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
Hewison, Robert. Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. 138-140.

Excerpt from "Poems From the Forces"

Sidney Keyes was a youthful poet killed before he had time to register the impact of warfare; Alun Lewis registered the deadening effect of regimentation and the stimulus of travel, but left no record of the military action it seems it was his destiny to seek. Douglas sought action, found it, recorded it and his fear of its consequences, before he too died. Roy Fuller was excluded by circumstance from action and was able, literally from a distance, to mark the changes that wartime forced on society and the enclosed microcosm of the services. Each is an individual experience, and it is because of the quality of their work that they are accepted as the chief


poets of the Second World War. But it is appropriate that none of them wrote the poem of the Second World War. That was written by Henry Reed.

As Vernon Scannell has said, 'It is a curious fact that what is probably the most widely quoted and anthologized 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.' A journalist before the war, Henry Reed was called up in 1941 and released in 1942. The three poems for which he is celebrated are collectively known as 'The Lessons of War', and they reflect that period of transition when the poet still has the sensibilities of a civilian, but is uncomfortably encased in the uniform of a soldier. The titles of the individual poems are taken from the vocabulary of Basic Training: 'Naming of Parts', 'Judging Distances', and 'Unarmed Combat'.

There are two voices in the poems, that of the professional soldier instructor, and that of the ex-civilian trainee. The civilian turns military language of description into a metaphor for the artist's perennial difficulty. 'Judging Distances' begins with the military/poetic problem:

Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape:

In this case the landscape has to be interpreted in formal terms; the distance cannot be judged emotionally, the territory must be seen as a map. But in the trainee-soldier the surviving civilian persists in reading the topography with his own eyes:

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 appear to be humans
          Appear to be loving.

Here we have the isolation of the soldiers who must survey the landscape impassively as a target, the alienation of the civilian cut off by the recitation of military ritual from the world of feeling.

The modulations between the harsh direct speech of the instructor and the interior eloquence of the trainee reflect the transition from


peace of a generation called upon to fight a 'people's war'. Indiviuality has to be sacrificed to the needs of the military machine, the landscape reduced to the terms of tactical necessity, but some small item of personality could be retained — the observing eye of the poet. War, literally, imposed concrete imagery, so that the interplay had to be between things as they fiercely were and, with laconic humour, things as they might be. Thus Henry Reed achieves a rare fusion between soldier and poet of the Second World War in the conclusion to 'Unarmed Combat':

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 our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
          Not without glory fought.

There are, unfortunately, other reasons beside the positive ones that have been suggested, for saying that Henry Reed's is the poem of Second World War. Though it expIesses best the type of poem stimulated by the war, and thus is typical (in the proper sense) of all the others, it is untypical of the rest of Henry Reed's work. There are no other poems in his single volume A Map of Verona (1946) which attempt the synthesis of military and personal reference that makes 'The Lessons of War' such a distinctive achievement. And the fact that Henry Reed has published but one volume is also significant. Though not uncreative since the war (writing a series of radio plays adaptations and translations), poetically he has been virtually silent. Typical in a less welcome way.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016