Salvaging Henry Reed

Dan Sofaer

“An excess of portentousness and self-indulgence” was Ian Hamilton’s verdict, and Randall Jarrell compared him to “a nap after dinner.”i For some, he is simply the author of “The Naming of Parts.” The recent Collected Poems makes a compelling case that there is more to Reed than that single poem. Kermode and Stallworthy lay stress on the later lyrics, many of them unpublished at the author’s death or only appearing in journals. Still, I know of no account of Reed that takes seriously the three longer poems which make up thirty pages of the recent Collected: “The Desert,” “Tintagel,” and “Triptych.”

They are heavy going. Here is, if you are looking for it, Hamilton’s portentousness, the main course that led to Jarrell’s nap. There is often a lack of anything to get ahold of. Awkwardness, melodrama, are in abundance. And the evocations of antiquity, medieval romance, and colonisation seem contrived. But I’m going to argue that salvaging Henry Reed just might require living with these poems for a while, reading them over and over to figure out what he was trying to do. This effort might even lead us to loosen or alter some of our requirements, our expectations, of poetry in general. Which might be all to the good, though it might be confusing.

I sometimes wonder whether the achievements of major poets like Larkin, Heaney, Bishop and Lowell, as we continue to harvest them in their letters, biographies, etc. and read the clever reviews about them in the posh papers, I sometimes wonder whether they or our views of them aren’t in danger of ossifying into a critical orthodoxy. We like our poems with a bit of history, a bit of science or pop culture. We like them personal, colloquial, arch, allusive. After the manly examples of Pound, Hemingway and Lowell, we like each line to be an event, we like every word to count, we are distrustful of adjectives and abstractions. We like our concrete particulars, our language games. “No ideas but in things.” Well, to put it bluntly, if that’s that we like, we probably won’t like Henry Reed.

Odd that “The Naming of Parts” (and perhaps the other “Lessons of the War”) are Reed’s claim to fame (in the eternity of anthologies), when in fact the poem was the product of specific circumstances. According to Stallworthy, it was written in the summer of 1941 when Reed was at the R.A.O.C. training camp. Reed entertained friends with imitations of his drill sergeant. The bold yet subtle counterpointing of two voices, that of the sergeant pointing out the rifle-parts and that of the private, longing for communion with the benificence of nature all around him, is carried off so well that it tends to eclipse its sources, but a comparison, say, with an issue of Horizon, shows Reed reshaping contemporary responses to the war. Those incredible lead editorials of Cyril Connolly’s! Just as Reed, Connolly loved to lead off with the word “Today… ”ii He was a master of the sudden ironical switch from war’s violence to nature’s peaceful foison. Already in the May 1940 issue, after five bristling pages of war report, Connolly gets flowery: “Meanwhile the almond blossom is out, the sun shines, the streets look shabbier than ever, and the war slowly permeates our ways of living.”iii (Reed has “and the almond-blossom/silent in all of the gardens… ”) The following spring (‘spring’ is another important word for both writers), the March 1941 issue begins:

Invasion and You!...And what has happened in the peninsula will happen in France: the country is ripe for it, all resistance undermined, the asphodel blossoms are frothing over the Eastern Pyrenees, the catkins are on the willows, the poplars of the west are covering their balls of mistletoe, the chestnut buds and the café tables have reached to the Loire.iv

Unless I’m sorely mistaken, this reads alot like raw material (spare parts?) for Reed’s “Naming of Parts.” Reed didn’t miss much, and Horizon was one of the few periodicals left in wartime, after the folding of Eliot’s Criterion and others. Further corroboration comes from an essay in the same issue by “A Private” called “Ours not to Reason Why,” which sounds an awful lot like Reed’s “Judging Distances”:

The Army has taught me a new way of looking at landscape. Previously I thought in literary metaphor, pleased, for example, to discover that the late light of the sun, caught on the backs of wheeling plovers, made them like drifting sheets of pink paper. Now metaphors are military. A man standing at six hundred yards looks like a post: kneeling at four hundred, with rifle at the aim, he might be a bush.v

For unknown reasons, Reed never published in Horizon, and he doesn’t seem to have shown up on Connolly’s radar much. The journal was faulted for playing favorites (but what favorites! Auden, MacNiece, Dylan Thomas… ) and for being stuck in the thirties when it came to poetry. The timing was bad. By the time Reed published A Map of Verona, in 1946, that harsh winter of fuel shortages, Connolly had lost patience with poetry The only acknowledgement by Connolly of Reed’s existence I can discover is his inclusion of Reed in a 1949 survey of what writers do to survive. My preoccupation with Reed’s non-relationship with Connolly might seem oddly superfluous. Reed had his supporters in those days, especially John Lehmann. But Reed had a particularly strong tendency to feel himself excluded. He spoke scornfully of “the minor gangsterdom of some contemporary literary life, of the metropolitan literary pubs...”vii It is tempting to suppose he felt excluded from Horizon.

However that may be, the main body of Reed’s work is better seen not as a response to the war but to the poetry of the thirties. By his own 1943 account, “The End of an Impulse,” the Auden circle was not quite what it used to be. The austerity of this essay is a little breathtaking. Here is Reed in the middle of the war, opining on the pitfalls of half-rhyme and metrical license, as well as faulting “the general morality of the poetry-producing class” since the demise of the Auden circle. Despite his self-presentation as a Rilkean solitary, Reed was working in the same direction as poets like Vernon Watkins, who published his first book in 1941, towards myth and the deep image, towards a poetry that might almost be described as Blakean or bardic.viii The reaction can also be seen negatively. Poets were now shy of the favorite themes of the thirties, socialist commitment, but also, following Valentine Cunningham, violence, imprisonment, school days, and voracious travel.ix One thinks of Watkins’s second decision (in “Two Decisions”), to stay home and let winter come to him, as characteristic. Reed, less rooted, perhaps, than Watkins, wanted to get past the images of everyday, into the beyond. He chose images (ruins, sails, houses, maps) which easily dissolve and he liked to confuse images with “thoughts.” Consider the opening of “Tintagel”: “Tristram’s tower / Rises and falls and rises. / The ruin leads your thoughts / Past the moments of darkness… ” It’s all in that word “past,” where Reed is asking us to take a leap into a glittering beyond. Imagine yourself approaching the legendary Cornish ruin from the land and seeing the sea though it with the wind and sun striking the waves and simply being blinded. That’s the kind of effect Reed is going for.

Hang it, how can a man who was capable of the opening of “The Naming of Parts” begin a poem with this kind of vague awkwardness: “My thoughts, like sailors becalmed in Cape Town harbour, / Await your return, like a favorable wind, or like / New tackle for the voyage, without which it is useless starting.” By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you have forgotten its beginning, which in its vagueness (how are thoughts like sailors? And who is being addressed in “your return”?) never made an impression in the first place. An opening like “King Mark” is also very irritating: “Dismount: let the horns grow faint in the distance.” Why dismount? What horns are these? These texts are choked with pleonasms. “Over curving slopes,” for instance. A slope by definition is curving. Therefore, to be told so is distracting.

His long poems refuse the eye any resting place. They are all glittering surface. The diction is resolutely uniform: “the moments of darkness when silence fell over the hall.” Take the opening of “Chrysothemis.”

I cannot follow them into their world of death,
Or into their hunted world of life, though through the house,
Death and the hunted bird sing at every nightfall.

The opposition between “world of life” and “world of death” is in itself objectionable, but it does help set up that “hunted bird,” a subtle evocation of the Greek tragic sources. Reed’s teacher MacNeice had used the Aeschylean quote διωκει παις ποτανον ορνιν “a child pursues (hunts) a winged bird,” as a motto for a book of poems, and this might have put the phrase in Reed’s mind. But the hunted bird is above all Cassandra, from the same play, compared to Procne. Chrysothemis’s refusal to “follow them into their world of death” is a refusal to play the Cassandra, to clamor for justice and face the consequences. Likewise, the following line, “I am Chrysothemis: I sailed with dipping sails” is liable to offend us with its obviousness and pleonasm. With the name Chrysothemis already blaring at us from the top of the page, do we need to be told who is speaking? But the line becomes more interesting once we realize that Chrysothemis is not known to have gone on any sea voyage. The sailing must be figurative, despite our initial impression, especially if we recall that Sophocles’ Chrysothemis advised Electra to sail with “relaxed” sails, to yield to those in authority. (Electra, 335) Reed is clearly challenging us to squint past the glitter, to overcome our fixed responses to a rebarbative surface. To take a final example from the same stanza: “I… / Survived, and remain in a falling, decaying mansion.” Reed has often been accused of deriving excessively from Eliot. “Gerontion” includes the memorable line: “My house is a decayed house,” which Reed is clearly echoing. Reed spins out the allusion, riffing on it: “decaying mansion, A house… my house now… decaying palace… I will protect them in the decaying house.” Rather than see this as otiose, I would prefer to see Reed shaping a very different character from the little old man of “Gerontion.” Chysothemis is resolved to protect what’s left after murder, revenge and further revenge. She is a survivor and no nightingale.

Somewhere in his 1946 pamphlet on the contemporary novel, Henry Reed speaks of Henry James’ ability to hide a cliché in a long, complicated sentence “as a kind of central jewel.”x Reed’s longer poems can sometimes seem a necklace of cliches, but it’s still worth searching for the central jewel.

DAN SOFAER’s poems have appeared in Fulcrum, Little Star, Open City, and Sensitive Skin. He has a used bookstore in the Catskills.


i. Randall Jarrell “Verse Chronicle” Nation 166 no.13 (March 27 1948): 360-361 is devastating: “His typical poem is a sober trance, full of present participles and gently effective or ineffective phrases, about Tristram or Chrysothemis of Philoctetes or Antigone.” But see John Berryman, “Waiting for the End, Boys.” Partisan Review 15, no.2 (February 15 1948): 262-267 for a much more positive response to what he called Reed’s “flatness.” “They are Flat? I will out-flat them, etc.” Both these reviews can be read in full on the Henry Reed link on // back

ii. The editorials have been reprinted at the end of Connolly’s The Condemned Playground. // back

iii. Horizon vol.I, No.5 (May 1940), p.313. // back

iv. Horizon vol.III No.15 (March 1941). // back

v. Ibid. p.183-4. // back

vi. See Michael Sheldon, Friends of Promise, 156-7. // back

vii. “The End of an Impulse” in New Writing and Daylight, Summer 1943, p.122. // back

viii. See the chapter devoted to this new school in A.P. Tolley’s Poetry of the Thirties. // back

ix. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford University Press 1988. // back

x. The novel since 1939. Longmans, Green and Co. 1946. // back