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
Press, John. "Poets of World War II." In vol. 7, British Writers, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984. 421-450 [422-423] (.pdf).



During the war hundreds of thousands of servicemen spent the years in Britain in barracks, billets, or camps, undergoing training, doing fatigues (labor), polishing boots until they could see their faces reflected in them, polishing the brass collars of antiaircraft guns until they shone so brightly that German planes could see them miles away, being inspected to check that they had not lost their blankets or acquired venereal diseases—all the traditional means of cultivating the military virtues and enforcing military discipline. It is a melancholy fact that only a handful of good poems came out of the armed forces stationed in Britain. There is no satisfactory explanation for this, unless it is that the perils of battle, the extreme loneliness, the posts in distant countries, and the shock of living in an alien civilization may inspire poetry; whereas boredom, discomfort, and a sense of aimlessness produce a dampening effect on the imagination.

Henry Reed (born 22 February 1914), joined the army in 1941 and transferred to the Foreign Office the next year. His few months in the army gave him the material for Lessons of the War, his sequence of three poems—"Naming of Parts," "Judging Distances," and "Unarmed Combat"—that won instant recognition as the definitive comment on one aspect of military life.

All three poems are divided between two voices: that of the noncommissioned officer who is instructing the squad and that of the recruit. The difference in idiom and in sensibility between the two voices appears less and less perceptible as the trilogy unfolds, maybe in order to suggest that the recruit is becoming assimilated to the army and learning the martial virtues. But these nuances are of secondary importance, compared with the central fact that the two voices represent two diametrically opposed principles and responses to the world: the ethos of unquestioning obedience, submission to duty, subordination of the individualistic self to the common purpose imposed from above; and the attitude that values skepticism, irony, the right to judge moral behavior for oneself.

"Naming of Parts" is the richest of the poems, because it moves with a sensuous grace not found in the other two and because Reed sustains throughout its five stanzas a series of witty puns that contrast the different parts of the rifle with the vibrant world of japonica, almond blossom, bees, and branches observed by the recruit as the instructor drones on:

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
                      They call it easing the Spring.

The fusion of the instructor's demotic syntax and speech rhythm with the recruit's gentle, meditative reflections is a triumph of poetic skill; and the delicate sexuality that pervades "Naming of Parts" lends it a further layer of richness.

A full analysis of the poem and of its companion pieces would reveal how wittily and movingly Reed has demonstrated, without self-pity or even protest, the struggle of the individual to keep alive his humanity, despite the attempt by the army to make him part of an impersonal machine. The final lines of "Unarmed Combat," which can be read as a straightforward acknowledgment that the individual must submit to authority, undermine by their tone and inflection the message they purport to give:


                                                       . . . and 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.

Reed, unfortunately, has not published a book of poems since A Map of Verona (1946).




Page last modified: 01 October 2016