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."

Henry Reed Henry Reed
Henry Reed Henry Reed
Henry Reed, ca. 1960



I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
Dusty Answer: Young, privileged, earnest Judith falls in love with the family next door.
The Heat of the Day: In wartime London, a woman finds herself caught between two men.




Weblogs, etc.

All posts for "WATWP"

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog


Where's Wystan?

I have had, on occasion, the pleasure of using and perusing the website of Helen Goethals, Professor of English at the University Lumière Lyon 2. Professor Goethals is "interested in poetry and war during the twentieth century," and has several excellent pages devoted to the poets of the Second World War, including a select bibliography and filmography. She even refers to "Naming of Parts" as 'the most famous poem to have come out of the war'.

As a sort of tangent in my hunt for Henry Reed material, I've been reviewing items from the period which ask (or answer) the question, "Where are the war poets?", which came as a lament that no Brooke or Owen or Sassoon was seen to emerge from World War II. So it was with interest that I noted several references in Professor's Goethal's conference papers that the famous question was even raised in Britain's Parliament: in "Talking to India: George Orwell, the BBC, and British Policy Towards the Indian Empire During the Second World War" (n13), "Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance to the Second World War" (n15, collected in Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance [Andrew McKeown and Charles Holdefer, eds. Paris: L'Harmattan: 2006]), and "The Muse that Failed: Poetry and Patriotism During the Second World War" (appears in The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry [Tim Kendall, ed. London: Oxford, 2007]).

So I was quite surprised when I went to the Parliamentary Debates for June 13, 1940, and discovered that the question raised in the House of Commons was not so much the rhetorical "Where are our war poets?", but the much more literal, "Do you know where Messrs. Auden and Isherwood have got to?"

Parliamentary Debates

The question, of course, was what to do about British men of required registration age (between 18 and 41 years old, according to the National Service [Armed Forces] Act of September 3, 1939), who were abroad either by choice or necessity. W.H. Auden had emigrated with Isherwood to New York City in 1939, was 33 years old in 1940, and became a U.S. citizen in 1946.

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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.'

Poems in This War, That War

This recent feature in The Guardian, "In the Line of Fire," again asks the question, "Where are the war poets of this war?" (see "To the Poets of 1940," previously). In answer, the article suggests there is 'one book of high-quality poetry about the Iraq war': Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner.

Book cover

Henry Reed also receives passing mention, along with fellow Second World War poets Alun Lewis and John Pudney. As part of the legacy of critics asking "Where are the war poets?", the article mentions an editorial from the August 8th, 1942 Times Literary Supplement: "Poets in War" (2MB .pdf). Of course, I looked it up:

Where are the poets of the war? This question is often asked by those who remember that the last war threw up a fair amount of notable poetry. And that is true; for there were then living several highly skilled and experienced poets—Bridges, Kipling, Hardy, and there can be added Doughty, all of whom had something eloquent to say about the war or about aspects of it. But they, and others, were established writers; they viewed the war through the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of years; they were not soldiers, neither were they liable to be called up. Nor, when one thinks of it, have there ever been many poets of war who have been at the time of writing on active service, though the last war produced several poems by fighting men, like Julian Grenfell and Rupert Brooke, which are not likely to be forgotten. The fighting man, however, who writed about war is exceptional, and none too common is the soldier who sings of war years afterwards. Full of war as European poetry is, the singers of war have been for the most part not soldiers. Aeschylus, it is true, is said to have taken part in Salamis, and his narrative of that battle reads like participant's. Nearly all the epics are of war: and Homer's audience clearly delighted in it, but to the humane Virgil it was essentially a matter for sorrow and pity. Tyraeus, the Greek elegist, was certainly a warrior: and he appears to have seen war at too close quarters to glorify it.

Thoughts such as these are almost inevitable when “Poems of this War,” reviewed on another page, invites attention. The contrast is great. For this anthology is not the work of old hands, exempt from the liability to serve, but of “the younger writers,” all presumably of military age, where, as some of them certainly are, actually serving, or not. The anthology then shows how the war affects the youngest generation of those who make poetry the vehicle of their thoughts. Or, to be cautious, how it affects particular representatives of that generation picked by particular editors. That they write with complete sincerity is not to be doubted; they say what they wish to say in their own language; and yet, as Mr. Blunden in his introduction implies, there is much that is traditional in war poets which is not to be found in them. There is “no militarism, or personal claim, or study of revenge.” This is a remarkable comment to make. Militarism is no doubt offensive even in professional soldiers, many of the best of whom have been free from it. Personal claims, again, may be sheer egoism. Revenge may be an injurious study. But is there no such thing as righteous indignation? May not a dear homeland be in imminent danger? That war is a foul way of living, that all things pleasant and legitimate are shattered by it, that soldiering, even in the best cause, may be at times and to some temperaments an unmitigated bore—all this is true; and there is a middle generation living which has been through it all. No doubt, however, war was to that generation more of a novelty than it is to the latest, which was born in its atmosphere and bred up in its aftermath.

These poems, Mr. Blunden tells us, have been written on the principle of the “innocent eye.” The mood of this volume is “seeing where the truth is.” So far, so good; but may not the eye in the innocence of youth miss things which older commentators, equally innocent, will have acquired the habit or the power of discerning? Can anything like the whole truth about so vast a subject, so ubiquitous a presence, as universal war, be revealed to any eye? The facts here are admittedly in various moods. Some of them are in the trenches or entering battle; others share the common danger of being bombed; others meditate on natural beauty, on love, on friendship, on death and life. They are quite candid. They are oppressed by the calamity which has befallen the world. In vain to remark that they are not old enough to look back on much in tranquility. Yet they must be taken for what they say and for what they do not say, as a symptom, because they express themselves without labour. To read them is to infer that, were there no war, they would still be poets, but poets compelled, like all too many children of this age, to think, observe, and write within a narrow living-space.
Also reviewed in this issue are Poems of This War: By Younger Poets (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1942), edited by Patricia Ledward and Colin Strang ("Songs of Emergency," p. 392), and volumes by Sidney Keyes, Alan Rook, Keidrich Rhys, and John Heath-Stubbs.

By coincidence, August 8th, 1942—the day this editorial appeared in the TLS—was the very day Reed's "Naming of Parts" was printed in The New Statesman and Nation.

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1512. Reed, Henry. "The Case for Maigret." Reviews of Maigret Hesitates and The Man on the Bench in the Barn, by Georges Simenon. Sunday Times (London), 2 August 1970: 22.
Reed reviews two translations of George Simenon's fiction.

Spirit Above Wars

I've been trying to tidy up around here: index cards have begat unsorted piles out-of-boxes; Xeroxes are backing up into heaps the cat perches upon, unstapled and unread; and I've been neglectful in answering Reed-mail. One of these days I gotta get myself organizized.

Long, cathartic hike to the library today, which paid off in several citations to track down. The university library is about three miles' worth of sidewalk away, on the other side of a good-sized hollow, down and up again. My path crosses the edge of a small lake, and there are herons, ducks, and sometimes even a bald eagle. Bonus points today for taking a side-trip to the bookstore for coffee, an extra two miles. (I'm working at getting over my irrational fear of ordering frou-frou espresso drinks from cafe baristas.)

Today's agenda was to read a bit on British poetry movements from the first half of the twentieth-century. Reed defies classification, and doesn't usually get grouped with anyone except "Poets of the Second World War." Browsing, I found a book on war poetry called Spirit Above Wars (Macmillan Company of India, 1975), by A. Banerjee. The title is taken from a 1917 letter Robert Graves wrote to Wilfred Owen:

For God's sake cheer up and write more optimistically—The war's not ended yet but a poet should have a spirit above wars.

A general chapter on the poetry of World War II brings up, once again, the question which was asked many times from 1939 to 1945: "Where are the war poets?" (see "A Call to Arms", previously). Cited are several articles: "Where Are Our War Poets?" (Horizon, January 1941), "War and the Poet," by W.D. Thomas (Listener, 1 May 1941), and Stephen Spender's and Robert Graves' thoughts on "War Poetry in this War" (Listener, 16 and 23 October 1941). Reed is referenced as having attempted to answer the question before the war's end, in a set of two articles written for The Listener: "Poetry in Wartime: The Older Poets," and "Poetry in Wartime: The Younger Poets" (18 and 25 January 1945).

The Horizon, Spender, and Graves are articles are exciting, but the best part is a quote from a letter to the editor in response to Reed's "Poetry in Wartime" essays, which highlights the contention about the differences between the poems of the First and Second World Wars:

When Henry Reed [....] picked out men like Vernon Watkins, Alun Lewis and Sidney Keyes as the significant poets who had emerged since the start of the Second World War, one correspondent asked, in earnest solemnity:
Now I would like to ask, in a purely scientific-objective spirit, whether there is a single four-line sequence (leave alone an entire short poem) to the credit of any of the poets mentioned by Mr. Reed which has in the same way struck the popular imagination and become property, as did, say, several poems of Rupert Brooke on publication?
To this Henry Reed made the blunt rejoinder that Rupert Brooke 'was a poet for the thoughtless; and there is no fundamental difference between his war poetry and the present-day song beginning "There'll always be an England"'.

Oh, schnap! The correct answer to the correspondent's question is, of course: "Today we have naming of parts...." The letter to the editor appears in the February 1, 1945 Listener, and Reed's retort is in the issue of February 15. Two more index cards for the pile, another batch of Xeroxes for the cat to perch on.

1511. William Phillips, and Philip Rahv, eds. New Partisan Reader: 1945-1953 London: Andre Deutsch, 1953. 164-171.
Collects Reed's poem, "The Door and the Window," published in the Partisan Review in 1947.

A Call to Arms

I was intrigued by mention, in the Wikipedia entry for "War poet," of an editorial which appeared in England before the outbreak of major hostilities during World War II. I looked it up this evening, and found the words still ring soundly true: a rallying cry for poets to champion human experience during troubling times. I reproduce it here, in full, knowing that Reed must have read these very words. From the Times Literary Supplement, 30 December 1939, 755:

We review in this issue some collected poetry of 1939. What can the poets do with the year 1940, when the world seems to be threatened with a new Dark Age? Of one thing we can be certain: if, shocked by the suffering inflicted by nations in tumult, they fall into resignation or despair, and yearn only for the nothingness where lost man may find "what changeless vague of peace he can," then the Dark Age is assured. And that is true too if they try to make harmonies from hatreds or seek the salvation of man in political formulas labelled Left or Right.

This war has followed so close on the heels of the other that it conveys no sense of novelty to awaken the creative spirit. It has the forbidding aspect of an old foe. Consciousness has been struggling vainly to free itself from the mark of the last calamity, but our poetry continued to be permeated, in varying forms and degrees, with the memory and often with the mood of 1914-18. A quarter of a century of moral disquietude and revolt has not been accompanied by any clear conception of what new order should replace the old. Deliberately heedless, even defiant of ancient values, poetry receded and, but for some faithful hands, might have lost itself. It can no longer be argued that these were symptoms of an age of transition; there never was any other kind of age. Here we are faced with an undeniable repetition of history, with nothing original, nothing unique about it. What can the poets make of it in their explorations of reality? Is it possible to find in this convulsion not the cloud of a Dark Age but the dawn of another Renaissance?

The prospects are precarious, but not hopeless. The first shock of the war produced a paralysis of the poetical intelligence. Verses turned into tears. But already those who are concerned to keep poetry alive are adding their comment on where the world stands. England was long agonized by the ambitions of a conqueror at the beginning of the last century, which was prematurely outraged like our own. Yet it saw the quickening of a new spirit in English poetry comparable with the splendor of Elizabethan days. It is significant that the seventeenth century, plagued by civil war and religious and intellectual conflicts, also saw an abundant and distinguished poetic achievement in intimate response to the pace of life in days of stress and change. he last Was presented the spectacle of hundreds of young poets, in tune with the national will, first finding voice in the brutal fact that evil things were menacing their heritage. The resultant poetry was in the irony and pity of it, such as Wilfrid Owen's, or in the noble exultation of those who endured hardship and danger for an idea, such as Alan Seegar's [sic]. The same idea is at stake—because the War was not finished. Civilization was granted an uneasy reprieve while the Philistine took breath. He is now reinvigorated and more desperate, and we are feeling the pulse of the same crisis.

Clearly wars and revolutions are destroying the old social order of the world. But we need not despair of the birth of a new and finer order. It is for the poets to sound the trumpet call. We see the warning in Germany and Russia of the way the arts decline when the paths of humanity are polluted by the predominance in every department of life of a cheap political idea. In those unhappy lands the creative faculty is extinguished. Here it is still watchful and alert, and it knows that this is its battle, its test. It will draw its spiritual ecstasy from this renewed assault on human dignity. Patriotism alone is not enough; but the promise of a renovated world, saved at last from the jackboots of violence, should be sufficient inspiration. The beauty of the new poetry will be in its integrity; it will be grave, positive and stark, because it is forced to look intently at the worst, but it will relate to the immediate, agonizing facts in universal terms. It may even find a programme for this immediacy. Poetry and religion have an eternal alliance, though for too long it has been unacknowledged. Religion is an organizing force with an intensity of purpose more clarifying and constructive than human reason, which in these sad days is suspect. Poetry, "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge," hand in hand with religion can exercise a magnetism to keep hope alive and in movement. The monstrous threat to belief and freedom which we are fighting should urge new psalmists to fresh songs of deliverance.

Update: More on the Times Literary Supplement's role in wartime England is available at the TLS Centenary Archive. (Thanks, Bruce!)

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1510. Birmingham Post, "The Merchant of Venice," 5 March 1937.
Photograph of Henry Reed with members of the Birmingham University Dramatic Society's (BUDS) production of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock played by Ian Alexander.

Where Are the War Poets?

The question everyone was asking in the late 1930s and early 1940s was "Where are the war poets?" There was no Brooke, no Sassoon, no Owen. John Lehmann asked it. Wilfrid Gibson asked it. Robert Graves asked. C. Day Lewis asked, and answered:
They who in folly or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom's cause.

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse—
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
Rather, I prefer E.M. Forster, who frankly declared, "1939 was not a year in which to start a literary career."

An addition to the Criticism pages: an excerpt on Reed from Linda M. Shires' British Poetry of the Second World War (New York: St. Martin's, 1985). Shires has written one of my favorite lines in summarizing "Naming of Parts": 'The speakers are soldiers, yet the most important feelings in Reed's poem are not spoken, as though the private man has no voice worth hearing compared with man-as-soldier' (p. 82).

It's a fine piece, which I had actually acquired over a year ago but failed to transcribe, time lost to obsessive tinkering with the database, trying to get the bibliography to sort properly. One thing is bothering me, however, and that's the epigraph to the chapter entitled "Where Are the War Poets?" Shires has credited Reed with the line "To fight without hope is to fight without grace."

At first, I thought this was part of the Lessons of the War series — "Unarmed Combat" perhaps — or some draft I had seen but not taken sufficient note of. To fight without hope is to fight without grace. Is it from an article in The Listener? A radio talk? I can't find that line, not anywhere.

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1509. Reed, Henry, "'Tatty': The Year's New Word," Birmingham Post, 13 October 1937.
Discusses the history and usage of the word 'tatty'.

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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