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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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«  Layers of a Palimpsest  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

2.12.2021


Layers of a Palimpsest

This week's mystery quote comes from a 1953 article by Ronald Bottrall, "The Teaching of English Poetry to Students whose Native Language is not English" (ELT Journal 8, no. 2 [Winter 1953-1954]: 39-44):

What, in fact, this kind of thing leads to is a Variorum edition of the poets; we have one of Hopkins already. The foreign student is particularly liable to be misled by this piling of Pelion on Ossa—at the worst he reads Gardner (W. H.) on Hopkins or Gardner (H.) on Eliot, and never gets near the poetry at all. To adopt a phrase of Henry Reed's, he is always reading the top layers of a palimpsest (emphasis mine).

Unfortunately, I don't have easy access to the full text of the journal, but by doing some backwards-and-forwards searching I was able to withdraw this sizable chunk of the surrounding text. Not that the context makes it any easier to deduce the source of this particular paraphrase of Reed. I had to look up a whole bunch of stuff:
  • Variorium: A variorium edition contains criticism and notes by various scholars (or is a collection of the various versions of a text).
  • Piling Pelion on Ossa: To "pile Pelion on Ossa" is an attempt to perform a tremendous but ultimately fruitless task, based on the Greek legend of the giants Otus and Ephialtes.
  • Gardner (W. H.) on Hopkins, and Gardner (H.) on Eliot (or possibly, on Eliot).
  • Palimpsest: a palimpsest is a manuscript which has been re-used to inscribe new text over the old.
To my credit, I at least already knew what a palimpsest was, probably from the re-discovery of Archimedes treatises in a medieval manuscript.

The 'palimpsest' line's provenance currently escapes me. Reed may have compared reading a particular author to only seeing 'the top lines of a palimpsest' in The Novel Since 1939 (British Council, 1946), or it may be a line he used in one his "Italian" radio plays, Return to Naples (1950), or The Great Desire I Had (1952). I guess the article is late enough for A Very Great Man Indeed (1953) to be fresh in the author's memory, but I don't recall the line being from there, either.

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Notation for "Layers of a Palimpsest":
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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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