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
Jenkins, Alan. "In Other Men's Shadows." Independent (London), 3 November 1991, 46.

In Other Men's Shadows

'Collected Poems' — Henry Reed, ed Jon Stallworthy: OUP, £20


To his family, Henry Reed was "Hal", and all his life, according to his editor Jon Stallworthy, he "delighted" in the company of actors. Playing a part seems to have come naturally to him, perhaps as a result of his being apart (he was homosexual), and was crucial to his creativity. "Naming of Parts" — and the whole sequence of which it is a part, his most famous, indeed only famous poem, "Lessons of the War" — is a witty, humane comedy of anti-heroism, the gentle revenge of euphemism, life and love, the civilised, civilian world, on the language of the army training manual. "Chard Whitlow", the other Reed poem, is an accurate parody of Eliot's most pompous and paradoxical Four Quartets manner (it won a New Statesman competition). What both poems show is how Reed developed his mature poetic voice through skilful mimicry of others'. He was born in Birmingham in 1914, the son of a bricklayer and foreman, went on a scholarship to Birmingham University (where he was taught and befriended by Louis MacNeice), took a First and became Birmingham's youngest MA. He had already begun 'to feel ashamed of his family (Reed senior was a bit of a reader but his mother was illiterate), found a more congenial one in Naples (on a trip funded by father), and adopted the style of someone altogether more grand. Family legend had it that the Reeds were descended — on the wrong side of the blanket — from aristocracy, and by 1942, when Reed met his great love, the "more privileged" Michael Ramsbotham, he had "lost all trace of his Birmingham accent and acquired a somewhat Sitwellian manner".

He seems to have had a "good" war, going from the RAOC to Bletchley, where he learnt Japanese, and where Ramsbotham was stationed, the pair taking off for lunches and leaves in Cornwall and Hardy country — for years Reed planned a biography of Hardy — until they were demobbed and set up home together in a Dorset manor-house. These, as Stallworthy says, were Reed's days of heaven, and Gable Court his English Eden. In 1946, he published his first and only collection of poems, A Map of Verona. The shorter poems in its first half are sure-footed — even in their self-deprecations — and memorably phrased. The other half gives way to an invasion of Eliot: at moments the ventriloquism is no less striking than in "Chard Whitlow", and hardly less funny, through written straight: "We cannot learn to forget as sometimes we learn to remember", for example, or "Oh turn, turn, turn/A face to the sun, or a weeping face to the wall".

There are echoes, too, of Auden and MacNeice, and, inevitably, of Hardy. In some quiet, powerful poems of troubled intimacy, there are pre-echoes of the Movement. What is Reed's and Reed's alone is a tonality, an emotional palette, a special feeling for romantic potentiality, the moment before something tremendous happens or after it has receded. The something tremendous — love, release, the revelation of transcendent beauty, all of these at once — came to Reed in Italy, and again with Ramsbotham.

The affair with Italy lasted; Ramsbotham and Reed, though, finally split up in 1950. There followed BBC radio plays, translation, bookreviewing. There would be no second collection (perfectionism, failing eyesight, alcohol and a staple diet of Complan saw to that), but the poems Reed continued to write and publish come, like Giacomo Leopardi's (whom he translated), from long meditation on deep suffering. In a precise, hesitant voice, they dramatise displacement, exclusion, rejection, the hopeless return to lost Edens, or else a fantasy self, undivided and unhesitating. Some, unpublished and even unfinished in Reed's lifetime, combine powerful scene-setting with acute psychological truthfulness, and may owe something to the sinister atmospheres and shadow-selves of the fairy stories Reed's mother told, apparently "with great verve". The long "Auction Sale", the putative title-piece of the book poignantly announced in Who's Who for 1977, re-casts the persona of "Lessons of the War" — the sensitive victim of an unyielding reality — but the clash of idioms is now between the richly romantic-erotic-Italian visual focus of the poem and the flat, understated, English matter-of-factness (with biblical overtones) of the narration. The Eliotic voice modulates, in "Bocca di Magra", into pained, elegiac love poetry, or, in "The Blissful Land", into a poetry of agonising self-reproach:

And at last their chosen spokesman, at a common signal
That it should speak for the whole of that: winter concourse
In its rigid courtroom of damnation and grinning stone,
An icy wind slowly approached me, paused, searched my face,
And screamed in rancour, contempt and disappointment:
"It was not you we wanted! How dared you to come here alone?"

Henry Reed died in 1986. This Collected Poems salvages everything salvageable of this very English, Mediterranean-haunting talent, whose melancholy intelligence makes an unlikely bridge between Leopardi and Larkin. As well as A Map of Verona and the complete "Lessons of the War", it contains the translations, the unpublished or fugitively published poems, and some songs and choruses from the plays. Very properly, it rescues Reed from the two-poem limbo to which the anthologies (Larkin's included) have consigned him.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016