Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
The Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Stallworthy, Jon. "Reed, Henry." In The Dictionary of National Biography, 1986-1990, edited by C. S. Nicholls. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. 370-371.

REED, Henry (1914-1986), poet and playwright, was born in Birmingham 22 February 1914, the elder child and only son of Henry Reed, master bricklayer and foreman in charge of forcing at Nocks Brickworks, and his wife, Mary Ann Ball. He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham, where he specialized in classics. Since Greek was not taught, he taught himself, and went on to win the Temperley Latin prize and a scholarship to Birmingham University, gaining a first-class degree (1934) and an MA for a thesis on the novels of Thomas Hardy (1936).

Like many other writers of the 1930s, he tried teaching and, again like most of them, hated it and left to make his way as a freelance writer and critic. In 1941 he was conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, in which he served—'or rather studied', as he preferred to put it—until 1942 when, following a serious bout of pneumonia and a prolonged convalescence, he was transferred to the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley. At first employed as a cryptographer in the Italian section, he was subsequently moved to the Japanese section,


where he learned the language and worked as a translator. In the evenings, he wrote much of his first radio play, Moby Dick (1947), and many of the poems later to be published in A Map of Verona (1946).

The most famous of these—indeed, the most famous English poem to emerge from World War II—derived from Reed's experience of basic training in the RAOC. A brilliant mimic, he would entertain his friends with a comic imitation of a sergeant instructing his recruits. After a few performances, he noticed that the words of the weapon-training instructor, couched in the style of the military manual, fell into certain rhythmic patterns which fascinated him and eventually provided the structure of 'Naming of Parts'. In this and two subsequent 'Lessons of the War', the military voice is wittily counter-pointed by the inner voice—more civilized and still civilian—of a listening recruit with his mind on other matters. At approximately the same point in each of the first four stanzas, the recruit's attention wanders from the instructor's lesson in the unnatural art of handling a lethal weapon, back to the natural world: branches, blossom, Edenic life as opposed to death. The dialectical opposition of two voices, two views of a landscape associated with sexual desire, is a strategy refined in two remarkable poems of Reed's middle years: 'The Changeling', a brilliantly condensed (and disguised) autobiography, and 'The Auction Sale', a Forsterian or Hardy-esque short story. Both deal with the loss of Eden, for which Reed, an unmarried, unhappy homosexual, would continue to search in vain. He came to associate the Great Good Place with Italy, the setting of some of his later poems, such of his radio plays as 'Return to Naples' and The Streets of Pompeii (1971), and two fine verse plays about another poet whose work he was translating and with whom he identified strongly, Giacomo Leopardi.

In the mid-1950s Reed made a major liberating decision: he abandoned a projected biography of Hardy, which for years had burdened him with guilt like the Ancient Mariner's albatross. That failed quest, perhaps related to the failure of his earlier quest for lasting love, played out a dominant theme of his radio plays: from failure as a biographer, he turned to triumphant success in a radio play about a nervous young biographer, Herbert Reeve, engaged on just such a quest as he had himself abandoned. Reed's hero (whose name owes something to that of Herbert Read, the poet and critic, with whom he was tired of being confused) assembles a mass of conflicting testimony about his author, the novelist Richard Shewin. His witnesses include a waspish brother, his wife, two spinsters of uncertain virtue, and (the finest comic role he was to create for radio) the twelve-tone female composer Hilda Tablet. The success of 'A Very Great Man Indeed' (1953) prompted six sequels, the best of them 'The Private Life of Hilda Tablet' (1954), in which Reeve is browbeaten into switching the subject of his biography from the dumb dead to the exuberantly vocal living female composer.

The modest income that Reed's work for radio brought him he supplemented with the still more modest rewards of book reviewing and translation. The reviewing was to result in a British Council booklet, The Novel since 1939 (1946), and his published translations include. Ugo Betti's Three Plays (1956) and Crime on Goat Island (1960), Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1962) and Eugénie Grandet (1964), and Natalia Ginzburg's The Advertisement (1969). Several of his translations found their way into the theatre, and in the autumn of 1955 there were London premières of no fewer than three.

Reed's greatest imaginative investment, however, was in his poems, but as a perfectionist he could not bring himself to release what he must have recognized would be his last book until it was as good as he could make it, and it never was. Only with the posthumous publication of his Collected Poems (1991) would he take his rightful place 'among the English poets'. In his last years he became increasingly incapacitated and reclusive, but devoted friends never ceased to visit him in the London flat he continued to occupy in Upper Montagu Street, thanks to the generosity of a long-suffering landlady, until, removed to St Charles Hospital, Kensington, he died there 8 December 1986.

[Henry Reed, Lessons of the War, 1970, The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio, 1971, Hilda Tablet and Others, Four Pieces for Radio, 1971, Collected Poems, ed. Jon Stallworthy, 1991.]

Jon Stallworthy




Page last modified: 01 October 2016