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
Strickland, Geoffrey. "Dumb Insolence?" Encounter 36, no. 2 (May 1971): 78-79.

Dumb Insolence?

Historians may find significance in the fact that one of the few memorable and popular poems to be written by an Englishman during the Second World War was Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts." The Second World War did not produce an Owen or a Rosenberg and it is presumably significant that throughout Europe as a whole it inspired nothing comparable to the fierce protest against the idiocy of warfare as such that characterises the literature of the First World War. "Naming of Parts" expresses the conscripted civilian's good-humoured acceptance of an inconvenient but unavoidable situation together with the acute nostalgia characteristic of much of the English poetry written during the first half of the century and for which the war had provided an obvious occasion. The popularity of the poem must be due partly to the accuracy with which it brings familiar details alive: the small arms instructor's way of speaking, for example, simulated by an ingenious adaptation of T. S. Eliot's dramatic verse.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,

Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.

Mr Reed can remind us of the slightly galling egalitarian implications of that use of the second person plural and even the reference to the piling swivel is a guarantee of authenticity. Veterans will recall that it was removed from the British service rifle shortly before the outbreak of hostilities after several piles of rifles deposited on foreign soil had been appropriated by the native population.

Three of the poems in Lessons of the War 1 are from Mr Reed's collection A Map of Verona of 1946. These and the two others written more recently, "Movement of Bodies" and "Returning of Issue", reproduce and provide variations on the form and setting of "Naming of Parts", though the two latter poems are an attempt to go beyond the wry wistfulness of the earlier manner. Conscripts sob during a lecture on tactics and in "Returning of Issue" the paternal N.C.O. canvassing for volunteers to join the regular army finds an echo in the guilt-ridden heart of the poet himself, aware of a failing towards his own father, who is evoked in Biblical terms. Both poems can be read as the work of a sensitive and imaginative mind but they fall short of the seriousness that seems intended. In the last poem particularly Mr Reed has carried the tension between the N.C.O.'s words and their implications for the poet to the point at which reality is left behind. It is as though he were not certain himself how absurd he wished the situation he was evoking to seem and his gifts for parody and self-parody are here an obstacle to the expression of strong poignant feeling.

Geoffrey Strickland

1 [By Henry Reed. Clover Hill Editions. Limited Signed Edition. The Chilmark Press. £16·75]




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