the entanglement of a biographer with his subject (p. 178).

Book cover

NEW NOVELS
Titus Groan. By Mervyn Peake. Eyre and Spottiswoode. 15s.
Three. By William Sansom. Hogarth. 8s. 6d.
The Gipsy's Baby. By Rosamond Lehmann. Collins. 7s. 6d.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. By Vladimir Nabokov. Poetry London. 8s. 6d.

In the face of Titus Groan I feel like a soldier who has sworn so much that he has no words left with which to describe the act of shame. I mean that I should like to describe the book as fascinating, but the semantic of the word has become so disgustingly eroded that it is inconceivable that it any longer conveys any meaning. I am therefore forced to say that Mr. Peake's first novel holds one with its glittering eye. It begins by saying: Part One: Gormenghast. No part two is discoverable throughout the entire length of the book (well over four hundred pages) and the hero is much younger than even Tristram Shandy by the time the book ends; he has in fact not spoken up to that point. The reader is left to anticipate further volumes. I hope they will come; I do not think I have ever so much enjoyed a novel sent to me for review.

The book, which is about the ancient family of Groan, who live in a vast castle in an unidentifiable landscape and at an unnamed time, is as nearly pure story-telling as any book I have read since childhood. I admit that every now and then I was uneasily conscious that by the contrast of the megalomaniac aristocrats and the hut-dwellers at their gates, a contemporary contrast might be adumbrated; and the internal struggle for power inside the castle itself might also "imply" something. But I shut these thoughts out as often as I could, and chide myself for being a victim of the intellectual inhibitions of my time. In any case even a Marxist might find so riotous an embellishment of his favourite themes a little frivolous.

The emphasis of the story lies principally in the machinations of the intelligent upstart, Steerpike, who escapes from the kitchens of Gormenghast and the domination of the loathesome cook, Swelter, and becomes the assistant of the castle doctor, Prunesquallor. He worms his way into the trust of the neglected twin sister of Lord Sepulchrave, and incites them to set fire to his lordship's library. Sepulchrave, "whose days are like a rook's nest with every twig a duty," leads a melancholic life, attending to a ritual traditionally planned for him, its origins lost in the mist of centuries; the fire accelerates his decline into insanity, and Titus, at the age of one, succeeds to the earldom. The book concludes with the ceremony of the "earling": a disturbing occasion for Titus's family and retainers, for Titus throws the sacred insignia into the lake on which the ceremony takes place, and turns his attention to the bastard infant daughter of Keda, a hut-dweller who has been his wet-nurse. On this provocative note the first instalment ends; I look forward eagerly to its later developments.

Titus Groan, though long and Gothically detailed, is not wayward; it has a genuine plot in the strictest sense, and it persuades you to read on simply in order to know what will happen; in spite of its setting, there is nothing particularly dream-like about it. Its gallery of characters is wonderful. The old nurse, Nannie Slagg, appears oftener than can easily be put up with, and the mysterious Keda, with her two lovers who kill each other, is not a success: she recalls, rather strongly, Meriam, the hired girl in Cold Comfort Farm; though her part in the action will doubtless later be revealed as indispensable. Otherwise the characters are a joy: Swelter, Flay, Prunesquallors, Steerpike, Barquentine, the Countess, and not least the thwarted and deluded twins, Cora and Clarice. ("I like roofs," said Clarice; "they are something I like more than most things because they are on top of the houses they cover, and Cora and I like being over the tops of things, because we love power, and that's why we are both fond of roofs.") The book is also remarkable for its gigantic set-pieces of action. Steerpike's daylong climb over the great roofscape of Gormenghast, and the final conflict of Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders, are magnificently thrilling.

Mr. William Sansom's early story, The Wall, is one of the best pieces of writing the war has occasioned, and his other stories about the fire-service have a curious intensity, a kind of solid poetry, which is Mr. Sansom's own especial gift. There, his tendency to circle at great length round the same point becomes a virtue; elsewhere it is a dull, laborious vice, as in his Kafka fantasies and allegories. There is one of these fantasies in the present volume, called The Invited. It seems to me as dull and leaden as anything Mr. Sansom has written. He has abundant imagination and inventiveness, yet somehow he persists in muffling and distorting them; his stories uncoil themselves lethargically, and where one expects a tour de force, the tour de force doesn't appear. Fortunately, The Invited is preceded by two other stories. One of them is a fresh, clear and glittering anecdote of fire-service life, in which the statement is made, I hope truthfully, that it is legal to call out a fire brigade to get a cat down out of a tree. The other is a new and successful departure from Mr. Sansom's methods hitherto: a long reverie of a floor-cleaner in a French café, as she goes about her morning work. (It takes her from eleven to one to get the floor of the café done; and the café is moderately, or completely, full of people the whole time: we order these things better in England.) A story of small-town intrigue floats about above her head, and mingles with her memories and with her views of people's legs and of the floor which she is toiling her way across. Her sudden glimpses of the high-spots of the action are brilliantly done.

The Gipsy's Baby is a collection of five stories which have already appeared; taken separately, they are all rather slight, and it is clear that Miss Lehmann has no great interest in the short story as a form; together, they complement and light each other up, and they are executed with such grace and humour, such exquisitely exact observation, that one reads on through accounts of often trivial incidents, as Mr. Forster says he reads Jane Austen, with "the mouth open and the mind closed." The stories deal always with adult life seen though the eyes of a parent. Miss Lehmann has already shown what she can do with the first of these themes, on a larger and more serious scale (and with the same children) in The Ballad and the Source; the latter theme is, I think, new to her, and she imparts the vision with a curious astringent poignancy threaded through her fluent humour. In the first story she mentions E. Nesbit, the delightful author of The Treasure Seekers; Miss Lehmann herself shares E. Nesbit's gift of avoiding mushiness in presenting children; and of showing without evasion the dreadful and barley bridgeable gulf between children of different classes.

In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a novelist who comes to us with the blessing of Mr. Edmund Wilson, does what Mr. Maugham has done in one way or another several times already. he attempts to reconstruct the life of an imaginary famous artist, who has been misrepresented by another biographer. He collects material here and there, and unfolds his version with a cunning casualness. Unfortunately, neither Sebastian nor the other characters comes to life, and the amount of incident in the book is extraordinarily small. And though the outlines of Sebastian's books are engaging, the specimens of his prose which Mr. Nabokov is daring enough to show us do not suggest a great writer. Nevertheless there are good things in the book, among them the scenes where the writer tracks down Sebastian's last love; and one feels curiosity about Mr. Nabokov's other novels, several of which apparently exist in Russian.
Henry Reed



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.'


You Smell My Arse, I'll Smell Yours

A full-length animated version of J.R. Ackerley's memoir, My Dog Tulip, is set to premiere this May at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed (and animated) by Paul Fierlinger, the film is voiced by stars Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Brian Murray, and Isabella Rossellini. There are several clips to watch, on the movie's website.

My Dog Tulip

Joe Ackerley was the longtime editor of the BBC's Listener magazine. My Dog Tulip (Google Books preview) tells the story of his sixteen-year relationship with Queenie, his cherished German shepherd.

Ackerley and Henry Reed were close friends, and the two were frequent dinner companions in London. My Dog Tulip, in fact, owes its title to their friendship. In his doting 1989 biography, Ackerley: A Life, Peter Parker writes that "Reed had pointed out that Queenie's name was something of a drawback and likely to arouse titters amongst the literati" (p. 311). Ackerley was openly gay most of his life, but he nonetheless eventually settled on a pseudonym for his beloved Queenie.
Piddle piddle seal and sign
I'll smell your arse, you smell mine;
Human beings are prudes and bores,
You smell my arse, I'll smell yours.
Now that I look, however, I don't see the film listed in Cannes' official selection. I hope that doesn't mean we won't be seeing it, soon.

«  Ackerley Film  0  »


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.


Spectator Review

The smallest of book reviews appears in the August 23, 1946 Spectator's "New Poetry". Sheila Shannon critiques Grigson's Isles of Scilly; Talking Bronco, by Roy Campbell; The Voyage and Other Poems, by Edwin Muir; and Henry Reed's A Map of Verona. She begins by invoking the Romantics:

Shelley, in his preface to The Revolt of Islam, defined as one of the most essential attributes of poetry 'the power of awakening in others sensations like those animate in my own bosom.' It is an attribute often overlooked, this power to communicate not ideas or images but sensations, to reach at some moment the heart of the reader; it is not perhaps the most important, but it is an essential one.

Shannon then devotes half a page to Grigson, spends half a page on Campbell, a mere two paragraphs on Muir, and can finally only lend five sentences to Reed, without so much as a quote.

Henry Reed's first book—A Map of Verona—provides (I can only say for me) a great deal of enjoyment. Here is a young poet. All sensation if you like; but sensation springing from imagination with the true poet's gift of making the real imaginary. It is highly romantic, young poetry, but written by someone with an ear and a self-indulgent appreciation of words and their musical and evocative power. At present the obvious influence is T.S. Eliot, but Mr. Reed has a strong enough talent to assimilate in time even so seductive a master.
Sheila Shannon (p. 198)

At least they were most favorable sentences! I particularly relish her turn of phrase, about true poets "making the real imaginary."

Sheila Shannon was married to Patric Dickinson, and was both a poet and editor of poetry. Her poems appeared in the Spectator, Observer, and Poetry London, and were collected in The Lightning-Struck Tower (1947).

«  Criticism Poetry  0  »


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.


Behind This Door

Last month, Google Maps went live with their Street View service for select cities in the UK, including Birmingham, Cambridge, London, and Oxford (see the announcement on Google's LatLong blog). This adds another dimension to our map of "The Life and Times of Henry Reed," and will hopefully allow for more accurate placemarking, since Google's street addresses are approximate, and often off by as much as a city block.

The first thing I went looking for was Reed's London flat on Upper Montagu Street, where he lived from 1957 until his death in hospital, in 1986. Here's a small, interactive widget—click the + sign to zoom, and the arrows to sidestep—you can even pop around the northwest corner to the chemist's, on Crawford Street!


Zooming in, of course, we can go right up to the front door:

Google Street View

See larger image on Flickr.

The fact that the building is still extant is important, since it means that Reed stands a chance at one day getting his own memorial Blue Plaque from English Heritage, perhaps for the centenary anniversary of his birth, in 2014.

«  London Maps Biography  0  »


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.


Naming of Parts Animation

Jim Clark has been "reincarnating" long-dead poets by animating old photographs to make it seem as if their subjects were reading out loud. The effect is sometimes wonderful, especially if the audio is a recording of the actual poet reading his or her own work. Sometimes, however, the animations are haunted by the uncanny valley effect, which can make the more exaggerated movements of lips and eyebrows seem less real (and even a little creepy). Here's the video for Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts":


(You might recognize that recording from from Reed's 1959 appearance on Oscar Williams' Album of Modern Poetry, and the photograph from Reed's time at the University of Washington, Seattle, circa 1965.)

Clark has so far produced over 300 videos, seen here on his poetryanimations YouTube channel. The Second World War poets are represented by Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, and Sidney Keyes.

«  NamingOfParts Video  0  »


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.



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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