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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 September 2012

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

23.11.2014


Reed Reviews Melville

News of the Moby-Dick "Big Read" has reminded me just what a fan Henry Reed was of Melville. Readers such as Tilda Swinton, @stephenfry, Simon Callow (Simon Callow!) and even Prime Minister David Cameron are giving voice to all 135 chapters of Moby-Dick, posted online over 135 days. And not just celebrities are reading: there will be episodes from "schoolchildren and careworkers and fishermen," according to author Philip Hoare, who co-created the project with artist Angela Cockayne.

Henry Reed, of course, famously adapted Moby-Dick into a play for the BBC's Third Programme (starring Sir Ralph Richardson as Ahab), first broadcast on January 26, 1947. A second production was organized and broadcast on Radio 4 in 1979.

Moby-Dick

Reed also reviewed a new edition of Melville's Billy Budd for the "Books in General" column in the New Statesman and Nation on May 31, 1947. He had as much to say about Moby-Dick as he did for Billy Budd. Spoiler alert! If you haven't read it:

BOOKS IN GENERAL
To discover and to read, in the midst of a batch of contemporary novels, Herman Melville's last—and hitherto all but improcurable—story, Billy Budd, Foretopman* is to find oneself faced with a dazzling revelation of, how many virtues modern fiction has lost or discarded. Billy Budd is, in the first place, a good story, a "plain tale," or so it appears; it is well written, and the uncertainties of its manuscript text do not greatly matter; it has a hero and a villain who are carefully designed to dramatise the extremes of goodness and badness. And more striking than anything else to the reader of to-day are its discursive comments on character, the generalisations about psychology evoked by the development of the story itself. One cannot doubt that in modern novelists the capacity for moral commentary still exists; but it is a capacity they more and more tend to suppress. When Melville blesses one of his characters with "natural depravity," it seems to him perfectly reasonable to enlarge on the implications of this:
Not many are the examples of this depravity which the gallows and jail supply. At any rate, for notable instances—since these have no vulgar alloy of the brute in them, but invariably are dominated by intellectuality—one must go elsewhere. Civilisation, especially if of the austere sort, is auspicious to it. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability. It has its certain negative virtues serving as silent auxiliaries. It is not going too far to say that it is without vices or small sins. There is a phenomenal pride in it that excludes them from anything... mercenary or avaricious... In short, the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual. It is serious but free from acerbity. Though no flatterer of mankind, it never speaks ill of it.

But the thing which in eminent instances signalises so exceptional a nature is this: though the man's even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his soul's recesses he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound.

These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous, but occasional; evoked by some special object; it is secretive and self-contained, so that when most active it is to the average mind not distinguished from sanity, and for the reason above suggested that whatever its aim may be, and the aim is never disclosed, the method and the outward proceeding is always perfectly rational.

Now something such was Claggart...
At first Billy Budd seems a curious book to think of Melville writing; but much criticism has prepared one for its late-Shakespearean calm. In the crowding tumult of Moby Dick and the neurotic fervour of Pierre, Melville seems to have burned himself out; or, if the fire remained, it was damped down by popular neglect or censure or incomprehension. In the Oxford History of the United States, Professor Morison of Harvard says that "not until 1851 did a distinctive American literature, original both in form and content, emerge with Moby Dick"; and it is rarely that a literary landmark is detected until it has been left a good way behind. Wretched and perplexed Melville struggled on, as we know, with a few other novels and short stories, and then quietly abandoned prose writing. Almost forty years after Moby Dick, and within a year or so of his death, he produced Billy Budd.

In style and mood it is as far from Moby Dick as it could be. In the earlier book one remembers, side by side with its exact realism, rhapsody also, and its fine, rhetorical, probable conversations. There is neither rhetoric nor rhapsody in Billy Budd. And in Moby Dick Melville is continually forcing you to look, beyond the lives of his characters, at Life itself. For Melville, as for Ahab, the battered Pequod is an ambiguous vessel: its mixed crew are "an Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world's grievances before that bar from which not very many of them come back." It is "an audacious, immitigable and supernatural revenge" that Ahab intends in his pursuit of the white whale.
          ...All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs tip the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sim of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.
To Ahab "all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks." And he infects the crew with his unearthly feeling for Moby Dick in a way that Ishmael, the story-teller, hesitates to define:
What the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the great gliding demon of the seas of life—all this to explain would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go.
But he does at once go deeper; and the chapter on whiteness is perhaps the "deepest" thing in the book. It is a chapter about the beauty and the terror of white objects, animate and inanimate: "and of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye, then, at the fiery hunt?"

By these, and by many other touches, Melville accretes to his realistic story an imprecise and terrible other story. The actual whale is not, he assures us, an allegorical creature he has made up himself. The whale itself is real enough; it is in the nature of Melville to see an object or creature accurately before the object takes on an ambiguous cast. He sees the whales' nursery, can mean to him:
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternation and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
Object first; simile, some distance after. Melville's mind is free from the allegorical impulse which takes a spiritual theme and impresses objects into the illumination of it. This distinction between allegory and symbolism must not be forgotten, since it is always there. In symbolism the real object is seen first; from it, to adopt a phrase of Mr. T. S. Eliot, a "purpose breaks." This happens continually in Melville; and it is worth recalling that his great creative period coincided with that of Poe, to whom the French symbolist poets were always confessing their debt.

From Billy Budd also, when the tale is completed, a purpose breaks; a simple one, emerging with deceptive quietness. In this tale Melville, at the end of his life, is giving expression to a feeling he has perhaps not before acknowledged or understood. Once more, he comes to understand it by way of real objects and people. It is as if retired within himself, and searching the darkness of experience that lies behind and before him, he draws up from the shadows a perfect image of uncontaminated beauty, nobility and courtesy. We know who provided that image: it was Melville's friend of earlier days, Jack Chase; and it is to him that the new book is dedicated: "To Jack Chase, Englishman, wherever that great heart may now be here on earth or harboured in Paradise." Chase had been captain of the maintop in the frigate United States, in which Melville had served in 1843. He had shone like a bright light in the ugly world that Melville describes in White Jacket; idealised a little, he now appears as Billy Budd. The action is moved back to the days of Napoleonic wars, shortly after the Mutiny at the Nore.

There is little or none of the "transcendental" Melville in the actual language of the book. It is true that the Anacharsis Clootz deputation is once more referred to; and the free merchant vessel from which Billy is impressed into the Navy is called the Rights of Man. But this is a mere glimpse of the book's outer rind; we do not touch that half-whimsical quality again till the very end, when we hear the name of another ship. Billy is forced to serve in a man-of-war. He is what in those days was called a Handsome Sailor. He has a beauty that is praised and adored by the generality of men—and he is not, it may be urgently stated, a pansy. But Billy's grace, as is the way of grace, evokes also from one point an overwhelming malignity. There is among the crew an official of some power called Claggart, whom Melville seems to develop from, the villainous Jackson of his early autobiographical novel Redburn. Claggart is not unaffected by the beauty of Billy's form and character. He perceives it, one might say, much as Iago perceives that of Cassio:
                   If Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.
Claggart, ostensibly affable towards Billy, decides in his heart that he must be done away with. The discernment of the ways and means of such a hate is one of Melville's many profound intuitions; I do not doubt that he could have pursued the origins of such a passion further, for his prose and his poetry abound in astonishingly prophetic hints about the reaches of the unconscious. But none are given here. At school one sometimes dimly recognised something ineffably horrible when one, saw a perverted schoolmaster bullying an angelic-looking boy; Melville allows us dimly to recognise a perversion of much the same kind here. Claggart fabricates against Billy a charge of incitement to mutiny, and reports him to Vere, the captain, a man extreme nobility and perception. Vere is dubious of the charge, and sends for Billy. Billy is afflicted with a stammer—his one defect. When confronted with the charge he cannot speak; he answers Claggart in the only way he knows; he strikes him with all his force, and Claggart falls dead. Vere's sympathies are wholly with Billy; but a trial is inevitable; so are the verdict and the punishment. It is war-time; and the question of mutiny is a real thing, not to be treated lightly. Vere asks what is truth; but dare not stay for an answer. At dawn next day Billy is hanged at the yard-end.

As a character Billy meant a little more to Melville than could be expressed in prose. Billy Budd ends with a rather touching unaccomplished effort to get into Billy's impenetrable mind by way of verse:
But me, they'll lay me in hammock, drop me deep
Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep.
I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?
Just ease these darbies at the wrist,
And roll me over fair,
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.
But the story as a whole remains more important than its parts or its separate characters. If we have any doubts about what it "means" to Melville, he puts them to rest by a few more or those touches which, for want of a proper word, I have called half-whimsical Billy dies; "and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn." The noble Captain Vere is felled shortly after by a musket-ball from a ship which has been re-named the Athéiste. And for years afterwards the spar from which Billy has hanged is kept trace of by the crew; to them, later, "a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross." ...The creator of that and the white whale was to cherish his "ambiguities" to the end.
Henry Reed

* Billy Budd. By Herman Melville. Introduction by William Plomer. Lehmann. 5s.
The Moby-Dick "Big Read" runs through January, 2013.



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.'


Returning of Issue Manuscript

Maggs Bros., Ltd., is a London-based rare book and manuscript dealer, in business for over a century and a half. Here, in their inventory, is a listing for catalogue 1446, "Books from the Library of Douglas Cleverdon, 1903-1987." Cleverdon was a small press publisher and BBC radio producer. If you are a font-fanatic, you might be interested to know that Gill Sans, designed by Eric Gill, was originally created for the signboard over Cleverdon's bookshop in Bristol.

Among his credits as a radio producer, Cleverdon was responsible for the adaptation of David Jones's In Parenthesis (1948); Henry Reed's Italia prize-winning drama, Return to Naples (1950); Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1954); as well as all the plays in Reed's seven-part Hilda Tablet sequence (1953-1959). All in all, Cleverdon produced over two hundred programs for the BBC.

There's a fine article by Alex Hamilton on Cleverdon's achievements, "The Third Man," in The Guardian from November 20, 1971, which accompanied a profile on Henry Reed for the publication of the Hilda plays.

The Maggs Bros. catalogue, which is from 2010, includes this item:
Manuscript54 REED (Henry). Returning of Issue.
Original heavily corrected manuscript and heavily corrected typescript of the fifth and final poem in Henry Reedís The Complete Lessons of the War series, inscribed by Reed: "To Douglas & Nest Cleverdon with love and gratitude Henry Reed, July 29, 1965". With a note from Henry Reed confirming Cleverdonís ownership of the manuscript and a note from the BBC allowing this gift from Reed to Cleverdon. £4000

Together with 23 TLS and ALS from Reed, predominantly to Douglas but with a couple to Nest and one to their elder son Lewis. Mostly in the mid 1960s and about radio drama and poetry by Henry Reed and the BBC but with 7 from 1950-51, also about Reedís radio work. One is in the character of the spinster "Emma Titt-Robbins", Tablet was the protagonist of Reedís satire The Private Life of Hilda Tablet, broadcast in 1954.
The catalogue also includes Cleverdon's personal, inscribed copy of Reed's poems, A Map of Verona.

I don't know if anyone snapped up the Reed manuscripts and letters back in 2010, but if I had £4000 pocket change, I would donate them to the University of Birmingham's Special Collections, to go with rest of Reed's papers and manuscripts.



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.


Judging Sound and Sense

Perrine's Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry was first published in 1956. Now going on 57 years and updated into its 14th edition, it continues to be a standard text in poetry and literature courses.

Laurence Perrine was born in Toronto, Ontario, and earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1948. From 1946 until his retirement in 1980, he taught at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he was appointed the Frensley Professor of English Literature in 1968. In 2007, the estate of Perrine's widow endowed a chair at the university and funded scholarships in her husband's memory.

Sound and Sense provides explanatory chapters on the subjects of imagery, metaphor, allegory, tone, rhythm, and meter, along with exemplary poems both modern and classic, followed by questions for discussion in the classroom. Older editions included Henry Reed's best-known poems from Lessons of the War: "Naming of Parts" and "Judging Distances." Perrine's suggested questions for "Naming of Parts" have been on the Web for some time, so to that let us add his questions for "Judging Distances".

Not everyone agrees with Perrine's personal approach to judging poetry; all writing which has risen to the status of a religious text risks satire. Sound and Sense holds the honor of being the inspiration for the work of the fictional critic and authority, Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, expertly lambasted in the film Dead Poets Society (1989):


(Notice how the "B" of Byron and "S" for Shakespeare conspire to create the accepted abbreviation for "bullshit".) In the chapter "Bad Poetry and Good," Perrine similarly states:

In judging a poem, as in judging any work of art, we need to ask three basic questions: (1) What is its central purpose? (2) How fully has this purpose been accomplished? (3) How important is this purpose? The first question we need to answer in order to understand the poem. The last two questions are those by which we evaluate it. The first of these measures the poem on a scale of perfection. The second measures it on a scale of significance. And, just as the area of a rectangle is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, breadth and height, so the greatness of a poem is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, perfection and significance. If the poem measures well on the first of these scales, we call it a good poem, at least of its kind. If it measures well on both scales we call it a great poem.
[p. 198]

There's a lot of good in Sound and Sense, but damn. How do you construct a counterargument to refute Dead Poets Society?



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.



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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