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Documenting the quest to track down everything written by (and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio dramatist, Henry Reed.

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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
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«  Ardent Spirits  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

22.10.2021


Ardent Spirits

What makes for a best-selling memoir? Celebrity confessions. Confessions like Mackenzie Phillips reveals in her book, High on Arrival, that she had been involved in an incestuous relationship with her father. Such as Andre Agassi confessing that his trademark long hair was actually a wig and that he used crystal meth, in his forthcoming autobiography, Open.

I confess, I don't actually know what bombshells Reynolds Price may drop in his recent memoir, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (New York: Scribner, 2009). I have my library's copy here, on my crowded coffee table. I haven't read it, yet. Not all of it. But I have found a pertinent piece of juicy gossip.

Book cover

Reynolds Price has been a Professor of English at Duke University for fifty years, and is an award-winning author of fourteen novels. Ardent Spirits is his third memoir, covering his three years as a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, beginning in 1955, until after his return to North Carolina in 1958, when he begins his teaching and writing careers. Price has never written openly about his sexuality until this most recent volume, where he refers to himself (and others) as "queer."

While at Oxford, Mr. Price made the acquaintance of such literary luminaries as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly, and Helen Gardner—then a fellow at St. Hilda's College. Price attended Gardner's lectures on the metaphysical poets, and her seminar in textual editing, and eventually she would sponsor his thesis on Milton's use of the Chorus in Samson Agonistes.

This is where I get to the juicy part, the bombshell. In the mid-1930s, Henry Reed had been a student of Gardner's while he was doing his graduate studies at the University of Birmingham. Price writes:

Helen Gardner knew her subjects exhaustively and conveyed her mastery in lucid, but never condescending, lectures—one of the rarest of academic skills. She'd nonetheless been subjected to many of the disappointments of a brilliant woman in what was then distinctly a man's world. Stephen Spender would eventually tell me that he'd heard from W.H. Auden that, when she held a job at the University of Birmingham, Gardner fell in love with the poet Henry Reed. Reed, however, was queer; and Gardner's encounter with that reality led to a psychotic breakdown. In the absence of a good biography, I can't vouch for Auden's story; but it has a likely sound, especially since I slowly became aware of her reservations about many of her male colleagues at Oxford, and more than once I heard her cast strong aspersions at Auden and his friends. As her pupil, of course I was fascinated to hear of those possible early troubles in her life.
[p. 43]

Wow. This is not the sort of literary footnote I usually get to post. Still, I'm inclined to say Mr. Price's rumor is simple hearsay—an exaggeration as a result of a game of Telephone among poets—considering that Reed sent Gardner a copy of Eliot's "East Coker" in the spring of 1940, and that Gardner, in 1942, credited Reed with a point relating to "The Dry Salvages" (see previously). That hardly sounds like the aftermath of an unrequited love affair and mental breakdown.


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What is Henry Reed's first name?

1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



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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