For many readers of World War II poetry, Henry Reed is known for a single poem, “Naming of Parts.” He is not alone with that perception. Several other poets of the war are associated today with a single poem, including F.T. Prince, Alan Ross and Alan Rook in the UK and Randall Jarrell and Richard Eberhart in the United States. What is ironic in Reed’s case is that he served in the British army for only a few months and never saw combat, yet wrote what is probably the most anthologised poem of the war.
Jon Stallworthy, Reed’s biographer and editor of his Collected Poems (1991), reminds us that Reed was an accomplished writer of poetry and prose before the war and wrote numerous poems in the 1940s that were not war related. “Naming of Parts” was no accident. His poetic skill and imagination were obvious in his early “The Desert” and “Hiding Beneath the Furze” and in “Bocca di Magra,” with the stone “from the bluffs of Carrara gashed by the great into greatness.”
Henry Reed was born in Birmingham and attended secondary school in Aston where his interests centered on the classics. Greek was not taught at his high school so he learned it on his own. He won a prize in Latin and earned a scholarship to Birmingham University, gaining a first honor in 1934. W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, a classics lecturer at Birmingham, were major influences. Reed subsequently earned an MA degree for a thesis on Thomas Hardy.
In the late Thirties Reed taught school and was a freelance writer and literary critic. He was able to travel in Italy before the war and fell in love with the country.
Conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the summer of 1941, Reed underwent basic training but never left England. His brief introduction to army life nevertheless provided the inspiration for “Naming of Parts,” one of just three war poems he wrote in the Forties. Following a serious illness, Reed was transferred to the Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park. Fluent in Italian, he initially was assigned to breaking Italian codes. After Italy was knocked out of the war, Reed learned Japanese and transferred to the Japanese section. He was demobilized soon after VJ Day.
His poetry collection A Map of Verona (1946) includes the three war poems grouped under Lessons of the War. The first section includes the title poem about the “small strange city of Verona,” Reed’s favorite, and his beloved Italy—which he was to visit often after the war. Others poems written in the late Thirties and Forties explore the wonders of Mediterranean travel, Greek mythology and the humorous “Chard Whitlow” (1941), a parody of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets.
Besides “Naming of Parts,” Lessons of the War includes “Judging Distances” and “Unarmed Combat.” The latter two, though skillfully composed with the verse implying the army recruit’s gradual acceptance of or resignation to military life, lack the authenticity and spontaneity of “Naming of Part.” All three dramatize the uprootedness, loneliness and boredom faced by the reluctant civilian draftee. Reed called his training, or “blitztraining,” savage. Any recruit could readily identify with Reed’s disoriented inductee.
Reed endured endless drilling and instruction in the use of weapons including the standard-issue rifle. Discussing the origin of “Naming of Parts” in an interview with Vernon Scannell, author of Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War, Reed recalled how he would entertain his friends by giving a comic imitation of a drill sergeant, and after doing so a few times noticed that the language used by the instructors— right out of the army manual—fell into certain rhythmic patterns that formed the foundation for his famous poem. Scannell observed that Reed’s “cunningly placed rhythmic pauses, the edgy, short-sense units in the earlier lines of each stanza echo the mechanical rhetoric” of the instructor and without interruption “modulate into the more flowing, lyrical passage that follows.”
There are two voices, the NCO’s and the recruit’s. As the poem unfolds, the difference in idiom between the two voices gradually disappears, though each retains its own response: the discipline and regimentation of army life, and the sensitivity of the citizen soldier. And there are obvious sexual connotations throughout the text. Here is the complete poem, written in 1942:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
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 easing the Spring.
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.
After publication of A Map of Verona, Reed turned to radio and began a distinguished writing career as a dramatist for the BBC. His remarkable speaking voice, wit and gift for mimicry were perfect for radio. One of his first radio plays was a dramatization of Moby Dick. His wit is reflected in the immensely popular series “The Private Life of Hilda Tablet”(1954). Reed was often confused with the poet and critic Herbert Read, so much so that in one of his radio dramas he names his alter ego biographer Herbert Reeve, whose name in the play is slightly misspoken by everyone. Hilda Tablet, a 12-tone composer of music, makes her first appearance in this broadcast.
In 1960 Reed turned Lessons of the War into a radio script, “The Complete Lessons of the War,” which included the three poems in A Map of Verona plus two later war poems: “Movement of Bodies” and “Returning of Issue.” They were published in a separate limited edition in 1970. Stallworthy’s 1991Collected Poems includes many previously unpublished poems.
Reed also was a translator of the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, of Balzac and others.
Michael D. Wormser, May 2016
Henry Reed, A Map of Verona. London: Jonathan Cape, .
Henry Reed, Lessons of the War. New York: Chilmark Press, 1970.
Robert Hewison, Under Siege – Literary Life in London 1939-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Kenneth A. Lohf, Poets in a War – British Writers on the Battlefronts and the Home Front of the Second World War. New York: The Grolier Club, 1995.
Edna Longley, ed., The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2007.
Vernon Scannell, Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War. London: The Woburn Press, 1976.
Jon Stallworthy, ed., Henry Reed – Collected Poems. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Jon Stallworthy, A Life of Henry Reed. London Review of Books. Vol. 13, No. 17, 12 Sept. 1991.
Jon Stallworthy, Survivors’ Songs – From Maldon to the Somme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.