Henry Reed Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Henry Reed was born and educated in Birmingham, a sprawling manufacturing center in the English Midlands. There is no evidence that this setting had much influence on his poetry, unless it encouraged a desire to travel to and write about sunnier climes. He attended the King Edward VI School in Birmingham and took an M.A. degree at the University of Birmingham.

The influence of his education is evident throughout Reed’s poetry, which, like the poetry of so many young Britons from the universities, smacks somewhat of Survey of British Literature. For example, one can detect echoes of Andrew Marvell, Alfred, Lord Tennyson,Matthew Arnold,Joseph Conrad, and Eliot. In addition, many of Reed’s subjects are literary in inspiration. Seemingly, the weight of the great tradition bore down heavily on Reed, and reaction to this weight could have contributed to his move from poetry to radio plays.

Certainly another influence on Reed’s writing career was his experience of World War II, when he served in the Royal Army and with the Foreign Office. His military training provided inspiration for the poems in the “Lessons of the War” series. In addition, the war brought him to London, where he subsequently formed the association with the BBC that defined his career. He died on December 8, 1986, in London.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Reed was a prolific poet, dramatist, reviewer, and translator who achieved both popular and critical success during his lifetime, but he is primarily known in the twenty-first century as the author of one poem about World War II, “Naming of Parts.” Unlike many of his contemporaries who achieved status as men of letters, Reed did not come from a wealthy or an educated family. His father, also named Henry, was a bricklayer and a heavy drinker; his mother, Mary Ann Bell Reed, could not read or write, but she had a love of telling stories and singing songs. Although Reed’s parents could not send him or his sister to elite or expensive schools, they valued education and encouraged him to pursue it.

Reed attended the local King Edward IV School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Birmingham. Later in life, Reed felt somewhat stigmatized because he had not studied at either of the finest universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge. However, his years at Birmingham introduced him to the playwright Louis MacNeice, who encouraged Reed in his intellectual endeavors. Reed was an excellent student, winning several prestigious scholarships and other honors for his work. He was a voracious reader all his life, and he was able to combine a natural affinity for languages with an ability to work hard and independently to become fluent in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Japanese.

Reed began his writing career with small pieces—poems and book reviews—that were well-regarded but did not earn him much money. For a year he tried his hand at teaching, but he was not successful or happy with it. In 1941 he was drafted into the Royal Army Ordinance Corps. His skills with languages, especially with Italian, soon earned him a transfer to the Foreign Office’s Government Code and Cypher School, and for the remainder of World War II he served as a translator for naval intelligence.


(The entire section is 798 words.)