An analysis of the GCSE poem Nettles by Vernon Scannell.
What is it about?
The poem is a short account of the day that the poet’s son was stung by nettles – and what happened afterwards. But more interesting than the events are the shadows of war that linger in the mind of the ex-soldier father, causing him to meditate on the cyclical nature of pain and violence.
Nettles by Vernon Scannell
My son aged three fell in the nettle bed.
'Bed' seemed a curious name for those green spears,
That regiment of spite behind the shed:
It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears
The boy came seeking comfort and I saw
White blisters beaded on his tender skin.
We soothed him till his pain was not so raw.
At last he offered us a watery grin,
And then I took my hook and honed the blade
And went outside and slashed in fury with it
Till not a nettle in that fierce parade
Stood upright any more. Next task: I lit
A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead.
But in two weeks the busy sun and rain
Had called up tall recruits behind the shed:
My son would often feel sharp wounds again.
The nettles of the title are introduced in a simple, rhythmically regular end-stopped line consisting of a single clause: noun phrase followed by verb phrase. Yet they change their character – first, ‘curious’ to the adult poet who is interested in the paradoxical language with which we describe them, and then a ‘regiment of spite’, when we, the child and the father all discover what they can do.
Form and Structure
The poem is a single stanza of four, cross rhymed quatrains. Each line is written in very regular iambic pentameter: lines of ten syllables with five stressed beats alternating with unstressed beats. Only a single line (‘And went outside and slashed with fury with it) breaks the pattern of ending on a stressed syllable – sometimes called a ‘feminine’ ending. When iambic pentameter is used so regularly it achieves a very steady, relentless rhythm, helped here by the simple rhyme scheme abab. This is another decision to relate the story in simplicity and most of the rhyme words are monosyllables with simple, everyday meanings – shed, bed, tears, skin.
In fact it’s worth noting that Scannell achieves quite a nuanced, subtle perspective with only the simplest vocabulary. In the 137 words there is only a single word of three syllables – ‘regiment’. Almost all of the others are ‘core vocabulary’ – everyday words. By mixing in a few pieces of military language – ‘spears, regiment, parade, recruits’ and ‘wounds’ – he dresses the mundane event in a light metaphor that encourages us to rethink the meaning of other words. The image of the father ‘honing the blade’ becomes more vengeful, more intentionally violent, in the context of this language.
The rhyme is largely of the simplest kind: short, common monosyllables rhyming with ‘friendly’ words. In one place an unstressed pronoun (‘slashed in fury with it’) rhymes with a stressed verb ‘lit’, perhaps giving a sense of release from effort that chimes with the frantic slashing. There is also internal line between ‘took’ an ‘hook’, which simply brings those words to our attention. Note that the father is probably using a billhook to hack the weeds, rather than a scythe, as some notes comment.
Scannell’s metaphor of nettles as soldiers is simple enough – the fresh shoots called ‘recruits’, the ‘fierce parade’ conjuring an image of hostile ranks – but its power is in the application. This enemy stands just ‘behind the shed’ and the son can’t possibly escape them in his play, so the first theme has got to be vulnerability.
Then there’s the matter of the father’s emotional reaction. His anger seems disproportionate and though he ‘slashed with fury’ it is also ultimately in vain, because the nettles grow back! Perhaps the second real theme is the vanity of a violent or vengeful reaction. As an ex-soldier, Scannell would certainly have empathised with men who lashed out in anger, still holding back their pent-up reactions to the atrocities of war. Perhaps the reader is also glimpsing a battle-scarred man lashing out?
But finally there’s a powerful sense of the father’s love for his son here. If this poem is an accurate account of a real event, then Scannell positions his narrative voice quite carefully: ‘my son’ becomes ‘the boy’. By making the language less specific, less personal, the poet asks his reader to imagine ‘a’ boy – not a specific named child – a boy suffering. The detail of the blisters ‘beaded on his white skin’ acts like a zoom lens, drawing the reader’s eye up close, before we back away and observe the consequence. There is an intimacy here that adds depth to our picture of the family in the garden.
Using only the simplest poetic tools, Vernon Scannell creates a sequence of focused visual images with subtle overtones of much deeper themes. You might describe such poetry as ‘deft’ or ‘workmanlike’ and be able to back up your opinion with any of the points above!
Cross rhyme - A rhyme pattern alternating line endings, so that the first line rhymes with the third, and the second with the fourth, often notated abab and actually much simpler in practice than explanation! Also one of the most common regular rhyme patterns.
Quatrain - Four lines rhyming together and acting as one unit of verse. Not necessarily grammatically complete or set apart as their own stanza.
Stanza - A number of lines of verse laid out together on the page and separated by empty lines from the remainder of the poem. This is chiefly a matter of a poet’s personal taste as well as visual appeal.
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More GCSE poem analyses: The Yellow Palm, Praise Song for My Mother, My Last Duchess, and Medusa