Henry Reed and Others
It is a curious fact that what is probably the most widely quoted and anthologised single poem written in the Second World War came from the pen of some one who served only a few months in the Army before being released to work at the Foreign Office. This poem, by Henry Reed, is called Naming of Parts and it is the first in a sequence entitled Lessons of the War. Reed was a war poet only in the sense that he wore uniform and underwent military training and without that experience he would not have been able to write the three Lessons of the War (subsequent sections were added to this group of poems long after hostilities had ended, but with these we are not here concerned). He saw no combat as a soldier and he was not interested in the problems that Douglas, Lewis, and Ross in their different ways attempted to solve, those of communicating the sense of what it was like to serve in foreign lands, facing imminent and violent death, and of articulating the longings, anxieties and frustrations of the fighting serviceman in statements that were at once subjective and self-exploratory yet representative of the spirit of a generation.
All true poets are, of course, primarily concerned with the artefact, the making of a verbal construct, a durable work of art, but some are more deeply involved than others in the raw experience which lies behind the poem and for them the act of composition is an act of self-exploration with the definite goal of enlightenment rather than the ideally depersonalised construction of a beautiful and autonomous object. W. H. Auden
has written in his essay on Walter de la Mare: 'One might say that, in every poet, there dwells an Ariel, who sings, and a Prospero, who comprehends, but in any particular poem, sometimes even in the whole work of a particular poet, one of the partners plays a greater role than the other.' Henry Reed, compared with the writers I mentioned, is an Ariel-dominated poet whose main interest in the writing of a poem is one of aesthetics and craft and whose concern with probing into the reality in which the poem originated is secondary. It might therefore seem strange that he should have written one of the most memorable poems of the war and, indeed, there was something almost accidental about the way this work became the most complete and poignant articulation we have of the consciousness of the reluctant conscript, the alienated, sensitive soldier-in-uniform enduring a hateful but necessary process aimed at changing his very nature.
Henry Reed has said that, during the war, he would entertain his friends by giving a comic incitation of a sergeant-instructor and, after a few performances, he came to notice that the utterances of the N.C.O., couched in the style of the military manual, fell into certain rhythmic patterns which fascinated him and which supplied the foundation for the structure of Naming of Parts. The cunningly placed rhythmic pauses, the edgy, short sense-units in the earlier lines of each stanza echo the mechanical rhetoric of the sergeant-instructor and, with no feeling of dislocation, they are able to modulate into the more flowing, lyrical passage that follows. Each of the six-line stanzas is contrapuntal in both mood and rhythm, and the two voicesthe decidedly audible one of the N.C.O., and the sub-vocal, meditative one of the traineeare entirely convincing at a realistic level, perfectly counterpointed artistically, and they represent, too, the divided self of the gentle, creative man compelled to adopt the role of the fighter.
I have remarked before on that pervasive and ubiquitous mist of sexual longing and deprivation that was part of the air one breathed in the atmosphere of barracks, camp and ship during the war, and, in Naming of Parts, Reed insinuates a thread of sexual innuendo into the punning which is integral to the poem's scheme and its singular richness, a thread which first appears in the title itself and becomes unequivocal in the third and fourth stanzas:
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can 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. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it casing the Spring.
Naming of Parts ends where it began, with the formal introductory phrase of the instructor: '...today we have naming of parts' and the stanza is a kind of coda in which the strands of meaning and double meaning are woven together and the principal theme is restated, the recognition of the power of military training and the semi-monastic conditions of army life to dehumanise and change the imaginative and creative man into something almost as impersonally destructive as a rifle.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got, and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
The movement of the verse, the verbal wit and the balance of the vernacular and lyrical voices combine to make Naming of Parts a poem of exceptional quality, but the danger with a work so original and fully achieved is that further poems adopting the same or similar form and strategy are almost certain to fall below the standard set by the original, and the other two wartime poems in the sequence,Judging Distances and Unarmed Combatwhile undoubtedly accomplished pieces of work, have not the inevitability and unassailable perfection of Naming of Parts. It is noticeable that the two voices in Judging Distances are not nearly so distinctly variegated as in Naming of Parts. Now, this may he a deliberate choice on the part of the poet, for there is in these three poems a development towards a more affirmative stance or, at least, towards a greater measure of acceptance, so it is possible, and even likely, that the closer similarity of syntax, vocabulary and idiom in the two voices is intended to reflect the partial metamorphosis of the civilian into the efficient soldier. However that may be, the complete authenticity of the N.C.O.'s voice in Naming of Parts has given way to a more ambiguous tone and one which sometimes carries a distinctly artificial, literary, even a quasi-philosophical note in phrases like '...maps are of time, not place', '...things only seem to be things', and becomes almost arch in stanza three: '...where sheep may be safely grazing'.
It might be argued that this idiomatic difference could be accounted for by a difference in the rank of the instructor, that in Judging Distances an officer of superior intelligence and education has taken over from the N.C.O., in Naming of Parts, but in that case he would not say, as he does in the third stanza:
....You must say, when reporting:
At five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals, whatever you do,
Don't call the bleeders sheep.
'Bleeders', unlike many profanities in demotic English, is peculiarly lower class and could hardly be uttered except with a Cockney accent.
There is another comparative weakness in Judging Distances. When the shift comes from the instructor's voice to the meditative, interior one of the recruit, the lyricism seems rather forced, and the rumination of the conscript a shade self-conscious, even self-congratulatory:
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,
At 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.
In Unarmed Combat the ambiguity of tone and attitude is even more pronounced and the poem's ironies are nervous, as if not quite sure of their ground. The voice of the instructor, which speaks through the first half of the poem, is still less differentiated in tone and syntax from the soliloquising voice of the recruit and there are no contrapuntal lyrical passages. I gather that this is meant to suggest that the soldier-civilian is becoming less distinguishable from his teacher and exemplar than in the earlier stages of his training and the final stanza essays a muted clarion call, a claim to a small victory that I find highly equivocal. The first stanza shows an impersonal, stiff and clumsy voice, insensitive to both the music and meaning of language:
In due course of course you will all be issued with
Your proper issue, but until tomorrow,
You can hardly be said to need it, and until that time,
We shall have unarmed combat....
In the second stanza the heavy-booted speech of the instructor continues and the metaphor of 'balance' is echoed from Naming of Parts; then the stiff-necked homily of stanzas three and four ends with a line that is reverberant enough to be picked up and developed by the meditative voice which takes over the rest of the poem:
So give them all you have, and always give them
As good as you get, it will always get you somewhere.
(You may not know it, but you can tie a Jerry
Up without a rope , it is one of the things I shall teach you.)
Nothing matters if only you are ready for him.
The readiness is all.
But when the phrase is repeated and the whole lesson restated with an exploration of each instruction's metaphorical implications, a note of self-pity and one almost of self-parody obtrudes.
The readiness is all. How can I help but feel
I have been here before? But somehow then,
I was the tied-up one. How to get out
Was always then my problem. And even if I had
A piece of rope I was always the sort of person
Who threw the rope aside.
And in my time I have given them all I had
Which was never as good as I got, and it got me nowhere.
And the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Somehow or other I always seemed to put
In the wrong place. And as for war, my wars
Were global from the start
Stanza seven ends with the statement 'It is courage that counts' and then we come to the ambiguous conclusion of the poem:
Things may be the same again; and we must fight
Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping
Something alive: so that when we meet out end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought.
I find these lines ambiguous because the surface meaning, where the poet appears to have at least partly accepted the military ethic and the necessity for the subjugation of the contemplative, creative individual to the active and mindless destroyer, is contradicted by the tone, not only of this section alone but of the whole trilogy, and the paraphrase of his epigraph Vixi duellis nuper idoneus / Et militavi non sine gloriawhich ends Unarmed Combat surely carries overtones of irony. Reed's apparent resignation to historical necessity and the exigencies of time and circumstance, his acceptance of the martial role and his modest claim to some qualified success in it, is not altogether what it seems. The struggle which '...we must fight / Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping / Something alive' is
less the conflict with the Axis military forces than the poet's struggle to preserve his individuality and humanity against the depersonalising and mindless processes of army training and the enervating boredom of routine, and his principal weapons in this struggle are precisely those which are employed to such good effect in Lessons of the War, the weapons of intelligence, irony and a sense of balance.