NAMING OF PARTS
Author: Henry Reed (1914-1986)
Type of poem: Lyric
First published: 1946, in A Map of Verona
"Naming of Parts" is a thirty-line lyric poem divided into five stanzas. The poem depicts a group of infantry recruits receiving a familiarization lecture on their rifles. The title reflects the practical, if prosaic, necessity of knowing the proper term for each of the rifle's parts. Readers hear two distinctive voices in the poemthat of the insensitive, boorish drill instructor giving the lecture and that of a sensitive, young recruit whose mind is wandering during this mind-numbing discourse on rifle terminology. The key to understanding the poem is realizing that roughly the first three-and-a-half lines of each stanza present what the young recruit is literally hearing and enduring while the remaining lines suggest what he is thinking and noticing as his instructor lectures about rifle parts.
The first stanza opens with an overview of the week's training schedule. As the first lines make clear, this day's class will be devoted to learning the names of the rifle's parts. The recruit's mind, however, is elsewhere. He notices the Japonica shrubs blooming in neighboring gardens, a detail that establishes the season as spring. In the second stanza, the instructor is calling the group's attention to the rifle's "swivels" that are fastened to the weapon's wooden frame or "stock." The missing "piling swivel," a part the military deems inessential, inspires the recruit's sudden notice of the branches described in lines 4 and 5. In marked contrast to his present situation, he finds the natural scene to be complete and whole in and of itself. The third stanza concern's the rifle's "safety catch," which functions to prevent unintentional firing. The sudden mention of blossoms at the end of the fourth line once again indicates that the recruit is dividing his attention between the lecture and the springtime scene. He is struck by how the blooms of flowers simply exist. Despite their fragility, they need not learn safety procedures nor must they comply with any arbitrary strictures.
With the next stanza, the instructor has moved on to the principal moving part of the rifle: the bolt. In an effort to demonstrate how the rifle operates, the instructor is mimicking the firing process, using the bolt handle to move the spring-operated bolt back and forth. The military jargon for this procedure is "easing the spring." Witnessing the local bees engaged in the process of pollination, however, inspires the young soldier to reinterpret this phrase in a sexually suggestive sense. As the initial repetition of the phrase "easing the Spring" indicates, the fifth and final stanza functions as a sort of reprise of both the lecture and the recruit's reactions to it. He has obviously seized upon two phrases from the lecture, the "cocking-piece" and the "point of balance." The rifle's "cocking-piece" functions as a fitting symbol of sexual tension, once more suggesting the "release" he and his fellow soldiers are being denied. The
rifle's "point of balance" leads the young soldier to reflect on how their present situation has thrown their lives out of balance.
Forms and Devices
Reed divides the poem into five six-lined stanzas, each of which follows the alternating pattern already explained. Within the stanzas, the principal poetic devices are imagery and wordplay calculated to evoke connotations at odds with the denotations of the instructor's words and phrases. The effect is to illustrate what Reed sees as the inherent contrast between the world of nature and the world of war. In the first stanza, for instance, the image of Japonica plants glistening "like coral in all of the neighboring gardens" stands in stark opposition to the rifle imagery in the first three-and-a-half lines. The second stanza turns on the image of the missing "piling swivel"; contrary to this image, the tree branches mentioned in the fourth and fifth lines bespeak a peaceful, harmonious, and integral relation with nature. The phrase "silent, eloquent gestures" sets up a thematic opposition to the third stanza in which the soldiers are being admonished to release the safety catches of their rifles with their thumbs. This clumsy gesture further contrasts with the serenity of the "fragile and motionless" blossoms, and the corresponding reiteration of the phrase "using their finger" evokes a sexual connotation the instructor hardly intends.
The fourth stanza juxtaposes the image of "easing the [rifle's] spring" with that of bees "assaulting and fumbling the flowers." The imagery and the connotation are again sexual, with the flowers likened to passive victims and bees to sexual predators. The principal play on words is the repetition of the phrase "easing the Spring"now with an uppercase s. The young recruit is thinking of the sexual release symbolized by the bees pollinating flowers. The last stanza serves as a summation: The first few lines are once more devoted to the instructor's phrases, but this time they are not taken out of context. As a consequence of what has come before, the phrases and images come home to the reader in the full force of their associated sexual implications. Juxtaposing these once again with the natural images repeated in the fourth and fifth lines heightens the reader's sense of what these young soldiers do and do not have.
Themes and Meanings
"Naming of Parts" addresses an issue philosophers and military historians have long termed "the problem of war." In its simplest terms, this problem is whether war is an aberration or a perennial part of the human condition. Reed's poem posits at least a partial answer. The fact that spring, the season of renewal and rebirth, still unfolds quite heedless of this group's commitment to the mechanistic processes of war and death carries the main weight of the theme. Reed obviously views militarism and war as distinctly unnatural. Reed's choice of red-flowered Japonica in the first stanza, for instance, is significant. As its name implies, Japonica, or "Japanese quince," is native to Japanone of the Axis powers against which England and America were allied in World War II. (Reed, an Englishman, served in World War II, the ostensible
period during which the poem is set.) The effect is to suggest that nature transcends both national borders and human notions of loyalty and enmity.
In the third stanza, the criticism becomes personal and specific. In marked contrast to the instructor's affected anxiety about operating the "safety-catch" correctly, the young soldier is struck by the serenity of the spring blooms all around him. Reed's inspiration may well have been the biblical Sermon on the Mount in which Christ urges his followers to heed the example of the "lilies of the field" that neither toil nor spin (Matthew 6:28). Trapped in the unnatural world of war, this young soldier feels no such confidence about his basic needs being met. By applying the instructor's admonition against using one's finger to floral blossoms, the soldier evokes the sexual connotation of the phrase and betrays his present anxiety. In biological terms, flowers are essentially feminine receptacles and therefore have long been recognized as symbols of female receptiveness. This young man, the reader should realize, is confined to a sexually segregated training camp in the springtime. Sex is clearly on his mind.
The soldier's sexual frustration becomes particularly evident in the fifth and sixth stanzas. The rapid back-and-forth movement of the instructor's rifle bolt calls to mind the corresponding motion of the sexual act, an image this soldier connects to the bees in the process of "assaulting and fumbling the flowers." The connotations and imagery are implicitly sexual, expressing the soldier's frustrated yearning for sexual release. The introduction of two new elements, the phrase "point of balance" and the alluring "almond blossom" image, is perhaps meant as an ironic expression of the carpe diem tradition that counsels complete surrender to the life-affirming lures of beauty and love. Reed's point seems to be that the enforced segregation of military life precludes striking a wholesome balance between self-indulgence and disciplined abstinence.
In terms of tone, "Naming of Parts" stands in a long line of poetic responses to war ranging from the satiric to the elegiac. It is certainly not a reverent acknowledgment of noble sacrifice in the manner of John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," nor is it a cavalier endorsement of the traditional martial virtues of courage and honor such as Richard Lovelace's "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars." It is also not an unsentimental depiction of death in the manner of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce est Decorum Est" or Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Reed's "Naming of Parts" reflects an earlier modernist mood of "irony and pity," to borrow Hemingway's phrase, and not the bitterness and despair characteristic of the later postmodern movement in literature. A tone of pessimistic resignation rather than a true antiwar sentiment informs the poem. The real problem with war, Reed seems to be suggesting, is that people have long deplored modern mass warfare as dehumanizing and unnatural, as a perverse human superimposition upon the world of nature, yet they find themselves as impotent in the face of this insanity as they would be confronting a force of nature.
Edward F. Palm