the first world war
the second world war
How to Kill GO
A Front GO
Cleator Moor GO
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
Judging Distances by Henry Reed
Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
The right of arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know
That maps are of time, not place, so far as the army
Happens to be concerned - the reason being,
Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know
There are only three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
And those which have bushy tops to; and lastly
That things only seem to be things.
A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
At five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do
Don't call the bleeders sheep.
I'm sure that's quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
The one at the end, asleep, endeavours to tell us
What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
After first having come to attention. There to the west,
On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow
Vestments of purple and gold.
The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.
Well that, for an answer, is what we might rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are important.
The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.
There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance. I will only venture
A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished),
At seven o'clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.
Henry Reed (1914-1986) was the son of a Birmingham bricklayer. Helped by his sister, he was able to go to a grammar school, and then to university. He became a freelance writer, translator and journalist. In 1941 he was called up.
[link to Military Conscription pages]
His army training inspired him to write a series of poems, of which the most famous are 'Lessons of the War', from which 'Judging Distances' is taken. (Another, 'Naming of Parts', has been called 'the most famous single English poem from the Second World War'.) After training and a year's army service, Henry Reed was transferred to the Intelligence centre at Bletchley (where the Enigma code was cracked); here he taught Japanese, which he had learned on an intensive course during his training. In later life he suffered from severe depression and became an alcoholic.
There are two 'speakers' in this poem, and we have to decide whether they are having a 'real' conversation, as if in a play, or are taking part in an 'unreal' conversation going on in the poet's head. (It's also left to us to work out when the voices change over.) One of the voices is the poet's, the other is an army instructor's, and the poem was inspired by Henry Reed's experience of army training in 1941.
The training session is apparently part of a course - 'last Tuesday' the conscripts had learned how to describe a landscape in military terms. This is what soldiers are trained to do, before attacking the area or getting across it or defending it, all of which may involve taking aim and firing at it. The training officer does a quick piece of revision for his recruits. Does he seem to be a good instructor?
What realities are contrasted in this poem? What sort of world is it where trees are only evergreen, pointed or have 'bushy tops to' them? Or where 'things only seem to be things' and can only 'appear' to be what they are? It's worth trying out the clock-face view of a landscape near you, to see how it alters your perceptions. (The title of the poem reminds us that distancing may be involved.) Why might this way of looking at landscape be helpful to a soldier?
The tone of the poem could be said to be ironic. It also delivers both comedy and sadness. Its companion poem, 'Naming of Parts', has the same two voices and the same contrast of tone. If there's an opportunity, consider both poems together, and think about what exactly the 'lessons of war' are for this poet, and for his readers.