Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1749

In “A Map of Verona,” Henry Reed states that “maps are of place, not time,” while in “Judging Distances” one reads that “maps are of time, not place.” These two versions of reality are not as contradictory as they might appear, if one considers the source of each. The first...

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In “A Map of Verona,” Henry Reed states that “maps are of place, not time,” while in “Judging Distances” one reads that “maps are of time, not place.” These two versions of reality are not as contradictory as they might appear, if one considers the source of each. The first version comes from Reed himself, while the second is the official army doctrine mechanically voiced by a training officer to a group of recruits. The first version acknowledges the inability of humanity’s puny symbols to represent reality, while the second asserts the military’s wishful thinking, its need to be in control, to pour reality into a uniform and make it stand up and salute. One cannot blame the military for trying, as indeed it must, but the futility of its efforts is laughable: In “Judging Distances,” the military theory is demolished, appropriately enough, by a pair of lovers in the distance, who finish making love even as the training officer and woebegone recruits watch.

Like the military, though with somewhat more success, Reed in his poems is intent on creating maps of reality. In his poems, both place and time have important roles, as they intersect with human actions. Reed is interested in place for its own sake, but he is also interested in its effects on human actions. Even more, he is interested in how human actions reverberate in time—the anticipation of actions, how actions fade from memory, how the meaning of actions changes with time, how, on the other hand, actions define and transfix personalities. For Reed, reality is as fluid as the stream in his poem “Lives” that cannot be caged. To try as best he can to catch and bottle this reality, Reed concentrates on dramatic moments or their consequences, particularly their moral consequences. Supporting Reed’s penchant for the dramatic is his gift of mimicry, for capturing the sound of the human voice, as amply demonstrated in his parodies of T. S. Eliot and of the training officer in the “Lessons of the War” poems. Thus, it should come as no surprise that, although Reed writes in a variety of forms, some of his best poems are dramatic monologues. It should also come as no surprise that he eventually changed to writing drama.

“A Map of Verona”

Perhaps the most important poem for understanding Reed’s ontology, and a good poem in its own right, is “A Map of Verona.” At first, it seems no more than a pleasant travel advertisement: For “a whole long winter season,” Reed’s thoughts have dwelt on an open map of Verona. His intention to visit Verona reminds him of a stay in another Italian city, “My youthful Naples.” Naples is associated in his mind with “a practice in sorrow,” with “a sketch in tenderness, lust, and sudden parting.” No doubt at the time this experience, despite its air of youthful experimentation, was deeply moving; now, however, he can barely recall its “underground whispers of music.” Reed does recall, though, that he once studied an open map of Naples with the same expectation with which he now studies the map of Verona, and his map-studies then were totally “useless,” since “maps are of place, not time.” Still, studying the map of Verona and hearing other travelers relate their tourist impressions of the city help to “calm” Reed’s “winter of expectations.” The city of Verona does indeed exist, and “one day” Reed will go there: “in tomorrow’s cave the music/ Trembles and forms inside the musician’s mind.” Meanwhile, echoing the poem’s epigraph from Arthur Rimbaud, Reed can only wonder “in what hour of beauty” and “in what good arms” he will attain “those regions and that city.” Finally, he wonders “what good Arms shall take them away again.”

On both a literal and a symbolic level, “A Map of Verona” suggests the nature of experience. Among other things, Reed seems to say that, for the most part, people’s lives are suspended between remembrance and expectation. Then, when a big moment comes, people are often too youthful to appreciate it or too experienced to believe that it will last. Still, even though remembrance fades and expectation is uncertain, both enrich one’s life. Indeed, their enriching context makes it possible for a person to know a big moment when it arrives. Then there is always the potential for the big, fulfilling moment to come, in whatever “hour of beauty” or in whatever “good arms.” In “A Map of Verona,” the city of Verona, a jewel of Western civilization and the home of Romeo and Juliet, symbolizes this fulfillment.

“Lessons of the War”

Reading “A Map of Verona” is good preparation for reading the “Lessons of the War” poems. Though vastly different in subject, the poems are not as different in theme as might appear; they merely approach much the same theme from different directions. Despite the tenuous nature of experience and the way so much of life hangs between memory and expectations, “A Map of Verona” asserts the potential for human fulfillment. If there is one sure way of cutting off that potential, and typically at an early age, it is war. The incongruity—indeed, insanity—of war is suggested in the “Lessons of the War” poems by the way time and place conspire against the military training going on. While a training officer tries to hammer home his dull lessons, springtime is bursting out all over: Flowers are blooming, bees are “assaulting and fumbling the flowers,” and lovers are making love. While nature moves full speed ahead toward the fulfillment of life, the soldiers train to eliminate life and in so doing put their own lives on the line. How such lessons go against the grain is also rendered dramatically in the person of Reed’s recruit, who has trouble paying attention and through whose mind the reader hears the training officer’s words and the recruit’s spoken and unspoken responses. His rather obsessional notions demonstrate the difficulty, in springtime, of turning a young man’s fancy to thoughts of war.

Although the theme of these poems is sober, their predominant tone is not. Their tone is established by the humorous dramatic situation, especially as this situation is reflected in the diction. Each of the poems begins with a parody of the training officer that reveals his routine mentality, his jargonistic but otherwise limited vocabulary, and his limited knowledge. All these provide marvelous openings for the clever young recruit, who responds to the officer’s military litany by twisting it into poetic or profound—but always humorous—meanings. In “Naming of Parts,” for example, the officer’s breakdown on a rifle’s parts gives the recruit a fertile field for sexual puns. This particular instance of contrasting diction, like the general contrast between the voice of the training officer and the voice of the recruit, reinforces the theme of the military’s sterile, deadening influence.

“Triptych” and “Tintagel”

The “Lessons of the War” poems well illustrate Reed’s talent for humor, but most of his poems are somber both in theme and tone. What does not change is Reed’s eye for the dramatic situation. His sense of drama can be felt strongly in two groups of poems that consist mostly of dramatic monologues and that might be considered the peak of Reed’s poetic achievement. These are the two groups titled “Tintagel” and “Triptych.” “Tintagel” consists of four poems named after the principals in the Tristram story: “Tristram,” “Iseult Blaunchesmains,” “King Mark,” and “Iseult la Belle.” In a note, Reed indicates that these four characters “represent four aspects of a problem known (in one or more of these aspects) to most men and women.” He depends on the reader’s knowledge of the Tristram legend to fill in the details—that these characters represent four corners of a love quadrangle with one side missing: Iseult Blaunchesmains loves Tristram who loves Iseult la Belle who returns his love but is married to King Mark. Already the poems sound like the scenario of an Italian drama or opera, and as the four characters speak their loves and sorrows, either through their own voices or the voice of a sympathetic narrator, they sound more and more like Luigi Pirandello’s six characters, doomed to repent their roles to eternity. They have, in effect, become archetypal characters transfixed in time by their self-defining actions. They are like some traumatized people in real life, locked into one searing emotional experience that repeats itself endlessly in their consciousness.

The three characters in “Triptych,” all from Greek drama, have likewise defined their personalities for all time through their actions. Here, however, the characters are not equally condemned; indeed, Reed notes that the speakers in the three poems “represent a moral progression, culminating in a decision.” The three poems are “Chrysothemis,” “Antigone,” and “Philoctetes.” Chrysothemis and Philoctetes speak for themselves in dramatic monologues, but in the second poem two witnesses to Antigone’s death react to it in a dialogue. Chrysothemis, the sister of Electra and Orestes, represents the onlooker who will not get involved no matter how many atrocities she witnesses; after the house of Atreus has decimated itself, she stays behind to care for the remaining children and the decaying house. The house symbolizes her moral state, though she tries to believe she is playing a useful role. The main speaker in “Antigone” is a chance onlooker who, though not involved in the action, is sensitive to its moral consequences, in particular to the way Antigone acts unhesitatingly on what she knows is right. Finally, the ostracized Philoctetes represents the person who wants to get involved and is rejected, but who overcomes his bitter suffering and sense of personal wrong to act decisively when the time comes: Even after years of intense frustration, he goes as straight to his mark as do his blessed arrows. The traumatized person is not necessarily transfixed in time; rebirth is possible.

These two groups of poems involving serious drama verge closer and closer to drama itself. The last group of five poems in A Map of Verona comes from an actual drama, Reed’s radio version of Moby Dick for the BBC. In a note, Reed refers to these poems as “lyric interludes.” The transition from poet to dramatist is complete. Very likely Reed’s friends mourned the transition, but very likely William Shakespeare’s friends did the same.

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