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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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Henry Reed, ca. 1960


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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
Dusty Answer: Young, privileged, earnest Judith falls in love with the family next door.
The Heat of the Day: In wartime London, a woman finds herself caught between two men.


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«  Mystery, Ecstasy, Sublimity, Cheese  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

27.10.2021


Mystery, Ecstasy, Sublimity, Cheese

"Whoever reviewed current verse in your July number is a nincompoop." This, in response to a 1946 book review of Reed's A Map of Verona, in the prestigious and estimable Poetry Review. I'm tempted to add the entire Donnybrook to the Henry Reed pages, since the cheesy defense is longer than the original salvo. From The Poetry Review 37, no. 3 (June/July 1946):

Poets and Pretenders
The crux of any critical assessment of poetry is that it is not possible to make an exact definition of it, and in consequence it is difficult to determine what qualities, technical, aesthetic, and spiritual, should be found in it. Nevertheless, we recently listened to a lecture by an eminent Doctor who had placed his considerable talent for scientific research at the service of this problem. His analysis had indicated to him that the prime ingredients of good poetry were three, which he most aptly described as vitamins. These qualities were mystery, ecstasy and sublimity, and the distinguished lecturer expressed the view that verse could not be considered to have achieved a poetical standard unless one or more of these qualities was present in it....

A Map of Verona, by Henry Reed (Cape, 3s. 6d.) would be difficult to criticise upon the tri-une basis of mystery, ecstasy and sublimity. If it be judged upon its capacity to move the reader, or to inspire any one of these three states, it should delay us not at all; from which it will be gathered that we are presented by it with so little to praise or blame that we are amost debarred from comment. Take the first stanza from a poem called "Envoy".
"Whatever sort of garden
You, I, or we shall build,
Neglected much, or cared for,
And all its great designs
Fulfilled or unfulfilled:
Built over ruined shrines,
Where others have loved and worshipped,
Or built on virgin ground:
Shaped or disorderly,
Let it at least be
Different from this",
or look where you will, and there is the same incapacity to come to grips with anything real or vital such as could shatter the dull crust of the reader's wonted composure or banish for one beautiful moment the boredom of living.

And the answering justification, appearing in The Poetry Review 37, no. 4 (August/September 1946):

The Reviewer Answers a Critic
"Whoever reviewed current verse in your July number is a nincompoop. His dismissal of Henry Reed's Map of Verona is unjust, and his critical method pompous, inefficient, and absurd."

Thus begins a letter from a correspondent who has obviously more energy than sense, or he would have abstained from prejudicing his case so grievously at the outset. There is a certain antique piquancy in receiving abuse from one who can advance no better reason for it than a difference of opinion, and Mr. Henry Reed, the bone of contention, might well wish to be saved from such a friend. Our correspondent quarrels too with out eminent doctor's theory of poetic vitamins and proceeds to adduce examples of great poetry which he alleges are starved of all three, which our readers may remember are mystery, ecstasy and sublimity. We gravely doubt his perception. He asserts, truly enough, that there are many kinds of poetry and argues somewhat triumphantly, as one making an unanswerable point, that we do not admonish Camembert for not being Stilton; but surely our correspondent is in some confusion here, since Camembert and Stilton both in their separate ways have the character of the best cheese, and indeed may both be said to possess ecstasy and sublimity, and more than a little touch of mystery. We insist upon uniformity as little in poetry as in our food. In both, however, there must be edibility, digestibility and nourishment, and we must feel when we have consumed them that we are the better for it. In any case, it is not the poetry, nor the cheese, which we admonish, but rather the person responsible for it; in the case of cheese we should be furious at any misdescription of the article, hailing the miscreant guilty of the deception before a magistrate. Unfortunately the written word enjoys an immunity which permits it to call itself what it will. On the other hand, we too have equal freedom and may speak our mind concerning it.

Lastly, our correspondent offers us three mere literary virtues in exchange for our bright trinity of poetic qualities. These are clarity, conciseness and penetration, and all the dull deliberation of this denial of the spiritual quality of poetry is really the last straw. Our correspondent signs his letter; but since it was written in heat and apparently without proper reflection it would be inconsiderate to give his name.

I'm not sure who to hold accountable here. The unnamed, vitamin-preoccupied theorist? Or the anonymous reviewer, for quoting a theorist who attempts to reduce poetry to three elemental qualities? (Can anyone venture a guess as to who this "eminent Doctor" of poetic theory might be? Who wrote the "nincompoop" letter in defense of Reed?) I think the Poetry Review should be held responsible. Not for a 60-year old, unfavorable review, necessarily. I have plenty of tepid-to-scathing reviews on the website, already. But cheese? Poetry Review! I implore you!

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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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