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Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

20.6.2021


Reed Reviews Edwin Honig

Henry Reed reviewed Edwin Honig's biography of Federico García Lorca for the December, 1945 New English Review. Unfortunately, as you can tell from his opening paragraph, Reed was painfully discouraged with the book: 'very badly written,' 'overburdened with detail,' 'hard going for the reader,' and 'exhausting and baffling' are not the least of his disappointments, and one wonders why he bothered to read the entire thing. Such are the wages of the literary critic.

Garcia Lorca

Garcia Lorca. By Edwin Honig. Poetry, London. 7s. 6d.

Federico García Lorca was assassinated by soldiers of General Franco's army shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. There was no excuse for the crime, and none has ever been offered. Lorca's only claim to offence is that he was a poet admired by intellectuals and loved by the general public. He had no violent political allegiances, and the fact that he had expressed no warmth of feeling for the Falange could not, even by the Falangists themselves, be regarded as an eccentricity. He has become a symbol of what suffers under the guilty self-righteousness of Fascism, and it is right that he should remain so. At the same time it is possible to wonder if his tragedy is not being overplayed, and if we are not self-indulgently identifying ourselves rather often with the poet and his deplorable fate. Mr. Edwin Honig is aware of these possibilities. His study of Lorca is very badly written; it is overburdened with detail; his potted history of Lorca's literary antecedents is hard going for the reader; his analysis of the action of Lorca's early play Asi Que Pasen Cinco Años [When Five Years Pass] must rank among the most exhausting and baffling pieces of expository criticism ever written; but at all events he does endeavour to remain alive to the dangers of martyrolatry and untempered prose.

It must therefore seem ungrateful to suggest that at the moment Mr. Honig is yet another of those critics who insist on getting in the way. The works by which we could most fairly be expected to judge Lorca have not yet been published in translation in this country, and so far all we have is a small number of selected lyrics and his remarkable Lament for Ignacio Sânchez Mejías (we still for some reason try in this country to to be outraged by bullfighting). These have been accompanied by a mass of eulogy; it has even been suggested that as a poet Lorca is comparable in importance with Eliot, Rilke, and Yeats. To be a poet on their levels, and to be of interest outside your own country, you must have a quality of subject-matter, of things said, which is at least moderately apprehensible in translation. Rilke has this; and so far as we can yet tell, Lorca has not.

Mr. Honig says of him in his concluding chapter: "His drama celebrates the life of instinct; which is to say, it does not come bearing a message. It comes in the ancient spirit of the magician and soothsayer—to astound, to entertain, and to mystify; it also comes in the spirit of the jongleur, to invent a world and people with whose pathetically valorous lives the audience is quick to identify itself." Mr. Honig appears to discern no limitations in this, and like many critics he seems to over-value the element of popular song in Lorca. But this fact seems as much a drawback as an advantage, so far as one may dimply see. There is no inherent advantage in staying in the ballad-period of your literary history. Lorca was a pianist and composer; and a practical knowledge of music may be of great help to a poet. But Spanish music, as "vital", impressive, and immediately attractive as any music, is at the same time extremely limited in character. (Of all prominent contemporary composers, de Falla is the least profound.) Few readers can fail to be delighted by the flashing succession of images in Lorca's poetry and by their daring dérèglement; but it is idle to pretend that it is more than a minor form of poetry.

With Lorca's dramas it is doubtless a different matter. But hitherto, for the English reader, criticism has preceded demonstration. Mr. Honig's book is one more preliminary announcement; he gives us detailed accounts of the plays, including the puppet and surrealist plays, and like Señor Barea a year ago he piques our curiousity about Bodas de Sangre [Blood Wedding] and Yerma; but he has not the acute critical power which will sometimes convince without a full text. Above all, Mr. Honig has little new knowledge about the poet himself to give us; it is surely rather tantalising to hint at a major unhappiness of a personal kind if you are unable to give any details of it; nor does he offer any suggestions as to why the theme of two of Lorca's principal dramatic works is sexual sterility, though no thoughtful reader can avoid being impressed by this fact. It is discouraging to record that as a whole the book really adds very little to the impression given by Señor Barea's sympathetic and charming drawing of Lorca in the nude.
Henry Reed
I will have to stop by the main library this evening, and poke about the Lorca aisle, and see if I might turn up Barea's 'sympathetic and charming drawing of Lorca'.



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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