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
Condon, Richard A. "Reed's 'Naming of Parts.'" Explicator 12, no. 8 (June 1954): 54.


"Naming of Parts" is a deceptively simple poem; its situation is so painfully familiar that the reader is tempted merely to nod in wearied assent to its explicit structure, a series of ironic contrasts between rookies who are being instructed in the arts of death, and a nearby garden which is teeming with the life of Spring. It is only when we begin to explore these contrasts in some detail, however, that the richness of the poem beyond this overt state of affairs is apparent. Such exploration shows that the term "parts" has three meanings in the poem: it pertains to the elements or "parts" of the gun; to the "parts," faculties, or talents of men, now employed for destructive ends in war; and to the private "parts" or genitals. Implicitly, the poem is an affective union of the three.

The surface differences between the life of the recruit and the life of the garden are obvious enough: the glint of sunlight on the barrel of the well-cleaned gun finds its natural counterpart in the glistening of japonica; the rookies are all thumbs and awkwardness, and they do not have "silent, eloquent gestures" but the stiff, rigid, unnatural motions of an unfamiliar military bearing. Nor will they have the grace of natural objects when they fall in battle, only the frozen, macabre postures of the dead.

But there are broader differences. Like Eden, Reed's garden is a place of innocence and peace which contrasts starkly with the instruction in evil and death to which the army classroom is devoted. It is a place of abundance, fertility, and unfallen nature (the bees celebrate the Spring by pollinating flowers, thus giving life), and not of fallen humanity (the men can "ease" only the spring of a death-dealing weapon). The garden is thus a tacit reproach to man, who has lost his Eden. Because of the loss death has entered the world, and the earth is now merely a scrimmage of technically skilled beasts. The "parts" or faculties of man which, in his prelapsarian state, knew no evil and could do only good are now totally depraved, so that man's talents are employed only for new forms of sterile destruction.

The commitment to death rather than life which man has after the Fall takes a sexual form too. Even here his "parts" are depraved. The incompleteness of the rookie's equipment is a mocking symbol for his sexual incompleteness, his isolation from women in a wartime camp. The result is that he lacks a "point of balance" and can ease the tortures of Spring only by masturbation and debilitating daydreams. The concomitant is crippling frustration and guilt. What the bees do in natural fulfillment of their being can be accomplished in this society only by means of a degrading perversion; this is the final irony of a fallen, inverted world.

A British edition of the poem is preceded by an epigraph which every American printing I have seen omits— "Vixi duellis nuper idoneus / Et militavi non sine gloria." The quotation is from Horace, with one significant substitution: the original reads, "Vixi puellis..." Our society, Reed seems to say, is based on just such a substitution.

—RICHARD A. CONDON, Batavia, New York




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