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
Berryman, John. "Waiting for the End, Boys." Partisan Review 15, no. 2 (15 February 1948): 254-267 [262-263, 265-267].



The revolutions by which a poetry is diverted from its course to a new course are as dramatic as anything in literary history. One occurred about 1600 when the boy Donne jammed a speaking voice, jammed hesitation and thought and passion, into Elizabethan song. Another—more interesting to us, I think, just now—occurred at the mid-century following: when Edmund Waller, according to Dryden, reformed English versification, giving it sweetness and regular pause and elegance. Modern critics incline to minimize Dryden's view and Waller's achievement, and I incline to minimize the critics. Waller not merely for everyone gathered verse again into forms, like the couplet, but so controlled the forms in his best poems as to produce an expectation differing wholly from previous expectations, and then by violating the expectation got his effects. These effects are quiet, and amazing. In a period as licentious as our own, it is very difficult to hear them. But it is very important to hear them, because if our license is not to continue we will one day be asked to hear effects analogous to then from one of our contemporaries. They are the sound of the change of a national mind. "Of English Verse" contains one, perhaps the greatest. The theme of this poem, written not many years after Bacon had wasted his age translating his English works into Latin, is the futility of writing in English, because the language daily changes. For seven quatrains, divided severely into couplets, the poet argues; and then


there is a final quatrain. If the main theme should seem to anyone out-dated, I trust that the substance of the last two quatrains (as quoted now in an age when for many attentive to the developments of science the future has ceased to exist) will not:

   This was the generous Poets scope
And all an English Pen can hope:
To make the fair approve his Flame
That can so far extend their Fame.

   Verse thus design'd has no ill fate
If it arrive but at the Date
Of fading Beauty, if it prove
But as long liv'd as present love.

The final quatrain's exquisite run-over can be heard justly, of course, only at the end of the whole poem; but even as mangled here it may convey some of its mastery.

Now I am far from wishing to produce Henry Reed as Waller. But if Reed can be listened to with the general present situation in mind as I have described it (subject to correction by critics who know it better), understanding may be quickened. His first book A Map of Verona and other Poems, published recently in England and more recently here, contains a poem called "Lessons of the War" or a suite so called composed of distinct poems, three of them; the first, entitled "Naming of Parts," begins as follows:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
          And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.

In these stanzas, it seems to me, we actually hear a style creating itself. It is as if the poet said to himself: "All these other poets. They are Flat? I will out-flat them. Whom can I learn from? Eliot, Eliot's Quartet-style, and Auden, a little, who holds unrhymed stanzas together with


a short final line—and other things—and I will make them recognizable before I kick them over. All in the open, because Flattest—no sleight-of-hand; only here and there, just for a moment, I will be richer than anyone. What is simplest? In the first stanza, iteration: 'Today' against Auden's fat 'Tomorrow' (in 'Spain') if anyone cares, with Eliot flickering in the middle lines; then claim the stanza—not too hard—in the short line. In the second, pointing: just like and just against Eliot's faked magic in 'The Waste Land' cards, if anyone cares. Then wipe them out and, in the second short line, claim everything. Speech everywhere. Loosen, everything. What do poets do? They do things again. I will do things again, as they have never been done before." And the marvelous poem continues on its way:

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
          Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
          They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
          For today we have naming of parts.

It is all done without effort, or appears to be done so. Then suddenly you feel like weeping. This is a poet whose slightest shift can contrive excitement. His poems accumulate, perfectly flat and then perfectly suggestive, so naturally that at the second reading one of them is familiar as if one had known it for weeks or months. He mixes strange emotions. This warm familiarity is one; he says more completely than you expect what you expect. Another, which poets are more often said to have than have, is humor. The second and third "Lessons of the War" are more openly grievous than the first by the time they end, yet


somewhere under them plays this real humor; I laughed. He has irony when he likes, and he can shut it off. He can frighten. But one's strongest sense is of an accepting poetry, and two of the most wonderful passages in his book are the antepenultimate and last paragraphs of "Tristram," which dramatize resignation. These are not detachable; they take place, like almost everything else in Reed, in a progression in the poem—just as each poem when you read it seems to have a place in the progression of his poetry. Very little is detachable: a blazing detail across the page from "Tristram":

In the golden collapse of the summer, or the tearing days
Before the beginning of spring. . . .

In these lines what used to be called the quality of high imagination is plain as the sun. Read the whole book.

I never read a line of Reed's poetry till day before yesterday, and never heard him mentioned but once several months ago along with four other young English poets; I am glad I do not have to appoint his eternal place. But we have Mr. Eliot's word for it that genuineness will do, and genuineness is what I affirm. It will trouble some readers that Reed's work is so close to its main stylistic source, the Four Quartets. So it is, very; some even of the properties in "Triptych" are the same as Eliot's. What then? The awkward truth is that Reed is an alchemist. He could rewrite "Resolution and Independence" in his own style and fascinate you. The same readers may be troubled by his passages of open emotion; and to these I think we must adjust ourselves.

Strategies and strategies. Confronted equally with difficult situations, Reed relaxed beyond relaxation and Lowell tightened beyond tightening. Reed breaks meter into anapests, feminine endings, extra-syllabled lines of all sorts, Lowell into spondees and humped smash. Lowell's work is "difficult," Reed's on the whole "plain," in extreme degrees. Lord Weary's Castle is the natural product of an elaborate, scrupulous, and respected literary criticism. It could hardly have been produced in England, where there is nothing to prepare for it or to receive it (Empson's less formidable first book was dismissed for instance by MacNeice as not the sort of thing needed just then—indeed it wasn't, or it still is). On the other hand, A Map of Verona could hardly have been produced in the United States, under our distrust of the shapely and gentle and easy-just in Reed's poems: the poet would have been haggard with self-consciousness before he began. The indifferent state


of criticism in England was exactly what Reed needed. He and Lowell exist, in short, at the poles of the visible scene. But they have something in common besides excellence and responsibility. Both are out of the Climate: moving both toward the legendary, Reed with the Greek and Ahab poems, Lowell with the David and Bathsheba poems. I am not sure whether either is Waller, and if so which one, or whether both are Waller, or whether theyprepare the way for Waller, or whether they make Waller unnecessary, but the questions seemed to come up with such agreeable urgency that I took my title from the refrain of Empson's "Just a Smack at Auden" (the best parody of the sort I know, unless Reed's "Chard Whitlow" about Eliot is) and hoped for the best.

John Berryman




Page last modified: 01 October 2016