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
Lehmann, John. I Am My Brother: Autobiography II. London: Longmans, Green, 1960. 167-169.

From "Years of the Airgraph"

I first became aware of the name of Henry Reed as the signature under an article about Auden's work in the Birmingham University magazine, The Mermaid. I was so struck by this article, that I immediately wrote off to the author and asked him if he would care to contribute to New Writing. Many weeks passed without an answer, and I had already given up hope of hearing, when, in the Summer of 1941, a letter arrived from 10557689 Pte. Reed, H., in Squad 48 'B' Coy. No. 3 Training Battn. R.A.O.C., whither my letter had followed him.


He promised poems as soon as he could get down to completing several he had drafted out, and articles, too, if later on I suggested themes to him, adding: 'If this seems a poor response to your charming note, you will blame the Army, where so much of my time is taken up with marching, drilling, bayonet-fighting, the Bren gun, heavy-charing and learning to be a clerk. If you write again, as I hope you will, perhaps you wouldn't mind addressing the letter in a plain envelope. I don't want anybody to notice me more than they must.'

It was a year, or more, before the poems began to arrive, but as those few which had already appeared in The Listener suggested, they were worth waiting for. A purity and exactitude of diction, a technical skill concealing itself under a perfect clarity and ease of statement, a cool, ironic intelligence keeping under faultless control a romantic imagination and an immense pressure of nostalgia: such gifts are rare in any young poet, rarer still in a young poet's first poems. The long poems, most of which were published in New Writing and Daylight, dramatic meditations or monologues by figures of classical or Arthurian myth, were, I thought, in spite of an echo of Eliotesque music now and then, an imaginative and technical triumph, though the wit and fierce ironic tension of the shorter pieces on Army life, Naming of Parts, Judging Distances and Unarmed Combat, have made them the obvious favourites. As in Roy Fuller's poetry of this time, the sense of alienation and uprootedness is the dominant emotion in these 'Lessons of War': they are rejection-of-war poems more emphatically even than Roy's. But the two long poems on classical themes, Chrysothemis and Philoctetes, are dominated by a similar emotion, a sense of exile and separation, desolate or bitter, and while the protagonist in each is an entirely valid dramatic creation they would not have made their extraordinary impact if one had not been aware of overtones arising out of the poet's personal emotion; if one had not felt that at a deeper level they were also parables of the artist's predicament in a world given over to violence. Both Chrysothemis and Philoctetes, I soon found out, read aloud remarkably well, as do the 'Lessons of War' poems: a quality which one can now see foreshadowed Henry's later interest in the theatre and radio drama.


When the poems began to arrive, Henry, released at last from the Army, indicated that he could now find time for some critical work. We discussed themes, and a shrewd and caustic article on the state of poetry in general and of the poets of the 'thirties in particular, The End of an Impulse, was the first result. Henry showed that he was an ungullible critic and no respecter of reputations: too forceful to be called feline, it was the kind of article that a young poet or critic writes who is preparing to lead a literary revolution. No vigorous pursuit of the enemy, however, took place: instead, very soon after the war and the publication of his first book, Henry Reed abdicated from poetry. I have always deeply regretted it; though to refuse to go on churning it out when the inspiration has dried up is, I think, a kind of scrupulousness—even a kind of heroism—of which few writers have shown themselves capable.*

*There are hopeful signs, as I write, that the long exile may be over.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016