Henry Reed (poet)

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For other people named Henry Reed, see Henry Reed (disambiguation).

Henry Reed (22 February 1914 – 8 December 1986) was a British poet, translator, radio dramatist and journalist.


Reed was born in Birmingham and educated at King Edward VI School, Aston, followed by the University of Birmingham. At university he associated with W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and Walter Allen. He went on to study for an MA and then worked as a teacher and journalist. He was called up to the Army in 1941, spending most of the war as a Japanese translator. Although he had studied French and Italian at university and taught himself Greek at school, Reed did not take to Japanese, perhaps because he had learned an almost entirely military vocabulary. Walter Allen, in his autobiography As I Walked down New Grub Street, quoted Reed as saying "He intended...to devote every day for the rest of his life to forgetting another word of Japanese."

After the war he worked for the BBC as a radio broadcaster, translator and playwright, where his most memorable set of productions was the Hilda Tablet series in the 1950s, produced by Douglas Cleverdon. The series started with A Very Great Man Indeed, which purported to be a documentary about the research for a biography of a dead poet and novelist called Richard Shewin. This drew in part on Reed's own experience of researching a biography of the novelist Thomas Hardy. However, the 'twelve-tone composeress' Hilda Tablet, a friend of Richard Shewin, became the most interesting character in the play; and in the next play, she persuades the biographer to change the subject of the biography to her - telling him "not more than twelve volumes". Dame Hilda, as she later became, was based partly on Ethel Smyth and partly on Elisabeth Lutyens (who was not pleased, and considered legal action).

Reed's most famous poem is "Lessons of the War", a witty parody of British army basic training during World War II, which suffered from a lack of equipment at that time. Originally published in New Statesman and Nation (August 1942), the series was later published in A Map of Verona in 1946, and was his only collection to be published within his lifetime. Another anthologised poem is "Chard Whitlow", a satire of T. S. Eliot's Burnt Norton. Eliot himself was amused by "Chard Whitlow"'s mournful imitations of his poetic style ("As we get older we do not get any younger ...").

Unfortunately for Reed he was forever being confused with the much better known Sir Herbert Read; the two men were unrelated. Reed responded to this confusion by naming his 'alter ego' biographer in the Hilda Tablet plays "Herbert Reeve" and then by having everyone else get the name slightly wrong.

The Papers of Henry Reed are kept safe at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.

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