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
Hamilton, Ian. "The Forties II." In A Poetry Chronicle: Essays and Reviews. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973. 66-74 [68-70]. Originally published in The London Magazine 4, no. 3 (June 1964): 67-71.

Excerpt from "The Forties II"

There are no such uncertainties with Henry Reed, who is altogether a more subtle writer than Cameron. His 'Naming of Parts' and 'Judging Distances' are rightly celebrated as among the best poems written during the war. They set up the familiar opposition between the arid rituals of army training and the full emotional life which is no longer possible, but they do it with enormous skill. The


bees, the flowers, the lovers, the landscape are observed from the barrack square, nostalgically, and out of the corner of the soldier-poet's eye. Not only do they mock the manual but—in 'Judging Distances' where they are told 'how to report on a landscape'—they are gruesomely included in it. Again it is the depersonalizing threat of war that has to be confronted. The poet would like to say of what he sees:

The still white buildings are like a mirage in the heat
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together.

(And it seems to me the strength of Reed's 'poetic' lines is often that they teeter on the edge of embarrassed parody, an enforced disparagement of art in the face of action; but they resist the threat and move on into a kind of defiant seriousness). The soldier, though, must have no such language problem. The common denominator alone can be trusted and the whole of landscape poetry can anyway be easily reduced to military topography:

Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.

A distance of 'about one year and a half' separates the poet from the lovers, both literally and as a subject. Similarly the bees who are 'assaulting and fumbling the flowers' are there merely to ridicule the sexual symbolism of 'opening the breech':

And this you 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.

The bees are, of course, easing the Spring. The pun is managed without the ruinous smirk one might expect. Indeed, this is what


Reed is really good at—getting the army idiom to work out its own exposure. Drill sergeants habitually pride themselves on never being lost for a sexual analogy and it is from this that much of the irony of 'Naming of Parts' proceeds.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016