Critical and biographical information for the poet, radio dramatist, and translator Henry Reed (1914 - 1986), author of "Naming of Parts."
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
The Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Jones, D. L., ed. War Poetry: An Anthology. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1968. 116-117, 121-123.

The Second World War

It would be pretentious in this anthology to try to generalize about the poetry of the Second World War when only six of its poets are represented, and when some of the more significant names have been omitted, but there are characteristics common to much of the poetry of this period, and some reference to them may be useful in relating these poems to their predecessors.

It seemed to be taken for granted by these poets that there was no place for heroics or stirring patriotism, for the merely dramatic or the sentimental. Since war had become a condition of life in which almost everyone was involved, the false note and the theatrical gesture were generally rejected as inappropriate.

In contrast with many of the poems of the First World War and the Spanish Civil War, there is an absence of bitterness and protest here, for such attitudes seemed inappropriate in a situation in which civilians at home shared the dangers of war with the men in the front line, and there was no need to arouse an ignorant or apathetic public opinion. Instead there was


displayed a more personal attitude which reflected the individual's response to his alien environment and a determination to preserve a sense of balance and perspective in a world where such qualities were lacking.

The mechanized and scientific nature of modern war also left its mark on the poetry of this period, and perhaps contributed to the air of detachment notable in some of the verse represented here. When Percy met the Douglas "they swakked their swords...", unlike the mathematically trained fighting man who can calculate the death of his enemy at a distance of many miles. This is not to suggest that all the poetry of the Second World War is impersonal, but that much of it seems to strive after a cool objectivity.

The Second World War poems which follow are not claimed to be completely representative, but they may provide some illustration of how that war was seen by a few of the men who in various situations experienced it.


Naming of Parts must be one of the most widely known poems of the Second World War, but its companion pieces ought to accompany it for the sake of completeness; and the whole sequence is particularly welcome in an anthology which would otherwise be rather deficient in wit and humour.

Lessons of the War illustrates perfectly the attitude of the poet in uniform who tries to establish his "point of balance" in an unsympathetic and insensitive military world. In these poems that


world is represented by the hard, mechanically uttered, semiliterate expressions of the sergeant-major who is instructing his men in the technicalities of modern war. The tone and phrasing of these are beautifully caught (as will be recognized by anyone who was conscripted into the armed forces during or after the Second World War), and they are incorporated with skilful facility into the poem. In contrast, there are the musings of the private soldier reacting to the words of instruction, deliberately setting the world as he sees it in human and and personal terms against the impersonal world of military jargon. The connection between the two worlds is made by use of ambiguities: "Which in your case you have not got"; "easing the spring"; "There may be dead ground in between"; "the ever-important need to be in a strong position" and "while awaiting a proper issue" are all examples of expressions which are given an ironic twist so that they can be turned away from the sergeant-major's world and related to the personal and private thoughts of the poet. Much of the sardonic humour and wit of the poems arises from these ironic ambiguities, but some of the irony is of a self-mocking kind, and some of the humour is at the writer's own expense. The self-examination involved in this attitude is brought out most clearly in the last poem, Unarmed Combat, where a tone of seriousness is introduced with the recognition of the quotation from Hamlet: "The readiness is all" is spoken by the acutely introspective Prince at a moment when he has come to accept the inevitability of death and is prophetically aware of its closeness. The mood of this poem does not attempt to match the solemnity of Hamlet's situation, for the tone of self-disparagement continues, but at the end of the poem seriousness returns with

                                            we must learn the lesson
Of the ever-important question of human balance . . .
                                                            we must fight
Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping
Something alive . . .

so that when the final words of the sequence are reached we find


that we can interpret the poem's epigraph* in a slightly less ironical way than at first seemed appropriate.

* The lines are from Horace, and the quotation usually reads, "Vixi cuellis [sic] . . .". Here it means, "I have lived until recently a competent soldier, and have served not without glory".




Page last modified: 01 October 2016