Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
The Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Martin, Bruce K. "Poetry in Wartime: Douglas, Lewis, and Reed." Chap. 2 in British Poetry Since 1939. Boston: Twayne, 1985. 13-46 [40-46, 181] (.pdf).

Excerpt from Poetry in Wartime: Douglas, Lewis, and Reed

Henry Reed

Though he spent only a few months in the British army Henry Reed wrote the most celebrated poem to come out of World War II. Readers and critics have found "Naming of Parts" sharper and more ironically focused than anything by Keith Douglas or Alun Lewis. Despite such celebrity, however, Reed has published no poems besides "Naming of Parts" and the others contained in a single collection, A Map of Verona (1946). A reading of that short book in its entirety reveals a development relatable to those observed in Douglas's and Lewis's writings, and to larger tendencies of British poetry in general during the 1940s.

One of Reed's recent critics, borrowing from Walter De La Mare, has described Reed as an "Ariel-dominated" poet, mostly concerned with the aesthetics and craft of poems rather than their relationship


to the life outside them, the domain of writers he terms "Prospero-dominated."40 Certainly it is difficult to discern in the mere twenty-four poems making up A Map of Verona any pervasive ideology such as can be found in the writings of many other poets of the war. And certainly even the least interesting of Reed's pieces combines a delicacy of tone and prosodic caution generally absent from the work of his contemporaries in uniform writing more realistically. However, even Reed's limitations, and the variations in his writing, have ideological implications, and most of his poems betray some concern with the larger reality out of which they originated.

The contents of A Map of Verona can be quickly surveyed. The heading, "Preludes," comprises half of the poems. These include: a number of nondescript, vaguely romantic lyrics; a set of poems labeled "Lessons of War," [sic] of which "Naming of Parts" is the first; and a first-rate parody of T.S. Eliot titled "Chard Whitlow." Next comes a neoromantic sequence titled "The Desert." The book concludes with three somewhat longer poems based on the Tristram legend, which. Reed contained under the title "Tintagel," and two based on classical subjects, "Chrysothemis" and "Philoctetes," the latter being Reed's longest single piece.

Of the dozen Preludes, the three "Lessons of the War" and the parody of Eliot are by far the strongest. The rest languish, to varying degrees, in Audenesque vagueness, as they deal with problems of love or other unspecified worries. While "Lives" may be an exception—since there Reed thoughtfully compares types of personality (the openly wild, the controllable, and the wily) to elements of nature—it improves only to a degree on the others.

The three "Lessons of the War" offer a sharp contrast to the obscurity of the remaining Preludes, as they focus on the instructing of combat troops as filtered through the mind of a young recruit. Though not rhymed and though conversational in tone, Reed's stanzas represent orderly, five-line sections, with the final line frequently operating as a quasi-refrain.

Certainly "Naming of Parts," which enjoyed a revival of attention from American anthologists during the Vietnam War, epitomizes the control, understatedness, and irony of Reed's best writing. Apparently this and the other two "Lessons" stemmed from the imitations of instructors with which Reed entertained his army friends.41 The first stanza begins straightforwardly, with the instructor's outlining the topics of the course: "To-day we have naming of parts.


Yesterday / We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning, / We shall have what to do after firing." This viewpoint is quickly undermined, however, as the poem turns briefly but significantly to nearby flowering fruit trees ("Japonica / Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens ... "). Although the stanza's final line, "And to-day we have naming of parts," reiterates the poem's initial focus, a tension has been set up, and it expands in succeeding stanzas to emphasize increasingly the gap between the lifeless, mechanical skills of warfare in which the recruit is being instructed, and the more beautiful, organic processes of nature that he can see all around him. As the poem progresses, nature occupies larger portions of each stanza, so that by the end "naming of parts" seems solely an impediment to the recruit's experiencing the beauty, force, and legitimacy of nature.

One area in which the trainee is made to feel especially estranged from natural existence is the erotic, which in "Naming of Parts" is represented by the bees "assaulting and fumbling" the flowers, but in "Judging Distances"—the second "Lesson"—becomes explicitly human. Here Reed develops his poem through a competition of pressures on the trainee's mind, as time and memory distract him from an absurd present denying him his past—just as in "Naming of Parts" it attempted to deny him his place in nature. Here, too, nature is denied, as the instructor insists on reducing landscape and life to abstraction. "[M]aps are of time, not place, so far as the army / Happens to be concerned," he tells his recruits, though by "time" he means only the perversion of expressing topography in terms of a clock's face, and though he is wholly unable to tell why the army need regard things in this way. The basic principle he lays down is that things only seem to be things, and that field reports ought to avoid unnecessary commitment to concreteness or particularity. While sheep may be "safely grazing" in the field, he warns, "[W]hatever you do, / Don't call the bleeders sheep."

The poem turns on the trainee's attempt to apply such principles, as repeatedly the poetry of what he observes and of the civilian viewpoint he has brought to the army intrudes on the antipoetic method the instructor would enforce. Thus, after observing houses and a couple lying together under swaying trees, the recruit quickly adjusts his account to fit the formulas of army reportage, so that "under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans / Appear to be loving." But when he imagines his instructor's objection that


he has failed to record his distance from the human pair, he realizes fully the absurdity of the denial demanded of him, and responds that the lovers appear to have "finished" and that their distance is "about one year and a half" from him. In this he sadly recognizes how much military life has removed him from his own lovemaking and how much it threatens to remove him from any essentially human response. While this poem, like the other, shows the trainee's ultimately resisting such a threat, it suggests nevertheless the basic danger of the mental state into which warfare would fix him.

"Unarmed Combat," the third lesson, might appear the anomaly among them. Indeed, Vernon Scannell has seen here a much more affirmative stance and a much less certain irony than in the other two poems.42 To be sure, "Unarmed Combat" concludes with the lyric protagonist, again an army trainee, invoking courage and determination and asserting that "We must fight / Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping something alive":

     so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
     Not without glory fought.

His awareness of this "something" he values so highly and wishes kept alive grows out of listening to his instructor's introduction to the skills of unarmed combat, and from his own interpretation of these remarks in view of his past experience. With an extreme verbal ineptness the instructor begins by assuring the trainees that "In due course of course you will all be issued with / your proper issue," Just as later he tells them to "give [the enemy] all you have, and always give them. / As good as you get: it will always get you somewhere." The jargonish double-talk of these remarks, and of his reference to the "ever-important question of human balance" and the "ever-important" need for strong initial positioning, combines with a reliance on dubious or at least irrelevant logic-when, by a curious non sequitur, he urges them never to fear to tackle from behind, since "it may not be clean to do so, / But this is global war"—to suggest a character even less reliable than that of the instructors in the other two "lessons." The unwitting allusion to Lear in his concluding observation, that "the readiness is all," thus appears especially ironic.


The second half of the poem, taken up by the trainee's rumination on what he has been told, constitutes a much more profound interpretation of the instructor's comments. Reed's calculated efforts to render the instructor foolish and the more intelligent and thoughtful manner of the listener's response make it unlikely that we should see that response merely as a capitulation to the value system endorsed by the instructor. Rather, the trainee places his own construction on the principal concept and phrases he has heard, to subvert their original meaning.

The key here is the central stanzas, where he reveals his past unhappy relationships to institutions and systems, and to society generally. Having just been told that "you can tie a Jerry / Up without rope," he confesses to always having been the one tied up, to "[having] given them all I had, / Which was never as good as I got, and it got me nowhere," and to having waged global war "from the start." The skepticism of this response feeds his nominal agreement that balance and courage count most, as his balance appears the cautious weighing of ultimate implications, and his courage involves an insistent wariness toward the simplistic formulas handed him by others. "The readiness is all," he repeats after his instructor, but through him it becomes a readiness to maintain an integrated point of view and, even while serving a system such as the military, not to be absorbed by it. He thus anticipates Alan Sillitoe's young hero in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Without such special readiness, participation in a physical triumph would spell defeat in the unarmed combat for the psyche. In this Reed's final war "lesson" is basically in keeping with the others.

While none of his other poems merit such detailed attention, they confirm the strengths of the "Lessons of the War." Reed's hilarious parody of Eliot, written when the final Quartets were coming out, captures the pompousness and air of false profundity into which Eliot risked falling, as it begins:

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and to-day I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
                                             ("Chard Whitlow")


Reed's less distinguished poems further suggest his gravitation toward dramatic characterization, a trend wholly realized in his later career as a distinguished writer of dramas and radio plays. Thus the rather lengthy sequence, "The Desert," though suffering from the weakness of obscure figurative reference, which plagues most of the Preludes, nevertheless points to an interesting progression of sickness, illusion of recovery, and disillusionment, and a semblance of final equilibrium, and it hints at Reed's potential strength in the sustained portrayal of single characters. Likewise the Tintagel poems become increasingly dramatic and concrete, as they move from the distance of narration in "Tristram," through it combination of narration and enclosed statement in individual characters in "Iseult Blaunches-mains" [sic] and "King Mark," to a contoured and particularized expression of misery in "Iseult La Belle."

The two poems on classical subjects continue this progression. "Chrysothemus" [sic] expresses Agamemnon's surviving daughter's vulnerability and determination through dramatic and poignant images and highly charged rhetoric. And in "Philoctetes" Reed develops an even more complex monologue or soliloquy, reminiscent of Tennyson's "Tithonus" and "Tiresius," as he places the disillusioned suitor of Helen on the isle of Lemnos just as he is about to be rescued after nine years exile there. "I have changed my mind; or my mind is changed in me," Philoctetes begins, while preparing to meet his rescuers. Before doing so, however, he recalls being abandoned, describes his pain and delirium, and rehearses his decision to rejoin

I have lived too long on Lemnos, lonely and desperate,
Quarrelling with conjured demons, with the ghosts
Of the men and women with whom I learned to people
The loneliness and despair....

Reed shows, too, the exile's confusion about his future, particularly his concern for knowing whom to trust after having been by himself so long. The monologue ends with Philoctetes determined but unsure, eager but cautious, and renewed but wary.

The sympathetic power of "Philoctetes" comes from the combination of rhetorical control and dramatic complexity. While we may regret that Reed has written few poems since the publication of A


Map of Verona, his decision to shift his attention as a writer appears in retrospect a most logical and plausible outcome of developments evident in his poetry. Clearly he was moving toward something like drama, as his poetry increasingly came to resemble spoken words determined by the specifics of personality, time, and place. In this Reed resembles Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, as well as many other wartime poets, for he ultimately shows a distrust of the large-scale statement, empty rhetoric, and vague romanticism that had infected English poetry during the thirties and early forties. That Reed's own solution to such a dilemma was unique makes him no less a representative figure.


Notes and References

40. Scannell, Not Without Glory, 135.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid., 138.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016