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
Gunter, Liz and Jim Linebarger. "Tone and Voice in Henry Reed's 'Judging Distance' [sic]." Notes on Contemporary Literature 8, no. 2 (March 1988): 9.

Tone and Voice in Henry Reed's "Judging Distance"

Several critics have commented on tone and voice in Henry Reed's Lessons of the War (See A Map of Verona [London: J. Cape, 1946]. p. 24; a limited edition [Chilmark: New York] adds two poems which are not relevant here). They agree that the voices of a drill instructor and a sensitive recruit are fairly indistinguishable in "Naming of Parts" and "Unarmed Combat," the first and third poems of the sequence. But many readers are troubled by some confusion of tone and voice in "Judging Distances," the second poem of Lessons of the War.

Vernon Scannell argues that the "ambiguous tone" is a result of phrases the instructor uses early in the poem: "maps are of time, not place," "things only seem to be things," and "where sheep may be safely grazing." Scannell finds that these phrases have something artificial, literary, even quasi-philosophical" about them (Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War [London: Woburn Press, 1976]), p. 137. But such phrases are well within the range of an instructor, particularly if we do not assume he is the same one as in "Naming of Parts." And "maps are of time" is a reference to the military designation of direction from a fixed point by means of an imaginary clock-face--as in the final stanza of "Judging Distances": "at seven o'clock from the houses...." The phrase has nothing necessarily artificial, literary, or quasi-philosophical about it. Scannell has noted the complex tone of the poem, but he has not identified its source.

The problem of tine is directly related to that of voice. The anonymous writer of the article about Reed in World Authors: 1950-1970, apparently assumes that the drill instructor speaks all of the poem, or at least down through the fifth stanza (ed. John Wakeman [New York: H. W. Wilson, 1975, p. 1198). Clearly, this is inaccurate. Scannell correctly notes that the shift in voice from instructor to recruit occurs towards the end of the fourth stanza (Scannell, p. 138). By implication, the recruit continues through stanza 5:

I am sure that's quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
The one at the end, asleep, endeavours to tell us
What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
After first having come to attention. There to the west,
On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow
Vestments of purple and gold. (Stanza 4)

The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. 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 appears to be humans
Appear to be loving. (Stanza 5)

Down to this point, no insoluble problems of voice or tone occur. What is happening is that the drill instructor is delivering his usual lecture, until he notices that one of the recruits (in our view, not the sensitive recruit) is asleep. The instructor's voice rises in irritation as he commands this recruit to come to attention and to describe in military terms what he observes. The words which follow are undoubtedly the thoughts of the sensitive recruit, very much like those of his lyrical reveries in "Naming of Parts." And then, also as in that poem, he follows with a mocking combination of military language and his own sardonic irony.

Obviously, none of these lines were spoken aloud to the instructor. If they had been, he would have been driven to apoplexy by the use of the wrong military term "poplars" to designate elms, and by the use of the specific "a man and a woman" rather than a generalization.

At the same time the sensitive recruit is making his silent comments, the sleepy soldier is likely giving a relatively satisfactory response to the instructor. Apparently this recruit has neither confused the two types of trees nor made any other serious errors, for, in stanza 6, what seems to be the instructor's response to his description is no longer irritated or angry:

Well, that for an answer, is what we might rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are important.
The human beings, now: In what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

No critic has commented on stanza 6, and none has noticed that the tone of the poem is greatly affected by the voice and tone of it.

Although some of the words of stanza 6 must have come from the instructor ("dead ground" and the awkward "rightly call/Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being..."), the stanza is not a direct quotation of his words. Instead, the sensitive recruit seems to have taken the instructor's actual response to the sleepy recruit and to have recast it partly in his own voice. But the tone is in no way sardonic or sarcastic, as it was earlier and as it again becomes in the concluding stanzas. If anything, stanza 6 is the sensitive recruit's non-ironic reproduction of the instructor's voice. The instructor's tone was one of calm correction; the sensitive recruit's, in rephrasing the words, is one of sad recognition.

Again, we think it is largely the tone and curiously blended voices of stanza 6 which, combined with the sardonicism and lyricism elsewhere in the poem, create the ambiguous inflections in "Judging Distances."

Liz Gunter and Jim Linebarger
North Texas State University




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