Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
In 1946, just after the war ended, Reed produced his first book of poetry, A Map of Verona, which included the moving and ironic poem “Naming of Parts,” his best-known work, and “Chard Whitlow,” a deft parody of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” (1943). The volume was a critical success, establishing Reed as a young writer to be taken seriously. The same year, he published his only full-length critical work, an analysis of The Novel Since 1939.
Over the next twenty-five years, Reed devoted most of his creative energies to writing radio dramas, which were presented on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) “Third Programme.” Many British radio dramas of the mid-twentieth century were witty and erudite and were written by some of the finest writers of the period, including Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Reed’s old mentor MacNeice. Many of Reed’s plays were adaptations of important works by other writers, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), or translations and adaptations from the nineteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi or from various French and Italian playwrights. Reed quickly established himself as one of the best and most reliable of the large stable of writers creating dramas for the BBC, and his popular acclaim for these works lasted in England beyond his lifetime.
During this period, Reed published only a small amount of poetry and nothing to equal the quality of his first volume. He also produced translations of novels, countless essays and reviews, and more than three dozen plays. His judgment was widely admired, and he was frequently asked to edit manuscripts or write reviews and blurbs by other writers who sought his notice and praise. Reed was unusual for his time in being something of a stickler for grammatical correctness and linguistic purity, a trait his colleagues both respected and affectionately mocked.
In spite of his success as a writer, Reed did not have a happy life. He was a gay man in a society that made life for gay men difficult, and he had only one sustained romantic relationship during his lifetime. For more than twenty years, he tried in vain to write a biography of the writer Thomas Hardy, whom he greatly admired, but his inability to complete the project and to repeat the quality of his early poetry weighed heavily on him. Although he wrote poetry throughout his life, he was unwilling to make public any work that failed to meet his own strict standards, and his third book of poems, Collected Poems, was published only after his death. In addition, Reed had inherited his father’s tendency to excessive drinking and self-destructive behavior. On the other hand, he was witty and generous, and he had several friends who stayed loyal to him, sustaining him through his final years of poor health, reclusiveness, and financial difficulties.