Part and Pasture

Frank Kermode

  • Collected Poems by Henry Reed, edited with an introduction by Jon Stallworthy
    Oxford, 166 pp, £20.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 19 212298 3

Henry Reed was a sad man but a funny man, and his poems are funny or sad – often, as in the celebrated ‘Lessons of the War’, both at once. I first met him in 1965, in the office of Robert Heilman, then the benevolent but firm head of the English Department at the University of Washington in Seattle. Calling to present my credentials, I walked into a row; Heilman benevolently firm, Reed furious, licensed to be furious. He was in Seattle as a replacement for Theodore Roethke, the regular poet in residence, who had suddenly died. Whether Roethke had contributed to the routine work of the department I don’t know, but if he hadn’t Heilman did not regard his immunity as a precedent and was requiring Reed to give some lectures on the Brontës. Reed argued that he had been hired exclusively as a poet and declined to speak of these tiresome women. I came in when he was telling Heilman this, and also scolding him for referring to the novelists by the fancy name their father had affected in order to suggest a connection with Lord Nelson. ‘How can you ask me to lecture on the O’Pruntys?’ he shouted. But he did as he was asked. He and Heilman were, or became, great friends.

The secretary of the department had an affluent businessman husband, and they had taken Henry under their protection, driving him around in one or other of their Thunderbirds, labelled ‘His’ and ‘Hers’. Once we all four went to lunch in the revolving restaurant on top of the Space Needle, and when our hosts left to get on with their work they left us slowly spinning there, with plenty of champagne to get us through the December afternoon. Henry, having been funny, now grew sad, holding up a bottle and contemplating the label, Mumms Extra Dry: ‘Poor baby!’ he sighed. The conversation sinking into melancholia, I quoted the advice of Thoreau, ‘Do not be betrayed into a vulgar sadness,’ but he rejected it, pointing out that Thoreau’s crown of Thoreaus was remembering happier things. (He liked puns: Stallworthy points out that the epigraph to ‘Lessons of the War’ – vixi puellis nuper idoneuslet militavi non sine gloria – substitutes puellis, ‘girls’, for Horace’s duellis, ‘wars’. This is a better pun than the Seattle ones, especially as it subtly emphasises the heterosexuality of the implied author of ‘Lessons of the War’.) Later in that lost day we found ourselves in a deplorable bar, where we were set upon by resident puellae. ‘Surely they can tell I’m homosexual,’ he said as if puzzled, though quite how they could be expected to do so was obscure to me, and anyway there were ample other reasons for abstinence. The girls must have wondered what we were doing there, but so did we.

Back in London I would sometimes get back home after a hard day at the office and find him already there. He would invariably ask for Mozart and we would listen to one of the piano concertos. And he would invariably be moved as if coming upon a wonder for the first time: ‘Exquisite,’ he would murmur. ‘Who’s the pianist?’ ‘Still Ingrid Haebler, I’m afraid.’ Around eleven he would ask to be poured into a taxi, and so the evening would end with a long chilly wait at the rank in Rosslyn Hill.

I don’t remember much of his conversation on these occasions, except that he sometimes lamented his association with what had been the Third Programme. Much of his writing had been for radio: it included the successful series of comic programmes, seven in all, about the composeress Hilda Tablet and her associates; an adaptation of Moby Dick; and many translations, including some plays of Betti that were very well thought of at the time. The editor has exhumed good verse from Moby Dick and from some of the others, verse remarkable for its fertility and density, but in the Sixties it was hard to imagine a bright future for radio drama. Some of his translations reached the stage, but Reed was not cut out for television.

He was gentle, melancholy and funny, and without conscious effort gave one a strong sense of his unaffected dedication to poetry, not least to Italian poetry; and also tacitly but powerfully, a sense that his life, though marked by a good deal of idiosyncratic achievement, was radically disappointing. Stallworthy remarks on the frequency with which he laments that he has lost his way, or his way back, to the great good place that makes fairly frequent appearances in his verse; it is there, figured as Verona, in the first poem of his early collection. It is re-imagined in a remarkable poem called ‘The Changeling’, which appeared in the Listener early in 1950. After many vicissitudes a man at last reaches the destination he has always thought proper to him:

And comes, at last, to stand
On his scented evening lawn
Under his flowering limes,
Where dim in the dusk and high,
His mansion is proudly set,
And the single light burns
In the room where his sweet young wife
Waits in his ancient bed.
The stable clock chimes
And he to his house draws near,
And on the threshold turns,
With a silent glance to convey
Up to his summer sky,
Where his first pale stars appear:
‘All this is false. And I
Am an interloper here.’

In another fine poem, hitherto unpublished, ‘The Château’ (‘Yet will I fear no evil: not even here’), the theme recurs as it were in the major, and the excluded figure is imagined as finally entering his own domain and discovering that the time of exclusion, properly understood, was part of his total felicity. He approaches his ‘own and veritable door’:

I shall open it, enter it, and learn
That in all this hungry time I have never wanted,
But have, elsewhere, on honey and milk been fed.
Have in green pastures somewhere lain, and in
                              the mornings,
Somewhere beside still waters have
Mysteriously, ecstatically, been led.

A Map of Verona was published in 1946, when Reed was in his early thirties, and stood alone, though Douglas Cleverdon produced a fine limited edition of ‘Lessons of the War’, designed and printed by Will and Sebastian Carter in 1970. Another collection, to be called The Auction Room, and Other Poems, was promised in 1977 but never appeared. Reed left certain pencilled instructions on his manuscripts which suggest that he was expecting or hoping for a Collected Poems, and this we now have, thanks to Catherine Carver, who sorted out the heaps of drafts, clippings and corrections left by the poet, and Jon Stallworthy, who has made this a model edition of a modern poet, with adequate textual and bibliographical annotation, and a useful biographical introduction.

He can justly claim that the result dispels the ‘gross misperception’ of Reed, author of ‘The Naming of Parts’, as a one-poem poet. He is always refined, calculated, expert, and nearly always alive within his sadnesses. Stallworthy does him a slight injustice by prefixing as an epigraph some very gloomy verses by Leopardi (I’infinita vanita del tutto), quite rightly pointing out that Reed had a special attachment to Leopardi – he wrote two plays about him and translated several of his poems: but I find these poems the least impressive in the volume. Leopardi feeds too directly into Reed’s deep reservoir of gloom, and the translations, unlike the original poems, somehow sound rather inert. One of them, ‘The Broom’, reminds one a little of the Arnold of ‘Empedocles on Etna’, rejected by its author as altogether too glum.

There was always this danger. On lighter occasions he sometimes sounds more like a less dandyish Clough. But the strongest influence, hardly surprising in a younger poet of his time, was Eliot. Stallworthy reminds us that the celebrated parody of Eliot, ‘Chard Whitlow’, was written before ‘Little Gidding’, but the cadences of Eliot, the rhythms of the earlier Quartets, mimicked there with such absurd accuracy, were always in Reed’s head.

Waking to find the room not as I thought it was,
But the window further away, and the door in
                            another direction

is as close to Eliot, though unparodically, as ‘Chard Whitlow’. So, in another mode, is this, from one of Reed’s dramatic monologues, ‘Philoctetes’:

The noiseless chant has begun in the heart of the
                                        wound,
The heavy procession of pain along the nerve.

It may be worth adding that the influence seems least assimilated when Reed must have been working fast, for the radio: in the verses from Pytheas (1947), here printed for the first time, the master too audibly presides over all. And somewhere behind Reed’s dream allegories lurk ‘Gerontion’ and The Waste Land. But he was also intimate with Hardy, and worked for a long time on a biography before giving it up; his narrative poem ‘The Auction Sale’, though very individual, and ending with the characteristic exclusion from delight, is in Hardy’s manner. Finally there are, no doubt inevitably, echoes of Auden, too.

Yet he holds his own note. ‘Outside and In’, a fine early poem, strikes it: intense apprehension at the prospect of a fate one would rather endure than continue to endure the apprehension of it. A fine late poem, ‘Three Words’ (too highly wrought for quotation except in its entirety), has the lexical agility of ‘The Naming of Parts’: it is as witty, but in a sense excluding laughter. ‘The Town Itself’ and ‘The Blissful Land’ revisit in terminal sadness the lost Verona – ‘I had not known that the weather, in what seemed, / At first, unchangeably sought out by the sun, / Could be so variable ... I have come to a place where I have nothing to give’ – and its counterpart, that lost blissful land which, once entered, would make all torments and losses the themes of a present delight (‘It was not you that we wanted! How dared you to come here alone?’). Finally there is the resigned, elegantly executed signing-off little allegory called ‘L’Envoi’ which was published recently in the London Review. Reed certainly earned his ‘Collected’. Stallworthy is right to claim distinction for these poems, and it can be seen the more clearly by his having brought them together.