Lessons of the War (i)
by Henry Reed, 1914-1986
"Lessons of the War" is a set of six poems, of which this is the first. Everyone calls it "The Naming of Parts."
World War Two produced less memorable poetry than World War one. In part this was because the WW2 generation had less of a poetic education than their fathers; in part also because WW2 was a grim, businesslike affair, in which the things that happened, appalling as they were, were more or less what people expected to happen. There was none of the psychic shock, the terrible disillusioning, of WW1.
Henry Reed was born in 1914. This poem, the only one of his to have exhibited any staying power, was written in 1941, when he was doing military training, having been conscripted into WW2. The rifle he is taking instruction about was the Lee Enfield .303, the standard British infantryman's weapon through both the World Wars, and also the one I trained with in the Combined Cadet Force, 1957-63.
Reed only published one book of verse. He made a living of sorts by writing for the radio, then later by some part-time teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle. His life was, however, something of a train wreck. Disappointed in love, he sank into alcoholism, and lived much longer than, I would guess, he wanted to, dying in 1986.
"the piling swivel" — There is a long story to go with that. The piling of arms was a way of stacking them vertically, three or four rifles standing together in a pyramid array, when not in use, or for display on parade. The piling swivel helped secure the rifles in a stack to each other.
Everything you could possibly want to know about piling arms is written up, with illustrations, at the Henry Reed website. The website even includes the Pile Arms command from Chapter Four of the 1935 British Manual of Elementary Drill. This is the command that so vexes Guy Crouchback in Evelyn Waugh's novel Men At Arms:
Ten minutes later Guy was in bed. In youth he had been taught to make a nightly examination of conscience and an act of contrition. Since he joined the army this pious exercise had become confused with the lessons of the day. He had failed dismally in the detail of the pile-arms — "… the even numbers of the centre rank will incline their muzzles to the front and place their rifles under their right arms, guards uppermost, at the same time seizing the piling swivel …"
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day 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 to-day we have naming of parts.