Friday, January 17, 2014

Analysis of "Lessons of the War" by Henry Reed

Original poem reprinted online here: "Lessons of the War" by Henry Reed
Originally read: July 10, 2013
More information about the Poet: Henry Reed

"Reed's most famous poem is 'Lessons of the War,' a witty parody of British army basic training during World War II, which suffered from a lack of equipment at that time."

So the poem makes sense to me a little bit more now.  There's a whole lot of technique going on in overuse of it -- epigraph in Latin, a regards in the beginning, a part one without a part two.  And that's not even getting into the poem.  From the language, yes, there's a sense of a dry parody as well.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Past me didn't do this, but I think the translation to the latin is "Until recently I have fought duels and led a soldiering life, not without glory" or "For ladies's love I late was fit, / And good success my warfare blest," which is a quote from one of Horace's odes, "Ode 26 Book III".  The reference serves more ironically -- the key is "glory,"  and the question is what is glorified.

Also the part one signifies, theoretically, a part two should be there.  But there isn't a part two.  Instead the part one stands out.  There are no other steps. "1. Naming of Parts."  

However, in the first stanza, steps are clearly laid out -- "today we have naming of parts.", "Yesterday / We had daily cleaning.", "And tomorrow morning / we shall have what to do after firing."  Why did I separate them out instead of a long quote?  These are separate things that a redundantly done.  These are actions in which the speaker is the most general about.  What about naming?  What about cleaning?  Now contrast the generalities her with this line, "Japonica / Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,".  Where is the mind specifically, at a scene, but action is based on a regime.

But the list of names -- well is pretty monotone as well, "This is the tower sling swivel. And this / is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see, / When you are given your slings."  The play on language here is dry which is kind of humorous.  Just plain language, "And this is the piling swivel, / Which in your case you have not got."  What do "I" have them.  Well nothing much -- naming and utility are two different things.  Like the nature image along with the routine, "The branches / Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures. / Which in our case we have not got"  The humor is that the speaker is trying to apply a wonderful aside to monotony -- monotony wins.

"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."  The language here is slight but the difference between a "thumb" and a "finger" makes a laugh -- kind of like the absurdity in Catch-22.  I'll say nothing up to this point makes me take the poem with heavy gravity.  Seriousness, yes.  Big philosophical gravity, no. "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."  Ah, this has potential, but it's obfuscated a bit.  Note how the usage of the finger  has a delicate quality, but the fingers are of the blossoms'.  Interesting surreal image, a linger of the serious, but not by much.

"And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this / I s to open the breech, as you see."  More definitions, but more so in the procedural, "We can slide it / Rapidly backwards and forwards; we call this / Easing the spring."  From this the connection is the season of spring, "The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:  They call it easing the Spring."  Now the gravity comes in.  The verbs betray the separation of nature and procedure, "assault" and "fumble" are very visceral verbs, but yet go nowhere.  The strength is that they don't go anywhere -- they linger in the background and not in the forefront.

So when the line repeats, "They call it easing the Spring" the imagination ties in with procedure.  So many of the previous lines are repeated:
     [...] 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;

The key here is, "point of balance" which is a term that can be about the monotone, but also a straight out saying -- we don't have balance, but also this is the strength of the saying.  Not outright stating something with gravity keeps the humor in the poem, however, something like "point of balance" lingers, just like "assault" and "fumble."  This is where the reader has to infer a deeper meaning versus the speaker implying a deeper meaning.

"and the almond-blossom / Silent in all the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, / For today we have naming of parts."  Past me wrote, "imagined life [versus] reality".  However, the push and pull isn't as strong.  Rather it's slight.  The speaker doesn't yearn to go back, rather uses nature as a separating device, and when that separation is breached, there's only procedure left.

1 comment:

  1. There are two more parts to Lessons of the War. Available everywhere online.