Naming of Parts

by Henry Reed

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Themes and Meanings

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“Naming of Parts” addresses an issue philosophers and military historians have long termed “the problem of war.” In its simplest terms, this problem is whether war is an aberration or a perennial part of the human condition. Reed’s poem posits at least a partial answer. The fact that spring, the season of renewal and rebirth, still unfolds quite heedless of this group’s commitment to the mechanistic processes of war and death carries the main weight of the theme. Reed obviously views militarism and war as distinctly unnatural. Reed’s choice of the red-flowered Japonica in the first stanza, for instance, is significant. As its name implies, Japonica, or “Japanese quince,” is native to Japan—one of the Axis powers against which England and the United States were allied in World War II. (Reed, an Englishman, served in World War II, the ostensible period during which the poem is set.) The effect is to suggest that nature transcends both national borders and human notions of loyalty and enmity.

In the third stanza, the criticism becomes personal and specific. In marked contrast to the instructor’s affected anxiety about operating the “safety-catch” correctly, the young soldier is struck by the serenity of the spring blooms all around him. Reed’s inspiration may well have been the biblical Sermon on the Mount in which Christ urges his followers to heed the example of the “lilies of the field,” that neither toil nor spin (Matthew 6:28). Trapped in the unnatural world of war, this young soldier feels no such confidence about his basic needs being met. By applying the instructor’s admonition against using one’s finger to floral blossoms, the soldier evokes the sexual connotation of the phrase and betrays his present anxiety. In biological terms, flowers are essentially feminine receptacles and therefore have long been recognized as symbols of female receptiveness. This young man, the reader should realize, is confined to a sexually segregated training camp in the springtime. Sex is clearly on his mind.

The soldier’s sexual frustration becomes particularly evident in the fifth and sixth stanzas. The rapid back-and-forth movement of the instructor’s rifle bolt calls to mind the corresponding motion of the sexual act, an image this soldier connects to the bees in the process of “assaulting and fumbling the flowers.” The connotations and imagery are implicitly sexual, expressing the soldier’s frustrated yearning for sexual release. The introduction of two new elements, the phrase “point of balance” and the alluring “almond-blossom” image, is perhaps meant as an ironic evocation of the carpe diem tradition that counsels complete surrender to the life-affirming lures of beauty and love. Reed’s point seems to be that the enforced segregation of military life precludes striking a wholesome balance between self-indulgence and disciplined abstinence.

In terms of tone, “Naming of Parts” stands in a long line of poetic responses to war ranging from the satiric to the elegiac. It is certainly not a reverent acknowledgment of noble sacrifice in the manner of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” nor is it a cavalier endorsement of the traditional martial virtues of courage and honor such as Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.” It is also not an unsentimental depiction of death in the manner of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” or Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Reed’s “Naming of Parts” reflects an earlier modernist mood of “irony and pity,” to borrow Hemingway’s phrase, and not the bitterness and despair characteristic of the later postmodern movement in literature. A tone of pessimistic resignation rather than a true antiwar sentiment informs the poem. The real problem with war, Reed seems to be suggesting, is that people have long deplored modern mass warfare as dehumanizing and unnatural, as a perverse human superimposition upon the world of nature, yet they find themselves as impotent in the face of this insanity as they would be confronting a force of nature.

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