Excerpt from "Where Are the War Poets?"
"To fight without hope is to fight with grace.'*
Among the poets writing during the war, several produced only one or two memorable poems which have been anthologized often because they seem to confront the specific issues of this war: the best-known of these are 'Soldiers Bathing' by F. T. Prince and 'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed.
Henry Reed, like Prince, had written only one volume of poetry
when war ended. He was born in Birmingham in 1914 and worked as a freelance journalist before war broke out. Though his participation in the army was brief, his series of poems 'The Lessons of War' (from A Map of Verona, 1946) are among the best known poems of the Second World War. 'Naming of Parts' is the first poem in the series. Like 'Soldiers Bathing', 'Naming of Parts' is a meditative poem; however, its central conflict concerns a separation between a recruit's wandering thoughts and an army officer's voice of instruction. Reed counterpoints the language of Basic Training to lyrical phrases describing 'the neighboring gardens'.
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens
And today we have naming of parts.
Just as the poem contrasts two worlds the mechanical army training session and the lush world of nature it also juxtaposes two selves, that of the officer and that of recruit. While the officer drones on from memory, the recruit allies himself with the active beauty and sexuality of nature, with the bees pollinating 'backwards and forwards'.
If the sexual dimensions of the officer's language is lost on the recruit, it is certainly not lost on the reader who is consistently made aware of the phallic weapon of war and the gardens it will penetrate. The irony of 'not having': 'And this is the piling swivel, / Which in your case you have not got'; 'and the point of balance/ Which in our case we have not got,' is part of a more serious statement. For in this lesson about a phallic weapon, a part is missing. The gun, and the war it represents the diminished, endless, boring, hierarchical, stupid war are set in contrast to the recruit's sensual imagination, keen to physical beauty: the japonica glistens, 'The blossoms are fragile and motionless', 'the almond-blossom silent'. Though phallic, war is also impotent in comparison to man's own private lusts. Reed views the war as inhuman and degrading; in contrast, his recruit's potency is the glory which the poem's epigraph mentions: 'Vixi duellis nuper idoneus / Et militavi non sine gloria'.
Both Prince and Reed exalt the distinctly human in their highly meditative war poems. The speakers are soldiers, yet the most important feelings in Reed's poem are not spoken, as though the private man has no voice worth hearing compared with man-as-soldier. The poets of this war, whether at home, abroad, in service, or civilians, find meaning in cameo-narratives of individual experience.